Noah Falck’s newest book of poetry is Exclusions (Tupelo Press, 2020). He is also the author of You Are In Nearly Every Future (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017) and Snowmen Losing Weight (BatCat Press, 2012). He lives in Buffalo, New York, where he works as education director at Just Buffalo Literary Center and curates the Silo City Reading Series, a multimedia poetry series inside a 130-foot high grain elevator.
Falck’s poems are remarkable for their combination of whimsy and rumination, of the unsettling and the serene. We corresponded by email about his new book, the influence of landscape and visual art on his poetry, and how poetry can help us hear what seems to be missing.
Zach Savich: Each poem in Exclusions highlights something that’s been left out (“Poem Excluding Landfills,” “Poem Excluding Pilates”). The meaning of “excluding” varies, from “avoiding” to “mourning,” from “excepting” to “imagining a world without.” I wonder if we could start in a related way. For example, how would you reply to a question like, “Could you tell me about how you started writing these poems excluding any mention of poetry?”
Noah Falck: I rented a 26-foot-long truck and drove it out of the state of Ohio and into the “City of Good Neighbors.” I lived in awe in this new city and tried to archive the imagination in whatever form it was presented. Realized there’s music in everything, particularly in those new / unwritten chapters. I tried to listen to that music. I heard a jet plane take over the sky but couldn’t see it. I heard the grain silos echo in a prayer of shadows. I heard the lake collect all of August in an empty fog.
ZS: OK, how about, “I know you’re active in Buffalo’s literary community. Could you discuss how that community and region influenced this book excluding what people from elsewhere might assume about Buffalo?”
NF: Oh yes—Buffalo, New York. I’ve been in Buffalo for eight years now. That seems long enough to feel like I’ve discovered some of its soul. The people, the rhythm, the difficulty in its history, the underdogliness running through her veins. All of this shows up in the book in some form.
Some of the poems dress for the WNY weather. Though I hesitate to say that. As too frequently, Buffalo gets boxed into / known only as the place where it snows—a lot. And what’s wrong with snow. It gives us snow angels, snowballs, and puffy fashion opportunities, you know. I wish when people thought of Buffalo they’d remove the word snow from their minds and replace it with heart. We are more heart than weather.
ZS: The poems emphasize that kind of civic sense: there’s a lot of “we,” very little “I.” And yet, the people can be spectral: “The locals drink / until they are invisible,” you write in “Poem Excluding Vandalism.” In one poem, you suggest that collective activity may “form a sort of nervous system / or fatigue performance.” We’re bound together; we’re exhausted. What do you hope this approach to the collective emphasizes?
NF: I think I’m just a sucker for the collective. The team game vs. the individual. Basketball over golf every day in every year in every life. When I’m looking at the sky, I know there’s a chance you are too, or have recently, particularly when in a deep field after the sun has dropped and the language of the stars say something to you you’ve never heard before. I also believe that we are all in this together. This moment, that history, these words. There’s a collective breath in all of it. And perhaps the “we” celebrates the looking that happens inside the poem. The recognition of the observation. I’m interested in those experiences of living on the edges of things and people and think the “we” mostly accurately captures that while maintaining a certain guise of mystery.
ZS: Has parenthood changed your sense of the “we” in poetry?
NF: Parenthood has changed everything.
ZS: Some of the poems show the movement you mentioned between heart and weather, between interior and exterior atmospheres. “Poem Excluding Opposite Day” ends with “your thoughts slowly replaced / by freezing rain.” And in “Poem Excluding Future,” the dirty snow makes us feel “dirty in its presence.” These are big-hearted poems—of whimsy, rhapsody, off-kilter anthems. But they can also be stark: “There’s a good chance we have / no chance,” you write. The effect can feel both disquieted and serene. And these modulations happen in a tight frame, usually no more than 16 lines. What writers or artists helped inspire this mode, which moves between interior and exterior, combining many tones?
NF: I love the short poem. Or the attempt of it. It’s hard to recall everything I was reading or participating in at the time these poems were being written, but I definitely remember frequently returning to William Carlos Williams, Charles Wright, Robert Creeley, Lesle Lewis, and Matthea Harvey. It’s a much longer list than that. There were also a handful of Buffalo visual artists whose work I fell quickly in love with including Kyle Butler, Jason Seeley, and Julian Montague. And I can’t begin to imagine the role that music played in all this.
ZS: What do you respond to in the work of the visual artists you mention? Are there poems or lines in the book where you’re aware of their influence?
NF: Visual art in general has always worked as an inspiration for me. The relationship between language and art is interchangeable. They reflect one another. So, of course, certain gestures in paintings or installations or graffiti are always leaving impressions, often deep impressions, so that I end up walking around with them forever. And I think most people are like this. Maybe some, at least. Are you like this?
I believe I think in images. So writing feels natural when using the ekphrastic approach. The language of seeing. Offering movement (& sometimes narrative) to the stillness of an image. “Poem Excluding Shopping Carts” is a direct homage, in some ways, to Julian Montague’s Shopping Cart Project. Kyle Butler’s painting “Keep the Dream Alive“ was one of the first paintings I saw when I moved to Buffalo. I can’t recall where, but it left an impression on me, and I’ve carried around the exclusionary properties of it forever since.
ZS: Certainly, visual art stays with me. In Butler’s painting, I end up focusing on the figure that’s most intact: what appears to be an air conditioner and window, positioned centrally and also echoed to the left. They appear untouched by both the collapse of the structure and the encompassing white around it. The exclusion also emphasizes what’s left. The poems in this book can feel similar: despite everything they leave out, they end up highlighting vivid particulars (“dying balloons rendezvous / in the sporting goods section,” “a security camera pans anxiously”). Specifics drift past, momentarily lit, and then are reabsorbed into more general weather (“until New York becomes just / another Oh”). When you’re writing, how do you decide when to stay with an image and when to move to another? Or is your process closer to collage, combining observations to generate or diminish a charge?
NF: I think my writing process changes from poem to poem, it’s sort of mysterious to me. I want to say something about how it’s all about organizing the chaos of the mind, but that’s not exactly right. My poems are more a form of thinking, and perhaps experiments in seeing thoughts collide. The intersections of the dance floor, the rain, and the feelings at the funeral. I guess you could house them in the department of collage knowing first that life is collaged out of an accumulation of experiences.
ZS: Since we started by leaving things out, I wonder about ending by trying to get a lot in, through a kind of lightning round. First up: how did you settle on the sequence of poems in the book?
NF: The book went through a number of variations and sequences. I don’t recall anything about the original order. It wasn’t until poet Michael McGriff read a version of it and suggested a more cohesive sequence and the advice of putting your “best poems” in the front—give the reader a way into the book. Something I wasn’t thinking about. It’s difficult for me to think about sequencing. Or at least it was for this book. Typically when I read a book of poems, I just open it up randomly and read a poem. It’s not until a few of the poems grab me when I then go back and study it / read it from beginning to end—try to understand the order of the poems and the relationships that happen within that order.
ZS: Were there other poems in this sequence that didn’t make it into the collection? How did you make that decision?
NF: I wrote close to 80 exclusions, but many of those poems were just driftwood. Whatever felt most alive made it into the book. Early on the dream was to write poems that contained everything except said title. And some of the poems stay true to this idea, and some fail immediately. I remember a reading I gave in Ontario where I read “Poem Excluding Mathematics,” and afterwards someone came up to me and was like “I really like your poems, but that one where you exclude mathematics has math all over it. Are these poems tricks?” I think I responded to him with a smile and some version of—what’s left out for me may not be what’s left out for you. And I think there’s some heart to that. The noticing of what’s not included vs. what’s purposely excluded.
ZS: What are you working on now?
NF: I wrote a sequence of poems titled “Fatigue Performance“ somewhat in response to the last election and being a new father. The poems in that series, I now realize, acted as a way out of the Exclusions poems. Sort of a transition phase into the poems I’m writing now, which are more lyric meditations.
ZS: Which poem from the book is your favorite?
NF: I’m not sure I have a favorite. But if I did it may be the first one I remember writing, “Poem Excluding Morning Breath.” I think I like it because it takes me back to a specific place in time—the first year we lived in Buffalo when everything felt new, the possibilities endless— “any minute/ now, earthquakes in the heart / of cupid.” That’s what it felt like. It may also be the most personal poem in the collection, though definitely not the strongest.
ZS: What do you hope readers think about or see differently after reading this book?
NF: A sense of playfulness. A celebration of the strange. Maybe what’s left out / being left out / the choice of leaving something out has its own voice. And maybe we can learn to listen to that voice when it speaks.
Zach Savich is the author of eight books, including Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). He is an associate professor of Creative Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art.