Nathaniel Rosenthalis On Line Breaks, Meditation & Seduction


Just because one slides doesn’t mean the ride
is free, certainly I approached with loose
change. Lachrymose swinging
unearths what exactly? This pact with local
tradespeople is a cover-up for kisses
carried over borders. Check
relaxed mules to measure the riding
fool. Top this, you say, only barely
gesturing toward anything other than
the trove of gestures you’ve come to
be very good at making tinker cloudlike.
I know I’ve been reading closely. Close
enough. Nomenclature is a good start: “of what I call…”
but an invented phrase
no one else will use invites pity whose pitch
is not not wide-reaching, timbre on
recto por el cielo. That’s what
clairvoyance means, meaning
the subject of change that change
unfurls. Every curl of thought, of
beef, is cruel—lovelost
crown on the wingspan
of a translation that misses you
by an inch: classic cognitive dissonance.
Boys bear it only as the crowd they are
upholds the hosanna—some literal
prayer whose stutter is just that: literal.
Listen to the oars as they unlock: rowmance
breaks the surface because gladness is
the upstart motion in what was it called—oh
yes—“a further revolution in love.”


It had to be that way.
Your argument is like loose leaf paper.

I grow attached to small objects.
Do you have one? one flower asks another.

I spend a long time looking at the picture.
The sun enters the room piece by piece.

Maybe the picture is too idiosyncratic.
It had to be that way.

You’ve got moxy, says N.
Your argument is like loose leaf paper.

I grow attached to small objects.
I spend a long time looking at the picture. 

The sun isn’t friendly.
I blink one eye then the other. 

Spend more time outside, says N.
Maybe the picture is too idiosyncratic. 

N. is always curious, she’s all over the map.
Cartoons show the effort of their makers. 

Do you have one? one flower asks another.
The sun enters the room piece by piece. 

You’ve got moxy, says N.
It had to be that way. 

N. pauses with a hand outstretched.
The sun enters the room piece by piece. 

I say to N., That is an excellent headband.
I spend a long time looking at the picture.

Do you have one? one flower asks another.
I blink one eye then the other. 


I have

two ways
of looking 

at the dead
soldier in 

front of me, and
I choose this.

Q & A with Nathaniel Rosenthalis and editor Joanna C. Valente

JV: Talk to me about your line breaks. How do you determine them?

NR: I try not to think about line breaks too much—they just have to “feel” right. The more I read and study, the more I learn about what feeling right feels like. I feel like I don’t think about line breaks too much because I actually think about line and locomotion and energy and music all the time, or I have, and I will probably continue to do so in the future, when I need to or want to. Sometimes a line break happens when enough suggestive detail has accrued, and the line breaks because it should, so as to maximize how the poem is seducing the reader. 

Sometimes a line breaks because the form requires it—and ideally a line in a form feels “right” rather than mandated. Sometimes I just think lines need their own varieties, so that’ll be what they do. It’s all instinct based. I guess I tend not to think of myself ever consciously determining a line. Ideally I try to let my instincts do all the decision-making—line breaks included. Whatever ways I can tease out the energy I do it.

What would you say is your obsession right now? As poets & artists, we are sometimes defined by these obsessions in our work.

In the poetic-y area, I’m obsessed right now with figuring out how to do very long line—one that jumps, seduces, and animates all at once, without feeling too loosey-goosey or frenetic; I’ve had a picture of what this line might look like for a long time in my head—probably for a few years now. There’s this great moment in Lyn Hejinian’s introduction to Happily where she credits Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino, and Clark Coolidge for the kinds of sentences she writes in that essay-poem-thing. It’s one of my favorite pieces and I feel far away from figuring out my long line problem, but that’s the kind of writing—and instance of a writer explicating her own work—that has been in my head. 

So I was actively trying out this long lines for a while, but since I moved to St. Louis to start my MFA, I haven’t been able to. My brain is being recalibrated. So maybe this kind of obsession—because I haven’t been able to actualize it—is a useful distraction? I usually think of obsessions as psychic preoccupations that somehow manifest themselves legibly. In my class on first books, one thing we do is track how obsessions appear in a writer’s first book, and then, if the writer’s had other books out, we look at those too and see how the obsessions in the first have traveled to or disappeared from the later work. My long line obsession hasn’t appeared in my recent work, but it’s a part of my will to know dynamic form. I don’t think anyone who reads my stuff can see the aura of that frustration other than me—but I hope I’ll get there. And then of course I think I just need to chill out and not think so much about poetry—which is, weirdly enough, something I’m doing now in my MFA program.

Outside of this poetic-y area, which is where I’m really trying to explore, I’m obsessed with a few novels right now: two in particular, Kathryn Davis’Duplex and Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Also—the monumental! Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle(I’m on Volume 2 right now), and I’m thinking about the monumental in terms of architecture. Do you know Zaha Hadid? She’s a an Iraqi-British architect who makes these huge loopy futuristic buildings. Her architecture team’s website says: “We work at all scales and in all sectors.” Which sounds creepy and ominous and powerful, and kind of perfect. She’s got drawings at an exhibition at the Kemper Museum in St. Louis; the show’s about ambient drawings and architecture—it’s super good. I think plastic is interesting, and have been meaning to read a book about it (I’ve only read Wikipedia articles as of now).  

You recently moved from NYC to St. Louis to work on your MFA. How has this influenced, or changed, your writing?

NYC was great because of the art galleries, the glittering sense of possibility in just walking down a street, and also how easy the subway made getting around; these are the things I miss most about NYC. I know some people find NYC super distracting—always things to do, et cetera—but it was always easy for me to settle down and work.  I also loved being so near the water, with the city right behind me (Chelsea Piers with my friend Grace, for instance). But! What I lost in water views St. Louis has given me in sky (and also low cost-of-living). There’s so much sky here in St. Louis, and so there’s a lot more light taking up the sky in a different way—less NYC light pollution and more St. Louis ambient blue or gray. At first seeing so much sky was unnerving to me—I’m used to towers interrupting everything—but now it feels good to see all this blue or gray around me

In terms of my writing, it feels right to be in St. Louis—to feel meditative, to feel slowed down; it’s a kind of floating feeling that I don’t think I had often in NYC. I do think it’s important to have access to both—to be able to get your heart pumping, to get excited, get the thoughts zinging, a kind of high from the whir of thinking, as well as to feel blank in the brain, to feel moved by emptiness. In both NYC and St. Louis I’ve had my moments of just walking around, worked up into a frenzy about a thought or idea or just the movement of sentences in my head.  

I’m only in my first semester now, but I’m learning so much—since my first workshop, I’ve felt my brain stretching and growing, like someone’s standing over me and pulling up on my brain. I kind of don’t only mean this figuratively—I’ve had this curious frontal-lobal sensation, like my eyes are wide all the time and the top of my head is being slowly lifted haha. I’m in a workshop, a class on first books, and a nonfiction survey class; all three are making me more alive and alert about my resources—traditions, forms, ways of conducting material in and out of time.  

Who writes your poems—what part of you?

My unconscious. It’s a lot more dynamic than I am, I think.

Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared on our old site in our fall 2014 issue.

Nathaniel Rosenthalis was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. He earned a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence in 2012 and worked as an Assistant Editor at Oxford University Press. He is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published a chapbook entitled Maddy (Kimchi Press).