Editor’s note: Listen Up is a Q&A featuring locals in the arts and culture community.
This week: Nicholas Gulig, a Thai-American poet, author of the book-length poems “North of Order” and “Book of Lake,” languages and literature professor at UW-Whitewater, 2011-12 Fulbright Fellowship recipient and 1998 Memorial High School graduate. He will speak at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at The Lakely at the Oxbow Hotel as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival’s event, “Prodigal Poets: Back in Town!”
What have you been doing since you graduated from Memorial?
I’ve been trying to teach myself to be a writer, how to be a poet. I did that in Kansas City, I dropped out for a little bit, wrote poems every day for a year.
I decided I needed a teacher at some point, so I studied at the University of Montana in Missoula.
After that ... I spent a year working on farms south of Menomonie, writing and trying to make myself a strong enough candidate to get into an MFA program. I got my MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, studied with some really wonderful poets there.
(In 2011) I got a Fulbright scholarship and went to Thailand for a year. I finished my first book (“North of Order”) in Bangkok.
While there I applied to a Ph.D program in Denver. ... I ended up at the University of Whitewater, kind of came full circle 15 years later.
How many books have you written?
Two. “Book of Lake” came out after “North of Order.”
My dissertation turned into a book called “Orient,” and that’s coming out from Cleveland State University this winter.
I’m super excited about that, I’m working on edits for it right now.
How would you describe your writing style?
I think it’s just kind of curious. I want to find new ways to put words together in a way that keeps me interested enough to continue putting words together.
Some people think my poems are strange, and other people think they’re really traditional. I don’t know where on that scale I would fall. I don’t know how much I trust that scale, actually.
How do you think your writing has evolved?
“Orient” is a much different book than “North of Order” or “Book of Lake.” Those two books are part of the same larger project. “Orient” is completely its own project in and of itself.
It is the first book I have ever sat down with an intention or an idea that I wanted to see if the poems were up to the task.
What was that idea?
I wanted to leave whatever voice I had spent the last 15 years, I wanted to leave that voice behind.
It was a voice I'd gotten pretty used to. I ceased to surprise myself or be interesting to myself.
With “Orient” I wanted to start somewhere else besides me.
“Orient” began by finding language in other places. It started, after (the French magazine) Charlie Hebdo shootings in (Paris) France, I listened to a panel discussion (at the University of Denver).
One of the professors framed the situation in a way I was really interested in and kind of confused me also.
He said one way to think about what happened there was there were two competing relationships that were coming into conflict.
I met with him, because I was interested if there were different relationships to words or ideas that were coming into contact in that area of the world.
He helped me put together a list of binary cultural constructs that I was interested in but also sort of uneasy with.
I took those as kind of binary sources, then found images and video, speeches, any kind of language I could find and attached to either end of the binaries.
I was going through these texts and finding phrases that were interesting, scared me or were powerful in some way.
Then I spent three years putting phrases together and trying to make sense out of this soup of language that in some way could be traced back to these binary sources. I had this huge nonsensical document in front of me and tried to edit it as though it was a poem I had written.
My hope was the poem could be a place where things that couldn't exist in the same space out in the real world or had trouble existing together in the real world,
I’m asking if the poem could be a place where they could. And I ended up with a book.
What would you say to high school students interested in writing/poetry?
I would tell them to find a teacher because I there's a kind of story about what writing is. We think of writing as thisisolated task or solitary adventure, we like to think of it as an act of individual genius.
That's the way I thought of it in high school. That's why I went to Kansas City to sit alone and write every day. Nothing good happened from that.
What I've found most helpful to think about is it’s not so much a place of self-expression, but writing is more of a way of allowing other voices to exert influence on you.
When you think of it that way you start to see yourself less as an individual and more as someone in need of those transformative conversations.
The first step, at least when I look back on the way it's happened for me, was to find the right teacher.
Then you encounter other people who are also in search of a teacher so what you end up with is friends who are smart, talented, passionate and friends who are willing to read your work, stay up with you until 3 a.m. talking about poems and novels, or whatever it is you do.
Then you realize you have a community.
My community is now around the world. I have writers in all parts of the planet that I talk with and turn to.
It all starts with admitting you alone are a fairly limited person.
You only have one set of eyes, one set of ears. You think in a certain way, you have biases and prejudices.
So, find a teacher and in doing so you find friends and an ever-widening community and you're no longer writing alone.
— Katy Macek, reporter