Written by Manuel Iris, Writer-in-Residence, Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library
Our 2023 Writer-in-Residence, Manuel Iris, is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Attend his upcoming workshops and writers' office hours. And, listen to him as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head" podcast.
A few days before responding to this interview, Nicholas Korn wrote his sonnet number 600, as part of his ongoing project called "The Wild Sonnets." I do not know any other poet with such an obsession or discipline. As I understand it, his poetic works are not growing book by book, but are extending themselves organically, like a vine. I wanted to know more about his creative process. This is the result.
Manuel Iris (MI): The Wild Sonnets is now an outstanding body of work: more than 600 poems in the series. 500 have been published previously, and another collection to see print in before the end of the year. How did you decided to embark in such an ambitious creative endeavor?
Nicholas Korn (NK): First of all, thank you for wanting to hear more about The Wild Sonnets, and my working habits and where this all comes from. My introduction to the sonnet as a poetic form came in my Sophomore English class in High School. The year was essentially a survey of British literature, with an emphasis on poetry, which started with "Beowulf" in the fall and ended with W.H. Auden in the spring. We wintered with the Elizabethans, and by the time I finished reading poems by Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney and others, I was hooked. On the sonnet, especially. The compactness of its structure and its swift but steady movement from question to revelation – it just seemed to me like a glimpse of divinity. Or at least of how invention can work in the service of sudden understanding.
As early as my college years, I started to have the idea of creating a version of the sonnet that would be of my own making. It wasn’t until much later, decades in fact, in 2016 that I had the idea for what would eventually become the Wild Sonnet.
A quick lesson in poetic form: traditionally, there are two variations of the sonnet, the English and the Italian – each named more familiarly for the writer best associated with it, being Shakespeare and Petrarch. Both have fourteen lines of a ten-beat rhythm called iambic pentameter. The English form has three four-line segments, called quatrains, and closes with a rhyming couplet. The Italian has one stanza of eight lines followed by another of six lines, which are termed respectively the octave and sestet. Each version has its own set rhyme scheme, the particulars of which I’ll leave either to a later conversation or to Google.
Still, this establishes the foundation for the formal departures I make in my Wild Sonnets. First, I split the poem right down the middle into two seven-line stanzas. And each of these stanzas is capped with a rhyming couplet. Now comes the wild part – I set the five first lines of each stanza free from the restraints of rhyme, and let the iambic rhythms amble and ramble a bit. It’s not quite free verse, and much closer to the blank verse that Shakespeare uses in his plays. The goal here is to play with the music of meaning and language.
By the time I had written the first 20 Wild Sonnets, I knew that this would be not only be an ongoing and possibly endless literary project – but also the primary engine for my artistic expression. There are now five volumes of The Wild Sonnets, each with 100 poems, with another 100 for sixth book already complete and waiting in the wings. And the first few poems that will open the seventh volume have been written as well.
MI: After so many poems, what do you know now about yourself? What are your creative obsessions?
NK: The central irony in learning about yourself, is that when it happens, the self has changed and there is even more to learn. Still, author Steven Pressfield, in his book "The Artist's Journey," makes the claim that every creative person has a theme which is recurrent and central to their work. Their entire portfolio is connected by it, however many variations and seemingly different topics they may engage.
For the Wild Sonnets, and for my other work as well, I would have to acknowledge my connective theme is this: the dichotomies and divisions of being human. Body and mind, mind and soul, individual and social identity, the self I am today and the self I was, the eternal now and the expected end, how much we feel and how little we know.
It took me quite a while not only to realize this, but also to realize the structure I created for the Wild Sonnets accommodates this perfectly. It’s a poem divided down the middle, each half answering one side of a riddle, each side coming to a conclusion which senses it cannot have the final say.
Much of my artistic experience prior to taking on the Wild Sonnets is in the theater – as a playwright, director and actor. My credentials in this are pretty solid, including an Off-Broadway run in 2015 for a stage comedy I had written. My college degree, however, is in English Literature – and I bring a decided sense of poetry to my work for the stage, and the underlying principles of drama to the poems in this series.
A friend of mine asked me recently if I would help her write a one-person show. I thanked her but declined – and she asked me why. I told her that a one-person show is essentially storytelling, which is a recounting of the past. Whereas the art of drama, a performance that includes at least two actors (and hopefully more), has a sense of the present unfolding contentiously before us. And that is the kind of work that I want to do. And I try to bring a condensed version of that dynamic to each of The Wild Sonnets.
MI: What is your daily relationship with poetry and writing in general? Are you a very disciplined writer?
NK: My ritual is to write one stanza every morning. I am often up as early as 4 a.m., because I consider it the most important achievement of the day, and I like to work on my own priorities before the rest of the world wakes up and rushes in with its random demands.
My thought underlying this process is: the next poem is more important than the next book – because if I continually work on and complete the next poem, the next book will appear on its own. And it does. Every year.
Another facet of my ritual is to only work on half of the poem each day. Placing twenty-four hours between each session and stanza gives me time to subconsciously sift through the thoughts and images. Sometimes I will start the second stanza from a place that appears to be disconnected from the previous, but the argument and flow have a way of echoing or attaching back to what was present in the first seven lines.
Just as our own minds are constantly interjecting random memories and musings, I approve of these seeming non-sequiturs because they bring a sense of free association to the poem in the service of a larger question or discovery.
As to whether my routine is the product of discipline, I would rather frame it as the result of commitment. Discipline is choosing not to do the things you want to do in favor of the things you ought to do. Commitment is deciding to give something you love your all.
MI: What is poetry to you? How do you personally define it and live it?
NK: My answer to this hinges on what I consider to be the distinction between what a poem is and what poetry is. In essence, a poem is a structure and poetry is an effect. Just as prose is a construct of language where sentences are linked into paragraphs, a poem is a linguistic form where lines are stacked into stanzas – sometimes only a single stanza.
One quibbling issue this division brings to the fore is the notion of a prose poem. According to my definitions above, a written work cannot be both prose and a poem at the same time – an oxymoron, as it were. So, I refer to works of that kind as poetic prose – which I like quite a bit. And this brings me to the real center of this question – what is poetry?
As an effect, poetry is the use of language to create something new in the mind and ear of the reader or listener. The poet finds in the process of writing unique comparisons, thoughts, word combinations that excite the imagination of the audience and, at the same time, have the feeling of truth.
Poetry is the opposite of cliché.
A cliché is a phrase that everybody knows and uses. It has long become a shorthand for an idea or feeling. The more a poem is filled with clichés, the more opportunities for poetry have been missed. And I think it is the poet’s work to deliver to his or her audience new ways of hearing and understanding.
I know that whenever I relax the craft of my writing, and allow commonplace phrases to find their way into a Wild Sonnet, even it seems like the natural path for the poem at the time, I later regret not having been more rigorous, inventive and true to my aesthetic.
There is one other thought I would like to share on this point, and it comes from poet and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the Broadway musical, "Hadestown." Mitchell said in an interview with the "New York Times" that every time she sets out to write a song, she reminds herself of the difference between wordplay and poetry. There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but basically it separates what is said to be surprisingly clever from what is said to be surprisingly new and true.
MI: For you, what is the relationship between poetry and community? How do they create each other?
NK: I am going to dodge the question because I think it assumes that the poet owes something to the public and the public owes something to the artist, and I don’t think either is true. The primary relationship for the poet is with his or her craft, inspiration and dedication. I think the poet, or really every artist, has two obligations. One: to bring their work into the world. Two: to bring the world to their work.
It is in this second obligation that the notion of community comes into play. If an artist is well received, they can create a community around their work. But the primary relationship is between the poet and the reader, as individuals. The experience of art is one to one, as intimate as we can be in the cerebral sphere.
I know in the performing arts, the presence of an audience amplifies the experience, but in other arts sometimes the opposite is true. When I am alone in an art gallery, the sense of solitude enhances my impression of the paintings on the walls.
And I think that is really my point. Most art is an act of solitude, both in its making and in how it is experienced. It is the self speaking to the self. In the phases of creation, that self is our own. Once the work is done, the self we are addressing belongs to another. No matter how large the audience gets, it is always a community of two. And the artist owes that community all the good he or she can create.
MI: As the final question: Would you please share with us two of your Wild Sonnets?
NK: I thought you’d never ask. The first poem I will share is Wild Sonnet #234. It’s from "The Wild Sonnets: Volume III (201-300)." If I had to pick one out of the hundreds I have written to represent my life, my work and the best my art has managed so far, this would be it. If I have a tombstone, engrave these lines there.
- 234 -
I know there comes a moment to the soul
When it is ready to lay the burdens
Of the body down – ready to set the senses
Free, like a sparkling of sparrows, sudden
And lush from a leaf-laden tree. I know there
Comes a second when the skin forgets to feel,
Unremembering at once what once it thought was real.
I know there comes a day when only night
Will claim every monument of ash
That I erected in my name. Even then
Will the trinity of my one worship be the same:
Glory in what's gone, to which reason must resign,
Glory in what comes out of desire or design,
Glory in all this minute makes as mine.
The second poem is Wild Sonnet #435 from the newest book, "The Wild Sonnets: Volume V (401-500)."
- 435 -
Wooden stairs descending to the sand,
And the sand conceding to the backward
Sea – it is nearly night and the reluctant stars
Are still deciding to come out. Our warm feet
Press upon the creak of oak and plank, as we
Talk with the slim stem of a wine glass sifting
In our hands beside the ocean's dark and drifting.
So much extends so vastly now before us –
The printless shore whose limits left and right
Cannot be seen, the edgeless reach of water
Whose nodding and unnumbered waves ride
Further than conceiving can, and the frameless
Black descending down the sea of sky –
While we converse on what and who – and not of why.
About Nicholas Korn
Nicholas Korn is a poet, playwright and occasional music producer. He recently published the fifth book of 100 poems in his The Wild Sonnets series, and will release the sixth volume later this year.
His stage play, "Delirium’s Daughters," was produced Off-Broadway in 2015 and is currently managed by Dramatic Publishing, and his self-produced film, "Revel’s Rivals," won Best Animated Feature at the 2012 Louisville International Festival of Film. An earlier play, "The Antic in Romantic" was a finalist for the 2006 Kaufman and Hart Prize for New American Comedy.
Mr. Korn was also the founder of Stage First Cincinnati, which produced 23 classical dramas and comedies at the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. He was also president of the League of Cincinnati Theatres for two years.
As a stage performer, he studied at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in NYC and at Second City in Chicago. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, with his Bachelors in English Literature.
Attend Manuel's upcoming workshops and writers' office hours, opens a new window. And, listen to him as host of CHPL's "Inside the Writer's Head" podcast.