Nick Flynn, Author

Nick Flynn

Photo: Dion Ogust

When I spoke with Nick Flynn, it was a Sunday afternoon in late May. Hot, humid, and there is no better way to say this—it was loud. The kind of loud that reminds you life is loud and busy and happening all at once. He was solo with his 7-year-old daughter, Maeve. She was writing songs that day and she was on a roll. She sang parts to him and I listened as he gave some very real feedback.

I think maybe the second chorus you can do “everywhere you go” but maybe mix it up? Yeah, you name the places then, cool. She’s just having this moment where she’s just all about writing songs. Who knows how it happens. She’s written in this little notebook like four in like the last half hour. You know just keep riding it. When you are on a roll like that with poems you know you sort of think it’s going to last forever but then after a while you realize it won’t. You get these little bursts of inspiration and then maybe a couple of years will go by before you get another burst. You’ve got to take advantage of it, Maeve.

Over the span of our telephone conversation he fixed a bench in their home, continued to engage with Maeve, walked her to the park, ate ice cream, and talked to neighborhood kids. Flynn is a busy man but at no point did any of this appear to be stressful or burdensome to him.

I don’t do a whole lot that I don’t want to do.

What I’m most curious about when we begin to talk is how he writes in the distinctive manner he does—the creative nonfiction that moves back and forth in time, the poems that can wreck you in a single 30-second read, the religious references—but what I ask first is about the epigraph of his new book, My Feelings. It reads “for Jeff Shotts,” who is the Executive Editor of Graywolf Press.

He’s been my Editor for four books now. Jeff has been amazing. You sort of realize the longer you stick around certain individuals, the effects they can have are huge. I’m all about the collective and all that stuff but certain things don’t happen unless someone does it. Jeff has really stood up and stepped up in this really significant way. He was my editor for the first book back in 2000 and then I think in the second book he was in graduate school. He went to Washington University to study poetry. He realized he needed to know more and so he went and really just got into it. He was, I don’t know how old he was, maybe his 20s or something and it seemed like that commitment was really great for him. He decided to immerse himself in contemporary poetry and just study it and to try his hand at it himself. People stay at Graywolf. It’s unlikely I would ever leave. They have a really good commitment to the work, to showing up for it.

As he’s talking about Graywolf there is an incredibly blistering sound. I couldn’t place it and before I can ask he tells me he’s drilling a bench in his home.

I’m trying to fix a bench while we do this; I’m multi-tasking like a crazy person here. I’m fixing a bench, my daughter is writing songs, I’m doing an interview, I’m talking about Jeff Shotts, it’s insane. What an insane life.

Flynn has published all of his poetry with Graywolf Press, which includes Some Ether (2000), Blind Huber (2002), and The Captain Asks for A Show of Hands (2011), and now My Feelings (2015).

Jeff and I, we’ve had conversations about the work. Jeff doesn’t take, Graywolf doesn’t take just anything. I’ve sent them things before and if I don’t get any response from them I know they don’t really like it. I’ll have a sort of little project or something, maybe send them the start of it—hey what do you think of this? I just won’t hear anything from them and I’ll know okay, I guess that’s not going to go anywhere. I’ve sent little threads of things, beginnings of things and if he gets the sense that there’s some potential to something, he’ll give it a shot. This last book, My Feelings, like most of my work, was kind of a mess when I first gave it to him. It’s almost not even recognizable as the thing I gave him but he saw enough potential in it. That’s the thing I like about Shotts, he wouldn’t have said yes if he didn’t see that potential. He wouldn’t have given it the go ahead and said yes, lets put this in a line up for the future. Two years ago I sent him the first draft of what would become the book. A lot of poems left and a lot of poems came in during those two years. My father died in those two years and now this book sort of has this whole—I mean some people might read it as being about my father’s death but it wasn’t initially. I don’t know if you read it that way? I could imagine it being read that way.

Though I definitely took note of the poems with his father—I think anyone that’s read his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City would be in tune with those poems—they didn’t seem to be the central focus of this new book. I told Flynn that they seemed to be a small section of the larger text and they highlight the progression of his father’s illness at its worst. He doesn’t believe this book is a project book like some of his others and when I mentioned I thought the overall feel was less about his father and more a look at mortality, he agreed.

Yeah, mortality. That’s also what happens when you reach a certain age, you start writing your mortality poems. There is a thing about your last parent dying that suddenly the gaping maw of mortality gets a little closer. Like if you’ve been able to ignore it or been reckless or whatever through your youth, suddenly it becomes much more real that we’re next in line. Like next over the cliff is you. It becomes very clear. Whatever sort of romance you might have had about it is suddenly less romantic and just becomes more real. Like oh yeah—this shit’s not going to last forever. My first book Some Ether was written 15 years ago and I was younger but it took 10 years to write it so that was 25 years ago, it was half a lifetime ago. And in that time things change and that’s one thing too I don’t really, I don’t have any apologies writing about seemingly the same subject in this book as in Some Ether—I write about mom and dad because it’s seen from a completely different perspective at least for me, they feel totally different to me.

I read My Feelings in one sitting; it’s that kind of book—a damn good book. As I read, I kept trying to think of how to describe it. I finally wrote down “an extension of Some Ether, an extension of it in the future.” I asked him if this was accurate or if I was missing something.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s good. It’s Some Ether in the future.

Flynn then turns to talk with Maeve and make their plans to head to the park now that the song writing has subsided for the moment. His wife, actress Lily Taylor, just left for Bulgaria where Flynn will meet her in several weeks. She’s shooting a prequel to what Flynn called “the American classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Taylor is playing Leatherface’s mom before Leatherface did terrible things. As they head to the park, father and daughter, I ask about the variation in the book—the fact that these poems don’t seem to be done with the intent of being in the same book. At least not quite like Blind Huber and Some Ether did.

It’s sort of by intention, not a project book. The first book I guess was maybe somewhat of a project book but the next two had unifying content or concern or examination like The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. You know what unifies the new book is the title I guess, it’s just what is rattling inside me. Whatever is in there is what I put in—my feelings.

Throughout the new book, the religious references are noticeable. Mentions of Moses, Adam, St. Francis, communion, Ecclesiastes, Saul, and Damascus—all woven between poems of his father’s illness, addiction, and his mother. I wondered if those references were intentional and Flynn assured me it’s always intentional. I recently sat in a class with him at one of Antioch’s residencies. He spoke about something he called the closed image system, an idea he attributes to the poet Sarah Messer. It’s the idea that each project has its own set of images, they often repeat, sometimes in various forms, but they’re the writer’s attempt at trying to understand them. For instance, in The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn notes his closed image system as: photos, monkeys, shadows, swimming, and Proteus.

I think Jesus makes a lot of appearances in my books in general. I’d say Jesus fits into that closed image system. I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I feel like I can approach biblical stuff from an outsiders perspective. You know I don’t have that much baggage around it. At least I don’t think, maybe I do. But I seem to have less than my Catholic friends who are really maybe furious with the Catholic church. Sometimes a lot of Catholics when they grow up have a lot to work through. I don’t have that so I can just look at Jesus like wow what a strange person or interesting person. I can see the good stuff and the weird stuff. I guess it doesn’t have that much weight; it’s just a character. And with the biblical stuff some things just sort of appear like that reference to Ecclesiastes in the poem “Father, Insect.”

Flynn suddenly turns to talk with Maeve and starts spelling: h-a-p-p-i-l-y.

I’m not a very good speller but I think that’s how you spell it: h-a-p-p-i-l-y. What’s that? Oh you had it right, okay. Good. So yeah, that Ecclesiastes quote, I’m not even sure where I got that from? It just sort of seemed like something that fit into the larger project whatever that was but this still wasn’t a project book.

If you’ve read any of Flynn’s three memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb, or The Reenactments, then you’ve likely noticed the timeline and structure. Moving forward, moving backward—whatever he seems to be thinking at the moment becomes the next chapter. The poems in this new book do that too. They also contain a creative nonfiction quality of linking the personal with the outside. When I read the notes section at the end, I was surprised at some of the references of where these poems came from—some from films, pieces of art, and news stories. When I was reading them I thought they were personal. Until I read the notes I didn’t know it was a reference to something else. Despite being inspired by outside forces, they still always feel incredibly personal.

That’s the whole thing about turning the dial on the radio and whatever catches your attention is going to have a lot to do with what your internal psychic landscape is at the time. Everyone who turns the dial will land on a different station. When you read the newspaper, your eye will go to one headline while my eye will go to another headline. If that seems like important information then as a creative person you have to trust that and ask yourself—why is it? Why are you interested in that thing and why am I interested in this thing and what does it connect with? It usually connects with something deeper and larger and weirder—some sort of question that you need to ask. It’s very personal. So yeah, I trust that and a lot of times it is something I need to connect with.

Flynn addresses another child at the playground who is yelling—“you are it!”

I do want to play tag but I’ve got to finish this and then we’ll talk. I’m it? How can I play tag when I’m talking? I’m always it, I’m always it.

That makes me think of the two most recent poems in the book, the ones I wrote last were “My Joke” and “When I was a Girl.” And “When I Was A Girl” was written less than a year ago, I was at a workshop teaching and it came out. It creeped me out on various levels. I was writing it for this book on Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s home and I was playing with this poem for a few months, and I came up with that line “when I was a girl” and there’s something so wrong about it. It seems so weird, to put next to the Thomas Jefferson thing. It just beyond my comprehension really. I like to have poems that are sort of beyond what’s my own comprehension so I don’t know someone else will have to tell me what that poem is about. But I know there was an energy around it. I usually read it at my readings now. I think there is some sort of very weird energy to it that I think is totally out of my control. Whenever I read it, I don’t really understand—I’m like oh what is this part, here’s another part, this is strange. There’s something about that, it just feels right.

At Antioch University’s December residency, Flynn included this poem as part of his reading one evening. I remember that title eliciting laughter from the crowd. Though as soon as he started reading it, the room was silent. Something about it was reverberating and resonating even if no one could explain why.

Even what you appropriate says a lot about you. We could all be given the same pile, all be given Hamlet and we would all be allowed to appropriate five lines from it, choose 5—those 5 lines would reveal something. Reading those 5 lines would say something about you. Part of your job as an artist is to push as close as you can to finding out why you chose the line that resonates for you. You’ll never get to the end of it, you’ll never figure it out exactly but you will sort of have some sense. That’s what I tried to do with The Ticking is the Bomb, that six year project I was on about state-sanctioned torture. Which I was like why the fuck am I writing about Abu Ghraib? Why am I on this thing? I was just hijacked. And then I did eventually figure out that I suppose it’s a sort of look back, it’s early childhood stuff—mom and dad, in a very strange and surprising way to me. That was an interesting process.

At one point I mentioned that The Ticking is the Bomb was about his daughter being born. He considers it to be largely about state-sanctioned torture. Later he said, “We both might be right.”

It just seems like a part of what one does. If you’re writing a piece of nonfiction like Jon Krakauer writing about the Mormons or something he probably doesn’t have to do that. One of my favorite moments that he has in Into the Wild is when he’s writing about Chris McCandless and he stops about three-quarters of the way through and has this section about why he’s interested in writing about Chris McCandless. He says the reason I’m doing this is because I was Chris McCandless when I was 20 years old. I did these crazy fucking things. He tells this crazy story about getting trapped in an ice cap overnight and nearly dying. He talks about taking these risks as a kid and why he did it and suddenly the whole book opened up. That’s sort of what interests me but obviously there are other types of fiction writing where you don’t have to do that and you can’t always do that with poetry. They all have very different energies around them. But the thing I’m interested in about creative nonfiction is that it has that element—you have to ask yourself why you are writing about this particular thing and not about the million other things you could be writing about? That’s actually hard work. That’s actually the more difficult work—stop and answer that question. It’s hard work to accurately portray the world too. To figure out why you are choosing to spend six years of your life writing something is really the question that should be asked just for your own sanity. Otherwise it’s kind of a strange life if you’re just like oh yeah, I wrote about the Titanic and the Great Chicago Fire and Anne Frank. Why did I choose those three things to write about? Why did I spend my entire life doing that?

Though he’s written three successful works of creative nonfiction, poetry is his focus for now. He mentioned being in a sort of poetry mode, one where he can imagine doing another book of poems next. It isn’t likely this will be soon since he is taking time off these days. He says this feels right to him and if or when a poem comes, it will be a gift. It’s hard to imagine him taking any sort of break but it’s not hard to see where his focus is. This is a writer in such high demand but he never seems exasperated by it all, seems like he has all the time in the world for everyone in the world.

Life, work, fatherhood, husbandhood—It all seems part of the same life. By paying attention to my daughter I feel I am being allowed a glimpse of eternity.

He mentions his daughter in several of the new poems and there is always an accompanying sense of wonder in those pieces. Along side those poems are many that elicit a soul-crushing type of narrative. Perhaps one of the most intense poems in this collection is “The Washing of the Body.”

That poem took me 20 years to write. There is a passage in there where I say “Twenty years I’ve tried to write this/only to end up/this isn’t it, this isn’t it.” In 1995, our friend Billy Forlenza died and we were, as the poem lays out, we were presented with the task of washing his body which is something none of us had ever done before and I’ve never done since. It’s a very old, sacred thing to do. We knew that at the time, the three of us really took it very seriously. He was a dear friend of ours. There were a lot of friends around that time that were dying. It was sort of at the tail end of this age of onslaught of AIDS where a lot of people died. He was one. You know he’d probably be alive today with the medicine we have. There is something about that; he contains, that poem contains the energy of a lot of people that died. That time in my twenties a lot of people were dying. The only equivalent would be people going to war where you’d have that many people you knew who had died. Good friends of ours were dying. I mean it happens with overdoses and things but it was this really massive die-out and it was happening especially with the people I was hanging out with. I lived a lot in Provincetown, there were a lot of gay folks there, a lot of New York artists, and it just got especially bad, especially hard. I sort of touched on a little bit of the AIDS epidemic in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City when my friend Richard had died but I haven’t really ever gotten fully into that experience. It was a lot. A lot of my twenties was me dealing with friends who had AIDS.

And I’m glad you like that poem, it took so long to write. It’s one that I think is done but it’s one of the ones I’m the least sure about in a certain way. It’s so funny because I began it before Some Ether came out. I mean I tried to get it into Some Ether but it wasn’t ready, you know? It didn’t feel like it was ready for that but it’s from that era. It was actually begun before I began Blind Huber, before Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I began that poem. I would go back to it every couple of years and work on it a little bit and just think it’s still not ready. Everyone else who is in that, Marie Howe, Michael Cunningham, and Michael Klein, have all written about that incident. We should do a little chapbook or something about this experience now that I’ve finished mine finally.

I started to wonder if it was the sheer amount of time that it took to write that allowed it to build that emotional charge. This seems to be a theme for Flynn—Some Ether took him nearly ten years to write and it still stands as an incredibly emotive first book of poetry. When he won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for it, the judges noted this surge “These poems establish their emotional authority through their very movement—their wayward, whispering music.”

That’s the thing—sometimes time distills the charge, the emotional charge. And sometimes it’s the immediacy of something. Sometimes it’s the crafting, you can cut away and get to the essence and it doesn’t have that charge. A lot of poems are abandoned too. I have folders full of poems that I sort of keep returning to though. I kept returning to “The Washing of the Body” thinking there was something there. Like I said, I’m not sure if there is, but I’m glad you like it though. That makes it all worth while.

There is a line in this poem that I must have read no less than ten times. It goes “…your back/still warm where the blood pools…” On first read it made me weep. On second, third, fourth read I just kept wondering why is that line destroying me?

Your back is still warm where the blood pools—yes, like suddenly that very specific thing of the body, what the body does, it was weird. The top of him was very cold and we turned him over and his back was very warm. A nurse had to tell us why because we were very confused by it all. It is details like that that make a poem come alive, you know? It’s really specific, really being in tune to the world at that moment, at a really heightened moment. And in the poem I mention the thing about the ring on his finger—that was the one thing we couldn’t get off of him, his ring. We were trying to get it off but couldn’t and after all those years those are the things—the blood pooling, the ring, the lights fluttering above his head, and the conversation we had—those are the things I remember. The conversation in the poem was pretty accurate too. We were all trying to find our way into describing it in the middle of doing the experience. There were three writers standing around him too—such a specific thing.

This mention of detail instantly reminded me of when my brother-in-law, now a doctor, was in school. He went through that phase where their learning is taking place almost solely on cadavers. It didn’t bother him for a long time. People interested in that field always seem so sturdy in their work. And then he came home one day and just sort of collapsed before my sister and said “She had pink finger nails, she had pink finger nail polish on.” And that’s what got him. That little human detail he finally noticed brought him to his knees.

The nail polish—that’s chilling actually. That’s a really chilling image. You should use that in a poem. My mercenary self feels bad for your brother-in-law—that’s a good line for a poem.

Yes, it is, I say.

Well you better use it before I do. Or we can both use it—it’ll just be different poems.

Sarah Miller Freehauf Sarah Miller Freehauf is the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket, Founding Editor of Teenage Wasteland Review, Editorial Assistant for Divedapper, a reader for [PANK], Interviewer for The Review Review, and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also teaches high school English and Creative Writing in the Midwest. Her most recent creative work can be found in Stone Highway Review & Poemeleon.