Reconsidering Narrative: Film, Music, & the Supernatural
Nick Courtright & Joshua Young

Nick Courtright is the author of Punchline (Gold Wake Press), a National Poetry Award finalist called "nothing short of a knockout" by Boston Review editor Timothy Donnelly. His writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Iowa Review, among many others, and he is also the author of a chapbook, Elegy for the Builder's Wife. In Austin, he teaches English, Humanities, and Philosophy, and is Interviews Editor of the Austinist. Find him on the internet at
Joshua Young is the author of When the Wolves Quit: A Play-in-Verse (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and the forthcoming collaboration with Chas Hoppe (Gold Wake Press 2013). He teaches writing at Columbia College Chicago where he also studies poetry in the MFA Program. He lives in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago with his wife, their son, and their dog. For information about his writing, films, and other projects visit

Nick Courtright: When the Wolves Quit is a thoroughly awesome mix of things: genres, scarinesses, plot, characters, forms, revelations, etc.  I especially enjoy the presence of wolves and religion and ghosts.  In fact, the word "ghost" shows up in your book 43 times, though most often as a place name ("the ghost woods").  Do you believe in ghosts?  What special thing do you think the idea of them (or their existence?) evokes in people?
Joshua Young: Thank for calling Wolves awesome. I don't know if I believe in ghosts. I guess I can say I don't not believe in ghosts. I like the idea of them. I like that there are these beings that don't want to leave this world. A Seattle band, The Head and the Heart, says in a song, "One day we'll all be ghosts, tripping around someone else's home. One day we'll all be ghosts, ghosts, ghosts." Of course I heard this song for the first time as I was finishing the book, and thought, "Yeah, that's true." When we die we lose what once was ours. And if we stay as ghosts, we have to see the world take it over, carry on. It's depressing-not the dead part-but the watching your old life part. I mean, people don't want to die, and I guess ghosts are part of that idea of hanging on, which is weird if there is a faith based life that has ended, right? Heaven? Aren't we totally supposed to be stoked for all those gold streets and awnings of clouds?

Speaking of Ghosts and God, in Punchline you write about them, though there's a sense of snark or tongue-in-cheek when you talk about God and the Creation of the Universe. Ghosts don't have that same feel. Talk to me about ghosts. Then talk to me about God, and what the hell he's doing in your poems. Talk to me about how they're in conversation with each other-maybe they're not, but if not, why not? 
NC: I know nothing of ghosts.  I am skeptical, as I am of many things.  I do know that I wouldn't be the person in the horror movie who denies ghosts until the moment he is being dragged down the stairs and into eternal hell.  I'd buy in before that, even though my wife may disagree.  She's the ghost-believer in my life.

As for God, he is in every poem, yes?  I'm kidding, but not really.  I am fascinated by the question, and I've sought in philosophy all the possible proofs for God-the ontological proof, the cosmological proof, the moral proof, but none of them get the job done.  They're just silly human logics trying to understand a thing beyond understanding.  Does God exist?  I'd like to think so, but not in the same way as most religious people-I just have a thing for wanting "purpose" or "a reason."  I've also never seen a good atheist argument.  But my exploration of the issue I don't feel is snarky-my head-spinning inquiry is sincere. 

As for God and ghosts talking, I don't know why they'd talk to each other any more than they talk to me.  It's all beyond my grasp, but my poems love this whole "God situation."  They curl up with it by the fire. 

Speaking of all this ethereal weirdness, your book has a haunting thrilleresque quality to it.  Do you think your book is scary?
JY: The thriller quality probably comes from my background in fiction and film. I like stories. I don't know if my book is scary. It's creepy. I think that's what I want people to feel: creeped out. Not just by the Place of Light and Shadow, but by the way the believers believe in their preacher, their church, in the ghost woods, in the rules of the small town, in the amount of murders that just got chalked up to this myth. "Someone's missing? Seems likely they were murdered? Welp, must be the ghost woods!" I grew up in the church and I feel like this book, along with my second, To the Chapel of Light, address my issues with church/religion/so-called faith. Personally, I can't deny the existence of God, because I do not know enough about the universe, life, etc to make that call. But it feels pretty unlikely. My wife said this to me the other day: "Babies teething: Proof there is no God. Who would put children through such pain?" I don't know what to do with this, but I think there's a poem in this. We could chase this philosophical rabbit hole for hours, so let's get back to your book. I found myself laughing while reading your book or shaking my head, or saying, fuck dude, you crazy! You're not just working with images and pretty lines, but you're working ideas into that braid. Do you think your book is funny? Do you think the headiness, that raveling sense of logic in each poem, building all through the final poem, allows the reader to laugh? 
NC: I think there is a very small segment of the population which will find my book hilarious.  For a very long time I was not in this segment—I thought the book was deathly serious and almost tragic, but as I've gotten to know it better I've come to see the book's search for truth, and its acknowledgment of the impossibility of the task, to be pretty damn funny.  But I also think it's maintained that serious edge—it is dealing with things like fate vs. free will, certainty vs. uncertainty, the meaning of life...all that stuff that can be about as intense (or irrelevant) as any particular person makes it out to be.

I do take as a compliment, though, that you say parts of the book make you think "you crazy."  If I weren't eliciting that response at least occasionally, I wouldn't feel like a real philosopher, or poet.

There are a few elephants in the room, including that second book of yours, but the one I want to address first is one you probably have pretty well thought out.  Do you feel like an innovator in the way you blend genres?  If you already had a background in fiction and film, however did poetry end up sneaking its way into your drink?
JY: Innovator! Ha! I like to think that I'm not doing the same old shit everyone else has done, but I've stolen so much from music, film, poetry, fiction, my friends, that I'd be a total dick if I said I was innovative in any way.  The decision to blur genres came from my thesis chair, Oliver de la Paz at Western Washington University. He said, "Josh, your poems need titles. There's so much film in this. Do something like that." (Oh yeah, I wrote my second book first). So, I formatted it like a screenplay, and Oliver was like, "Whoa, yeah." I guess I would get bored writing poems that were just poems. I want my work, no matter what genre it may be pigeon-holed in to cause doubt in where it's placed. My work converses with other works (hence all the thievery), but I also need its form to provoke conversations about what this "text" is, and why it needs to be lumped into a genre. After Chapel, I started writing Wolves and realized it was a play. And this new thing I'm doing is a Symphony. I had been writing poetry for a while, but not really serious about it. Oliver pushed me towards poetry, that jerk! After his prose poetry class, I couldn't stop writing poems. But all my background started pushing their way into my poems. We could talk about narrative now, but that would get wordy.

Let's go back to Punchline. I do get that "serious edge" from the book. That much is clear. The fact that you approach poetry through philosophy (or is it the other way around, or both), allows these two kinds of readings. You say that as you got to know your book better you saw the humor. How long was that process of "getting to know?" Did you know you were writing a book or were you just writing poems that happened to turn into something unified? How did this project become a book? Talk about all that. This kind of stuff interests me more than most general, but especially with the way the book crescendos to the end.
NC: That's interesting how you say you got bored writing poems that were "just poems"—I can definitely see that in your work, and I felt that same thing in my experience.  That's why I adopted the philosophical approach, as I wanted to include those "argumentative," "seeking" elements of essaying or philosophy.  Writing poems for poems' sake just wasn't enough.  But definitely, I am approaching philosophy through poetry, and not the other way around, as poetry is the underpinning for me—philosophy didn't come until later, and I have tons and tons of poems that have nothing to do with such odd endeavors.

I'm glad it seems to you that Punchline crescendos—I wanted that sort of narrative movement.  Obviously, I have no "characters," per se, but I wanted the "feel" of the book or the "thought process" to build toward something.  This sort of embedded narrative in the book is a result entirely of how I wrote it: in one huge 30,000 word burst over the course of one month.  Then I edited it down over the course of a bunch of months of merciless chopping.  I didn't change the order of things too much, so it really is a document of an organic evolution of thought about the issues the book tackles.  It was very important to me to write a "book," not a "collection."

But I just busted out the narrative problem—after you mentioned it, I couldn't help myself.  People usually ascribe it to more fiction or myth, but I think "the hero's journey" idea applies to poetry as well: that all literature must have conflict, and some sort of resolution.  Do you buy this?  Do you play with the narrative model on purpose, or is it all just a natural accident?  Could you, or anyone for that matter, avoid narrative if he/she/you wanted?
JY: I just wrote an essay about narrative in poetry, not just plot, but narratives and how they form (related to what I mentioned above about process, or the narrative of forming meaning—the reader trying to understand a poem is a narrative—and story/plot (of course). So this has been on my mind for a while. But yes, I love story and I can't help but write with a story in mind. I try not to let content drive my process, however, by the time I know a project is a project, the content more or less drives the work. So I think my use of narrative is accidental and planned, depending, but eventually it will tie to something bigger. I do believe that a poet can avoid narrative (at least in relation to plot), but there will always be narrative in's just not what people will normally call a narrative. Sometimes the best books and films are the ones that leave you staring at the screen or book and saying, "It can't be over!" And when people say literature must have this or that, I just want to prove them wrong. This applies to anything. This is something I hear a lot about with film. Puh-Lease! The best films ever made are ones that said fuck you to Hollywood conventions to what the mainstream wanted, and eventually, informed and changed the mainstream. This is something else I could wax on about. 

I'm glad you said that this is a book not a collection. It feels like more smaller presses are interested in projects or books rather than collections of all the poems people wrote in workshop. I'm really interested in how this was created. That sense of narrative could also be related to your process of gutting out what the book is. That cutting out of what became the book is its own narrative, and a lot of times, I read books and I can feel the process actively participating in the making of meaning. According to one of my buddies at Columbia College, Lisa Fishman once told him that "revision is a myth," and basically you just write and then cut. I don't know how much I agree with that (I totally revise), but it's interesting to think about, especially in relation to Punchline. Can you talk more about the specifics of how you approached your editing process? And what do you think of Fishman's statement? Also, I'm curious about why you wanted something that wasn't a collection, but a book. Why? Was it at all related to publishing, or simply for the sake of the book itself—Did you even think about publishing this as you wrote it? Did you write this while in school or on your own time? 
NC: Since you sent me this question, I've been thinking a lot about that idea of revision as myth, and even passed the notion along to another writer.  It is interesting, and I'd say, about 83% true.  For me, at least.  Most of my "revision" is just hewing away from the heap and trying to find the sense within-rifling through the haystack, somewhere in the damn thing I aim to stumble across a needle.  But I can't wholly subscribe to the idea because I do, in fact, change things in revision, moving words around and replacing and adding.  Though I must say it's a much smaller part of my process, and the part I don't enjoy nearly as much.  As a reviser, I find my greatest pleasure in wielding the axe.  I just want to have a big ol' pile of stuff to chop at, and in my crazed hacking maybe I'll discover something pretty.

As for why I favor a "book" over a "collection," I think music provides a good analogy.  I'm an album guy.  If an "album" has a handful of great singles, but doesn't cohere, I'm much less impressed.  I like the texture and shifts of an album that holds together on its own, even if that means forgoing those dazzling three minute wows that sound so fab on the radio.  I just wanted the book to be a whole thing, a beast that stands on its own, for better or worse.  A statement, maybe.  J.P. Dancing Bear said Punchline seemed like a complete "one-off" vision.  And maybe that's true, but I feel a sequel coming on...

Either way, publishing wasn't a big part of it—I just needed to do the thing, for my own sanity.  I wasn't in school, but was adjuncting at a million places and feeling largely disillusioned with the elements of writing that don't involve writing.  But then Gold Wake and the National Poetry Series finalist thing happened, which made me realize I might actually have something.  So, how was this whole situation for you-you had two books come out rapid-fire, both with small presses.  What was your decision-making process there?
JY: First of all. I love sequels! Second of all, publishing was a sudden rush of acceptences. Wolves was originally at another press, but a new editor came in and bumped it out (I won't talk about that, but it was some sketchy shit), which was devastating for a while, till Jared from Gold Wake Press read it and said he wanted to publish it. Chapel I submitted to tons of places, and felt like no one was ever going to put it out, then I get an email from JA Tyler and Andrew Borgstrom of Mud Luscious Press. I had just submitted five pieces from it to their online journal. They asked if this was a book, and if I would be willing to submit it, so I did. And, boom, they put it out quickly. We pushed to get it out for AWP, and made it just under the wire. My publishing record was pretty slim for a long time, till about two years ago, when the publications started rolling in. Somewhere in that frenzy, Gold Wake picked up Wolves and a little while after that, seriously, just before I left Seattle for Chicago, Mud Luscious picked up Chapel for their Nephew series. It's been good couple years, and really, there was no decision to make. JA agreed to wait till Wolves had been out a couple months to release Chapel. Basically, all I had to do was find people to review and interview me (thanks!), and because the Nephew series is secret till the release day, I had to keep quiet about the book. That was tough! I wanted everyone to know. My friends were pretty shocked when I announced that release. These last two years have been a blur of publications, school, baby stuff, moving stuff, and writing stuff. I'm just stoked that I landed my books with such great presses. Both Jared and JA are great to work with. There's a real sense of family with these presses. I don't know if you feel that too with Gold Wake, but for me it's pretty obvious. 

I agree on the whole "record" thing. In high school, but friend's older (cooler) brother used to talk about "good" records being an experience, not a handful of songs. I would hate to have a book that felt like a bunch of pieces that didn't really go together, and when I was in bands, we thought the same way. That kind of way of thinking about records, books, and projects, is good, because it allows the artist the freedom within that constraint. Do you think having that kind of constraint is healthy for a book? Or is it just something that seems to happen naturally with other works?

I've been reading your music writing/interviews for the Austinist. How much does your writing about music (and interested in music) inform your work, either with ideas, your rhythm, etc? Does it? It it a conscious thing? 
NC: I've often wondered myself how my music journalism side show affects my poetry, but the most straightforward answer is "not much."  I listen to a lot of new music, obviously, well over 100 new albums a year for the last half dozen years or so, so I am infused with "trends" in that industry.  Interestingly, try as I might to make it not so, I am more in touch with what's "cool" in music than in poetry.  With the Interviews Editor gig, though, I do get to talk to a lot of really interesting people from the non-lit world, strange folk such as Henry Rollins, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Nick Offerman, Paul Giamatti, M. Ward, Annie Clark, Michael Ian Black, etc., and all of these people have helped shape my thinking on creating a "public" art.  I think they have a lot to do with why I write for "people," and not for "writers."

I do appreciate writing in projects, though, and you mention freedom being found in constraint—crazily enough, Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors mentioned this in an interview just a couple weeks ago, that he gains liberation from constriction.  I like that Dharma shit.  But once you find that freedom in the creation, you've got to survive the publication process.  Do you have any advice for the writers of future 1st books? 
JY: Advice for writers of future first books? I don't know. I wrote a handful of books before I wrote my real first book. And really didn't even know it was my real first book. Here's the thing: Your first book is the first book that someone believes enough in to publish (there are exceptions to this, of course). You have to believe in it—obviously, but sometimes you don't realize that something isn't ready, or something is bad till you have time away from it. After a few "successful" manuscripts you start to understand how a book works, and then you try to change how you go about making one. So that first book write it. Write the shit out of it. Then stop, put it away, give it to friends, give it to professors. Wait. Wait. Dream about it. Think about it when you sleep, submit pieces of it to journals, try starting something new (Even if you know it might not be the next project), and then, when you're about to forget it, or move on, go back and look at it. Read it. Do you like reading it? Is it boring? What's missing? What's there? Is it still something you're stoked about? What would you change? Change it. What did your readers say? Listen to their comments. Trust your gut. Tweak it (or don't, it might be perfect; you might be a genius), and then, submit it to...everywhere.

You've already talked a lot about your process writing Punchline. So, what kind of advice do you have for getting pieces into journals? What kind of advice do you have for people placing their book or finding the right contest (if there even is one)? What is it like working with Jared and Gold Wake Press? How much editing, revisions, etc did you do after the book was accepted?
NC: Haha, I have no advice whatsoever for people entering contests, though I do enjoy your view on writing that first book.  Just pound away at it till you can't, then sleep, then pound again.  But really, about contests, it seems quite the crapshoot, though you can weed out the ones which obviously aren't places that publish your style.  As for journals, the best advice up front is, of course, to read the journal, so you know what of your work may have the best odds there.  I used to submit to journals like a madman, and have received nearly 700 rejection letters, which is far more impressive to me than my sixty or so acceptances in good journals.  It's a cruel business, and some of it does just come down to finding the right editor and luck.  I had one poem rejected 17 times before getting picked up by the very good New Orleans Review, and these types of things aren't rare; a friend of mine, the fiction writer Michael Yang, has had a good story rejected more than 50 times, which is insane.  Persevere, is my best advice.

But now I have just one last question for you: now that you have these two books out, what next?  Do you feel you can rest on your laurels for a while?  Do you feel more or less pressure than you did before?  Tell me, Joshua Young, what does your future hold?
JY: Persevere: I agree with that. And yeah, it's common sense, but sometimes you'll think, "no one likes this poem," and stop submitting it. But if you break it down, you'd realize only a handful of people actually read it, and probably not the right editor. So, if you thought something was good enough to send out in the first place, it probably is, so keep at it. 

But to answer you last question: I'll be doing little mini tours in the midwest in the fall (I'm even getting out to DC). The problem with touring for books is making enough gas money to make it worth the trip. When I toured in bands we'd have merch and door money and sometimes bar money. But on the road, very rarely will you get paid reading (especially at this level). You make your cash-money from selling books. Except that, just like in bands, no one brings enough cash to buy the book (or they spent it on booze) or they don't carry cash, or they don't support indie publishing because they're dumb. Whatever the case is, it's tough. I just bought a card reader so that old "I only have a credit card" thing is easier to solve. So, anyway, I'll be trying put together little mini-tours here and there when I can afford them.

I don't feel like I can rest at all. I'm still at it. My third book, a collabrative book written with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis, comes out April 2013. So, I'll start promoting that soon too. I also have two other books, a book of short stories, and a novel, all out to publishers (I'm also submitting pieces of these to journals). I'm working on my thesis for Columbia College Chicago. It's a book about early 80s hardcore punk in Seattle, Washington. I'm writing, researching, and submitting pieces right now. I know that I should be able to rest easily: I have two books! But I can't. I still feel the need to keep at it. The pressure is still there. So, my future will consist of writing, reading, submitting, and revising, alongside raising my son, Elliot, hanging with my wife, Emily, walking my dog, Indie, teaching college (hopefully I can land a job somewhere back in the Seattle area when I'm done with my MFA), and doing readings/tours whenever I can.

But what about you, Nick? Your first book is out, getting solid reviews, and you've been doing readings. Do you feel that initial pressure dissipating? Or is it increasing as you feel the urge to promote and sell your book? How are you balance work, writing, family, and everything else? And what's next for you? What's the next project/book for you?
NC: Well, I did for a while feel less pressure, since I had something out there, but now the weight is slowly returning. The big thing is that since Punchline is a philosophical text, it makes all sorts of arguments about reality, and now I feel like I have to contend with those arguments: the true skeptic must doubt his own position, so now it's time for me to see if I can turn on their heads all the things I've said. The problem is that I still believe in much of what I wrote, so it's difficult. But I have started working on the follow-up in earnest, so it'll exist in manuscript form, hopefully by New Year's. (I'm saying "New Year's" here, in a publication, so I actually have to make that deadline.)

It is tough to balance everything, what with child and family and dog and cat and chickens and birds and fish and mortgage and many many jobs, but that's just life, and it's largely wonderful. The bottom line for me is that I'm glad art is available, and that it is a place where we can explore the texture of our realities, and hopefully even have fun doing it. There's a long history behind us, and a long one in front of us, we humans, and to be a piece of that legacy's present is quite the privilege.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761