Interview with Nathan Durham

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Eighteen-year-old Nathan Durham from Atlanta, Georgia writes from a necessity lodged deep between passion and courage.  An incoming freshman at Kenyon College and proud alum of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, he often applies his interest in religion and gender studies to his poetic work. Whether he is with “convictions deep/enough to kill something on accident/or on purpose,” as in his poem “Love Bullets,” or is “the finding & the searching & the living,” as in his poem “Dust,” Nathan always has something to say. You’d do well to listen.

Amanda Silberling, Managing/Poetry Editor: Our last interviewee, Lucy Wainger, left a question for you to answer: Do you write more for feeling, or meaning?

Nathan Durham, Volume 1 Contributor: Meaning more than feeling. Not that I don’t try to elicit an emotional response in my reader. I definitely want you to feel something when you’re reading one of my poems. But I want you to feel something because of what the poem says about society or circumstances or love or faith or whatever it is I’m writing about. Some poems, though, I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote them. Honestly. Sometimes you just have no idea what to say but you have a feeling you want to get across and so you come up with something that doesn’t really make much sense but it makes people sad or happy or confused.

Do you find that you write more about your own individual experiences, or more general, broader concepts?

I’d say I write about both equally. “Dust" is about my individual experience. “Love Bullets" addresses the broader concept of gun violence in America, which I have never experienced firsthand.

Your poetry is very brave, in the sense that it intertwines aspects of religion and sexuality together in a way that many poets won’t dare attempt; how do people react to this?

I haven’t received, like, death threats or anything. But I have had people tell me I need to be more careful, that there are some things I should keep to myself, that I might regret it later. I don’t think those people understand fully. I feel like I would be betraying my faith and my personhood if I were not to be honest and write boldly about my experience in the world. How many LGBTQ writers have changed the pronouns in their love poems to fit in or to avoid raising eyebrows? I have. I’m done doing that. If I’m going to write about love and sex and spirituality, I’m going to do it from my own perspective. I’m not going to bullshit people.

Was there any sort of specific event or turning point that encouraged you to write more freely?

The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop opened my eyes to just how powerful an honest poem can be in changing the hearts and minds of those who read it. Specifically, my workshop instructor, Jake Adam York, encouraged me to stop being so nervous with my writing. I used to be scared to show anyone anything that would reveal intimate details, you know? But I learned that if I want to be a good writer, I have to be an honest writer. Jake taught me that. I wish I could have had more time with him, honestly. On the last day of the Workshop he gave me a slip of paper that said “don’t let nervous have the last word." I still have that quote from him sitting on my dresser.

As a KRYW alum myself, I know exactly what you mean. J.A.Y.’s last words to you were unfortunately close in proximity to the last words he ever spoke to anyone; how have you seen Jake’s death affect your writing, and by extension the Kenyon Review community as a whole?

I wrote a few decent poems about it, and I saw a lot of people write a lot of even more decent poems about it. I didn’t like any of them. Not because they weren’t good, but because I get really annoyed when beautiful things happen while I’m not in the mood for anything beautiful. Jake’s death definitely sparked more conversation about the importance of poetry and art within the KRYW community, but not nearly as much as his life did.

In “Love Bullets,” you write:
We don’t want God to smell/the blood on us,/mistaking grace for bullets and/magazines.
What do you think is the relationship between bullets and magazines? How does this relate to grace?

I was very frustrated with the Bible belt after the Newtown tragedy. I would go to church and hear people talking about how indignant they are about the government taking their guns away. It was infuriating because I wondered if these people even knew who Jesus was. As for the bullets and magazines, the bullets are what kill and the magazine holds the energy behind the kill. To be honest, though, I just needed a three syllable word and it made the most sense at the time. There’s nothing Christlike about caring more about our hobbies than about dead babies. There’s no grace there. Christians are supposed to show grace in everything they do.

Given that “Love Bullets" is largely a response to the recent, highly publicized acts of violence in the US, how do you feel about the use of poetry to bring about social change?

Poetry can break down barriers that legislation can’t reach. Poetry can change minds. We forget that the most revolutionary political movements of the 20th centuries were led by people who lived and breathed poetry. One of my favorite spoken word poets, Andrea Gibson, once wrote “Doctor King didn’t write a speech called ‘I Have a Dream.’ He wrote a poem called ‘I Have a Dream.’"

Are you, as a poet, influenced by the Beatniks at all, seeing as they were very involved with using art to encourage revolution?

Ginsberg is my favorite poet of all time. But I can’t say any of the other Beats have influenced my poetry.

Ginsberg definitely seems fitting as an influence for you; he certainly didn’t “let nervous have the last word."

They put his poetry on trial. How cool is that?

Cool that poetry can arouse that much of a controversy, and not cool that people felt communism and sexuality were such forbidden subjects that those who write about them should be put in front of a judge.

The trial changed minds. They tried to censor “Howl" and instead they were stuck with a social revolution. It wasn’t just a poem, it was a manifesto. And its legacy continued in political activism for the next sixty years and is still present.

Poets like Ginsberg and his contemporaries wrote against conformity, American imperialism, etc. If those were the social revolutions of the early- to mid-twentieth century, what’s our modern social revolution?

Still the fight against imperialism and conformity only now the focuses are feminism and liberation and social justice. The movement evolved to be more inclusive of women and people of color and other oppressed groups. The next step is environmentalism and habitat protection.

How has the social justice movement affected you as a person, and you as a writer?

As a person it has both angered and inspired me. I am angry that this is still a battle we must fight. I’m inspired to fight because we can and will accomplish what no one ever imagined could happen. It’s happening. No one thought we could break down social walls that were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago, but we are. As a writer, it has given me something to scream about. I want to change minds through my poetry. And I hope I will one day.

What specifically do you consider these social walls to be?

The fact that 1 in 4 queer teenagers will be kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity and the fact that transgender women are three times more likely to be raped than cisgender women and the fact that rape jokes are still a thing that some people think are funny (they’re not funny) and the fact that Rush Limbaugh has never had higher ratings… The list goes on and on.

How have your experiences as a queer, devoted christian influenced the way you see the sentiment for social change?

It obviously makes it more personal for me. But even if I were a straight atheist, the same problems would still exist. I think I would still care about them. At least I hope I would.

In the fall, you plan to attend Kenyon College, where The Kenyon Review is based. Did the chance of working closely with such a well-known publication influence your college plans?

Yes, definitely. I’ve known Kenyon would be a good fit for me since they sent me information in tenth grade. But being on campus during Young Writers and working closely with the KR staff really solidified it as the right place for me. When I got my acceptance letter I was so happy I couldn’t even pick it up.

What’s a piece of writing advice that you hate?

"Find your voice!" That really gets on my nerves. It’s not wrong to let other writers influence you. It’s not wrong to explore different styles. If someone tells you “this poem is good, but it just doesn’t feel like /you/," don’t ask them for advice. Just say thank you and go talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. This poem is obviously me, I wrote it. Don’t tell me it’s not me.

How do you feel that your local community in Georgia and the people you interact with have influenced your writing?

I used to write about the South a lot. Even if I try not to, sometimes Georgia makes its way into my poetry. Growing up in a very religious area and my father being a pastor has definitely had an effect on my writing. I write about God a lot even when I don’t mean to. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes indifferent. But God usually shows up.

What question would you like to ask our next interviewee?

Tell us what you brought and what you left behind. No, just kidding… When you’re writing, are the lines between prose and poetry ever blurred?