Photo credit: Molly Roberts (2012)
Nicholas Michael Ravnikar put the overt in overthinking. Billing himself as a language artist, he makes poems, plays, stories, painted poems, video, audio and other media. Diagnosed with Borderline Personality, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity and persistent depression, he has quit nearly every job he’s ever had and blown up his life on more than one occasion. He lives in Southeast Wisconsin with his spouse and two children. You can get his books for free, check out his visual art, and find publishing opportunities while you catch up with him on social media at bio.fm/nicholasmichaelravnikar
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
I’m Midwest born and bred. Born in Spring Valley, IL, I spent my early years in nearby LaSalle during the Carus factory strikes, where my grandfather brought me to picket lines and instilled a strong sense of fair play and workers’ rights. I grew up up outside Chicagoland and lived in Waukegan and Kenosha throughout my school-age years.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
I started writing poetry seriously around 8th grade and took an interest in the visual arts and theatre, as well. But while I had really strong test scores, I detested school -- I’m only now learning that was because of ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms that I connected. I studied poetry at Columbia College Chicago before transferring to Malcolm X College. During my undergrad I worked periodically as a peer tutor and at area elementary schools, and I facilitated a variety of poetry workshops through Mayor Daley’s Book Club and Chicago Public Schools with my good friends and fellow poets Dave Arenas and Ivan Ramos, while I worked with community organizers in Bridgeport and La Villita. I also hosted an open mic at Cafe Mestizo and coordinated a music series called Elevator Music through a nonprofit collective we formed called Ground Up.
I finally graduated with a BA in English after I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 2004. There, I got seriously into journalism on the student paper, working my way up from reporter to Arts & Culture editor to Executive Editor. I also wrote for the Kenosha News and did PR work writing articles for the college’s university relations department. Immediately after graduation, I was accepted into the low-residency MFA program at Naropa University’s Kerouac School of Poetics, where I studied while working in the nonprofit sector of southeast Wisconsin as a program coordinator and resident teaching artist for the Racine Arts Council and Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee.
After I earned my terminal graduate degree, I worked as an adjunct for Kaplan University, Gateway Technical College and Carthage College before I landed a full-time Liberal Studies lectureship at my alma mater, UW-Parkside. After a conflict with administration there over academic freedom, I left a teaching career to repair bathtubs with my father in-law while I also worked on the deadline shift copy desk at the Kenosha News. Just before the family-owned paper sold itself off to Lee Enterprises, most of the staff was laid off, including my position. From there, I worked as a substance abuse prevention agency success coach, which I quit over ethical reasons. In between there, I worked as a freelance videographer, journalist, paint scraper, dishwasher and general laborer. Come to think of it, I’ve quit nearly every job I’ve ever had. So, in 2018 I started a job as a higher ed marketing copywriter, which gave me a deeper look into what I can only call the dark side of academia -- the legalistic (and sometimes not-so-legalistic) deception, the questionable ethics (or unquestionable lack thereof) and the lip service given to diversity for the sake of enrollment while neglecting meaningful data or change. I continued to persevere in that role, but eventually I had a nervous breakdown in November of 2021 that I’m still recovering from. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
After I had a few poems published by Superpresent and White Stone on a Black Stone this past summer, I decided during my convalescence to self-publish my own book of previously published poems, titled IMAGINARY FRIENDS and have also released a new 108-page book of short poems, called Three Dirty Sunsets, which launches Dec. 1, 2022 at tinyurl.com/preorder-sunsets for only $1.03!
What are you working on right now?
Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a manuscript of nonce-form poems titled Lavender Dialects. It’s a thorough investigation of a form I invented called the Polish octave that I’ve spent the past two years exhausting, and I think I’ll have a full manuscript of 64 poems finished in time to self-publish by spring of 2023. Before that, in late winter, I’ll release a book of mistranslated fragments of Ranier Maria Rilke’s second book of Sonnets to Orpheus, which I’ve titled Dawn Pantomime. It’s roughly a sequel or polestar book to Three Dirty Sunsets, which I wrote while I re-read the first collection of Rilke’s sonnets. Anyone interested can find those at bio.fm/nicholasmichaelravnikar. If you sign up for my email list by downloading a free book, you’ll get first notice.
Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
Most days, I wake and write at least one poem immediately with my coffee or tea, before I get out to the garage for my workout. After I get the kids to school, I generally attempt to spend an hour a day minimum writing poetry and an hour on either fiction, a children’s book or playwriting, and then an hour or two on marketing or social media concerns or product design. I also aim to paint at least once or twice a week, which I consider writing time, because my paintings always involve words, phrases and sentences or explorations of asemic writing.
Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
It really does vary depending on genre and even from day to day. Typically my writing takes place in my basement or my living room during the day. I often also write at night. I’m often struck by various lines, thoughts, or images and ideas while I’m out and about in my general course of activity. I usually write by hand initially and revise while typing. However, I have boxes and boxes of notebooks that I have yet to type up. The bulk of my writing is probably on my phone, with a few paper notebooks strewn about my house. But when I’m driving, if a line strikes me, I find it safer to scrawl on a notepad or receipt than to try texting or even figuring out how to voice dictate. I do edit on my laptop or iPad, but I don’t normally compose there any more. The phone is a much more accessible device, but I notice that it’s pushed me toward a shorter line length and shorter poems generally -- more collections of shorter poems.
For my playwriting and fiction, I generally draft longhand, revise while typing and then edit on the computer once it’s been entered. As far as my painted poems go, I typically paint and re-paint surfaces until the assembly of color, texture, line and shape seems like it has a kind of tension, and then I figure out what color marker I want to write in and think of a fitting line or phrase to scrawl over it.
What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
There are three pieces of wisdom that I think have served me well when I’ve heeded them. The first is Ted Berrigan’s advice from his book of talks On the Level Everyday, where he tells students to write three poems a day as a quota -- no care for quality or length, just three complete poems a day. Berrigan’s Collected Poems is itself a massive tome (and only collects the bulk of his published and unpublished poems, but doesn’t include his fiction or nonfiction works). It’s a testament to how productive this work ethic can be. The second piece of wisdom facilitates the first, even though it’s something of a lie or half-truth: “First thought, best thought,” is typically attributed as a Beat slogan to either Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac variously, but both of them were fairly obsessive revisers of their work. I do think that being able to just let go of inhibition and write without any censorship or fear is a necessary first step for any writer to take, and to periodically continue to really inventory and investigate. An honest self-appraisal, preferably with a trusted colleague, should really take place every year or few, to ensure that the work you’re doing is as various as it needs to be to accurately reflect your growth as a writer and as a human being. Allowing the mind to liberate itself with uninhibited stream-of-consciousness, freestyle cipher, automatic writing or free writing techniques provides the necessary material to produce Berrigan’s recommended three daily pieces. The spirit in which I take “first thought, best thought,” is not that it’s not necessary to revise to be successful, but rather that one cannot revise -- or ever hope to arrive at any kind of success -- without first starting. The third great piece of advice I got was from a professor of rhetoric and composition named Frank Coffman, when I was an undergrad at a college journalism conference in Nashville. He advised anyone editing their news articles or literary journalism to use a CRISP method. To spell it out: ● Clarify by deleting unnecessary words and phrases;
● Replace long, unfamiliar words & constructions with shorter, simpler and concrete alternatives -- provided doing so doesn’t change your meaning;
● Invigorate by changing passive verbs (forms of ‘to be’ + past tense verb) to active, concrete verbs, and convert as many adjectives and adverbs as possible to either active verbs or concrete nouns;
● Structure your sentences for emphasis by placing key words at the beginning or end of sentences; and finally
● Poeticize with literary and rhetorical devices like metaphor, metonymy, assonance, alliteration, rhyme or humor.
I’ve generally found that to be solid advice for writing poems or prose. It’s not particularly novel, but Coffman had developed very tight packaging of the ideas embedded in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I don’t think you can go wrong to use it as a guide.
I’m developing a free online course to take fledgling writers through all three of those pieces of wisdom in greater detail.
Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
Nothing is more engaging to me than performing my work live or hearing others give life to the words they’ve put on the page. From the open mics I attended and organized in Chicago to those I founded in Kenosha in my 20s, I’ve always enjoyed sharing poetry in a live community. I also helped to found with Matt Specht and Nick Demske a performance series in Racine, WI, through the Racine Public Library that has grown into its own organization with new organizers called BONK! It’s been going strong for what must be close to 15 years later. After I had kids, my ability to attend live events really dropped suddenly, as I tried to maintain equal work and household responsibilities with my spouse. Now that my son in 10 and my daughter is five -- and COVID-19 is now effectively integrating into our global lifestyle -- I’m trying to engage in one online and one in-person open mic roughly every week. I find that I need that connection to an active poetry community in order to maintain sanity, keep momentum on my own writing process, and try out work to see how it plays off an audience. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
The problem of meaning, the tension between liberty and necessity, and pursuing the desire for knowledge and wisdom are all central themes in my work. I also write from a place that’s skeptical of certainty in particular and thus knowledge generally. I’m fascinated by both classical and nonclassical or paraconsistent logics, and I love every branch of philosophy and the history of philosophy. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
Finally, a softball question. Um, let’s see: I think that as a human I have a responsibility to try to live a life of integrity and conviction. So that means, first of all, being as honest as possible unless doing so would hurt someone more than it would help. It also means using reason and emotion wisely in order to make judgments about how to behave. I want to be clear that I’ve really only come to that realization in the last 11 years or so of my life. I very much lived a depraved life of excess, pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance that paid lip-service to social justice in my teens and 20s, while I was hyper-fixated on reason and science as the exclusive provenance of knowledge. I think as I’ve matured and especially over the last year gained a better sense of how to cultivate true compassion and empathy, how to recognize my triggers, observe and listen to what my emotions and make wiser or more strategic choices. At the expense of glossing over some serious but important questions about determinism and thick/thin free will, I think I can better recognize -- and tune in earlier -- to what I and other people have control over and can change, and what’s not changeable or solvable by me or other people.
Do you write between genres or not?
I write poetry, flash fiction, drama and essays, along with journalism and film. I also have designs on publishing some erotica pseudonymously, as this appears to be a viable income stream. Finally, I work in the visual medium and produce paintings that feature words and phrases over abstract backgrounds on various surfaces.
Which living writers do you most admire?
I want to say there’s too many to name, but honestly I want to shout them all out. The writers I admire are often those with whom I’m in some direct and regular conversation or communication. My local community, personal history and reading all influence my admiration. Both Nick Demske and Nick Ramsey are poets in Racine, WI who I’m close with, and their writing as well as energy for community organizing are vitalizing for me. Nick Ramsey, an emcee and poet who also organizes a tremendous amount of live events and nonprofit writing arts programs, is incredibly inspiring. Kelsey Harris writes some phenomenal poetry and makes gorgeous artwork that sustain me. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the wildly varying work of Brent Mitchell, Jessie Lynn McMains, Darin Zimpel, Stephen Kalmar II, Kelsey Hoff, and Dan Nielsen. My ex-wife Carly-Anne Coda is also a phenomenal poet and photographer. I’ve long been an admirer of the writing of Ryan Philip Kulefsky and published his early chapbook, DEAD TWINS. Stephen and Maya Teref out of Chicago are both wonderful translators. The poems and more recently paintings of Gene Tanta, who was last working in the Bloomington-Normal area from what I knew, were really inspiring. Bill Allegrezza, who runs Moria Press, has been writing interesting short poems as well as some collage-y asemic and quasi-semic work. Dasha Kelley Hamilton has amazing stage presence and puts a focus in her careful writing and work broadly on social justice, as do Angie Trudell Vasquez and Darlin’ Nikki Jantzen: I had the chance to work with all three of them at Woodland Pattern, where I also got to know Julie Strand and Chuck Stebelton and their work. Michael Sikkema (@okowl on Instagram) and Jimmy Broccoli are two wildly different poets who I’ve come to greatly admire: Michael for his slapstick approach to the line and the letter, Jimmy for the delicate diction of his narrative lyric pieces. Andrew Brenza makes some of the most majestic visual poetry I’m seeing these days. I haven’t read anything new from K. Silem Mohammad lately, but his Flarf work in Breathalyzer and the Front, as well as the few Sonnagrams (anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets) were really amazing. I’m currently enjoying reading Amy King and Sandra Simonds, Roger Reeves, Chris Courtney Martin, Abraham Smith and Steve Timm, and Jamaal May. Finally, the spoken word of my one-time collaborators and ongoing comrades Ivan Ramos, out of Chicago, and David Arenas, from Naic, Philippines, by way of Trenton, New Jersey.
Outside of those folks, I also really vibe on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets Bruce Andrews and Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein, as well as Christian Bök, Tom Jenks and Anthony Etherin.
Which dead writers do you most admire?
All of them. But I guess, beyond Ted Berrigan, most of all I’d say Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker and Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia from about 2285-2250 BCE. After them, probably Plato, Homer, Basho and WEB DuBois. Women don’t get enough credit, and it’s amazing that don’t credit nearly one half of the human population historically for being arguably the first published writer of record. Sappho I think to regularly gets read just as a romantic lesbian, which I wouldn’t argue against, but I would point out that her work has a rich metaphysical depth that isn’t acknowledged enough. Dickinson’s formal innovations in her ephemeral envelope poems and folios was so startling. I don’t think Plato (or Aristotle for that matter) can be read without attending to the esoteric impulse, which is very strong in both of their work; most of all I’d recommend the Ion and the Theaetetus; Homer’s Odyssey in particular has not just overt messages for readers about culture, social and filial duty and faith, but more specifically messages I think are pointed directly at the poets. DuBois was so various a writer of sociology, philosophy and fiction, and his Souls of Black Folk is some of the finest and most lucid hybrid writing I have read. Basho’s Journey to the North is a fantastic collection.
What’s the book you wish you’d written?
Christian Christian Bök’s Eunoia, hands down. It’s such a beautiful and obsessive masterwork. I think he took the Oulipian and Pataphysical insistence on both formal integrity and creative rigor.
What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
I get a lot of ideas and lines while I’m lifting weights and playing racquetball. I have an olympic barbell and an axle bar along with some kettlebells and sandbags in my garage, where I clean and press and squat and deadlift. Moving my body generally gets my mind moving, and I really enjoy the way that creative movement can beget creative writing or painting.
What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
I just did an open mic where I was reading some Polish Octaves and the cameraman who was in the front seat started laughing so hard that he couldn’t keep his camera up, and he had to just stop filming because it was so shaky. It was great. I think he said between gasps of laughter, “Man, your style is dope.” I’m very happy to hear that sort of enjoyment and amusement come about from my writing and performance.
How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
I think my children take it for granted that dad’s a poet and an artist. I dont necessarily know what that means to them, other than that I’m often preoccupied with a piece I’m working on, a line I have stuck in my head, a marketing effort or design project or a collaboration. It’s never ending.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Powell’s Books in Chicago has a wonderful used selection that’s incredibly affordable. But Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee is the small-press and poetry Mecca of the Midwest. Every poet should make a pilgrimage and attend some of their events. I also want to shout out the Racine Public Library, the poetry section of which was really developed under the careful eye of Nick Demske, who got many suggestions from others in the community to ensure a diverse and inclusive collection of writers whom the community wanted to read. They also make an effort to stock works by local writers and to support our local writing community; I wish libraries everywhere operated off a similar ethos.
How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
Amazon can serve a function, I hope, for writers, of discovery and recognition. I don’t think for most of us it’s a viable business model by itself because of the market saturation. I would rather that we had popular or collaborative control over a marketplace, but as has been the case historically, I think we need to leverage the technology we have available to make whatever sort of life will be most tolerable for those of us who have a compulsive need to write -- to express, explore and engage with and through language. I’m generally inclined to the cynical side of Ecclesiastes, that there’s nothing new under the sun, but also toward Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new!” I resolve these tensions by following Samuel Beckett’s advice to ever try, ever fail, try again, fail again, fail again, fail better.
Photo credit: Carly-Anne Coda (2014)