AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK FLYNN
Elisa Gonzalez, Issue 36
Nick Flynn’s newest collection of poetry introduces the terrors and joys of his own fatherhood into his work. Flynn has dissected his troubled family history in prose as well as in poetry, making it new in each book. Making his own family requires that he both face that history and escape it, creating a vision of family and father that he never had. The intensity of his search for the “what-could-be”—the “so-much-better”—drives the book.
Flynn has always had more to say about suffering and love than “They exist.” And he has always avoided portraying himself as saint and victim. He looks at himself and others with the same clear gaze: “& yes each of us is born with a gun on the wall yes a gun in the closet yes a gun to our heads.”
These poems, as in Flynn’s other collections, extract the tiny jagged moments, the kind that stick after the grand drama has blurred. Sometimes these moments are funny, sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes wry, sometimes brutal, sometimes the saddest sad.
A father’s disintegration and death, a mother’s suicide, love of all kinds, a daughter’s birth and growing-up—these are his subjects and experiences, ones others share. The uniqueness, the reason to read, is his restless turning and turning, looking for a way in or out.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Let’s start by talking about your new book that’s out on June 2nd.
NICK FLYNN: What can I say about the new book? Well, it’s called My Feelings.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is it really called that?
FLYNN: Is it really called My Feelings? You’ll have to read it to find out.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Why that title?
FLYNN: Well, there’s a whole story about it. One of the things is that it seems like the worst possible title for a book of poems—and it makes me uncomfortable, which seems like a good barometer that there’s some energy to it.
But it comes from when I was a writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown a dozen years ago. After my second fellowship there, I stayed on for a year because the writing coordinator left at the last minute, and they asked me to stay. I was sort of between lives, so I decided to stay, although I wasn’t a very good writing coordinator. One of the main parts of the job, I realized quickly, was to be the application coordinator. And I’m not so great with mail—sometimes I don’t open mail. I have, you know, entire rooms just full of unopened mail. I try to sort them out and open them—a hand-written letter I’ll open, but letters from the IRS, they have a whole separate room that I throw those into. Or I have in the past—I’ve gotten a little better with the IRS.
So, part of the job was that these packages of poems and fiction would come in. In the fall the first one came in, and it took me all day. There were all these steps to do. You had to take the check out, Xerox the check, and get the check to the accountant, and then take—it just seemed like an enormous amount to do. It was overwhelming. Then the next day there were two packets, and the next day there were like a hundred packets, and I thought, “Oh God, this is hell.” So I hired all the fellows.
There were about twenty fellows, and I gave them each like twenty dollars a day. One would just open the packets, and one would take the check and Xerox it . . . Each had one job to do, like a factory.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You applied business principles.
FLYNN: It was also just shifting the money. They didn’t have much money, and I had this budget, so I said, OK, I’ll just spend all the money on you doing my job, which was overwhelming to me.
But what I did have to do was read the manuscripts. A bunch of other people also had to read them, so I had to get them shipped and stuff. So of the 800 manuscripts—a crazy number of manuscripts came in—out of those, one was called My Feelings. A manuscript called My Feelings. At that point, after opening the envelope, I was so furious—who would call a book My Feelings? That’s the worst title ever.
So I threw it across the room. I actually threw it across the room, like, “This is bullshit.” Then at the end of the day, I went and picked it up and thought, I’ll actually read a bit of it. So I read a little bit of it and I threw it again. But I kept going back and reading it. It always confused me because I couldn’t tell if the person was completely naïve, or fucking with me, or was sincere, or a genius. I couldn’t figure out the stand. I couldn’t figure out the person at all. I ended up putting it forward to get a fellowship, but the other people saw it and said, “Who the fuck would call a book My Feelings?”
And so, twelve years later—no, more, fifteen years later now. Twelve years later was when I started considering calling the book My Feelings; it was the only title I remembered out of those 800 manuscripts. It’s the only title I remember. I had such a reaction to it. And even now when I tell people, people have strong reactions to it. When I said I was considering it, some people said, “Do not do that.” And other people said, “That’s great.” People think it’s funny, people think it’s serious, people think it’s ironic . . .
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did you want a strong reaction?
FLYNN: Well—there was a poet there named Alan Dugan, the great Alan Dugan, and we got to hang out with him while we were fellows there. There was Alan Dugan and Stanley Kunitz, the two great poles. Stanley was very emotional, and passionate, and Dugan was intellectual, and cold, and ironic. Dugan at some point told me that poetry’s central concern was emotion. Any poetry. Even in his poetry, which was intellectual and ironic. And I thought there was something so interesting about that. Basically all poems could be called My Feelings—it’s your perception of the world and your register of what’s going on that gets a poem going. The book isn’t ironic. My irony factor’s pretty low, you know. I can be ironic, but in poetry, it isn’t a go-to mode.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So your book is called My Feelings—what’s inside My Feelings?
FLYNN: The last two books have been more what I guess you’d call “project books.” Blind Huber was this 18th century Swiss-French beekeeper hallucinating bees talking, or bees are actually talking. And then The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands has a thread going through it of love and torture. This one is just the poems I’ve written in the last five years. And, you know, there’s the selection process, and in putting together the book, poems start to talk to each other, and things fall away. So it really is just a psychic map of my consciousness at this moment. There’s no greater theme to it, so My Feelings seems like an honest title. It seems like honest advertising. Though I’m sure it limits the audience. Not many people give a fuck what my feelings are, you know.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Why did you go toward those “project books” after your first book?
FLYNN: Well, I went to NYU and did my manuscript and got out in ’94, and Some Ether came out in 2000. But I’d been writing poems before and in between. There were ten years from the first poem to the last poem, which was the amount of time it took. They were these lyric meditations, and it could have been called “Mom / Dad / Me,” instead of Some Ether. Those are subjects I’ve returned to over and over and probably will return to, for better or worse. I just keep sort of recreating these genesis myths. If I kept writing poems, it was a sort of ship of Theseus situation. I would take the worst poem out and put the new poem in, and then I’d write a new poem and say, “Oh, this is a better poem,” and so take that one out. It was the same book but I kept redoing it.
So I thought, “I just have to stop this. It is madness.” I just kept pushing poems out. And it felt like the book was sort of together, but it had become a reflex to keep doing that, to keep replacing parts. And it wasn’t intentional, but suddenly somehow my psyche got hijacked by studying bees. It happened one night at a dinner party in Williamsburg. I was hanging out with all these artists, and went to this artist’s house, and a good friend of my roommate’s came down from New Hampshire. And he brought a jar of honey with him. I was sitting next to him and he held it up and said, “Do you know how many bee hours went into this jar?”
And it just seemed like an interesting way to see the world. In bee hours. I didn’t know how many bee hours went into it.
So he and I became friends, and I visited him in New Hampshire, and he was so passionate, so crazy, that it infected me. I became that person who from then on at every party I went to would steer the conversation toward bees. Like, “Oh, that reminds me of the worker bee!” You know, that obnoxious person. For six years, I became that person. I couldn’t help myself, I didn’t know why. It seemed like the most fascinating thing in the world. I don’t know if it was for anyone else. But it allowed me to stop writing about Mom and Dad, in a way, except the book is actually full of failing queens and disreputable male bees. Bee disguises—or at least people have pointed that out. I didn’t think so.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Does it matter to you if someone has that interpretation?
FLYNN: I hope that everyone has their own interpretation. I mean, I don’t know what the poems are about, or if they’re about anything.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How did you get to the character Huber from the bees?
FLYNN: Well, it took six years to write. Working on Blind Huber overlapped with finishing Some Ether and starting Another Bullshit Night. I started in ’95 and had been writing Some Ether for five years and could put it away for a while. It became weaving between three or four books. I’d put one down and pick another one up, work on it for two or three months, until I started making it worse. They were all so different that it allowed that.
And I had a lot of time, too. I was living really cheaply in New York, and I just had a lot of time. I didn’t have to work a lot to make my rent. That’s really one of the tragedies of gentrification—New York is shooting itself in the foot, and NYU is part of it. Put that in the interview. Fuck NYU. Becoming fucking landlords instead of actually allowing the students to have time to study. Tell that to the President. I had time. I had days to sit in my pajamas. Twice a week I had to shave and put on a shirt and go to work, but the rest of the time I was writing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What job did you have during that time?
FLYNN: The thing a lot of post-grad students do: Writers in the Schools. I was working at Columbia, at something called the Writing Project at the Columbia Teacher’s College. One of the few things I’ve done, which I would suggest to young writers too, is to figure out how much your employer’s making off your labor and ask for half of it. I just figured out how much they were charging a day for me to be in the school and said, “I want half of that,” which was an incredible raise. I was asking for like a 300% raise. And they said, “No, we can’t do that.” But they did it. They raised everyone else’s wages too—all the writers in the schools got a bump up.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So you didn’t find the switching costs of writing all these different things too hard?
FLYNN: It was really hard. Writing is really hard. It’s a little easier now for me. In an essential way I just let it happen now. There isn’t so much ego involved. Certain anxieties are less, I guess, because I’ve done it and I’ve written so many bad things that I expect 80-90% of what I write never to see the light of day. It used to be so troubling to me—you know, all these pages! I spent all week writing and all I have is one page. Now I’m like, “That’s fucking great.” I did not appreciate that at the time.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mentioned genesis myths. What is your genesis myth as a writer?
FLYNN: “Genesis myth” came from Stanley Kunitz. He thought that a first book was basically creating a myth of yourself, which is a strange idea in some ways. It seems sort of arrogant. You couldn’t call Stanley arrogant in any sense, but in the time I spent with him, I really felt that he saw himself as in a lineage of poets. Someone who is connected back to the Greeks, back to myths, so now we are doing our myths. This is how the culture moves forward. It wasn’t bullshit. You really saw that. You listened to Stanley and you saw. He was so old, he was so old.
Marie Howe told me to invite him over to dinner when I was a fellow. I was deeply intimidated, but I invited him over to dinner in my little shack. I made dinner for him, and he was like 170 at that point. Ancient. But when he talked, the table moved toward me—he was so passionate and energized. You were looking into a fire. It was like, “Holy fuck.” That’s when he told me about creating a myth of yourself, that your first book introduces you, presents you to the world. There is only going to be one first book, so you just go for it. In that sense, what’s the myth of myself? What’s the genesis myth? I don’t know . . .
It gets rewritten in each book, too. That’s a good thing about a body of work, it’s like a body itself regenerating. You get to see things differently. That was who I was then. That was the myth I had then. So it’s helpful, but myth isn’t even my word. It’s the word of someone who means a lot to me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, you present your first book of poems to your father, and it’s clear that you’re a writer because you’re writing, but in earlier parts of the book, aside from that portion about being in a writing workshop, you’re not writing about writing. You’re writing about living on the boat, or working as a case-worker. How much were you writing at that time and how early did you say “I’m going to be a poet,” or whatever word you used?
FLYNN: That is a question people have asked about that book, about how I don’t talk about my intellectual life. But I assume that it’s in the writing, in the riffing on Shakespeare, or Moby-Dick. You just assume I’ve read those books.
It’s having it woven in, and not saying how much books mean to me. I assume that the reader will pick up on it. The audience is so small and self-selected anyway that they’re going to be smart, they’re going to be intelligent enough to pick up on it. It wasn’t a book about my education.
I’m not sure if I talked about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in that first book, but that was the first book I bought, when I was about my daughter’s age, about seven. I went downtown and saw this book. I loved horror stuff, so I bought it. I brought it home and I remember so clearly bringing it home and only being able to understand half of it, at most. But knowing that next year I would be able to read this. And next year I did. It was a huge thrill to have this knowledge: I’m just not quite ready for this yet.
I feel like that’s been the model for most of my artistic life: putting myself in the presence of something I’m not quite ready to understand, then having the sense that this is something to work toward, to go toward. I wasn’t fast out of the gate. There were a lot of things I had to work through. And models like rock n’ rollers are all dead by twenty-seven, and I’m like, “I’m not even going to figure out who I am by twenty-seven.” Everything was such a mystery to me. And Stanley became an ideal because he was still writing when he was ninety. I thought, “I could maybe do that. Maybe by the time I’m ninety I’ll have something figured out.” I’ll keep moving toward that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s comforting.
FLYNN: That’s the thing about poets—many poets don’t publish till they’re forty. It’s really not that uncommon. A lot of painters have shows in their twenties and feel they need that kind of energy and attention.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In the interview at the back of Another Bullshit Night, you leave a question blank. [The blank question asks why the book has is called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The interview also includes the following exchange: “Q. Do you still blame yourself for your mother’s suicide? A. Do you really think I’m going to answer that here?”] You wrote that interview, right?
FLYNN: Yes, it was all created. I created that.
The book came out in hardcover and right after the book came out, they asked me, “Can you write some sort of epilogue to the book?” I said, “I just spent seven years writing this, I’ve said everything. Are you fucking serious? I can’t write an epilogue to the book. I have nothing, I have nothing left.” So I did the interview. That was that. That was my answer. I made it something I was actually interested in doing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In that self-interview you talk about imitating the structure of Moby-Dick—
FLYNN: It’s an incredible book. Moby-Dick is revolutionary. Especially in its form, in the putting everything in. Get everything on a boat, this confined space containing everything. I was trying for something like that. I did read Moby-Dick in the middle of working on the book, in Provincetown. I finally read it—though I’d read passages over the years. It’s one of those books where passages always rise up.
At the end of Stanley Kunitz’s life, when he was 103 and you’d go to see him, you’d read Moby-Dick. He’d say, “Would you read a chapter of Moby-Dick?” He looked like a little walnut sunk in a chair, but when you’d read he’d sort of come alive from the language. Then he’d read a chapter to you. It was this remarkable thing. When I read to him once, I read the chapter where one of the sailors falls into the open mouth of a whale while they’re pulling it up. He’s in there for a while and then they find him again. It seemed like Stanley was asleep, but when I read that part, he just said, “HA!” and started laughing. It was sort of wonderful—with anything about death he was just right there. He was sort of in it, but also it felt like at the end of his life he was made of language. He had just become pure language. It was really, really beautiful. It was good for me to be with him then because I don’t actually think of him as dead at all. He was just language. He’d just become language. It was this crazy thing. I could see it happening, see the transformation at that moment. So strange and yet comforting. It’s one possible way to die, I hope.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you’re writing, how do you approach language? Do you feel like you’re listening or steering it deliberately? How does it work for you?
FLYNN: It’s a lot of things. It’s like cultivating a garden or raising a child. I have a 7-year-old right now. I wasn’t exactly comfortable in my abilities to be a parent, but what I figured out early on was that whenever I don’t have 110% pure attention on her, when I turn away, things go terribly bad. They just go off the rails really quickly. She would be three months old and I’d look away and all hell would break loose. It’s exhausting, but then you make it like a meditation. Kids teach you everything you need to know; they’re their own instruction manual.
It’s like that with a poem too. When you read a good poem, or hear a good song, or go see a good film you feel that someone has been really attentive to whatever the poem needs to be. That it always existed and you found it, in some way. I had that sense too with kids. It’s almost like I’m assisting her in some way. It feels like you’re assisting the poem to come into being, to be its best self.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The mystical process of making poetry.
FLYNN: Yeah, because you’re not forcing it either. It’s not inside of you. It’s not an ego-driven project.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What differences do you find between writing poetry and prose?
FLYNN: Prose is longer.
It’s more exhausting in a sense because you have to keep the entire book in your head. For a long time, you don’t have any room in your head for anything else. It’s just the book and all the different chapters. Whereas with poems, they’re shorter—or mine are shorter—so it’s just keeping a poem in your head. And a poem isn’t about anything. In prose there are all these echoes that have to come through. When I was reading some poems last night for a collaboration I’m doing, I was noticing connections in the book that I hadn’t noticed before, that I would have been more conscious of in a book of prose. I would have had a structure. There’s a deer that appears two or three times in My Feelings, and I didn’t really notice it until then, like, “Oh, there’s a deer again.” That wasn’t intentional.
But it’s a closed image system. I wasn’t doing that intentionally at all, but the poems start to all speak to each other, to come together.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Does the “truth” of your nonfiction matter to you, or are you in the Geoff Dyer camp of not accepting the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, as when he says, “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time . . . ”
FLYNN: I did a Q&A with him in Houston recently, and I love his work. I’ve read a lot of his work. Dyer’s interesting because it’s his flow, his own internal music, that he’s writing. He’s always interrupting his flow, which I see as a diversionary tactic to divert the reader in some way from some central concern. That’s not my mode, but I love Dyer’s work.
For me, the truth thing is important. My answer to this is that I go by [John] Berryman’s edict, which Phil Levine told me at NYU. Berryman said, “A poet’s job is not to play fast and loose with the facts of this world.” What I took that to mean is that the world outside of our own psychic realms has its own physics and part of our job is to try to understand that and respect that. Obviously, people write speculative fiction, but usually they say that the universe created has to have its own logic. And since I’m a deeply ungrounded person—my feet don’t really touch the ground too much—my project is to be grounded. If you’re someone who’s really grounded, you’re probably free to speculate. If you know that you exist in the world, go for it. I’m not really sure about my place, so I feel a real need to maintain that in writing. But it’s all different depending on who you are. The facts in the world seem really important. But you know Berryman said that, but then he has poems where sheep are talking. But the sheep are saying what we imagine sheep would actually say, saying the concerns of the sheep. They would be concerned about dogs chasing them and nipping at their heels.
When I was writing Blind Huber, that Berryman quote was my mantra. So I had bees talking, but it was deeply researched. Actually, beekeepers come up to me and say, “This is what bees say, this is how bees think.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s a great validation.
FLYNN: It’s a very small group of people [the beekeeping world], and people give it to each other and say, “Look, this is what we’re doing.” Because it really was based deeply on six years of research and being immersed in that world. Keeping hives and owning hives. I wasn’t a very good beekeeper, but I had hives. I was just sitting there watching all the bees swarm away from me.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: To turn to MFAs, why NYU? You were in an MFA before everyone started asking that question. What was your experience like?
FLYNN: I got an MA. They didn’t have an MFA when I was there. I didn’t know the difference, and I still don’t know the difference, and I guess it doesn’t really matter to me. I worked all through my twenties doing stuff that’s all documented in Another Bullshit Night: working in shelters, driving boats, and other stuff. So I’d been out of school for a long time and I was trying to write and it wasn’t really going anywhere—for other reasons. But in my late twenties I quit drinking and doing drugs, and I took workshops first with Carolyn Forché and then with Marie Howe. They’re on Stanley’s branch of the tree, though [Forché and Howe] are very different. They were my first teachers and are hugely important to me. Marie and I developed a deep friendship, and at the end of the workshop, when we were having coffee, she asked, “What are you going to do? Are you going to go to grad school?”
I didn’t even know what grad school was. I said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m just writing poems.” But I applied to grad schools. At that time, I also got into the Work Center. None of the grad schools came back with money or anything, and I wasn’t going to go if there wasn’t money. I wasn’t going to go into debt. But then I got the Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, so I did that, and then when I applied from there, since I had that thing, then suddenly there was money.
I had a choice between I think maybe George Mason—there wasn’t much money there—and Syracuse and NYU. There was a lot of money in Syracuse. The NYU offer was basically “Just starve.” But I didn’t have to pay tuition and I could teach. And I couldn’t imagine myself in Syracuse. I could imagine New York, so I went to NYU just based on that. I knew Sharon [Olds]’ and Galway [Kinnell]’s work, and they seemed like good fits for me.
In grad school, I basically just wrote. I wrote a shitload. I was so hungry to write. I’m always sort of surprised when people in grad school aren’t writing all the time. I loved it. I loved turning in poems. That’s all I did. I took these bullshit literature classes—well, they weren’t bullshit, they were good, but I just really didn’t give that much to them. It was only to feed my writing. I took some theory classes that were really rough. It was in the middle of the whole post-modern revolution, and you had to really immerse yourself in theory. They were fun, but I didn’t get it exactly. The poems being written in that time, in the 90s, were really influenced by postmodernism, which was nothing like what I was doing, so my poems felt really unfashionable. Every poem I read in magazines basically had some character named Ivan who was unscrewing his head and putting nails in the floor. There had to be some Eastern European figure, some surrealist turn, some absurdist thing. So I didn’t really have a deep reaction to it.
So I went to NYU and studied with Phil Levine and Sharon and Galway and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg did a seminar, and you just sort of sat in a room with Ginsberg while he talked. I met with Ginsberg for a conference, and I’d given poems to his assistant. So I went into the little office, and closed the door, and the first thing he says is “Are you straight or gay?” I was like, “Excuse me? Is that real?” And he goes, “Oh, fuck it,” and he looks at the poems and shakes his head. Then he says, “I am so sick of poetry.” That was my conference with Ginsberg.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What books are you reading right now?
FLYNN: Well, I just spent the semester reading Geoff Dyer.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you have a favorite Dyer book?
FLYNN: I think it’s between Out of Sheer Rage and Zona. I took the train up to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival with Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Greg Pardlo. Greg had just won the Pulitzer, which is so stunning. I love both of their books. And obviously Claudia’s book is really tearing it up. Jamaal May—he’s a force of nature. I think there’s a lot of great poetry being made right now. It seems like a really good moment. Of course there’s bad poetry, but I just turn away from it really quickly.
I’ve gotten to guest-edit a couple of poetry magazines, which was fun. I just sort of got to put the people I like in it. A lot of what I like is in a sort of associative, lyrical, intuitive, sort of dream-like realm. Jean Valentine is sort of a godmother on that branch. That branch has all these people: Kristin Prevallet, Rachel Zucker . . . You know, Rachel Zucker is really grounded in everyday reality. It’s almost like she and Geoff Dyer should get married. The same and yet so different.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: They expand a very small moment, like a bubble.
FLYNN: Yeah, all the interior struggles of a moment. Oh, and I love Rebecca Gayle Howell’s book, Render. It won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize when I judged it. It was always new every time I read it. I thought she was like an eighty-year-old toothless Ozark woman. I didn’t even know if it was a woman. There was no name on it. It was this crazy book.
Then I realized I knew her. I didn’t know her, but we’d been in touch. She’d also translated a book of Iraqi women’s poetry [Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation]. It was completely and utterly different. I thought, “I’m so glad I’ve chosen this book.” She’s a good person in the world.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve talked about not knowing where a poem is going to end up being important to you. How do you get that, a kind of surprise?
FLYNN: You peel away anything that is not surprising. Try to get to the energy of the poem. [Frank] Bidart talks about the pulse of the poem. I think you proceed from what you know to what you don’t know, and try to go into the realm of the unknown. To what’s uncomfortable for you. I talked to this Native American writer yesterday, and she said, “Oh, I can’t write about this stuff, it’s too uncomfortable.” I was like, “What the fuck do you think your job is? That’s your job to do that.” As far as I can tell. Any sort of discomfort you have, go toward that.
There’s a poem in my new book called “When I Was a Girl,” which I wrote when I was trying to work on a poem for this anthology of poems related to Monticello, which I’d never been to. All I know about Thomas Jefferson is that he had slaves. I have a good friend, who won the National Book Award, Jackie Woodson. She’s a descendant of Thomas Jefferson in the slave line. When I was writing, this line, “When I was a girl,” came out. It just seemed so weird, so wrong. Like, “Where did this shit come from?” I was in a workshop at the time, and I wasn’t even going to read it out loud. I was going to edit it out—like, this is so wrong. But now the poem is called that. It just seemed so weird and I decided to trust that discomfort. What the psyche resists seems to be a good measure of where one should go.