Weekly Poem: Nick Lantz uses ‘how-to’ guides as inspiration

BY Victoria Fleischer  February 10, 2014 at 12:05 PM EST
Photo by Vicky Lantz

Nick Lantz’s new collection of poems is called “How to Dance as the Roof Caves in.” Photo by Vicky Lantz

If you pick up Nick Lantz’s new poetry collection, “How to Dance as the Roof Caves in,” you’ll recognize the “self-help” theme running through the titles. To name a few: “How to Travel Alone,” “How to Forgive a Promise Breaker,” “How to Dance When You Do Not Know How to Dance” and even “How to Appreciate Inorganic Matter.”

When he first started composing poems for this book, he found a website with a bunch of “how-to” articles. Always on the lookout for a new project, Lantz was inspired.

“I was just struck by so many of the titles because they were things as simple as ‘How to Boil Water,’ but then some of them were very specific like ‘How to Choose a Wedding Chapel in Gatlinburg, Tenn.,’ Lantz told Art Beat.

He used the titles as the starting point for many of his poems, but when he got to the end of the writing process, he still had a long list of how-to titles that he wanted to use.

And so he gathered several of the titles together into one poem called “Help,” often juxtaposing their meanings to create a narrative.


Hear Nick Lantz read “Help”

Help
—a found poemHow to Sit at a Computer
How to Smile
How to Reach a Consensus
How to Remove Bloodstains from Clothing
How to Love Learning about Things
How to Tell People You’re Keeping Your Maiden Name
How to Call Bolivia
How to Believe in God
How to Make a Wedding Toast

How to Survive without Cooking
How to Enjoy Arizona All Year Long
How to Treat Dehydration
How to Get Rid of Black Circles under Your Eyes
How to Avoid Marriage and Other Committed Relationships
How to Choose a Wedding Chapel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
How Not to Always Talk about the Same Things

How to Ignore People
How to Find Cat Urine with a UV Light
5+ Tips for Boiling Water
How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
How to Control Perfectionism

How to Buy Cruelty-Free Makeup
How to Practice Nonviolent Communication
How to Win a Street Fight
How to Stop Being Needy

How to Be Popular
How to Be Confident
How to Be Attractive
How to Make a Meal Plan for One

How to Be Your Own Valentine
How to Buy Tablecloths for Your Wedding
How to Choose a Pencil
5+ Reasons You’re a Control Freak

How to Perform Self-Hypnosis
How to Survive a Freestyle Rap Battle
How to Escape Materialism and Find Happiness
How to Live on Minimum Wage
How to Raise Your Leg up to Your Head
How to Survive Federal Prison
How to Survive a Fall through Ice
How to Call in Sick When You Just Need a Day Off
How to Detect Lies
How to Have a Perfect Marriage

How to Do Nothing
How to Buy Nothing
How to Be Thankful
How to Be Busy
How to Relax When Relaxation Techniques Don’t Work
How to Do It Yourself
How to Stop Excuses
How to Recognize a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship
How to Know When You’re Hungry


“There’s an interesting way in which stories or narratives can emerge through implications and juxtapositions.”

Lantz pointed to one sequence in particular: “How to be popular”/”How to confident”/”How to be attractive”/”How to make a meal plan for one.”

“You start to get a sense of a character trying to cheer themselves up or bolster their confidence and then falling back on their meal plan for one.”

Lantz found a kind of character among the titles and the articles. He explained that the very existence of the guides — that someone felt they were necessary — implied a story.

One title he brought up was “How Not to Always Talk about the Same Things.”

“It was very clear that the person who had written it had someone in mind when they wrote it … and that this resentment was sort of spilling over into the how-to guide. Even though it was ostensibly for anyone, it was clearly (the author) venting in a passive aggressive way at this one person who they found really annoying.”

As a poetry teacher, Lantz helps others discover the meaning that he can illuminate in a title or a poem. His experience is that people who don’t know poetry as well are nervous. They expect it to be impenetrable, when really it’s much more “accessible.”

“People expect that the interpretation of a poem is more complex than it really is … they think there is something more to it, that it’s a puzzle that has to be unlocked, some sort of Di Vinci code cryptography where it’s going to explain the nature of the universe once we crack the code of this particular poem.”

But, poetry for Lantz isn’t about the final conclusion. It’s about the discovering.

“I like to say that poems are about giving the reader an experience and interpretation as such isn’t necessary.”

Nick Lantz. “Help,” from How to Dance as the Roof Caves In.” Copyright © 2014 by Nick Lantz. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.