Writing People

SEARCHING FOR NEW WORDS: E.C. Native Nicholas Gulig is Wisconsin’s New Poet Laureate

‘being laureate has radically renovated my relationship to language‘

Elan Mccallum |

Newly appointed Wisconsin Poet Laureate Nicholas Gulig is an Eau Claire native who now teaches at UW-Whitewater. (Submitted photo)
Newly appointed Wisconsin Poet Laureate Nicholas Gulig is an Eau Claire native who now teaches at UW-Whitewater. (Submitted photo)

The last time Nicholas Gulig was featured in Volume One was seven months ago for winning the Wisconsin People & Ideas Poetry Contest. Now the Eau Claire native and Fort Atkinson resident is the new state poet laureate, taking over for the incredible Dasha Kelly Hamilton, who served Wisconsin from 2021 through 2022. And it’s well-deserved: Nick has over 30 print and online publications, has authored North of Order (Yes Yes Books), Book of Lake (Cutbank Books), and Orient (Cleveland State University), and has received numerous awards, including the CSU Open Book Poetry Prize for Orient. He’s also an associate professor at UW-Whitewater.

But who is this poet to Eau Claire and what is he about? After falling in love with his work and sitting on the committee that selected him for his new role, I asked Nick a few questions over email to pick his brain and flesh out the poet in his own words. 

ELAN MCCALLUM: So what excites you most about your role as poet laureate? And what are your plans during your tenure?

NICHOLAS GULIG: There’s much to be excited about, too much, maybe, which is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem, still something I’m trying to see right. At the moment, I’m fairly overwhelmed and thin around my edges, teaching myself to make sense of what the position is, what it could be, what I want it to be. You have to understand, I don’t deserve this, not really and most certainly not more than any number of incredibly talented writers living in our state.

If I’m honest it feels sometimes like I’ve betrayed some old-world boyhood notion of what a poet is, what a poet ought to be, by becoming institutionally supported. When I first started reading and writing poems all those years ago, I couldn’t have imagined receiving the level of support that’s suddenly materialized for me from anyone who wasn’t my mom or dad or one of my closest friends. Looking back, it feels incredibly important that from the onset I wrote for no real reason other than the fact that it was in me to do so. I don’t know why this gravity existed, why the pull toward poems was in me, what placed the instinct there. I just know that I could feel it and that I ran with it. For me, the poems existed because I wrote them and I wrote them because I needed to. The activity felt meaningful, almost pure, and there was something close to joy in it.

First and foremost, for example, I loved the sound of language, the way that meaning bent
to sound, the unpredictability of those early and imperfect utterances, like learning how to dance alone with no one watching. There was so much mystery in watching the poems take shape, such surprise and pleasure in where the language took me.




Moreover, as a kid, the bright bewilderment of listening to words and moving them around felt wildly different than the other things I did, the other ways I read and wrote and spoke. Language, for the most part, is a tool, which suggests utility and purpose and intent. Speech has always been this way, I think. We developed language to form the communities we needed to survive, and so the value of even our oldest words was not in the words themselves but in whatever it was that they allowed. So our experience of language, its significance, its value, feels perpetually distant, in a sense, forever and irreversibly far. In almost every way it still is, probably more so. Because the logic of capital so thoroughly pervades our lives, most of the words we use exist as a means to an end and not as an end itself.

But poetry feels different to me, or at least it feels like it is trying to be different. On almost every level the poems I love the most resist the authoritarian demand for utility and efficiency and sense, what Wallace Stevens called the “rage for order.” At their best, poems are non-transactional, I think, which means that they exist for their own strange sake, often refusing to serve a purpose, and that matters. It matters because it’s spiritually and psychologically exhausting to go about a life feeling like everything you do and say depends on what the action grants you access to, something that, in turn, only matters insofar as it grants you access to something else. A person could go the entirety of a long life chasing the direct, unmediated experience of meaning in that way, doing one thing after another for the sake of something else, and arrive at the end of line having never once experienced the world and their small, impermanent position in it. That feels terribly sad to me. I don’t want to live like that. I want to feel alive. So when people ask me, as they do so often now, why poetry is important, why it matters in a time like this, what its use is, my initial intuition is to say that the value of the poem lives in all the ways that poems are not important, in the extent to which they don’t matter, in the sense that poetry is useless.

But things are different now. I’m incredibly grateful to be Wisconsin’s poet laureate, but the position does very much challenge the relationship to poetry I’ve harbored and taken refuge in all these years. What was once an inward practice is now a public speech act. As such, I can’t think of poetry as I used to, as an ends and not a means, because the poem has quite literally brought me here, to this, to you and to all other folks I speak with now. 

It’s surreal how many people – all of them strangers – have shown up in my email asking to work with me, asking me to speak. Who are these people? Where are they coming from? What do I have to offer them? The amount of attention the position brings upon a poet who has made a habit of working all his life in isolation is, frankly, discombobulating. I’m not sure where I am or why I’m here or what it is exactly that I am supposed to be doing. I feel fake, in a way, like any moment now someone from the commission will realize they’ve made a great mistake by choosing me. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to say here in the open, but it’s true. Or at least, it’s partially true. And that’s part of what excites me. My relationship to poetry, and to myself as a poet, is meaningfully different now. This is all so new. My relationship to my medium is new. The words feel young again, like somehow I’ve opened a door I’ve opened a thousand times before, but this time, suddenly and out of nowhere, the world that’s there on the other side is one I’ve never seen.

I think when you’re in the middle of your life, as I am, when it’s starting to feel like everything is a diluted version of something else, a copy of a copy of a copy, the experience of newness matters. In an odd way, being laureate has radically renovated my relationship to language and turned me back into the boy I was when I first started writing. I’m nervous, but I’m excited. I’m curious. And curiosity, I like to think, is where every poem finds origin and where every poem, if it is lucky, finally ends.     

ELAN: From what you describe, it sounds like curiosity is a kind of liminal space, a threshold – is this also the origin point for your poetry collections North of Order, Book of Lake, and Orient? I’m especially curious about North of Order since it was your first book, but it’s also a book-length poem. When you reflect on how you began that work, contrasted with how you may begin a collection now, how has the threshold changed or remained unchanged?

NICK: That’s a really good question, and, like all good questions, the answer feels vastly nebulous to me. I’m not exactly sure how to answer it, or what to say.

Let me try with this: My favorite poem in my favorite book by my favorite poet ends with the word “curious.” I first read George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous as a sophomore at the University of Montana roughly half my life ago and I haven’t stopped reading it. It’s a long poem – 40 sections long – and I read it multiple times a year. The book lives on my desk, so it’s always with me when I write.

I’m indebted to this poem for more reasons than are appropriate to talk about in the limits of the space that you and I have together, but one thing I love about Of Being Numerous is that it occurs in the wake of a 25-year hiatus from writing. After Oppen’s first book came out in 1934, he didn’t write a poem again until his next book, The Materials, came out in 1962. During that time Oppen joins the Communist Party, organizes workers, builds unions, and enlists in the Army to fight fascists in World War II. After the war, he lives in exile with his wife Mary until their return to the States in 1958. The Materials begins with an epigraph by Jacques Maritain: “We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.” I mention this because it is from this interpersonal suggestion connecting subject and object that “Of Being Numerous” emerges.

Oppen was obsessively curious about our personhood, how we construct a working sense of ourselves in light of others and the world around us. In a broad sense, one could make a case that all his writing after the war wrestled with the liminal space between self and not-self, the individual and the community, what he refers to in the poem as “the shipwreck of the singular,” on the one hand, and “the meaning of being numerous,” on the other.

For example, Of Being Numerous begins: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’ ”

So here, immediately, you can see the debt to Maritain, and if my memory is right, the cited language in the opening stanza is from a book on Plato, a moment in which one person is thinking seriously about another person. What matters here, to me, is that the poem essentially opens in the mind of someone else, so the language both is and isn’t Oppen’s. There’s an overlap, an intersection, a threshold marking and holding open the distinction. And it is from this porous border between the self and other that the long, inward meditation that is Of Being Numerous arises into and becomes itself.

Thirty-nine sections later, the poem again closes in the language of someone else, this time with an excerpt from Whitman’s journal. In it, Whitman, who sang the song of himself by opening himself to America writ large, by opening himself to the presence of others, is standing in front of the Capitol. If my history is right, the Capitol is nearing its completion at this time and Whitman keeps going to look at it, to stare, in this case, at the statue of the Genius of Liberty atop the building. The sun is setting, and Whitman observes that the late light “shines on the head piece and it dazzles and glistens like a big star: it looks quite…curious.” And then the poem is over.

But, of course, the poem is also not over. The ending isn’t closed; there’s nothing certain there, no perfect bow of explanation tying everything together. Curiosity isn’t a closed door, it’s an opening, a portal through which a person leaves what they have known in search of what they don’t. I’ve sat in the anti-ending of that poem for 20 years, this space where Oppen hands what is arguably the most important moment of his most important work to someone else, to someone who isn’t him. Said differently, the poem closes by letting go, by refusing ownership. He passes the mic instead of dropping it. In doing so the poem resists the bourgeois subjectivity defined for us by the deadlight-dark of capital, the legacy of which is a stark divide between subject and object, and without which I’m not sure the kinds of violence that define modernity would be possible.

Thus, the end of the poem feels radically political for me in the way I hope that I’ve made clear, but it’s also radically religious. Though Oppen wasn’t himself religious, I find everywhere at the close of the poem the bright contours of an inner reaching akin to prayer, a desire to be made again in the image of the unknown. In this way his openness to otherness feels substantially transformative to me. Through it, I’m able to reassess the violently limited definitions of personness that I’ve inherited by virtue of having lived my entire life within an economic system that’s only possible if we believe that we are separate from the things we live among. As a poet, then, as a writer moved by this and other moments like it in Oppen’s work, there’s a constant struggle I experience to relinquish my control of the poem, to negate the illusion that I’m in charge.

When I first wrote North of Order, for example, the book originally existed as a series of discrete poems, much like any other book. It wasn’t until it found its way into the hands of my editor that it turned into a single piece. When I got the first round of edits back, all the titles had been removed, and I was like “What the f*** man, you can’t take the names of all my poems away, how dare you.” But once they were gone, once the space between the poems dissolved and the border was pried opened, the work felt new to me again. It didn’t feel like mine, like me. It felt like someone else, a stranger to whom I was drawn and who I only barely recognized. In that way, I became curious again, and from that curiosity the book as it is today emerged. I wrote the first draft of North in a summer and then, once the poems let go their names, I revised it every day for three years. 

ELAN: From one born-and-raised Eau Claire creative to another, it’s an understatement to express how cool it is that you also grew up here. What were your formative years in Eau Claire like? Is there an image or theme from that time that still influences you as a poet?

NICK: Oh, I didn’t know you were from Eau Claire too! I’m not sure how old you are or what Eau Claire was like when you were growing up, but the Eau Claire that I was raised in was not the city it is today. For the record, I do realize that saying that makes me sound like I’m 75, disheveled, and pining for the good old days, but it’s true. Eau Claire was different then, and probably not for the better, but I made do with it. Perhaps this feeling is purely a function (read: fiction) of the fact that I was young, but in the ’90s (I was born in 1980), the city felt culturally vacuous, like every- thing of creative merit was happening somewhere else, in New York or California, in Minneapolis maybe, but certainly not Wisconsin, certainly not Eau Claire. The biggest employer in town, the Uniroyal Tire Plant, had just shut its doors, leaving a gaping hole in the economy, and so there wasn’t money for much of anything, especially the arts.



The problem, at least for me and others like me, was that the prevailing forms of culture we did have access to – football, hunting, fishing, sitting alone in dive bars – didn’t feel substantial or sustaining. Granted, I’ve come around on those things, more or less, but the boy I was at that particular time and place couldn’t have cared less. What I did care about was music, specifically the hardcore punk music coming out of the Twin Cities, and jazz music (which I’d go down fighting arguing is a different kind of punk music).

It was through punk music that I found my tribe. When I got to high school, I remember seeing all these strange older kids in the halls. There was one kid, for example, who looked 7 feet tall and walk through the halls in leather pants playing a harmonica, another kid, also gigantically tall, with the front half of his head shaved off and thin, stringy dreadlocks dangling down each side of his head. I remember being like, Who the hell are these guys? These kids are crazy! And I was smitten with them. They were interesting, different, smart, and, more than anything, wildly creative.

Brad Baumgartner, the tall guy in leather pants, gave me my first typewriter and a copy of On the Road, while Ryan Olson, the guy with the cartoonishly ridiculous haircut, introduced me to John Zorn and got me high for the first time on the roof of the now defunct Book Peddler downtown. What mattered is that I stumbled upon and was taken in by a group of kids who were making culture instead of simply consuming it, and that, I think, made all the difference. In Eau Claire, in the ’90s, there was a prevailing sense of lack – something essential was missing – and it was into that specific void that my friends and I made music, wrote poems, held readings in basements and on rooftops, carving, out of nothing, in one way or another, the vital, creative spaces we needed to survive. I don’t know who I’d be if I hadn’t stumbled into that community. As punks, we found our way to one another and built our own foundation, our own makeshift infrastructure of strange support. The dominant culture felt inherently insufficient and so we had to make our own. That dialectic progression still feels true to me today. Thirty-some years later, I’m still looking around at the world around me, still feeling like something I need to feel alive is missing, still writing poems as a way to navigate the aporia.

ELAN: Eau Claire in the ’00s was different, but by the time I was in high school Phoenix Park had been completed and there was an ever-growing movement for a downtown revival. Roughly 15 years later the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild is hosting reading events in the Pablo Center – crazy! But it also hasn’t completely healed the sense of disconnect I, too, felt when I was younger, scrawling out my first attempts at poetry and story. That said, I understand that you have plans to start a “Letters to a Young Poet” program – is this influenced by that “makeshift infrastructure of strange support” you created with your friends in the ’90s?

NICK: My thinking about what I want to do during my two-year tenure as laureate keeps expanding, changing, but one of my first ideas has to do with letters. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was a really important book to me when I was young. I give it to each of my students when they graduate as a kind of map to keep them keeping on. As a young writer, I was smitten with the idea of letters – I still am – and for whatever reason I loved that a young writer wrote to an older writer and that Rilke, of course, wrote back.

My childhood friend, the novelist Nick Butler, who I imagine everyone reading this will be familiar with, is the best letter writer I know. There are many things I love about Nick – his laugh and the way his ever-broadening belly wiggles when he’s happy, his sincerity and generosity, his family, his wine – but there’s not much I love more than getting a letter from him in the mail. We’re in a record club together called the Royaleers, which is a name we lifted from the former women’s union of the now defunct Uniroyal tire plant. The club began during the pandemic as a way to not be lonely and now, three years later, we’re still at it. Every month we mail records to each other and get together over Zoom to drink and talk about music. At the end of the day, it’s a small group of middle-aged, washed-up dads eating edibles and dorking out over music while wearing suits and ties and trying and failing to adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order, but it’s become an incredibly meaningful activity for me, for all of us, I think. It’s wonderful to get a record in the mail from an old friend, and what’s especially wonderful is that the records are always tethered to a letter. Because we’re all in various stages of bodily decline, last month we made a death-pact of sorts, one in which each member is tasked to provide a record, a bottle of booze, and a letter, all to be opened upon the unfortunate, yet inevitable moment of his demise. At that point we’ll all convene in person, listen to the record, drink to the memory of the deceased, and read the letter together as a group. It’s a hilarious and morbid agreement, but also sweet. I’ve sat down twice to write the letter, but it’s a very hard thing to write, you know. But, it feels important. Like, everyone should pick that record out and write that letter, right?

I’m not sure why, but the medium feels extremely clarifying. People think better in letters, are more intentional with their language, more generous, and so letters, which take the form of prose, feel more like poems to me. Granted, all prose when it is working feels like poetry to me, but letters especially so. As such, one of the irons I have in the fire at the moment has to do with con- scripting a group of writers in Wisconsin to agree to receive and write a letter back to a younger poet in our state. I want this because I want kids to feel like they’re being taken seriously as artists, but also, I’m curious to hear what someone like Nick (Butler) would have to say to a young kid with questions about writing poems. What advice would he give? How would he talk with this stranger who is, likely, not dissimilar from some earlier version of himself when he was that age? How would he discuss what a poem is, what poetry is?

I like to imagine all these letters living together in a book somehow, a kind of document of care and conversation, a document of bridges, an infrastructure of strange support. I’m unsure how to make this happen, what levers I need to pull to make it so, but I’ll figure it out. I’m new to this. There’s still time.

Learn more about Gulig and the Wisconsin Poet Laureate program at wisconsinpoetlaureate.org.