NICHOLAS GOODLY’s debut full-length poetry collection, Black Swim was published by Copper Canyon Press in September 2022. JAAMIL OLAWALE KOSOKO and Nicholas recently connected over Zoom and talked about interdisciplinary art and writing, the essential nature of rest, and prioritizing creative expression.
jaamil olawale kosoko: Hi. Nicholas! So nice to see you. So you’re at Florida State University. How’s it going?
Nicholas R Goodly: Yeah, I’m doing the Ph.D. program, teaching basic composition classes. There are options to do creative stuff within that. There’s some teaching within the genre programs where you could kind of do your own thing, but right now I’m like: here’s how to write an essay, that kind of game. So it’s good. Working with young people is always nice.
JOK: You’re just getting there right? This is pretty new, yes?
NRG: Yeah, I got here in June, so I took summer classes, then began my first semester in the fall. The spring semester is just getting going. I like academic schedules because you get good little breaks. The time off is really important but has its own intensity too. So seeing through the academic world to get to the parts that I enjoy is kind of where I’m at now.
JOK: It’s nice to hear that you’re not in a state of recovery from academia. Many professors I talk to, who are artists, seem as if their creative practice must take a back seat. We give so much to these institutions only to leave burnt out and spent. I’m very happy with dipping my toes occasionally in the pools of the academy.
NRG: I have to actively say to myself all the time, “You’re here for the poetry, whatever is being presented to you, you’re here for the creative writing, you’re here to write these poems.” I’ve spent a lot of time in the back of my mind, like sometimes two hours, changing three words in a poem. I’ve had lesson plans and readings to do too, and I was like, no, you’re here to figure out these three words. That’s your priority. And not being afraid to be punished for that if that’s how I want to spend my time. That’s an active choice and I’ll deal with the consequences. But I know that my priority is to be creative.
You do a lot of residencies, I was wondering how you feel within these systems. Does that feel limiting to you at all?
JOK: I wouldn’t say limiting. It requires a lot of planning. I can spend entire days lost in poetic meanderings, but, at the same time, I have to plan for that kind of esoteric space. I also make sure that I literally schedule time in my calendar to do nothing. I try to have moments where I give myself permission to get lost. It feels nice to not feel as if every single minute, every single hour of my day has to be productive. I plan for rest. I plan for that kind of freedom. It’s interesting how rest feels so political.
NRG: Yeah, it’s a trade-off. Things are pretty planned for me, so I can expect where my pockets of freedom are going to lie, but you have to plan intentionally to have a lot of free time. Your work seems like it has an immersive process. I could do a late-night three-hour session and get what I need for a poem, but you need to be able to go into the forest for a few days and come back. So that takes a little more scheduling.
JOK: The kind of work that I’m interested in requires access to abstract ideations that are simply not available in everyday circumstances. I find that I have to create these portals for myself to escape the everyday. I fall into my dream space so as not to feel limited. I’ll be teaching a dreaming workshop this fall at The Field Center in Vermont. We’ll be moving, we’ll be writing, we’ll be listening, we’ll be thinking together, manifesting, and, of course, dreaming. It’s a lovely, strange proposal, but I’m learning that a lot of people don’t know basic tools for rest, touch, and breathwork. It can be very difficult to find this vital space, especially in this modern moment we’re in.
NRG: Yeah, it’s like you have to stay away long enough to not project into the future, lose sight of the surroundings. I went to a retreat with some artists last week and you probably totally would relate to this, one of the big issues that came up was when you’re doing research on these ideas of Utopia, or how to let yourself go and how to be in the dream state, it’s so hard to come back to the real world. If you know this absolute self, how do you come back down to go to the grocery store? That’s a challenge that people don’t talk about much.
JOK: Attempting to return, to come back down to earth. Once you’ve been alienated, you become such a strange being on this planet.
NRG: And why is everyone else not a weird being on this planet too?
JOK: Like you would think there would be many more weirdos, right? Is that a little devil I see?
NRG: Oh, I have a little devil tattoo. It’s based on this Japanese myth where this woman becomes a demon, but because of the length of the horns she’s got, she could still be prayed back down to a human, but she’s right on the cusp of losing herself. And I was like werk! That’s a really beautiful concept. I’m like a prayer away from not being saved. Oh, that’s a nice little space.
JOK: One little prayer, one more prayer could do it, I love it. So what are you thinking through? What’s your writing process these days?
NRG: It’s funny because I was writing and editing right before our call. I’ve been interested in poetic forms that respond to different art forms, in shape and language. It’s not necessarily a new practice, but I think I don’t want to get trapped into writing good poems for poets. I just want words that make me feel and I have to actively work away from one to get to the other. I think it’s just a matter of not limiting myself. It’s like a “yes, and” expanding of the process to allow more. And then how does that happen? I want to do that and then still have a sharp, critical edge to the approach, like writing poems that are 400 words, then taking them down to 4, or giving myself odd prompts. Like with this last poem, I take 40 words and rearrange those same words into another poem. Now I have twin poems. How can they connect? I like playing with them like artists play with blocks of material or use the same palette of colors to make a new painting, kind of abstracting my mind that way just to keep myself still feeling like I’m engaged in multiple art forms. I want to be thinking like the interdisciplinary artist I am, so yeah alright! How do you work in one form? Well, you’re always working with all of them at the same time.
JOK: Yeah, I don’t know how to make a piece of performance and not incorporate embodied poetics and language and moving images together. They are all so intertwined for me, and in the creation of the experience that I’m trying to offer, and very much in the process of the development of the thing.
I’ve released any feeling of needing to differentiate or separate genres. I find that it all comes from the same core, all the same source, and it just wants to articulate in slightly different ways. Essentially it’s like, what are the tools that we’ve been given that we’ve allowed ourselves to hone, that allow us to tap into that source power and present it?
When I get an idea, the first question I ask is: what shape do you want to take? Are you an image, a poem, a gesture? What do you want to be? Are you an image that wants to be written about? That’s the first question.
NRG: You’re conscious of what you want your audience to experience. You could have the image all day, and you can perfect what the image looks like. But if you’re not capable of taking charge of how they receive it, or giving them all these different tendrils that they can attach to, that feels like a different approach. And sometimes you can give too much context or too many angles. It can kind of clutter what the final reception is. But if you give too little, maybe you leave too much open to move away from what you wanted. It’s a hard balance that can apply to any art form. I still question “how much context, how much material is enough?” It’s hard.
JOK: I was wondering. Do you remember what led you to writing? When did you know you were a creative spirit?
NRG: I used to dance when I was a kid, learning choreography and performing and putting my time into art. Now the question is, when did I have the impulse to create something through my voice? You know how you write poems in classes or something, and I’m sure the poems weren’t good, but you could see in people that whatever silly little thing you’ve done moved them? Even if it’s just recognizing that something that felt good to create also had an effect on someone else. That’s always been the thing that feels good about making art like this, you could get critical praise and awards and all, but when you connect with somebody, when somebody feels it, like “I saw what you did. I see you,” that level of identification is always the thing that every artist goes back to. That’s really what we’re doing here, that’s why we do this, it’s the same. That’s why I’m thinking about little moments when I was a kid, and I would write a little song or something, and people would be like “I enjoyed that.”
JOK: Yeah, when was the moment you first felt seen and recognized?
NRG: When I used to dance, I guess, that felt good. The process of expressing myself and people enjoying it. When I was about five I was taking jazz classes. I don’t know, it made people happy, and I felt good doing it so that was a nice match. I also remember I used to say stuff as a kid that adults responded to. Maybe I said something that felt really true, or even just in dialogue with their conversations that they responded to and they’d say “that’s really wise,” or “that’s really good insight.” To be told that I had good insight, and to be told “you are smart” or “you have something to how you’re communicating,” whether it was true or not, for me to believe that was important. The first time I went to write poetry, I had already internalized that I have good insight, that I’m a good communicator. We should give children the language early on, “hey, what you’re saying is valuable” or “you can create.” That’s why I can’t pick one moment because since I was little, people were affirming that what I was creating and what I was saying had value. So I never doubted that, and it just becomes more standardized now, how people receive the poems, developing a practice for writing them, et cetera. I know I’m creating, giving these offerings in more intentional ways, but I just remember early on people made me feel like I had something to say. And that is not everyone’s childhood, where somebody is telling them “what you’re saying is important,” or even “I hear you.” So I’ve been really blessed with that.
JOK: Not to get you all in your business, but did you get this encouragement from your parents?
NRG: Yeah, my parents were on it. Just very encouraging. My dad was the one to take me to my first jazz class when I was very little, and when he first took me, he had to convince the people that that’s what I wanted to do. He was an advocate to give me a space to not doubt myself. There were things that I didn’t notice growing up, but they really made sure that I was not getting any self-doubt from them because the world was going to do that anyway. So they were always just piling on that “you can do it if you want to try this,” and they encouraged me to try any art form to the fullest extent. They wanted me to practice, and were always asking, “Did you practice this today, did you?” So I have been coming into art with a sense of discipline since I was little. I just had a really good upbringing that way, and now I have this abundance of empowerment to share now, I think.
JOK: Beautiful, and you just continue to share all of that Goodly abundance. Thank you so much for this.
Nicholas Goodly is the author of Black Swim (Copper Canyon, 2022). They are a team member of the performing arts platform Fly on a Wall and assistant poetry editor for The Southeast Review. Nicholas was a finalist for the 2020 Jake Adam York Prize, runner-up for the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and recipient of the 2017 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, among other awards. Their work has appeared in The New Yorker, Boston Review, BOMB, The Poetry Project, Lambda Literary, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere.
jaamil olawale kosoko is a multi-spirited Nigerian American author, performance artist, and curator of Yoruba and Natchez descent originally from Detroit, MI. Kosoko is the author of Black Body Amnesia: Poems and Other Speech Acts, published in 2022. They are a 2020 Pew Fellow in the Arts, 2019 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography, 2019 NPN Development Fund Awardee, 2017-19 Princeton Arts Fellow, and a 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Fellow. Their creative practice draws from Black study and queer theories of the body, weaving together visual performance, lecture, ritual, and spiritual practice. They currently teach at Princeton University. Visit jaamil.com to learn more.