Religion and faith are two of the most difficult subjects to write about according to Nicholas Trandahl, author of the poem, The Chapel. The poet, an army veteran who served in the Middle East now lives in the hills of Wyoming, is spurred in his writing by Tolstoy, Hemingway and Whitman, juggling his art with work and fatherhood. And why write? “To show people how beautiful, tranquil, terrifying, and interesting our world is—from the very ordinary to the profound.”
Why do you write?
When I was younger, I wrote because I always had fantastical stories to tell. As a man, I write for much the same reason, except that the stories are true… mostly. I write about the things I’ve experienced in the Army and the Middle East, about adventures and sights I see in the wilderness, about food I eat and music I hear, about people I love dearly and about people I meet in passing, about faith and the lack of it, about history, and about anything else the drifts into my mind that I wish to remind everyone else of. In short, I suppose I write to show people how beautiful, tranquil, terrifying, and interesting our world is—from the very ordinary to the profound.
How do you write?
I write all the rough drafts of my poetry in my trusty journal. It’s a scratched up weather-worn leather journal with refillable pages that I picked up in a little shop on Martha’s Vineyard on an October afternoon years ago. Poems that I don’t see a future for are then typed on my typewriter and filed away. Only the rare poems destined for a manuscript end up in my laptop to be agonized over for several drafts. I tend to write mostly in the evening, after work and after my children have gone to bed.
How did your latest collection, Bravery, come about?
Bravery came about in the same way as my other published poetry collections. I always have an ongoing poetry manuscript that steadily fills up with a trickle of poems that I think are good enough to publish, and when enough material is collected I begin to arrange and organize it. Each one of my poetry collections is more or less chronological in a way, with seasons passing and memories popping up, but I try to have one big adventure as the centerpiece of the book, with a handful of inspired poems developing a narrative of it. For Bravery it was a road trip a dear friend and I took to Ernest Hemingway’s grave in the Wood River Valley of Idaho so that I could leave a flask of whiskey on his grave.
What are the fundamental themes of the collection?
The themes of Bravery are varied, but the constants through my work are nature, domesticity, travel, adventure, time, and memory.
What aspects of your own life contributed to the poems in Bravery?
Every poem in Bravery is a construct of my own life—things I’ve seen or did, heard or read about, or conversations I had. Readers of my work will find that I’m very open about the good and bad in my life, and I find it enriching and therapeutic in a way to share fragments of my life with the wider world. My ow life and experiences are very much woven into my poems.
Which themes do you find yourself coming back to?
I will always return to the themes of nature, travel and adventure, ordinary observations, my experiences (especially my time in the Army), fatherhood, and marriage. Faith and spirituality have been touched on by my work in the past—often times with nostalgia, vitriol, wistfulness, and frustration. But in the last year or so, the vast majority of my poetry touches upon questions and rumination on God, faith, and spirituality. I’m exploring those spiritual themes a lot in the literature I’m reading and the books I’m studying these days, so of course it’s begun to season my poetry, and in fact take center stage.
Who has inspired you?
My family inspires me greatly–thus their appearance in so much of my poetry. As for other writers, I have been most inspired by Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Ernest Hemingway. Those four writers have shaped my writing, my life, my views, my philosophy, and my faith. In my opinion, those writers have written the best novel (Tolstoy’s War and Peace), the best memoir (Thoreau’s Walden), the best poetry collection (Whitman’s Leaves of Grass), and the best short story (Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River). I’ve also very inspired by composers (namely Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Antonio Vivaldi) and musicians (the bands OM and Bon Iver being among my favorites). I’m also very inspired by the lives and teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and various saints that are important to me.
Do you share your work in progress with people who are close to you?
Occasionally I’ll share rough drafts of poems or pieces of fiction with my wife or close friends, but usually they can only read such things when they’re published. My editor is oftentimes the first to read my work.
What is the most difficult thing to write about?
Religion and faith is intensely difficult to write about in that there are so many clichés to step around to create something new and significant. Personally, it is also very difficult for me to write about my time in the Army and in the Middle East, though I also find it cathartic to do so.
If you could chisel one poem onto your tombstone?
I would have only the very first line of my favorite poem, Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”, chiseled on my tombstone:
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, …”
That’s how I see death since I came close to it many years ago, a journey into the unknown and the greatest adventure. We’re all pilgrims on that trail eventually, and I’d like my tombstone to remind loved ones that I’m on that journey and happy.