Inaugural National Student Poet and Northeast Representative, Claire Lee, returns to the AYAW blog to interview the 2013 Class of National Student Poets for her “Poets on Poets” series.
This week’s interview is with National Student Poet and West Representative, Nathan Cummings!
Claire Lee: Hi Nathan, let’s jump right in! What were some of the major NSPP events you participated in? Which was your favorite, and why?
Nathan Cummings: One of the coolest things about this program is that each region offers a unique and distinct experience for the person representing it. Because the Western Region is so big, I wasn’t able to visit as many states, but I did get to explore new and different settings for poetry on the trips I did take. I hosted a series of workshops in Salt Lake City, which I’d never been to before. It also helps that I live right next to Seattle, which has (in my unbiased opinion) one of the best literary communities in the whole country. There are so many opportunities for writers of all ages here, from workshops to poetry readings, and this year was especially exciting. By some stroke of luck, my term as National Student Poet happened to coincide with Seattle’s hosting of the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, and thanks to our good friends at the Academy of American Poets, I was able to snag a pass to attend. AWP is a crazy ride: it’s basically a three-day extravaganza just for writers, and features some of the biggest names in writing and publishing. Being in the midst of it all–attending panels, meeting amazing poets, talking with other writers–gives you an incredible rush of energy. The conference moves around, so I’m hopeful that another National Student Poet will get to have the same experience next year.
CL: Wow, that sounds amazing! Speaking of amazing things, what was the highlight of your year as a National Student Poet?
NC: It sounds corny, but I have to say that my favorite NSPP memory was meeting the other four poets. It’s not every day you meet someone who shares your enthusiasm for poetry and writing; meeting four at once is a really special experience. We coalesced as a group really quickly; each of us has our own style of writing and teaching, and that helps us bounce ideas off each other. Even though our terms only last one year, we wanted some way to keep in contact and maintain the special relationships we’d formed. So, we made a writing group over the summer—and, of course, we made official NSPP T-shirts. It doesn’t get much better than that.
CL: I saw one of the photos of you guys in your NSPP shirts; I do have to say, I was super jealous! But hmm, what was one way in which your year as a National Student Poet changed you—what was the biggest takeaway for you?
NC: Being a National Student Poet requires a lot more than just the ability to write poetry. You also need to be an ambassador, someone who can connect with and inspire people, often by breaking down their misconceptions about what poetry is and what it can be. At the beginning of the year, that wasn’t me at all. I was a stereotypical introverted poet, and I had no idea how I was going to handle the public side of my new job. It certainly wasn’t easy–giving a radio interview was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life–but by jumping in headfirst, I surprised myself by adapting quickly. I now have some actual ability in public speaking, which I’d never have anticipated a year ago. If I have any takeaway from all of this, it’s that poetry doesn’t have to be an isolated experience as it’s so often portrayed. Poets are communicators at heart, whether on the page or in person, and we gain so much from sharing our work and our passion with each other.
CL: What was the biggest obstacle/challenge for you this year?
NC: I had trouble keeping my expectations realistic. After my initial terror at being appointed had faded, I started getting really excited about all the possibilities for my year of service, and my plans got pretty audacious. Some of those ended up panning out, while others didn’t. I had to learn to restrain myself to what I could realistically accomplish in a year–once I accepted that, everything got a lot easier and more rewarding. I also had some issues communicating with people outside the poetry world–for my community service project, I wanted to do a series of workshops at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and I had some major difficulties explaining to the hospital administration exactly what a National Student Poet was and why I should be cleared to work with the patients. In situations like that, the only thing that works is persistence. I called and called until I finally got through to the right person, and I got clearance almost immediately. Things will work out in the end, even if some explanation is necessary.
CL: It’s summer! What are you currently reading? Do you have any fun summer recommendation books?
NC: I’ve been using this summer to catch up on my dangerously large stack of unread books. I mostly read fiction in my spare time, and just finished two short story collections I’ve been saving: This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, and Tenth of December, by George Saunders. They’re two of my favorite contemporary fiction authors—if you like a mix of dark humor and seriousness, you can’t go wrong with these guys. Right now, I’m halfway through White Noise by Don DeLillo, and I hope to knock at least a few more titles off my reading list before I descend into college. In particular, I’m looking forward to Haruki Murakami’s nonfiction book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I ran track and cross-country in high school, and I’m hoping that Mr. Murakami—another of my favorite writers—can give me some insight into where to take my running career from here.
The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers partner to present the National Students Poets Program, the country’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work. Each year, five National Student Poets are selected through the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for a year of service as poetry ambassadors, each representing a different region of the country.