photo by Beth Insalaco
Interviewed by Aidan Ryan
Noah Falck gives me a look that says “I’ll tell you later.”
We are in the deep leather recesses of the bar at the Statler Hotel, a grand and literally crumbling building on Niagara Square, which is actually a Circle, the radial heart of downtown Buffalo, N.Y. Drinks are two-for-one—even Manhattans—and almost no one is here.
Noah has just deflected a question about his most recent project. But in just two weeks, the literary publishing world’s omertà is lifted: Noah tells me that the editors of Tupelo Press have selected his next full-length collection, Exclusions, for publication.
We’re at the Statler to discuss Noah’s poetry—primarily the reissue of his debut collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, from BatCat Press, though we eventually get to Exclusions—but the conversation keeps folding back upon his deep commitments to the community here. A native of Dayton, OH, he came to Buffalo when he landed a position as Education Director at the Just Buffalo Literary Center, the region’s largest literary organization. In that role he grapples daily with what all external authorities agree is a tragicomically doomed and failing public education system—Noah’s efforts expose more and more children each year to living and working writers from their own communities, and provide them a safe space for experimentation with words at Just Buffalo’s free Writing Center downtown.
He’s also the creator of the city’s most singular reading series, which three times each summer brings visiting poets to Buffalo, matching them with local poets, performance artists, musicians, and visual artists for unforgettable encounters in a complex of 130-foot concrete grain silos, relics of the region’s industrial and commercial heritage. Along with a few others, he has changed the way we look at our landscape—instead of a backdrop, it’s a stage, a character, an orchestra.
Poet, educator, curator, urbanist—and editor: now, Noah is wrapping up his work on My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry (BlazeVox Books, $18), a project that collects recent poetry from a diverse crop of the city’s finest young poets and literary leaders.
The bar fills up; there is a loud cluster around the shuffleboard. Surprised by the ground we’re covering, I pause the recording—we come up as if for air, but really for another round. The light coming through the curtains has turned from spun-gold to night-marina navy. I don’t tell him this, but I think of his “Poem Excluding Witnesses”: “During the 5th inning, you dance / your way into the souls of an entire / generation in the industrial part of town / where the sky loses every time.”
We start the recording again. He greets the next question—as he greets the next poem, the next project, the next Instagrammed cloudscape—with astonishment. And all around us, the crowd goes wild.
Aidan Ryan: BatCat Press just re-released Snowmen Losing Weight, which came out as a beautiful accordion-style hardback in 2012. Now it’s coming back in an inexpensive, travel-ready edition, introducing an older version of yourself to a new audience, and maybe (re)introducing that older version of yourself, that other time, to you. Take me back.
Noah Falck: I was living in Dayton, Ohio. I remember getting really excited about Snowmen and putting together a release show for it, which included three bands and poets Nick Sturm and Matt Hart. I was always interested in that kind of mix, because I feel like music and poetry are very similar mediums. They are trying to accomplish the same things in a lot of ways. So it was just kind of celebrating this idea of having a book. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what it meant to have a book in the world; I had a few chapbooks out but having a full-length felt to me like a deeper step into . . . this world. It was really exciting.
AR: So you got into poetry through music. What was the bridge?
NF: It seems like an old white guy thing now, especially since Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I was raised on classic rock, so I would listen to the Beatles, Dylan, and stuff like that. In high school I became a huge Dylan-head. I remember Time Out of Mind coming out when I was a sophomore in college, and I was just infatuated with the lyrics. At the same time I was taking my first “real” poetry workshops. I remember reading Charles Simic at the time, and thinking about the relationship between lyrics and poetry. I know that’s an ongoing debate—can lyrics be poetry, can poetry be music—and my answer to both is yes. I think that was the initial step—listening to the music, but paying super close attention to the lyrics, like a close read of the ear. It has become how I listen to all music, which can be a problem, I’ve realized. But if the lyrics aren’t good enough, I’m just not going to give a shit. Which is hard particularly these days because I have a two-year old, and we’ve just been listening to the Trolls soundtrack, on repeat, all the fucking time. There are some good beats in there, I think . . . but I don’t even know what that means. It’s easy to listen to, but it’s annoying as all hell. Maybe it’s because I hear it all the time, but I feel nothing for the lyrics.
[At this point the prolonged exclamations of a group playing on a well-salted shuffleboard table drown out our discussion, in which we attempt to define “beat” and discuss manifestations of the same in the Trolls soundtrack versus early TV on the Radio.]
NF: But I think that was the step in. Hearing Bob Dylan singing these songs . . . he created a fully realized world within a song. And I think in a poem, even in a short little twelve-line poem, you can potentially create an entire world.
AR: It seems like you try to do that in Snowmen Losing Weight. I was familiar with a slice of your work, but it was much more recent work; here I was struck by—well, by how many of your poems had plot. They were narrative driven, they were condensed . . . like for example “Boss Crashes the Party.” That’s much more plot-driven than your recent work. On the flipside, there are poems like “In The Club of Farmland Thunder” that also create a world without much plot at all.
NF: I think that initially I thought that the poems kind of had to have that narrative structure. And I was really interested in narrative poems. A lot of the poets I read early on—not necessarily Charles Simic, but poets like Stevens, Frost, Bishop, had a kind of narrative and a conversational tone . . . I also went through a Beat stage, and there were narratives in that. But the more I read, the more I realized that the poems could be anything you wanted them to be, and it shifted my thinking on how my voice could work into a narrative. I also became obsessed with the prose poem—I went through a whole stage of writing hundreds of prose poems.
AR: So this originally came out five years ago, and you said some of the poems in it are at least fifteen years old. Which feel the most distant?
NF: “Girl With Silver Pooper Scooper.” That’s one of the oldest poems in here, that I can think of, without looking at my notes. The Crossword poems are fairly old, too; that was a chapbook collection where I pulled some of my favorite crossword poems out and included them in Snowmen. It’s really weird looking at these. Some of them I’ve never read out loud, because I didn’t think they could be understood, like if I read them and said “Here’s the story behind this,” it would be longer than the poem, and what’s the point of doing that?
AR: What’s the point of putting them in a collection?
NF: I think that those poems were a good representation of who I was at the time. That collection in a lot of ways was like, here are the poems I’ve written in the last six years. I had no idea what I was doing in terms of putting them together. If I would look at that now, I would edit the whole thing. I think there’s something to be said about that, too, in terms of . . . are poems ever finished? You know, if you revisit something five years later it’s still part of who you were and what you were thinking at the time, but it's also a way of growing and reflecting as a person and as a writer. There are elements and moments that really shine, but some of the poems are not who I am anymore. I think a lot of that has shifted due to who I’ve been reading and the voices that are affecting how I look at the world. With all that said, I'm still super happy with it, and I love that it's a thing in the world.
AR: It's weird, the act of publication really ought to be for the reader, you know, the ones receiving the poems. But for us—and I don’t think this is egotistical—it’s about sloughing off some of the “selfness” that we’ve accumulated. Generally when you publish one project, you've already moved on to the next—but that next poem or book or whatever sort of lives in the shadow of this unpublished thing, crowding up the house. Publication gives whatever you're working on that necessary room, that license. So people get to ask again—is this new thing a Noah Falck poem? Who the hell is Noah Falck, anyway?
NF: I clearly remember that I had already moved on. I was working on a new chapbook collection, which became the Celebrity Dream Poems (Poor Claudia, 2013), which is a micro-chapbook of twenty poems which use celebrity names as titles and try to interpret the dreamscapes of those celebrities. I also think writing is a daily practice—you can't wait for something to be published. You want to think in terms of books I guess, but you also just have to get work done. Read, write, and have something to look back on.
So going back to your question, I had already moved on—and actually that first poem in Snowmen, "Wind," was a late poem, maybe a month or two before the publication. It's kind of funny looking at that versus the other poems in there. I don't know if people can see the difference or not, but it's weird.
AR: I was going to say, the difference is obvious. This is something I wanted to bring up at the beginning. I came at this book expecting to find an unknown. The first of your poems that I encountered was at the Peach Mag reading in October of 2016, and it was "Poem Excluding Politics." But when I opened up this book and read “Wind” I recognized not only “you,” but something like your efforts in your Exclusions series, which is now going to be your second full-length collection. In “Wind” you're trying to drive down to the essence of one element, or provoke the question of what this thing means to us. In a loose way I felt that prefigured your exclusion poems.
NF: The exclusion poems are a project I probably put five years of energy into. I wrote the majority of those really quickly—within six months I wrote fifty or sixty of them, and then tinkered with them for something like four years. The premise of it was writing an idea or an object or a person out of a poem. So, a poem excluding politics, excluding mathematics, excluding death. Just thinking about what was going to be removed from a poem or a world—and I see poems as worlds—what would be left there? What would be the remaining pieces? And I was fascinated by that because it's, like you said, an act of condensing—a lot of them are like ten to twelve lines, maybe shorter. They really are just trying to get to the point. They were really fun to write. "Wind" was probably a ways before that but was moving in a new direction, clearly less narrative, more about structure in a way, and form.
It's really hard to write a really good short poem. I was studying a lot of Graham Faust’s work at the time, who I think is a master of short form. I was reading William Carlos Williams, Ben Lerner, and Andrew Grace, who wrote that amazing collection Sancta. It also stunted me after that because I've been trying to write longer poems and it's hard to get out of that space. In the same way I was writing prose blocks for a time. The exclusions were all prose blocks initially, and I realized they needed to be broken up. I love that tinkering process, figuring out what is a poem's shape. I like initially starting as a block, and then carving out a skeleton.
AR: So a sort of sculptural approach to poetry?
NF: Absolutely. I like looking at something on a page—I'm really interested in visual components—which the poems in Snowmen Losing Weight don't always have. The choices you're making in giving space between lines, is important, and took me a long time to learn.
AR: If your aim is to exclude something from the poem—how do you begin the poem?
NF: Whatever the idea is, exists. Is it an opposite poem, do you approach it from an opposite point-of-view? I think some of the Exclusions are trying to approach that. There's a freedom in writing against something. In “Poem Excluding Politics,” even though I'm writing something that's going to be excluded, the foundation of the idea is already there. It's in the title. As a reader, you have it. So I'm not directly discussing or breaking into political identities or structures or forms, but I allow this to be a stepping stone that allows me to address it . . . by not addressing it.
AR: Just given the titles, the sort of rule you set yourself, it's hard not to see the poems as an experiment in inclusion by exclusion, such that politics is a silhouette cast in the poem.
NF: That's exactly what I was aiming for.
AR: Snowmen Losing Weight originally came out in 2012; shortly thereafter, you moved from Dayton, O.H. to Buffalo, N.Y.
NF: Yes, I was a school teacher for ten years in Dayton and Cincinnati. My wife is originally from Hamburg, NY. We had recently married and were looking to move someplace else, and we drew up a list of places to move. We had this deal because she moved from New York to Dayton that she’d decide where our next move would be; so we made the list and applied to different jobs and I landed the Just Buffalo Literary Center Education Director job, and her folks were from here, so we were just like, let's go to Buffalo! And it was just at that time that the quote unquote Renaissance had begun, maybe a year or two before. But there was definitely a feeling in the air when we moved here; a bubbling energy. Buffalo is pretty amazing. I remember feeling overwhelmed with joy stepping into the communities that are already formed here, because they’re really open and welcoming. There are good things to come for Buffalo. I think we're lucky to be here, really.
AR: When did you realize you were going to put poetry in Buffalo’s grain silos—probably our most iconic surviving architecture, with apologies to Sullivan, Richardson, and Wright—and then how did you make it happen?
NF: I knew I wanted to do some kind of reading series as soon as I called this place home, especially coming off the book release, which had almost all the elements—it had poetry, it had music, we had all of those communities together. I met my friend Joe Hall, a great poet who moved here the same year we did, for a drink at Nietzsche's, and we talked about being new to Buffalo and writing poems. He had a book coming out and he said, Hey man, do you know any place where I can have a book release party? I said, Yeah, you know, I was down at the grain silos. I went to the City of Night [an arts festival at one of Buffalo’s grain silo complexes] and it was really cool, a little overwhelming, but cool. Being in one of those silos by yourself is an experience. City of Night had installation projects, but there wasn't really a live performance, that I recall. So I went down there and asked Swannie Jim [the groundskeeper], can we put on a poetry reading? They were completely open and enthusiastic about the idea. We did it in the Perot elevator silo, which didn’t have any power; I remember for each event Swannie had to hook up a generator so we could have lights. We had Ahavaraba, a klezmer band, perform, and hung the photography of Thomas Bittner. It was super fun. It was a little art party, which is to me what a reading should be—it should be a party. I'm always interested in inviting new people into the scene and inviting them to experience a poem, and a lot of readings don't feel like that. They feel stiff, like some people aren't smart enough to engage with poetry, or won't get it. I think having the music and art elements are a way of inviting different communities in, saying, this is all poetry as well. That was some of the idea behind the silos. And the space is a poem too.
AR: So if the music is a poem and the visual art is a poem and the space is a poem and the poem is a poem . . . can you define poetry?
NF: [laughs] I cannot. I'll refer to . . . what did Anne Carson say? Something like, "voicing your astonishment." To voice your astonishment you have to notice things that other people wouldn't notice. That's one way of defining what a poem is—something the voice is astonished with. And in the everyday, how often are you astonished? I think everybody has the ability and opportunity to be astonished all the time—which is why children are just naturally connected to poetry. And they learn not to be poets over time. I don't know if it's like a stepping back, or noticing the sky, or a breeze that happens at the right time, or a car passing by with the right music. I think all these things are potentially astonishing. I think noticing that, capturing that, and then telling the world about it, is a poem. And it's hard, as an adult person, to notice things. Particularly in today's world. You're being bombarded with hurricanes and fire and Trump, and whatever just happened here.
[He gestures to a now-empty shuffleboard table.]
AR: Besides the silos, you’ve been able to showcase the city by providing a creative space and a platform for its children. Tell me more about your mission at the Just Buffalo Literary Center.
NF: It's a dream job in terms of being able to work in the educational realm and to put literature and poetry in a more central position. Coming out of the classroom after ten years and realizing how little time and space is devoted to creative writing or writing in general or the thinking about writing, it's been amazing to be at Just Buffalo and to have that as my central core position, promoting creative writing in the schools and in our own Writing Center. At the same time, it's been an ongoing battle to work with the Buffalo School District, and for them to realize how important it is to have this avenue for young people to have a chance to write creatively or think about their own lives. Eighty percent of the writing that we do in the classrooms is informational writing, which is great—it's good to be able to write clearly about a subject—but it's also really important to think about who you are, where you're coming from, and the ideas you're having. It’s exciting to be in this role, but it's been a battle since I got here in terms of finding partner schools and teachers that really want to invest in us the same way we want to invest in them. Not to say they're not out there—it's just been difficult to find them.
AR: It's important to be able to write clearly about a subject—but what about being able to put yourself imaginatively inside another subjectivity? Novels do that. Poetry can do it in the space of one thirty-minute lesson.
NF: Absolutely. I mentioned the Just Buffalo Writing Center, a free after-school creative writing hub. The idea there is we're open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:30 to 6, for teenagers 12 to 18 to come in, and each week we offer a new workshop taught by a professional writer. They’ve had playwrights, poets, fiction writers, people from the Buffalo News, graphic novelists . . . They get exposed to all these different kinds of writers and have an opportunity and the space to work with all these different ideas. Maybe it is only for a couple days, but at least they're having a few hours during that week to work in that space, to empathize and think about what it means to be someone else. A lot of that has to do with the world they’re living in, to think about—what if you were a refugee? What if you were an immigrant? It is important to think about these questions, to have conversations about all of it. And to be clear, some of these kids in some of these schools are already thinking about these questions—but I think the vast majority of the time is spent on preparing them to answer test questions correctly, and read the canonized literature.
AR: If they were reading the canonized literature, that would be one thing. But it's somebody else's wacky canon —
NF: That's exactly it. And I think that transition is happening slowly in progressive districts, but literature that's happening, that's out right now, that's making waves today should be taught in schools today. Claudia Rankine—she should be in the classroom today. Morgan Parker—she should be in classrooms today. Ocean Vuong. And if they're not, it's a disservice to the students. And that's a role that we could potentially play with the school districts, to say, Hey, maybe you could invite us in and we could do a week or two weeks of creative writing. And it's all structured around whatever they could afford, it's not necessarily pay-to-play—we have grant funding. I think there's a lot of pressure from administrative staff. I know teachers want to have us in there, but it doesn't always work with the schedule.
So I love the transition of not being in the classroom, not having to fit under that umbrella of what teachers have to struggle with day in and day out. On the other hand, it's a struggle on our end to break down those barriers.
AR: Meanwhile, you've been at work for almost nine months now on another project—My Next Heart.
NF: Yeah, My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry is a collection of work that I'm editing with Justin Karcher, a local poet and playwright. It's going to showcase a handful of younger voices that are bright spots in the Buffalo literary scene. It’s been really funny having conversations with Justin, who comes from a different school of thinking altogether than myself, in terms of what poetry is and all that—which is great, having a conversation about what's good, what's not, what these poems are doing. It doesn't necessarily have to represent what Buffalo is, but it is highlighting a large number of young folks writing poems around here. To me it's like a snapshot of what's happening right now in the slam scene, in the UB Poetics Program, people who've been published in Peach Mag, in Foundlings, people who aren’t affiliated with any of that and just writing poems on their own. It's a way of collecting all these voices and putting them in a beautiful, tight anthology. To me it's going to be more of a collection than an anthology—there could be spinoffs, depending on how successful it is. I think there's a relevance to capturing what's happening right now because there's so much being written, there are so many performances night in and night out, there are different types of poetry, different styles, different voices, different ages. But this collection will specifically focus on younger poets, poets forty and under. BlazeVOX is going to publish it in December 2017.
AR: Why forty?
NF: I think we landed on that for a few reasons. A lot of the poets forty and under haven't published all that much, so they are performing, doing readings, and putting on performances all over the city, and this is a way of saying, What you're doing is good, your work is good, and we want to publish your work and celebrate everything you’re doing. On the other end, the folks who are forty-one and up, many of them have published quite a bit. Many of them have their own reading series, their own thing, so it's not to exclude them, it's just a way to turn the spotlight for one moment, for one collection, on these younger voices. There's been some interest in a collection focused on older poets, too. There's no telling what might come out of this.
AR: My Next Heart—where does the title come from? What does it say about the collection, and what does it say about Buffalo?
NF: The title comes right out of one of Janet McNally's poems which will be included in the collection—first published in the magazine Women's Things, and then in McNally's book Some Girls. Janet’s a spectacular poet who teaches at Canisius College. We looked for a title a few weeks back and a lot of the idea was we didn't just want to name it “The New Buffalo Poetry” or whatever; we wanted it to come out of something from one of the poems. I think My Next Heart says exactly what we want the collection to be—it's an emblem for this next generation of poets. It's another movement. Another beat.
AR: It's interesting—the title signals a birth, but a rebirth, not a birth from a void. The poem takes place in a science lab, probably in Sacred Heart Academy, this iconic Buffalo girls school where Janet went. It depicts these girls using elements of "what came before"—inherited tools and techniques and methods—and making something new. The idea is that we change hearts many times over our lives, but there is never, really, a "break" from the past.
NF: It makes me think of the cover art—we have a piece from the artist Chuck Tingley, and it also kind of resembles a building upon the old, building upon the foundation that we're walking on. This collection recognizes that—the history of Buffalo, the history of Buffalo literature—and it wants to take that into the next phase. It's gonna be beautiful.
AR: That sounds to my ears like the distinct optimism of the father of a two-year-old. Has being a young father influenced all these endeavors—your work in education, in publishing, in creating new traditions—in writing?
NF: You know, I don't think so, at this point. My kid has informed me in a lot of ways, but to me what I'm doing with Just Buffalo and what Just Buffalo does in general is create space for a better world. My kid fits into that—she might benefit from that in the future, but I'm not working specifically for her. It's a community thing. I believe in the idea that people need the space to read, that people need the space to have these conversations about literature and what they're thinking and how they're feeling about things; to me that's just what we should be doing as citizens. There's not enough space for that to happen as citizens. We're all living in our own worlds and a great way to bring each other together is by reading and writing and having these events and celebrating the work that's going on in this community. My kid is benefiting from that and living in this community, but at this point, a two-year-old, she's more interested in Trolls—and her beautiful picture books.
But I don't know, that's an interesting question. It's something I constantly think about when I'm writing new work—I don't want to say it’s strictly influenced by her, but knowing that I have a child in this world and that she's coming through it—what this particular world has in store for her—it's scary in a lot of ways. Just the shitstorm that we've been through in the past year as a country, that comes out in my writing subconsciously. On the other side, she's a two-year-old; she doesn't really understand what's going on globally. She will come to terms with that soon I'm sure, but . . . ah, it's terrifying being a parent. I'm still trying to figure it out.