It’s this title that caught my attention last year while scouring the catalog of Fordham University Press. I was looking for collections to request review copies of, and Pearson’s caught my eye.
Because I have stacks of poetry books, it took a while to get to The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone. But it was worth the wait. Nature and history, two of my passion areas, reverberate in many of the pieces.
Intrigued by this previously unknown-to-me poet, I reached out to Nancy K. Pearson for an interview. She agreed, and we conducted the interview via email.
You’ll find the interview below, as well as Nancy K. Pearson’s poem, “erwin boyd,” from The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone.
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Q&A with Nancy K. Pearson
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was also a serious and competitive long-distance runner from age 12 until college and loved running up and down the hills and through the battlefields there. And then I lost my speed and started to run very, very slow marathons. I don’t go that distance anymore!
I now live near Washington, DC, a place that feels like home.
I teach composition and creative writing at West Chester University PA. I also work as an instructor at 24 Pearl Street, an online creative writing program called 24 Pearl Street with the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I teach a poetry workshop called 15 Works—students write 15 poems in 4 weeks in response to very specific prompts. It’s a challenge. I often do manuscript consultation for poets who are ready to publish a collection or (a) small group of poems.
I have a 2-year-old who keeps me laughing. I love any endurance sport, like long-distance running and cycling, xc skiing, and swimming. I need that adrenaline rush! I’m a snow junkie. One flake and I have my xc skis out!
I grew up hiking in the Smoky Mountain and I need to spend a lot of time in the woods to feel right. The forest is my church.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I started writing “poetry” in high school, in the form of a sports column for the school newspaper. The editorial was really just a series of images about running, and no one read it!
It wasn’t until my third year in college when I took my first poetry workshop that I decided I wanted to “be a poet.” I started to “live” poetry then.
You’ve published two poetry collections. Were there any differences between how you approached your first book, Two Minutes of Light, and The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone?
Yes, Two Minutes of Light is a book I wrote over the span of 10 years, more or less. The book is confessional, mostly, and written in lyric form. I don’t take many risks in this book, except in revealing some very private struggles. It was the book I needed to write, you know?
The Whole by Contemplation contains both lyric poems and prose poems. I took more risks with content and form, especially with the prose poems. Some of the poems are collage poems—I read a lot of old field guides while writing these. Many of the poems were written while I lived in a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina and are inspired by the history and landscape there.
Is there a metaphor, or some significance to that title, The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone?
The title is inspired by a line in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “Five Orange Pips.” Sherlock Holmes says, “An ideal reasoner [ ] would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.”
I guess I see poetry like this, how a line break, detail or an image in a poem has the power to reveal an entire world to the author and reader.
How would you describe the theme, or focus, of The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone?
I think the focus is both recovery and ironically, the inability of language to describe suffering. I do think, however, metaphor provides a greater understanding of pain and often helps to eliminate binaries or stigmatizing labels.
When I’m severely depressed, I can’t write anything. My poems aren’t fed by depression, but what I learn after, if anything, may influence my poems. When I’m depressed, I “unlearn” everything! I attempted to illustrate this process in The Whole by Contemplation.
Does a poem just come to you? How long do you typically spend working on a poem?
Oh god, no. Poems never just come to me (only in my head). I have poems still simmering from 2006! Some poems take a few months to write and then, another bunch of months to revise. Usually, it takes years to write a poem I think is worth reading.
When do you know the time is right to publish a collection?
When I have 20-30 poems, I think, ok, maybe I’m onto something that will lead to a larger collection. Years and years later I may send it out.
Who are some poets you admire most, either those in the past or present?
Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop were my first loves. The list of contemporary poets I admire is too long for this interview! God, there are so many amazing poets out there.
Have you read any good books lately?
In November I read the novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Everyone raved about it, and now I see why. I also read two great plays this month, The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, and Indecent by Paula Vogel, who also wrote the stunning play, How I Learned to Drive.
Lastly, anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?
Yes, Nick, I’m so thankful for your interest in my poetry, and for all my readers.
Thank you to Nancy K. Pearson for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out.
Erwin Boyd bought 50 acres here in 1874 for $81.00. A freed slave, he worked this field the rest of his days, flue-curing his bright leaf, wet bulb or dry bulb, the leaves turning gold through the weeks. His children bound out to the county court. We’re all watching re-runs. When the sun comes out, you can smell 140 years of hay; sometimes what’s left decays forever. A lace of wind blows through the black and porous curtains. Don’t we all like to believe in endurance? Down pasture, Boyd’s home still stands, in the chimney—a little mountain of twisted limbs.
– “erwin boyd” from The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone. Copyright 2018 by Nancy K. Pearson. Published by Fordham University Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.