By Doug Holder
Alfred Nicol, a graduate of Dartmouth College, worked as a printer for twenty years. During this time he continued to write poetry and honed his craft. Nicole left his printing business and now concentrates on his writing full time. He is a member of the Powow River Poets of Newburyport, Mass, and edited the critically acclaimed anthology “Powow River Anthology.” He is the recipient of the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award for his first book of poetry “Winter Light.” (University of Evansville Press). His poems have appeared in “Poetry,” “The New England Review,” and many others. I talked with Nicol on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “”Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer”
Doug Holder: You worked as a printer for many years after graduating Dartmouth. Can you talk about this, and why you gave it up to write fulltime?
Alfred Nicol: I began as a pressman. My father had worked in a factory. We take this model of what a man should do. I had the idea if I took this artisan position, then I would have my mind to myself in the evening. But I wound up exhausted at the end of the day. So I tried to get up earlier and earlier before the kids got up so I could write. It didn’t work out that well. Eventually I got the opportunity to give it up.
Doug Holder: What do you do for a living now?
Alfred Nicol: I live the life of Riley. I punch in to my studio and write my poems.
Doug Holder: You are part of the Powow River Poets, and edited their anthology. Can you talk about the group and your involvement?
Alfred Nicol: The Powwow River Poets don’t have a head. Rhina Espalliat brought the group together. There are so many personalities in the group. She is someone who can smooth over the rough edges. She is a great encourager. The Powow River is an absolutely democratic group. There is no one in charge. What I did with this anthology was to honor this diverse group. It has sold well for a poetry book. There are 24 poets represented. Bill Coyle, a distinguished poet from Somerville is included, as well as Len Krisak, Deborah Warren, Richard Wollman and others. There are more formalist poets in this group than there would be in a slice of any other group of poets.
Doug Holder: I am told that you started out as a Free Verse poet but switched to Formalist. What happened?
Alfred Nicol: This is true. I had been writing Beat-influenced verse for over 20 years. The first poem I brought to a workshop, the poet Len Krisak commented “Not bad for Free Verse.” I took offense. I thought: “I’ll show this guy.” So I did. I thought my experience with Formalism would be a hit and run affair, but having done it just once I was so taken with working with meter that I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop playing with it. I haven’t stopped playing with it.
Doug Holder: Rhina Espaillat wrote of your work “Nicol is much more than a poet’s poet, he is also a reader’s poet, and his work, though dazzling, is not intended to simply dazzle but to convey, with charm and profundity, the experience of our common life.” Do you think poetry is “common?”
Alfred Nicol: Well, poetry has to be uncommon no matter where it gets it start. I suppose what Rhina is saying is that if you are writing about your neighbors then you are writing about the common life. But you still better make it poetry if you are going to call it poetry.
Doug Holder: What makes it poetry?
Alfred Nicol: I’m not going to take the easy route; saying you put into verse and make it rhyme. You have to lift away from common speech. It has to urge the reader toward song. As you read it or write it, somehow the work has to be a magnet and take you away from common speech towards song.
Doug Holder; You won the prestigious Richard Wilbur Award for your book “Winter Light.” How would you have handled this when you were younger as opposed to now at 51?
Alfred Nicol: The way it affected me now is it allowed me to publish a book. I waited a long time. I started writing as a high school student. I never thought I was anything but a poet. You don’t need to have the world applaud you to keep on writing, but it sure does help. It helps for someone to acknowledge that it has been worthwhile. It tells you that you haven’t wasted your life.
Doug Holder: Would you have said you wasted your life if you didn’t win the award?
Alfred Nicol: I don’t think I would have. (Laughs.)
Doug Holder: Are you the product of an MFA program, or do you consider yourself part of any school?
Alfred Nicol: No, but I had a lot of good teachers at Dartmouth like Sydney Lea.
In what sense am I nearer to my God
For being here? This priest's a kindly dullard:
His sermon's borrowed, stumbled through slipshod.
These windows are not art, though brightly colored.
The choirmaster's voice is grandiose.
My neighbor in the pew would have me gone.
(Such spinsters clutch the third commandment close.)
The muscles of the neck suppress a yawn.
How many of the men believe as I do,
Who come to waste part of this least of days
Waiting in hope to kindle faith, or try to
Affect the candle's flicker with my gaze,
Or watch, as the communicants parade
Back to their seats, to see the glimmer fade?
Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update