Though both horse and zebra find their way into the title of local, award-winning poet Eric Nelson’s latest collection, Horse Not Zebra, it is a black bear that plods its way across many of the works. Like the poems themselves, the creature’s presence reveals many sides in Nelson’s writings — at times curious, checking in on humans amid stay-at-home orders; at other times, mysterious, “hugging the shoulder” of city streets as it disappears into the night.
Along with the black bear, Nelson’s poetry captures many other aspects of life in contemporary Western North Carolina — from hikes and campfires to protests and the everyday sounds of city life.
But the poet is not stuck in one place or one time. In an instant, readers are brought back to John F. Kennedy‘s assassination; in yet another moment, the poet reflects on the influence of Ellis Island on his family name.
No matter the topic, what underlies the collection is Nelson’s talent and appreciation for the unexpected, reminding his audience that amid the darkness, there is also beauty, comedy and hope.
Xpress recently caught up with the poet, who along with discussing his writing influences and habits, has shared his collection’s titular piece, “Horse Not Zebra.”
Horse Not Zebra
When med students are learning
how to diagnose symptoms, they’re told
think horse, not zebra — the common, not the exotic.
Which is good advice even if you’re not a doctor.
Like when your phone rings at 3:00 in the morning,
think wrong number, not who died?
Or if your love is over an hour late
for dinner and hasn’t called to explain, think
gridlock, not head-on; dead zone, not dead.
When the guy in the truck doesn’t slow down
much less stop when you step into the crosswalk,
think distracted, not son-of-a-bitch. Recall the time
your mind was still at work, how shocked you were
to see in your rearview a women in the crosswalk
flipping you off with both hands.
And if you’re steaming in a mile long backup
because protesters have blocked the bridge again,
don’t think where are the damn cops
when you need them, think how,
when popping sounds wake you at night,
you think firecracker, not gun.
Xpress: Can you take us through the process of writing this poem and the inspiration behind it?
Nelson: Ever since I first heard, years ago, the expression, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horse, not zebra,” I wanted to write a poem around it. I love how concrete and apt the phrase is, and how well it applies to many situations, not just its medical context. But I didn’t start writing the poem until 2021, when I was doing a poem-a-day exchange with my friend David Graham, which we do once a year. It’s grueling, but it forces me to write poems that I’ve only vaguely been thinking about.
The poem is mainly a list of examples of times I’ve jumped to worst-case conclusions. But one tricky part about writing a list poem is how to wrap it up in a way that seems like an ending and not an abrupt stop. I wanted some kind of reversal at the end. Not a surprise ending, but a little different from what came before.
Around the time the poem was written, there were a lot of social justice demonstrations going on, one of which blocked a bridge in Asheville. And that was the catalyst that took me to the final line.
With the ending’s powerful reversal in mind, tell us a little bit more about the revision process itself and how the poem evolved?
The poem started out as one long stanza. Then, as I edited out unnecessary language and made each example a separate stanza, it evolved into multiple three-line stanzas. I also fiddled with the order of the stanzas, and I cut two of them entirely because they didn’t seem as strong or well connected to the others.
I wanted the final stanza to enlarge the poem somehow, to make it bigger than one individual. The bridge protest I mentioned before was on my mind, and I wondered if the people stuck in their cars felt empathy for the protesters or just totally annoyed. I don’t even know where the “firecracker not gun” part came from. It just appeared in the first draft, and it felt right.
Speaking of broader topics — what do you view the poet’s role as in our modern day, and what is poetry’s impact on our culture?
I think the poet’s role is to pay attention to the world in both its beauty and its ugliness. And to our interior lives, especially the conflicts between heart and mind. And to language — to keep it fresh and vivid and lively; to avoid what a friend of mine calls crimes against language — cliches, triteness, oversimplification, obfuscation. I think the best poems excel in paying attention to those three things — the external world, the internal world and language itself — and how they overlap.
The impact of poetry in our culture is subtle but profound. It’s safe to say that most people don’t read or think about poetry much, if at all. But somehow poetry slips out into the world and gets absorbed, like a good virus. A pandemic of poetry moves invisibly from person to person, influencing our lives and culture.
Even people who claim to dislike poetry will use the phrase “poetry in motion” to describe a physical action that they don’t have any other words for. And in one of my favorite movies, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is set in a rough and dangerous frontier town, the hapless, doomed main character says to his prostitute lover, “I got poetry in me.” I love that, and I believe that we’ve all got poetry in us, whether we are poets or not.
Is there a new collection from a local poet that you’re excited about, and what is it about their work that resonates with you?
There’s so many outstanding poets in this area, including Anne Maren-Hogan, whose recently published book, Vernacular, won the 2021 Lena Shull Book Award from the N.C. Poetry Society. Anne’s voice and vision come from her childhood on a farm in Iowa, as well as from her adulthood in an intentional community near Burnsville. That may seem idyllic, and in some ways it is, but Anne’s poems are clear-eyed in their depiction of not only wonder and beauty, but also the harshness of living where “life and death dare each other” and the outcome is uncertain. It’s a rich and compelling collection.
Lastly, who are the four poets on your Mount Rushmore?
Walt Whitman. Gwendolyn Brooks. Theodore Roethke. Elizabeth Bishop.