“I feel really lucky,” admits Nathan Parker, an English instructor at The University of Alabama and author of The Locust Diagrams, as he sits outside Starbucks, his multicolored beanie making him stand out from the crowd on a spring day. “After The Locust Diagrams came out, I did a reading tour up the East Coast with one of my dear friends. We did readings, slept on people’s floors, sold a few books, and met some new people,” Parker recalls. “My wildest dream for my poetry is that it affords me the opportunity to travel for a while.” In this case, Parker’s poems allowed him to realize this dream.
Parker’s inspiration for The Locust Diagrams came from the vivid dreams he began having in his early thirties: “I had a dream I was on the front lawn of a huge, ornate, Old Row manor house and an older professor-poet-Gandolf type took me inside,” Parker remembers. “From the outside I was stunned: the house was so overwhelmingly beautiful, but when I walked in everything was run down. Pictures were hanging off the wall, spider webs were everywhere and decay was all over.” Parker remembers the dream with surprising detail and specificity. Parker’s goal was to reach the top floor library, where all the best poets and authors kept their books. Yet when he opened them, every single one was filled with diagrams of locusts. “I don’t know if there’s any real interpretation of it,” Parker says. “But locusts devour, and my poetry collection is about what lasts eternally.”
The cover of The Locust Diagrams contains a photo of a beautiful girl in a yellow dress, staring at the viewer enigmatically. Parker felt the cover of the book, photographed and modeled by family friends, corresponded well with dreams he had about things that were fleeting and decaying. “I love the way she looks at the camera,” Parker explains. “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Yeah, nothing lasts. But so what? Let’s find a reason to keep going and a motivation for living.’”
As a child, Parker was raised in a Christian home. His father was a hospital chaplain, and to Parker, belief in beauty and a creator were both natural and easy. “When I came to grad school and started reading and teaching anthologized literature, one story after another to me seemed like a parable of the misery of pursuing anything less than God,” Parker recalls. With time and maturity, Parker has come to believe that the spiritual artistic pursuit are one in the same. “I feel kind of dead, depressed, and bored if I’m not doing something creative,” Parker reveals.
“I like to write, read and play the piano, drums, and guitar. I feel alive doing that.”
Parker’s spirit wasn’t always moved by poetry, however. In fact, Parker’s interest in verse began when a creative poetry workshop was the only class that would fit his schedule. “I was so bummed,” Parker remembers candidly. “I didn’t want to read poetry and I didn’t want to write poetry, but the class was life-changing for me.” Parker’s professor taught how to read poetry so well that it became like searching for treasure in every line. “It was like every poem became a secret. I don’t know how he did it,” Parker says, explaining his early motivation for unlocking the secret codes poets had buried away in verses.
Inspired by this informative experienced, Parker pursued an MFA at The University of Alabama and went on to a career in poetry and teaching in the Department of English. “When I first started teaching, I wanted to prove I belonged here,” Parker explains. “I kept trying to sound like an expert when in reality I knew, and still only know, a small fraction of literature.”
With 2016 marking his 12th year of teaching, Parker has redeveloped his teaching style to connect more with his students. “I try to relate to their lives,” Parker says. “I try to allow them to tell a story and establish a sense of their own value and contribution to the class. I’ve found that the more involved they are, the more they want to be in class.”
Parker’s best advice for undergraduate students pursuing careers in writing or teaching is to find a sense of meaning somewhere other than in their work. “A friend of mine used to say, ‘Writing should be the fruits and offspring of a meaningful and full life,’ so I let my writing and teaching flow from that,” Parker avows.
In other words, poetry is the result of a life already imbued with significance rather than the point of departure. Inspiration for Parker’s poetry often comes from his wife and children. “As my sense of self has become more domestic, I’m able to approach teaching and writing more healthily and successfully because there’s less riding on my success in those areas,” Parker says.
Moving forward, Parker hopes to continue recovering the initial joy he had for poetry. “After the first book, it’s impossible to divorce the writing process from thoughts of publication,” Parker reveals. “I enjoyed poetry the most during the first year I was ever exposed to it. At that time, I had no thoughts of ever being published or of anyone ever seeing my work. It was thrilling in every way.” Parker’s task now is to recapture that freedom and endless possibility in his own work.
Walk around campus today, and you can probably catch Parker reading, journaling, or thinking on one of the balconies in the art courtyard, where he’s been hanging since 2001. “I just want to continue to create new things and then hopefully have the chance once or twice a year to travel and share them with people,” Parker concludes. “That’s pure bliss for me.” Follow your bliss, Professor Parker!