Threshing and the Eye of a Fire— an Interview with Nicole Stockburger
Nicole Stockburger’s debut Nowhere Buelah, from Unicorn Press, deserves so much attention. Ambitious, sophisticated, and intimately lived in—the collection offers a journey through the rural Blue Ridge region of North Carolina, as well as the rural Blue Ridge region of mystical investigation. At once historical and transcendent, the book is not one you want to miss. We’re so glad we had the chance to ask her some of the questions the work brought fourth for us.
Frontier Poetry: First off, I really love the book! I’m such an admirer of the way you so effortlessly but vigorously infuse a dirt-covered mysticism in these grounded moments of the Blue Ridge farmland.
My first question though is about the ordering of the poems. The book immediately impressed upon me it’s sense of care and precision in the way you’ve put one poem next to another. Like the transition of “Nowhere Beulah” closing with “when I lie next to him on wrinkled sheets, his closed eyelids / shift: / storms on the mountain”—to the opening of “Solstice on the next page” on the following page: “We woke to black birds shattering / the sky on their way south.”
What was that process of ordering like for you, and what did it make you feel as a poet? How did it intersect with the actual act of writing the poems themselves?
Nicole Stockburger: I’m really grateful you asked this question because it’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. When I started writing some of the earliest drafts of what would be a book, my partner was beginning the process of turning the soil to farm vegetables on his family’s land, which no one had lived on since the 90s. There was a huge catalogue of images and experiences that I was stepping into when I started to lend a hand there, and eventually write about my relationship to all that I was observing in those early days. It was summer. Every detail felt urgent. In this way, I was really attached to making narrative sense in the sequencing even before I was putting the poems together as a manuscript. I wanted to force a sense of time, of the seasons, of the ebbs and flows of nature, and even of love, that I was writing towards. I was obsessed with cycles. Finally, though, I had to let my controlling tendency go to get out of my own way and let the poems speak to each other more naturally.
This feels sort of embarrassing now, but I remember a moment when I was just coming back to the poems after a long break. It totally shocked me when I put poems together that had never previously even been close in the manuscript. I realized how many small movements and gestures could happen when I looked at image rather than forcing the issue of time. My professor in grad school, Stuart Dischell, talked about this idea of working lyrically with the last lines of one poem and the first lines of the next, and it finally resonated beyond intellect and entered into intuition. Everything started to unlock. It is still true despite everything that many of the earlier poems made their way to the beginning of the book and many of the poems written later made their way to the end.
FP: That’s so interesting—I really did feel the sensation of cycles in the collection, especially of love and of death. That intuition of ordering, probably has a clear echo in the actual writing of the poems too. We all know well that unlocking.
And I noticed too that love did become a thing the book moved more deliberately toward with those ending poems—”Where We’ll Soon Be Walking” is such a wonderful piece, with it’s intimate “(I liked to show you my appetite.)” and its transcendent “Love, look at these narratives we’ve collected / like rifles / on our shoulders.” Big Question Time: what did you discover about love in writing this book? I felt the urgency of its investigation for you, from beginning to end.
Nicole: Absolutely. As I was getting to know the land through the writing, I was simultaneously interested in looking at love and intimacy. I’m glad you brought up “Where We’ll Soon Be Walking” because I think it is trying to work out some of the questions I had, and still have, about love. That one and the last poem in the book, “At Dusk when I Hear an Arrow,” are two poems that feel very different in how they speak to the “lover.” Unlike some of the other poems that primarily seek love through the lens of an idyllic past, or in the present full of desire and questioning, these are gesturing towards a future tense in which the speaker has a sort of resolution or knowledge about the uncertainties of the present.
What I’ve learned about love is that my tendencies, also, are in the fear of the future or the romanticization of the past, rather than in the immediacy of the present, but this is of course something I’m working on. What I’ve learned, too, is that in seeking an unconventional type of love that transcends the mundane and traditional roles, our habituations and upbringings still unconsciously end up creating some of what we’re fighting so hard against. I’m learning to break down idealism, but to keep actively working against the constant infiltration of a society that tries to curate what love looks like. That line you brought up—“(I liked to show you my appetite.)”—encapsulates this for me. The speaker (aka a part of me) is desperate to both hide and reveal her desire for her lover, and both become equally vulnerable when written as a sort of love letter. Actually, I wrote “Where We’ll Soon Be Walking” as an alternate ending for the book. When writing about love, and living with love, my hope is that vulnerability and desire can move towards understanding.
FP: There’s also an urge in your work, besides the hope that “desire can move toward understanding”—or perhaps dovetailing with it—toward mystical dissolution. It comes up in the very last poem, “At Dusk when I Hear an Arrow”: “I could drift into the blue / of these mountains, like the eye of a fire”; and the very first, “How to Marry the Land”: “Thresh yourself against evening until you are / only silt and shadow. // This, too, will end.”
What has been poetry’s function for you in that threshing, that eye of a fire?
Nicole: I’m stunned by this question—thank you. I’ll do my best here to try to unpack it. To me, threshing—perhaps rice or another grain—and the idea of the most interior place in a fire—”the eye”—both have to do with a kind of purification, a sloughing off of the exterior, a getting-rid-of in order to find the interconnectedness of everything within. That sounds very mystical, actually, but here is an example. My grandmother recently died this past year and requested that her ashes be scattered in the New River, in a special place where my family used to gather when I was younger, but only at the time when my grandfather also passes on and their ashes can be spread into the water together. Back into the greater systems of the earth and the universe. This is such a beautiful expression of their love and spirituality, but at the same time it has left me without a way, or a place, to grieve her now. There is a way that, even in the finality of death, I have a difficult time truly letting go because some very physical act—that of scattering ashes into a river—has not yet taken place. I guess I believe, at least in this case, that something physical must be enacted in order to dig into the spiritual, which is why the tools of poetry work really well here. These images you have brought up—of threshing and the eye of a fire—are images that are grounded in the earth and physical processes. But it is metaphor that allows them to extend beyond the physical (or alongside the physical) to enter into the depths of meaning. Writing itself is somewhat of a physical process, too, that urges us to dive into what is real by making marks on a page. I feel extremely lucky that I have language as my way to go deeper, in a sense. Or, language as a way to refine, whittle down, and ultimately as a way to shed dissolution into truth, or true experience.
FP: I love this answer—thank you for taking it so seriously. “something physical must be enacted in order to dig into the spiritual, which is why the tools of poetry work really well here.” Yes, some great non-dual stuff going on. Do you feel like having your book in your hand was a physical-to-spiritual moment as well? Or something else?
Nicole: I can’t speak for every writer, but I do think that for a lot of us holding the physical representation of all of the experience and work that goes into making a book is a really big and emotional deal. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that having my book in hand really changed me in any spiritual way. I think the growth happened in the development of each poem and working with the accumulation of them—laying each printed page out on the wood floor and meditating with the fullness of it all—before publication ever happened. Now that the book is out, I more so feel a loss or disconnection with its contents as if the poems are childhood memories. Writing Nowhere Beulah helped me process this phase in my life and I am excited to move into the next one. Now these moments can hopefully make a connection with someone else on their unique path!
Nicole Stockburger is a poet and farmer, living and working on a stretch of land in the North Carolina foothills near her hometown, Winston-Salem. Her work has found homes in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Frontier Poetry, and The Journal, among other publications. Nicole received an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a BA in Studio Art and English from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nowhere Beulah is her first book.
Praise for Nowhere Beulah:
“With a documentarian’s eye for getting things accurate and the poet’s imaginative sense of transformation, Nowhere Beulah introduces a writer of landscape and lore. In these musically and structurally inventive poems, Nicole Stockburger presents us with the significance of place—a now organic farm in North Carolina where generations strived to make a go of the land and the consequences of their existence upon it. These poems are narrative, dramatic, and lyrical and interweave the past and present—history and love. What an exciting and fine debut collection!” —STUART DISCHELL, author of Children with Enemies
“If you’ve never driven the backroads of the Blue Ridge, never stood barefoot in a century-old family farmland with wildflowers and blackberries in your hands, Stockburger’s poems will take you there. These poems mix landscape, desire, and solitude like an Andrew Wyeth painting. Nowhere Beulah is filled with the sensuous pleasures of the land, with the grit and grace of rural life. Reading this book is an experience of following a woman as she cultivates an intimate relationship with the land, and the history of those who have lived and worked there. These poems are awake to the world, and ultimately uncover what it means to be rooted. ” —ANSEL ELKINS, author of Blue Yodel