The University of Iowa

From the Iowa Review: Interview with Niki Neems

From The Iowa Review

What happens when we extract ourselves from our phones and our feeds, and sit down, slow down, and correspond through the written word? Over the past year and a half, Niki Neems has explored these themes through Response: The Convergence of poetry, handwriting, and epistolary correspondence, a letterpress card series done in collaboration with many contemporary poets, including C.D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, and Robert Hass. Neems says that Response originated “with a fascination for the way life becomes art,” and is a “reaction to the slow disappearance of the handwritten mark, posted letters, and books.”A poet and avid reader herself, Neems is also the owner of r.s.v.p., Iowa City’s beloved paper and card shop, which doubles as an informal gathering space for community poetry readings throughout the year. This fall, Neems released Second Response, available at her store in Iowa City.

First Response Poets: James Galvin, Dean Young, Mary Ruefle, Ralph Angel, Nance Van Winckel, Elizabeth Willis, Zach Savich, Danny Khalastchi, Caryl Pagel, Dara Wier, C.D. Wright

Second Response Poets: Dobby Gibson, Rae Armantrout, Marc Rahe, Lauren Haldeman, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Killarney Clary, Sabrina Orah Mark, Elizabeth Robinson, Juliet Patterson, Jody Gladding


The Iowa Review: What inspired Response and why did you start the project?

Niki Neems: One summer evening I was sitting with two poet friends drinking wine and bemoaning the disappearance of slowness. “Where has the linger gone?” we wondered together and began a list of things we missed. Letters, handwriting, and books, of course, were among them.

I think that conversation planted the seed, but I’ve been obsessed with poetry, handwriting, and letters for as long as I can remember and more recently fascinated with the way life becomes art. Response was a reaction to these personal preoccupations given the immediacy of contemporary life.

It is my hope that people who see the Response pieces are reminded consciously or not of a humanness that is disappearing from our world. While every computer click is trackable by the likes of Google, in many ways we are becoming disconnected, or perhaps insulated, from the world around us. Handwritten work, regardless the form it takes, keep us in touch. I mean this not only idiomatically, but also literally. Looking at handwriting, the realization is made, either consciously or not, that a person touched what is being viewed. The same holds true of letters, their function being to allay the very distance upon which they rely, to bring someone closer. And poetry by its very nature encourages a different sort of attention. All these things slow us down.

TIR: How do you select who participates? And what is the process like working with the poets?

NN: I make a list of poets whose work I’ve admired and by which I’ve been inspired and work hard to find snail mail addresses for them, which is not as easy as you’d think! In a letter, I invite them to hand copy a small original poem (or excerpt) onto a three-and-a-half-by-five-inch card and return it to me via the U.S. Mail. As each poem makes its way back to me, I cull the group into what makes sense to me as a cohesive whole, and with the assistance of letterpress artist Susie Gelbron of Carrot & Stick Press, I create a small correspondence card featuring the handwritten poem on the front and a typed translation on the back. The finished pieces are sold at my stationery shop in Iowa City with the intent of enriching and extending both the epistolary and literary worlds. 

TIR: Why was it important to have poets write their excerpts by hand (as opposed to typing)?

NN: Because handwriting functions on more than one artistic level. It is both image and text. Looking for any length of time at words written by different people sparks imagination. The individual visual aspects of the image are noted in the same way poetic differences in voice, rhythm, diction, and tone are noted. The meaning of the words written is unraveled, and a sense of gratification sets in. Each of these handwritten lines creates within the imagination an inner narrative about the author and evokes a unique emotional reaction, a sort of magic, separate from the scholarly value of the poem, that is almost indefinable, but also undeniable.

I can easily list literary work that has influenced me as a writer. I have more times than not encountered these poems, essays, or stories in books or on screens, typeset and mechanically produced in a standard form. Copy that I read in Iowa is no different than copy you might find in California. Certainly these literary texts have value. Their content has instructed and inspired us all in countless meaningful ways. However, seeing a handwritten form, with scribbles and doodles, is in essence the chance to meet the author face to face. In this way, handwriting satisfies a human desire for connection.

TIR: What has the reaction to Response been from visitors to your shop who might not be poets? What do they think of the fragments?

NN: I can’t tell you what they are thinking exactly, but I can tell you what I’ve observed. When a person picks up one of the Response cards they seem to slow down. They linger longer over the entire collection. It’s my hunch that viewing a poem written by hand and offered as a correspondence card adds another layer to the being of the both. In essence each element, poem, and correspondence card, is complicated and a new, exciting tension is created.

TIR: As a poet yourself, and someone who fosters public art through readings at your store and other events, are you noticing that poetry is bigger and more present in our lives than it may seem or many may think?

NN: I don’t know if it’s bigger or more present, but I do know life is a complication and public art deepens our experience with it. Through the projects at my shop, I am committed to making poetry more available to people. I’m not sure this will answer any of the problems we face as a society, but I do think it might make us more human, more attentive to life around us.

TIR: What’s next for Response?

NN: I intend for the project to be a series. I’m currently finishing up the final details with Second Response and putting together a list of poets for Third Response. Those snail mail addresses can be daunting! With each Response I have gathered complete sets of the pieces signed by the poets. These sets are contained within a handmade paper envelope. With the help of book arts friends, I hope to eventually find homes for them with Special Collection Libraries.