The PEN Ten with Nathaniel Bellows
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Nathaniel Bellows, author of three books: Why Speak? Poems, On This Day: A Novel, and Nan: A Novel in Stories. Bellows also works in the fields of visual arts and music, and lives in New York City.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I have always drawn pictures, ever since I was really young, and I started playing the piano young, too, so I knew what it was to have a kind of private, expressive practice, even if I never would have put it in those terms at the time. We often had creative writing assignments in grade school, but it was only after I went to a new school where we were required to keep a journal that I saw writing as a natural extension of the arts I’d already been engaged with. In fact, writing seemed to cohere these two disciplines: the drawn lines that formed words on the page, imbued with the inherent music of language. Every week, we were required to read from our journals, so, unlike the other arts I practiced on my own, writing became the first form I learned to share with others.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Not steal, but I’ve recently been reading the darkly comic novels of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust), and Iris Owens (After Claude) for inspiration on a new project, and I wouldn’t mind knowing the secrets they had for creating such elegantly skewering satire.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My favorite, and most productive, place to write is coastal Maine.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’ve never been arrested.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I really enjoyed the Balthus show at the Met, and James Turrell’s past exhibition at the Guggenheim. In terms of music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Arvo Pärt, Clogs, Silfra by Hilary Hahn and Hauschka, and Midlake’s new record, Antiphon.
Also, for the past few years I’ve been collaborating with the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, contributing poems and drawings to her new record, Unremembered, a song cycle for 8 voices and chamber orchestra, which comes out this fall.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
My poems tend to be pretty personal, but there can be a kind of intangible, fortifying validation that comes with that kind of risk.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To speak from a place of genuine emotion, and to evoke in others a sense of humanness.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
“Collective” or otherwise, I think art, as a pursuit, has a place and purpose in the “public” sphere. There are few other known forces in the world that can provide such comfort, solace, provocation, humility, inspiration, arousal, wonder, and self-discovery.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
The Norton Anthology of Poetry.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
To me, observation is a purity of sight—seeing—usually unconsciously; an interior, individual act, in the hope of orienting yourself within the context of the world. Surveillance is a calculated, precise process of collection—a structured archival eye, predicated on scrutiny. If observation is the sparrow, surveillance is the jet.