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Michael Hettich interview of Eric Nelson

MH: Thank you, Eric, for agreeing to respond to these interview questions, most of which will focus on your most recent book, Horse Not Zebra. I’d also like to probe into the aesthetic, influences, and disciplines that guide your work in general. So, to give our readers some context, please talk a bit about your background as a person and as a poet. Did you grow up in a “literary” household? How did you first discover poetry, and how and when did you decide to dedicate your energies to writing?

EN: Thank you, Michael. I’m honored to be asked! I was a military kid with strong liberal arts influences. My Dad was a high-school teacher who joined the Air Force during WWII and became a navigator. After the war, he returned to teaching but soon discovered that he could not support a family on a teacher’s salary. So he went back into the Air Force, but he remained a teacher--of navigation. I think he was always a teacher at heart, never a gung-ho military guy. The first time I ever saw the book Invisible Man was on Dad’s bedside table. I guess I was around ten years old, and I thought he was reading a science fiction book, which I found both surprising and kind of cool. It was many years later that I realized he had been reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. My Dad was also an avid letter writer. I have vivid memories of him sitting in his overstuffed chair with a box of stationery in his lap, writing letters to friends and family (he came from a large Jewish family). It influenced me to write and to see writing as an ordinary and enjoyable thing to do. I’ve written a couple of poems about watching my Dad write letters, so it had a strong impact on me.

My Mom’s Quaker background meant that she was hardly hardcore military, either. She wasn’t a writer, but she was an obsessive reader and loved the arts, especially music and painting, and she encouraged me and both of my sisters to be the same way. My Mom gave me my first poetry book, when I was eight years old. It’s called Hop, Skip, and Jump by Dorothy Aldis. I loved it. I still have it, and it is surprisingly complex for a children’s book. 

I think that all of these ‘’artistic” influences within a fairly rigid, hierarchical military context created some kind of tension within me that I needed to do something with, so I began writing at an early age. I wrote stories and poems that I’m sure were awful, but my Mom always lavished praise on my writing, so of course I kept doing it and never stopped.

MH:I first learned of your work way back in 1981 or ’82, when the poet Robert Hazel, whom I had given a reading with, gave my wife, Colleen, and me $500 to publish what I think was your first book, On Call, with our fledgling Moonsquilt Press. I know Hazel was a mentor of yours at (I think) Virginia Tech. Please talk about about him and his influence on your work. I’d also be curious to hear about any other mentors, and also about fellow poets you’ve felt particularly close to over the years.

EN: It's impossible to overstate how important Robert Hazel was to me as a mentor. I first met him when I was a junior at Viriginia Tech. I think more than anything, he showed me that poetry was a serious endeavor, a calling, even. I enjoyed writing poetry and had been encouraged by other teachers in high school and college to keep at it. But it was Hazel who turned on some previously hidden force/desire within me. He talked about poetry in the most spiritual, reverential way. When he read poetry out loud, it sounded like the poem’s music was simply flowing through him. The mantra of his that I think did more than anything else to make me serious about poetry was his frequent response to my poems: “Words are real, Eric, dig?’ I didn’t fully dig at the time, but I understood that he was telling me something fundamentally important about writing poems, and about using language.   Hazel reinforced my already strong belief that “real” poetry must always be serious in tone and subject, and always dense and difficult. Not surprisingly, his favorite poets were Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. 

Another mentor was Peter Meinke, whom I met many years after I graduated from both Virginia Tech and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. I took a class with Peter when he taught for a semester at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  Peter was every bit as knowledgeable and serious about poetry as Hazel, but he also believed and taught me to believe that a poem could include humor and still be serious. Peter, in his own poetry and in some of the poetry that he encouraged me to read—Howard Nemerov was a particular favorite of his--showed me that humor and seriousness in the same poem could create a rich combination and complexity of feeling. Two poets who are long-time friends of mine—Art Stringer and David Graham—have also been models for me—David’s poetry for its graceful music and seemingly casual tone that belies great insight and serious thought. And Art’s for the amazing compression of his language and his scientist’s attention to detail and experience. 

MH: As a follow-up: I think you and I share the fact that we’ve read very widely and taken our influence from a wide variety of writers and artists. Given that fact, can you talk briefly about one or two poets whom you think of as central influences on you and your own writing? 

EN: Two poets that were strong influences on my development were T.S. Eliot and E.A. Robinson. I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school English and it just blew my mind. I’d never read anything like it. I didn’t understand it. But instead of disliking it because I couldn’t understand it, its elusiveness kept drawing me back to it. 

I discovered Robinson on my own, or I should say through Simon and Garfunkle’s song “Richard Cory,” which was based on the Robinson poem of the same title. I read Robinson’s poem, and kept reading his poems, especially the ones about the strange citizens of Robinson’s fictional Tilbury Town. Eliot and Robinson couldn’t have been more different in every possible way except for one—they both were looking deeply into the minds and hearts of individuals. I admired Robinson’s formal, metrical, old-school approach. In Eliot I admired the method of stringing together vivid images in ways that only loosely formed a narrative. Later, Theodore Roethke became an important influence on my work, but Eliot and Robinson are without a doubt my poetic ancestors. 

MH: One of the qualities I admire in your work is its formal grace and clarity. Your poems are all clearly crafted, built with solid materials and made to last. But unlike many more self-consciously “formal” poems, yours rarely draw attention to their craft. To my mind you are a formal poet without being a formalist. I’d love to hear you talk about this aspect of your work.

EN: I love that description of my poetry, thank you. It’s exactly what I want my poems to be—casual and informal in terms of tone and language, but anchored in carefully crafted elements—sound effects and rhythm, resonant figurative and literal expression, compression, complexity of feeling. I want every word in the poem to be important, and every word, phrase, line, etc. to be contributing to the effect and meaning of the poem. If the beginning of the poem isn’t still present in some way at the end of the poem, the poem is not working fully. Another poet and friend that I admire is James Scruton. One time when we were talking, Jim said that he wanted his formal poems to seem like free verse and his free verse poems to seem formal. To that, I say, Yes, exactly.

MH:I know you were a professor for many years and that you still teach now. How does the practice of teaching and mentoring students influence your own ambitions and intentions as a writer? 

EN: Teaching helps my own writing in all sorts of ways. At the most immediate level, when I’m teaching I’m thinking about poetry all the time. I’m reading poems to use as prompts or as examples of a particular element of craft or organization. And while I’m doing this, I’m teaching myself what I want my own poems to be. Also, I write drafts in response to my own class prompts. Two poems in Horse Not Zebra, “Lullaby for a Black Bear” and “Soap Spell” started as prompts I’d given to my students. When I’m teaching, I’m reading/responding to the student poems, and that helps me sharpen my beliefs about what I want my own poems to do. I don’t think I would write more if I taught less; it’s not that simple an equation. 

MH: Do you have a daily writing practice?

EN: I’m at my desk most mornings for a few hours. Sometimes I’m working on something new; sometimes revising; sometimes reading poetry hoping to catch a spark to get me writing; sometimes I’m writing or replying to emails. Sometimes I’m staring out my window, checking to see if the beginning of a poem might be out there. Sometimes it is—in the way a tree is coming into bloom or a squirrel is working very hard to get inside a bird feeder. Images like that can trigger a poem even if I have no idea where the poem may go.

MH: I really enjoy your weekly Carpe Diem postings. Recently you posted a poem by Peter Everwine, a poet I had read with great enjoyment and admiration years ago but had forgotten. I love his work and am now digging back into it, thanks to your posting. So: Thank you for that! I’d love to hear how you go about selecting the weekly poems you post.

EN: Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. I started the weekly Carpe poem way back in 2012 when I was teaching full time at Georgia Southern. One Monday morning I sent a poem to the entire department. I’m not sure why, but maybe to try to start the week off on a positive note rather than a grumpy “back to work” note. It was a William Carlos Williams poem—brief, clear, affirming but not sentimental. My colleagues liked the poem and asked for more, so I began sending out a poem every Monday. When I retired from Georgia Southern I stopped sending out the Carpe poem, but I found that I missed doing it, so I started up again after we were settled in Asheville. One thing I like is that the audience has evolved to include not only accomplished poets but also many people who are not poets and don’t read a lot of poetry. I try to find poems that both groups will appreciate, and so far that seems to be the case most of the time. 

MH: I don’t want to read poems that confuse me, but I do want to read poems I don’t understand. This is part of what I like so much in your work: I’m never confused by your poems though they often sing like secret messages drawn from the deeper mysteries. Can you talk about intention here? How about Donald Hall’s contention that poetry’s truest goal is to “say the unsayable”? 

EN: I like that quote from Donald Hall. Partly because it helps explain why poets keep writing poems; it’s sort of a quest for the Holy Grail, or maybe Bigfoot. I want the “sayable” part of my poems to be clear and approachable. But I want it to suggest or point toward the unsayable—the part of the poem that can’t be explained. I once heard the poet Garrett Hongo say that “poems have holes in them,” and it’s in those holes—in the gaps between words, phrases, lines, in the associative leaps a poem makes--where the unsayable lives. If those holes don’t exist, the poem lacks the richness and good ambiguity that compels me to want to read the poem again and again. Getting back to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” at one point he says, “it is impossible to say just what I mean.” The whole poem is Eliot/Prufrock trying to say the unsayable! Prufrock is a great example of a poem that I didn’t understand (still don’t in some ways), but it didn’t confuse me. It exhilarated me because the language, line after line, was so fresh and vivid, so different in form and organization than anything I knew, and even though I didn’t understand it, I knew it was saying something true not only about Prufrock but about me, too, even if I didn’t quite know what that is.

MH: How do you make a book a book, rather than simply a gathering of poems written over a certain period of time?

EN: I have to confess that I don’t spend a lot of time trying to make a book of poems cohere. I write individual poems and when I’ve got more than enough keepers for a book, I pick the 40 or so that I think are the strongest. I look for common threads in the poems and organize the poems accordingly. To me, what makes it a book is more a matter of the consistency of voice and recurring subject matter. I can drive myself crazy trying to organize the poems in a particular progression or wave or arc or whatever to make it seem like a premeditated “book.” But for me it works just as well and much less stressfully to organize the poems the way I just described. I do think that the first poem and the last poem are very important. The first poem is an invitation to the reader to come inside. And the last poem is a kind of farewell. I want the first poem to give a reader a general sense of welcome and generosity as well as a sense of the voice and the concerns of the book. I want the final poem to leave the reader with a sense of completion and affirmation, and with a desire to return. 

MH: The title of your new book is Horse Not Zebra. Why that particular title?

EN: It seemed catchy, like it might pique someone’s curiosity. Those who already know the expression might be drawn to the book out of that familiarity. And those who don’t yet know the expression might be drawn to it wanting to find out what it means. I also think it’s one of the stronger poems in the book, so I like that the book title calls attention to the poem. And it points toward the focus of the book—subjects that are common (horses) rather than unusual or exotic (zebra). What I really hope to show is that these common subjects—domestic life, the interplay between the human world and the natural world—are just as complicated and perhaps even more emotionally fraught than poems about unexpected/uncommon subjects.

MH: Since you now live in Asheville, NC, only 15 or so miles from the site of Black Mountain College, it seems fitting to ask you to what extent the “Black Mountain Poets”—Olson and Creeley primarily—have influenced your own work and/or your thinking about poetry. Any of the other-discipline artists there? 

EN: I read the Black Mountain poets many, many years ago. In fact, I think it was Hazel who told me about them and suggested I read them. I admired what they were doing—pushing boundaries, experimenting with language and voice and structure, looking for ways of “making it new,” as Pound advised. But with the exception of Creeley, their poetry just didn’t speak to me with the visceral immediacy I was looking for. Having said that, I also feel like I didn’t give them a fair chance way back when, so I need to try again, especially since I’m now living where they and other artists brought about an incredible flourishing of the avant-garde.  

MH: Your poems, like many (or most) contemporary poems, often employ the first person as a vehicle for embodying sensibility and tone. The “I” in your poems feels very close to you in that he shares your biography, but of course he is a created persona. Still, unlike most poets who employ the first person as a matter of course, your poems never feel confessional. Rather, your “I” feels to me like a set of values and experiences—what might almost be called a paradigm—through which a certain world is explored. Does this make sense to you? 

EN: I’ve never articulated it as well as you have, but I have been conscious for most of my writing life of trying to make my first person speaker seem both personal and universal. Walt Whitman talks about the personal self and the cosmic Self—the personal me and the universal ME—the paradigm as you called it. That’s what I’m hoping for in my work. Not that I am in any way comparing myself to Whitman, but I do want that sense of the personal “I” and the universal “I” melding together. Another way I think of it is whether or not the personal experience can be seen as a metaphor for something larger than just one person’s experience. It’s another quality that makes me want to read a poem—my own or someone else’s—more than once. Another one of Hazel’s gnomic sayings was that “the poem has to be so personal that it’s universal.” And that makes total sense to me as long as I don’t try to explain it rationally.

MH: Another way of saying this is to say that the self in your poems is not the focus but the vehicle. It’s the big world outside the self that interests you, though of course the self is a filter. To what extent is this fundamental aspect of your work intentional? Do you think of any poets here as models? 

EN: I think the move for me away from a strictly personal poem to one that seems to speak with a voice that is larger, more encompassing comes during the revision process. A lot of my poems begin with a first draft that isn’t much more than a literal description of an experience I’ve had. As I develop the poem, I keep asking myself So what—how is this about anything besides you? And if I can’t ever discover what is bigger than me, the poem gets abandoned. But if I gain some insight into how my experience might also be someone elses’—at the psychic/emotional level—then I feel like I’m moving towards what I want from my poems. Some poets who do this really well and have been models for me are Stephen Dunn, Linda Pastan, Tony Hoagland, Joseph Stroud, Dorianne Laux, Thomas Lux, and many others. I think Jack Gilbert’s best poems are extraordinary in how they do transcend the personal. But I also think that some of his poems never get beyond a personal anecdote. They show me Jack Gilbert, but they don’t show me me.

MH: Delving now more deeply into a few of the poems in Horse Not Zebra, I’ll start with the first poem in the collection, “Clearing the Air.” (we’ll include it in the group of your poems that follow the interview). This is a stunning poem and an excellent example of your work. I love the mystery of the opening as well as the way the poem unfolds into ever-more-interesting mystery and revelation. The vividness of the details—so ordinary and solid—are beautifully rendered. The poem brings to mind Pound’s injunction that poetry should be at least as well written as prose. This is a good example of just that. Talk a bit about this poem, its occasion, perhaps, and why you placed it as the opening poem of the collection.

EN: Like most of my poems, this one was prompted by my daily, ordinary life, which includes walking my dog through a small urban forest near my house. I learned quickly that I needed to keep one arm raised in front of me to avoid getting spider webs wrapped around my face. One day I wondered what someone who happened to see me would think I was doing. And I did once pass another man in the woods who said he’d just walked through a lot of spider webs, so I didn’t need to worry about them. I don’t think he used the phrase “clearing the air,” but I can’t remember for sure. 

But that’s where the writing started—describing those events. In the process, two ideas started to emerge. One was about our common human desire for spiritual knowledge or fulfillment, especially in relation to the natural world. The other idea was that “reality” is often not what we think it is. Once those two abstract concepts became clear to me, I began fiddling with the language and imagery of the poem to heighten/reinforce those ideas. It was a slow process with much revision and editing to try to embed those ideas in the poem without being obvious or didactic. I struggled to get this poem to sound informal and observational yet carry those larger ideas within the descriptive language. 

I put it first in the book because I felt that the poem used imagery that appears throughout the book, that it suggested the horse vs zebra tension, and that it was a good “welcoming” poem. This book is very Asheville-based in its setting and imagery, and this poem seems particularly Asheville-like in its emphasis on nature and on spiritual aspiration.

MH: Another poem I like a lot is “Bus Real.” Here I really like the clarity of each line, the natural line breaks, the uncluttered and forward-moving energy throughout. I’m moved and surprised by the poem’s lack of imposed closure in favor of a muted, almost matter-of-fact final line, which fits the poem’s strategy beautifully. I’d like to know if you remember how many times you revised it, how difficult it was for you to make it as natural-sounding as it does here.

EN: Unlike “Clearing the Air,” this poem came relatively easily. It was one of those that felt like a gift, like I was largely just taking dictation. I revised it some, but it felt more like light editing than re-visioning the entire poem. I cannot remember how the final lines evolved, but I know that they weren’t the original ending. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what that was, or why I thought it needed to be changed. 

As usual, the poem got its started in an actual experience—my wife and I were in Madrid for five weeks about twenty years ago. I was teaching a travel abroad class. We did all the touristy things that you would expect, but we didn’t feel like we really knew Madrid until we rather spontaneously decided to take a “let’s get lost” ride on a city bus. In many ways, it was my favorite experience in Madrid. The poem was easy-ish to write because the ”ideas” seemed to be a natural part of the description, and the rolling cadence came from the rhythm of the bus moving through the city. I didn’t have to discover the ideas and then work them into the poem, as I did with “Clearing the Air.”

MH: Related question: How often do you typically revise your poems? Can you talk a bit about the composition process? 

EN: I revise a lot. Often times too much. More than once I’ve managed to revise all the life out of a poem. It’s easy for me to lose the initial energy and freshness of the early drafts as I go through the long (usually) process of discovering what I want the poem to say. I don’t think I have one set way of getting a poem started. I keep a journal and jot things down in it pretty frequently. Mostly things that have happened to me or that I’ve observed. Sometimes those things look promising for development and I begin to sense the larger implications of the literal event that initiated the poem. 

I do a lot of composing in my head while I’m walking in the mornings, usually developing something I’ve already started at my desk. And sometimes something comes to the surface of my brain that I hadn’t been even aware of. I turn those things over while I’m walking and write them in my journal when I get home. Or sometimes I go straight to the computer and start typing to see where it might go. Another way my poems get started is from reading—just picking up a book of poems, any book, and see if something there—an image, story, even a phrase, will trigger the beginning of a poem. 

The process of revision is pretty mysterious to me. I have all sorts of thoughts and make intuitive decisions as I’m developing a poem, but it happens so rapidly that I can’t even remember what they were when I’m finished. I might suddenly see that a stanza near the bottom should be near the beginning, or that some line or image or whatever isn’t adding anything to the poem. It’s a long process of discovery. I almost never know what a poem is “about” when I get started. It comes during the process itself. And sometimes that means that I will change the “facts” of the poem in service of the “truth” of the poem. And that’s ok to me. 

I heard Mary Reuffle say once that she knows a poem is done when it stops bothering her. And that’s true for me. Sometimes I think a poem is finished, then it seems to call me back and require more work with the idea or the language of the poem. Eventually, it stops bothering me and I can leave it alone, or show it to someone else who can point out some others things that need attention. My ultimate goal is that a reader will want to read my poems more than once. 

MH: Many—if not most—of the poems in this book are sparked by an occasion that apparently happened to you, yet none of them feel like simple documents of an experience; they are all shaped things. To what extent do you think your poems stay in the realm of the “biographically accurate” or documentary and to what extent do they take off from their starting point into unexplored terrain? Another way of asking this is simply to ask: To what extent are your poems biographically “true”?

EN: They almost always start out in a factually true experience in my own life. But I don’t feel much allegiance to facts. Once I think I see where the “truth” of the poem is, I will change the so-called facts if I think the change will contribute to the truth—the abstract ideas of the poem. I will cut things, add things, alter things, etc., in service of the bigger picture. Sometimes, “just the facts” are enough to suggest abstract ideas. But most of the time, facts are starting places, not requirements.

MH: Were there any of the poems in Horse Not Zebra particularly difficult to get just right. Any particularly easy? 

EN: The two you asked about are probably the best examples of relatively easy (“Bus Real”) and very difficult (“Clearing the Air”). I hope that readers experience both poems as seemingly casual and not obviously “crafted.” But when I read the two poems I feel very strongly how “organic” “Bus Real” is, and how labored “Clearing the Air” is. 

MH: There are many bears in this book! Let’s close with them. Talk about what the bear-in-the-city means to you!

EN: Wow, the bears of Asheville! Is there anything more surreal and amazing than the fact that a few hundred bears make their home in the city? Here’s this apex predator walking downtown, roaming neighborhoods, denning under houses, climbing backyard trees. It’s one thing to see a deer in the city, or wild turkeys, but to routinely see black bears is something that will never get old for me. And they’re so complex—big and strong, but also quiet and shy. They could kill or seriously injure you, but they have a live and let live philosophy. For me, black bears are an endless source of fascination and material for poetry.  


The most recent of Eric Nelson’s seven poetry collections, Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022), was a finalist for the 2023 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry and received Honorable Mention in the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Brockman-Campbell Book Award. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, The Sun, The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, The Southern Review, and The Missouri Review. He has been featured on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily and in several anthologies, including A New Geography of Poets, edited by Edward Field, I Get A Little Jumpy Around You, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review.  


Among his awards are the 2014 Gival Press Poetry Book Award for Some Wonder; the 2004 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Award for Terrestrials, chosen by Maxine Kumin; the Arkansas Poetry Award for The Interpretation of Waking Life (1991); the Split Oak Press Chapbook Award for The Twins (2009); the Georgia Author of the Year Award (2005); and multiple residency fellowships to the Hambidge Center for the Arts and to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. 


He taught in the English Department at Virginia Tech from 1984 to 1989. Starting in 1989, he taught writing and literature courses at Georgia Southern University, where he received the Ruffin Cup for excellence in teaching, publishing, and service. He retired, professor emeritus, in 2015, and moved to Asheville, NC, where he has taught poetry workshops privately and for the Great Smokies Writing Program.  


Born in New York City and raised in its suburbs, Michael Hettich has lived in Colorado, Northern Florida, Vermont, Miami, and Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he now lives with his wife, Colleen. He holds a Ph.D. from the

University of Miami and taught for many years at Miami Dade College where he was awarded an Endowed Teaching Chair. His poetry, essays, and reviews have

appeared widely in many journals and anthologies, and he has published more than two dozen books of poetry across five decades. His honors include several Individual Artist Fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, The Tampa Review Prize in Poetry, the David Martinson/Meadowhawk Prize, a Florida Book Award, the inaugural Hudson-Fowler Prize in Poetry, and the Lena M. Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. His website is


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