VCU to honor Nick Lantz’s first book of poetry

Poet Nick Lantz will receive the 2011 Levis Reading Prize for his book _We Don’t Know We Don’t Know_. We asked Lantz about the honor of receiving such an award, what the current state of poetry is, and where he got the idea for the title of his book.

It’s hard publishing a book of poems these days. Poets are no longer revered like they once were, and so, of course, books of poetry don’t sell as many copies as they once did. So, publishers don’t make as much money from them as they once made. Being that it is so hard for poets to release books of their poetry (to say nothing of finding a receptive audience for them), it’s all the more remarkable when a book is not only released, but turns heads among poetry’s selective panoply. This Thursday, VCU’s Creative Writing program will honor such a book: We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz, who will receive the 2011 Levis Reading Prize for poetry.

“Opportunities like this for poets are rare and remarkable,” said Lantz in an email interview with RVANews. “I also have a particular admiration for some of the poets who’ve won the prize [in previous years], so I’m glad to be among such good company.”

Lantz says that “epistemology” is the principal theme in his collection. “Personal knowledge. Scientific knowledge. Political knowledge. Animals play a large role, because of what human/animal comparisons and relationships reveal about human thought. And language itself, insofar as it mediates our ability to know, is another major subject of the book.”

The title for his first book was inspired by a press conference given by former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. In February 2002, Rumsfeld discussed “unknown unknowns” with regards to military operations in Afghanistan.

“In that statement, he makes a very interesting, nuanced distinction about human knowledge, but he makes that point in order to evade a direct question. So he was telling the truth, but in the service of avoiding the truth. That, to me, embodied a sort of dark opposite of what writers do: we tell lies in order to get at the truth.”

In addition to honoring the recipient, The Levis Reading Prize commemorates poet and former VCU professor Larry Levis, who died in 1996. “Levis was a tremendous poet,” says Lantz. “The Afterlife and Elegy are two of his books that really rattled me when I first encountered them, though it’s hard to read the latter without thinking about it in terms of his own death.”

Former VCU professors, such as Levis, are not the only ones that Lantz admires. Current poetry instructor, and Pulitzer Prize nominee, David Wojahn is one member of the Creative Writing faculty that Lantz respects. “The title sequence of his book Mystery Train is one my all time favorites. His work engages with political topics in a way that I’ve always admired.”

When asked about the growing inability (if not outright impossibility) for poets to make a living solely off of their work, Lantz, who currently teaches at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sees artistic liberation: “I don’t think I would want to depend on my poetry itself for support. I already have a big list of anxieties when I sit down to write a poem—I don’t want to add ‘Will this poem make enough money to pay my rent?’ to that list. The relatively poor market value of poetry is actually very freeing, in a way.”

Lantz’s paid trip to Richmond (part of the winnings from the Levis Prize) will be his first to the city. “I plan most of my travel around eating, and I hear Richmond has some great restaurants, so I’m hopeful,” he says. “I also hear you have a statue of Lee in town, about which I’ll admit I’m morbidly curious. I spent the past year living in Gettysburg, so I have the Civil War on my brain a bit.”

The 2011 Levis Reading Prize will be formally awarded to Nick Lantz on Thursday, September 29 at 8pm at the Grace Street Theater. Lantz will read selected poems from his award-winning book, take part in a Q&A session, and sign copies of his book. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets are required.

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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