Nancy Kuhl outside Beinecke Library

The Deep End

Local writer Nancy Kuhl is a poet who does know it, though she’s not one to rhyme. Her work, published in three books and a litany of literary mags, would often resemble prose if it weren’t sliced up into verses or so experimental—with narrative structure not always present, and many thoughts casting long, mysterious shadows, and words sometimes chosen more for their sonic definitions than their dictionary ones.

Lincroft, New Jersey—“as far south of New York City as we are now north,” Kuhl says—is where she grew up, and where she began to dabble in poetry some 30 years ago. In high school, “I had a couple great teachers, in whose courses I read great works that I got excited about… I started just messing around with writing, and then discovered, when I got to college, that there were classes that could be taken that were, at their core, about writing poetry.” In other words, she began to realize that this thing she loved so much was a legitimate field of inquiry in its own right—a possible profession, not just a hobby.

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That was at Old Dominion University, where she majored in English. But the realization wasn’t cemented until she witnessed, at a literary festival there, a reading by Allison Joseph, who, unlike every other reader Kuhl heard at the fest, wasn’t a “late-middle-aged white guy. Here was this young, dynamic African-American woman who felt closer to me in every way than any of those other voices… It changed my life. It made seem like a plausible thing.”

From Virginia she went to Ohio, specifically Ohio University, where she got an MA in American Literature. She’d expected to get a PhD and become a professor, until she tried out teaching and discovered it wasn’t for her. Scrapping the PhD plan, she got an MFA instead, from Ohio State. “It was something I knew I wanted to do: be a better poet, be a serious writer,” she says. “I figured whatever I did after that would take care of itself.”

And so it has. It’s hard to imagine a better fit than her current job: curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Library. The work involves guiding researchers, developing the collection and, as it’s happened, curating some of Beinecke’s most whimsical exhibits, like 2014’s Blue: Color and Concept, which, as she said at the time, was an experiment in “what it would be like to approach the collections a non-standard category.” Another standout was last winter’s Caricature Assassination: Miguel Covarrubias Murders New York, a delightfully stylized companion show to Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library.

Of course, being surrounded by others’ poetry at work hasn’t stopped her from producing original material the rest of the time. Her three books of poems—The Wife of the Left Hand (2007), Suspend (2010) and Pine to Sound (2015)—contain more than a hundred entries, not including Suspend’s many finer-print asides, and poking around the internet turns up polished, published work not included within any of them.

That she’s been prolific doesn’t mean it’s come easily, though. To stay productive, she sets aside time to write—and, she says, “I have lots of ways I trick myself.” For instance, when an idea comes to her, she’ll write it down, set it aside, then return to it feeling like she’s got a head start. “I’m a big fan of putting something away and picking it up some time later… I much prefer to face a broken-down, piece-of-garbage poem than a blank page,” she says, laughing.

Sometimes the end result is clear and relatable. Suspend’s “Palm,” for example, conjures the meeting of a fortune teller and a fortune seeker. Pine to Sound’s “Night Swimmers,” for another, captures the “dizzy thrill” of an impromptu nighttime dip in the Atlantic.

Other times, it’s about generating rhythm and feeling, and not about creating a scene or telling a story. “My intention is not to be obscure,” she says, but at the same time, “I don’t feel as though I start out with something very clear that I want to say. I’m interested in pursuing a chain of thoughts; I’m willing to think associatively, and then sort out later how those things might have meaning.” For me, most of her poems required multiple careful readings, but that made the payoffs, when they happened, all the more satisfying.

Whichever way a given work might go, there’s at least one thing Kuhl’s poems consistently deliver: a sense of depth, even if you can’t always sense how deep they go.

Nancy Kuhl
Shearsman Books | Amazon | Small Press Distribution

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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