A Conversation with Alan Nurske '66, Merrill Poet

Members of the Lawrenceville community attended the annual Merrill Poetry Reading in the Edith Memorial Chapel at 7:30 P.M. this past Thursday.

Members of the Lawrenceville community attended the annual Merrill Poetry Reading in the Edith Memorial Chapel at 7:30 P.M. this past Thursday. All IV Formers were required to attend the event. This year’s Merrill Poet, Alan Dennis Nurkse ’66, also met with IV Form English classes in the Heely Room and members of the Creative Writing Club to offer feedback on their pieces.

Nurkse has authored 11 collections of poetry, most recently completing Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult. Nurkse has received numerous awards and honors including a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He served as the poet laureate of Brooklyn from 1996 to 2001 and currently teaches in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

The Lawrence’s Avigna Ramachandran ’21 had the opportunity to sit down with Nurkse and inquire about his sustained experience in poetry.

Avigna Ramachandran ’21: When did you first start writing poetry?

Dennis Nurkse ’66: I started writing poetry when I was a little kid. I wanted to be a poet, play woodwind instruments, and I was interested in politics, and that’s exactly what I did.

AR: Why do you enjoy writing poetry, and what inspired you to do so?

DN: I was telling students in some of the classes [I met with] that I think we go through life speaking to each other “in code.” When someone passes away or we lose a loved one, we think of all the thousands of things we could’ve said and never said. I think of poetry as a chance to say some of the things we always mean to say but never actually say.

AR: How did your experiences at Lawrenceville influence your writing?

DN: I do have to say that I had a really great teacher here at Lawrenceville, [Jim Waugh H’74 ’85 ’88 P’68 ’70 ’72 ’74 ’76 GP’12 ’13 ’16]. He was a poet himself, and he had a very profound influence on me. The academics at Lawrenceville were excellent, and they really did help me to study writers such as Shakespeare and Chaucer. While I didn’t particularly love Latin, it taught me a lot about language structure, which I’ve used ever since.

AR: What have you enjoyed most about teaching students and sharing your knowledge of poetry with them?

DN: I don’t think of it as “sharing my knowledge of poetry,” since everyone has [his or her] own idea of poetry, and sometimes, I learn what poetry is from a student. I think I’ve been fortunate to not only teach in graduate schools, but also prisons, literacy workshops, and old age homes. Teaching poetry is a way to get to know people well. You’ll teach somebody for a day, and they’ll tell you something they haven’t told anyone else. It’s been fascinating to see the potential of people’s imagination.

AR: In addition to the reading, IV Formers had the opportunity to meet with you in the Heely Room. What did you learn from them, and what do you hope they learned from you?

DN: I learned a lot from them. I thought they were very sharp, imaginative, and serious students, and I hope to pass on to them that you don’t have to suffer to create. It’s not really about competing with yourself and always trying to write a better poem. It’s about exploring your experiences and creating a writing practice which is joyful and something that you look forward to.