Poet Nick Norwood is a professor of creative writing at Columbus State University and the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. His poems have appeared widely in a number of national and international literary journals, online sites, and public broadcasts—The Paris Review, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, Pleiades, Ekphrasis, Poetry Daily, The New Ohio Review, Five Points, The Oxford American, The Greensboro Review, The South Carolina Review, New South, storySouth, Atlanta Review, This Land, the PBS News Hour site Art Beat, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated column American Life in Poetry, on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and many others. He has been awarded an International Merit Award in Poetry from Atlanta Review, both a Tennessee Williams Scholarship and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, twice been a finalist for the Vassar Miller Prize, once each a semifinalist for the Verse Prize and the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize, and a finalist in both the Morton Marr Poetry Contest and the Texas Institute of Letters Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for Poetry. His first book, The Soft Blare, selected by Andrew Hudgins for the River City Publishing Poetry Series, was issued in 2003. His second book, A Palace for the Heart, a finalist for the Mellen Press Poetry Contest 2002, was published by that press in 2004. In 2007, he published a limited edition, fine press book, Wrestle, in collaboration with the artist and master printer Erika Adams. And in 2010, his third full volume of poems, Gravel and Hawk, won the Hollis Summers Prize in Poetry and was published by Ohio University Press in 2012. His second fine press book with Erika Adams—Text—is due out in 2016.
What is most difficult about writing?
Creating enough distance between myself and the work to see what needs fixing or if a piece is even salvageable. Time helps, but I don’t think I’m ever completely removed enough from my own stuff to judge it objectively. It’s a great feeling to realize that a piece I’ve written has life and resonance—to realize it, that is, by having first an editor then multiple readers respond positively to something I’ve written. It’s also always a big surprise. Why that poem and not this other one? The fact that I can never tell which one will strike a cord demonstrates to me that I’m incapable of complete objectivity about my own work. The difficulty, then, is in trying to identify what will succeed and what won’t.
What is your philosophy of failure?
Writing poems is like cold-calling. I’ve heard that among salesman it’s considered success to have one out of 20 cold calls result in a sale. That means 19 of those calls were failures. Only 5% of the work succeeded. That seems about right. William Stafford defined a poet as a person who, in a lifetime of standing out of doors during thunderstorms, manages to get himself or herself struck by lightning two or three times. And Stafford’s own career is proof of that. Though he wrote many fine poems, anthologizing mostly reduced him to two or three, and really he’s known to most people by only one—his brilliant, beautiful, and sad “Traveling Through the Dark.” All of his other poems are, in a sense, failures of varying degree.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a writer?
Starting so late. Taking too much time figuring out that most ways of spending your time are wastes of time. A line in Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” has always resonated with me: “An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.” Amen.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a person?
What a question. Hard to say. Can I wait till I’m dead to answer that? How else will I know which of my many mistakes takes the title of “biggest”? And anyway, the biggest mistakes in my life have generally turned out to be good luck in disguise. Driving drunk on October 16, 1986, landed me in Lew Sterrett Justice Center in Dallas, Texas, and made me feel like the most worthless person imaginable—a loser; a criminal with five alcohol-related arrests on my record; an embarrassment to myself, my family, and everyone who knew me. It might have been a good contender for “biggest mistake of my life” except that as a result of it I quit drinking for 28 years, earned two graduate degrees, raised two kids in a house where their father wasn’t a drunk, maintained excellent health, and learned that to help offset my many shortcomings I can at least rely on self-discipline as a strength.
What is your best failure story?
I’ve got a long list of the kinds of failure stories all writers end up with. Once, I sent some poems to a journal in the UK. Went to the trouble of including the postage coupons for the return of the SASE and everything. I put the submission in the mail on a Monday and received my rejection in the mail the following Monday. I even got ink: “Too long.”
Another time, I received the SASE back in the that extremely thin, flattened state the writer comes to recognize as an envelope containing nothing but a rejection slip. Except in this case there wasn’t even that. The envelope was completely empty, the message absolutely clear.