Nick Flynn is the author of four poetry books, including I Will Destroy You, My Feelings, and Some Ether, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and three memoirs, including Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He teaches at the University of Houston and lives in New York.
Peter Kranitz: You’ve said that this collection is, in part, an attempt to reexamine a memory from your childhood—your mother setting house on fire when you were six to collect the insurance—and the echoes of this event in your life since then. Do you generally view the writing of poetry as a way of untangling the myriad details and events that make up life and reorganizing them into a more coherent or understandable structure? Do you find that it ever has the opposite effect—that of making the narrative you tell yourself murkier than when you began?
Nick Flynn: I think any hope to untangle the past would be overly optimistic, yes. I find that the closer I attempt to get to some deeper mystery, the stranger and more incomprehensible it becomes. But it seems important to cross these thresholds into the unknown, if only to connect the story you tell to everything else. That said, I try to live on that edge between what is seemingly coherent and known and the vastness of all that is unknowable.
PK: In “Life is Sweet,” you write, “Still / I worry sometimes // how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem // or a movie, / something that can be // walked out on,” and ask in the collection’s concluding poem, “What / would [Saint Augustine] say of these words then, which, / after all, are meant to replace us?” Later in “Saint Augustine,” you say that “Even as I write each word I am farther from / God—sometimes I just can’t find it.” And yet, in “See Through”: “pretty soon all the world we can’t // define with words stops existing.” There’s a self-consciousness about the poem as a medium in this collection that is less apparent in your previous ones. I’m reminded of Eliot exclaiming in “Prufrock,” “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” How has the way you view poetry’s ability to articulate and communicate an emotion or lived experience changed over time? Do you worry that, in the end, poetry may be incapable of adequately doing so?
NF: Yes, I noticed that as well, that many of the poems came up against the questions of why anyone would write a poem. It came out of my most recent and ongoing deep dive into therapy—Jungian this time around—where it became clear that everything I had written up to that point was, yes, an attempt to contain chaos, to gain the illusion of some mastery over it. It became clear that the danger of this mode is that it can create a seemingly coherent narrative that is drained of affect, even if the poems seem to exist on an emotional plane. The poem itself becomes the defense against deeper feelings, which a few years ago suddenly felt counterfeit to me, untrue.
PK: The first poem in the book, “Confessional,” begins with the speaker imploring the reader to “Please, take [this poem], rip it up, put it in your glass. / We can watch it dissolve.” Later, in “Saltmarsh,” this image becomes concrete, the poem being structured to look like the words are dissolving down the page. Dissolution appears in several other places, too, as with the vultures dismembering the mother’s corpse in “Sky Burial” and the motif of the burning house throughout. In a way, the book could almost be called I Will Dissolve You. Where does this interest in the coming apart of things, the ephemerality of language and objects, come from?
NF: I Will Dissolve You—that’s great. I go back to your last question—I think my answer to that one can be used for this one as well. My therapist called it a narrative/affect disorder, where the story constructed is an artifice, meant to keep feeling at arm’s length. At some point (if you’re lucky) this stops working, and the story dissolves into pure affect. It is a terrifying moment (or year), yet seems important be open to this, in order to move into the next realm. This realm might be considered a step closer to existing outside of illusion.
PK: How do you navigate the tension between embracing that pure affect and containing it in writing?
NF: It’s tricky, maybe impossible. It’s a difficult place to create anything from, which is, in part, why I took some years off from writing. At some point the writing became closer to meditation—simply observing the words (memories, feeling, images) as they floated past, not needing to make anything of them.
PK: Your daughter is a big presence in these poems. Do you write with her in mind as a one-day reader of your work?
NF: Not as a one-day reader, for she may never read my poems—that will be up to her. My sense is that she knows me so well already that she won’t have the same questions I had for my parents, who were utter mysteries to me. The poems that ended up becoming I Will Destroy You began when she was seven, and asking me a lot about what life was like for me when I was seven. Those questions gave me access to a world I hadn’t allowed myself to visit since I was seven. In many ways I had run from my childhood as if from a house on fire. This is one of the unexpected gifts of becoming a father, even if I still feel a bit counterfeit when I call myself a father.
PK: I love the part in “Alphabet Street” where you respond to your daughter asking why Prince was so important: “He // made us happy, I say, / people are not // replaceable, I say, no / one, nothing—if that’s // the only way—is replaceable.” It’s such a simple and affecting explanation for grief, one that’s especially true when it comes to grieving a musician. You reference two other deceased musicians—David Bowie and Kurt Cobain—at other points in the collection. Could you say a bit about your relationship to the music of these artists? And, more generally, how does music impact your work as a poet?
NF: Each book has a soundtrack, what I was listening to as those years went past. The Bowie/Prince poems are all tied to hearing about their deaths on the radio, and how on those days their songs would fill our rooms—that was how I’d introduce my daughter to their music. The Cobain poem is the oldest of those dead rocker poems. His death affected me deeply at the time, in a way that was utterly misdirected, since I didn’t know him at all. I took his suicide personally, was pissed off that he would do that to his daughter. This was years before I would become a father—I think it would still piss me off, maybe even more.
PK: What else was on the soundtrack for this book?
NF: Most of it was more ambient, as a way to stave off the chaos: Wim Mertens, Iris; Agnes Obel, It’s Happening Again; Chilly Gonzales, White Keys; everything by Noveller.
PK: Two of the poems in the collection—“Confessional” and “Icarus”—are centos. Both are beautiful, and I would not have known they consisted of lines from other works had you not noted it in the back of the book—though this may say more about my poetic literacy than anything. Can you talk a bit about working in that form, and about the act of assembling and transforming, as you put it, the words of others into a new poem?
NF: Both those poems came out of workshops, where at some point all the members of the workshop cut-up everything they—we—had done up to that point and tried to create something new from the resonant fragments. I like that we are all working with the same limited palette, and yet each poet comes up with something uniquely their own. For me, it reinforces the idea of language as a medium, like paint, rather than simply a means to convey information.
PK: A few of these poems were written as collaborations with works of visual art by other artists. How did these ones come about?
NF: Collaborating with other artists has always been part of my practice. I can learn things from a dancer or a filmmaker that suggests new ways of handling language. Besides, its less lonely than sitting in a room with a pencil.
PK: Beyond the centos, many other allusions and quotations and paraphrases make their way into your poems. How do these influences find their way in? Do you find yourself stumbling upon things that immediately find a home in a poem?
NF: Bits of language—from books, from the radio, from conversations—get hooked on something in my subconscious and hang there until the right moment. This process can take years. It is rarely immediate.
PK: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were also working on a memoir based around the same material as these poems. How does your approach differ when addressing these themes in prose?
NF: Prose, by its nature, needs to be more grounded. The reader needs to know where they are and what is happening, before we can drift off into reverie. With a poem, this may or may not be true. The prose book is called This Is The Night Our House Will Catch Fire—it comes out next year from Norton. In the years it takes for a book to find itself, I usually work in more than one genre with the material, and end up with a book of poems and a book of prose that are siblings, made from the same DNA. Sometimes the poems feel like the sister to the brother prose, sometime the poems feel like the night to the daylit prose. For both I like the French term “recit”—which is a type of writing that is “not the narration of an event, but that event itself, the approach to that event, the place where that event is made to happen.” I lean toward writing and art that feels this way, that forces me to actively participate in the act of making meaning.
PK: Can you give some examples of this récit structure that you admire, in literature or elsewhere?
NF: I was just reading CA Conrad’s poems—I’d say that’s as good an example as any. Here’s one called “Camisado.”
Author photo courtesy of Ryan McGinley.