An Interview with Nick Flynn
Photo Credit: Ryan McGinley
Nick Flynn is the author of four previous poetry collections, including My Feelings and Some Ether, which won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He is also the author of three memoirs, including Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and was adapted to film as Being Flynn. He teaches at the University of Houston. You can find him at nickflynn.org or @_nick_flynn_.
In Nick Flynn's latest collection I Will Destroy You, the poems transform you into the accomplice, the arsonist holding a matchbox, confessing to something you have no recollection of. They suggest playing "the Dying Game / again;" they blindside you, "all / that you love has been / leaving / hour by hour," and then tuck you into a warm bed for one of those hundred-year sleeps. They find a way of impressing, becoming a permanent part of you—Bower birds gathering a nest of blue, then become a salt marsh, dissolving into scattered bits of words on a page.
This collection approaches familiar thematic terrain for Flynn—addiction, generational memory, destruction—yet, does so to question art's ability as a source of redemption, renewal, and communion. During the beginnings of COVID-19, we practiced social-distancing and corresponded via email to discuss his forthcoming projects, Bishop's famous "(Write it!)," and Rembrandt's oeuvre of light-hearted snarls in an exercise (or inner-dialogue) of self-examination and self-knowledge. Flynn wonders to himself, "If only they could / bottle this feeling," and then he did.
Natalie Tombasco: The first poem “Confessional” is remorseful, candid, self-scrutinizing. It confronts the reader like an old friend and admits, “No one, as you know / sets out to lose their mind.” The poem invites you to rip it into pieces, “watch it dissolve.” Do you feel this piece is ars poetic? Does poetry writing feel like being “lost in a trance:” a ritual of ruination and rebuilding?
Nick Flynn: I sometimes wonder if every poem isn’t an ars poetica, in that it only exists in the act of reading it, or hearing it—that is the whole experience, it only exists in that moment when it is activated by the reader. I struggled with the writing of this book as much as I’ve struggled with any project, yet in a different way. And yes, the line, “forgive me, while writing this poem I was lost in a trance…” is a comment on how this, and much, of my writing, comes into being.
NT: What struck a chord with me in I Will Destroy You is the use of second-person throughout the collection. I began to question this amorphous “you,” and if it was the reader, the speaker, the self, the mother, a lover, or the sleeping child, and who exactly was destroying whom?
NF: I’m glad there is some slippage around that. The question of who is destroying whom is still unanswered.
NT: As you write in “Tattoo:” “inked / with the skulls of / everyone / we’ve ever loved—the you / & the you,” there’s a simultaneous feeling of permanence and impermanence in how the “you” imprints onto the speaker. Why was it important to have this ambiguity?
NF: One reason I read poems—or engage with any art, really—is to get a glimpse of the inner life of another human being, their inner landscape. The poem “Tattoo” is a glimpse into mine, even for me.
NT: I found the use of parenthetical statements to be reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s “(Write it!)” as a means to edit, reclaim, or push the speaker to reveal what would otherwise be left unsaid. Did this technique help to explore the idea of poetry being redemptive?
NF: I’ve always loved that moment in “One Art,” near the end, where Bishop steps outside of the poem for a moment and urges herself to go on, to write the difficult thing. I’ve always wondered if she was inspired by Hopkins, how he ends "Carrion Comfort” with a mirror construction, (my God!), which creates a similar effect in me. What exists inside the parenthesis can be when the artifice of the poem is stripped away, revealing some deeper emotional truth. I find it thrilling when an artist stops for a moment and acknowledges how weird it is to be lost in this bubble of creation. Like Rembrandt and his self-portrait, how he stares out at us with that look on his face.
NT: “Poem to Be Whispered by the Bedside of a Sleeping Child” opens with this harrowing line: “Here’s / the deal—if you die / then I will be able to / drink again & no / one alive will even / blame me.” This admission follows the poem “Balcony,” where an addict continuously struggles with suicidal thoughts, truly raising the stakes for the speaker and creating a pact between parent and child not to destroy each other. I think the gut-punching order of these poems is crucial to getting that message across. What is a bit of advice you give your students on ordering a manuscript?
NF: Yes, I guess those two poems do speak to each other, and it does seem that “Balcony” has to come first, in order for more energy to be released when we get to “Poem to be Whispered….” It is always about navigating the various tensions in the work. They could be the tensions between lulling and surprise, between what is said and left unsaid, what is known and what is unknown. Frank Bidart, in a talk, used the word “pulse” to talk about a poem. I think this is central to all art, to find that pulse, to keep it alive.
NT: I’m also intrigued by the enjambment in “Balcony” and how the lines lead the reader to the edge, enacting this sense of danger of addiction and suicidal thoughts but then pulls her back. Can the simple break of a line channel the poem’s content?
NF: The line breaks are one way that we acknowledge the material nature of what we are doing, that placing words on a blank piece of paper is not all that different from putting paint on a canvas or dancing across a room. Imagine it as a dance, with the dancer coming to the edge of the floor and teeters there for a moment. Or the way any drawing could continue on forever, if not for the size of the paper.
NT: Each of the three sections follows a hypnotic figure from folklore or mythology. First, there is the Pied Piper, then Sleeping Beauty, and finally, Icarus. At once, the poems share forgetfulness and remembrance, redemption and grief. Can you discuss why these three narratives were important to feature in the collection, and how you think they are communing through the magic pipe, spindle, and sun?
NF: I hadn’t consciously noticed that, though I was aware that one thread of the book circles around my relationship with my daughter, who was seven when the book began. In many ways my relationship with her is why the book exists. One of my jobs as a father was to spend a lot of time with her in fairy tales and myth, imprinting the archetype of the collective onto her subconscious life (or onto mine). I think we imprint onto each other. I like that you’ve distilled them each down to a single object—pipe, spindle, sun. An alternative title for the book?
NT: I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask at least one question about my favorite of yours, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, for its lawless structure, its geography (“Cape Cod...a fuck-you finger of sand sticking into the Atlantic,”) and its struggles with what you’ve called “a mythic fear—” of being destroyed by (or descending, dissolving into) our parents.
I Will Destroy You deals with loss, addiction, self-destruction, fatherhood—concerns that you’ve circled around before. How has being a parent altered your understanding of these essential themes?
NF: Yes, ABNISC, and even my poetry before that, wrestled with the themes you mention, but one hopes, as one moves through life, that we get different purchase on the hand we were dealt. I’ve been a father now for twelve years, which is an eternity. All the years before that I wasn’t a father, and then one day I was. It’s a huge job and I had no training. The kid is the instruction manual, yet no one tells you that. I had to learn that all you have to do is listen. I feel lucky that I’ve never been fucked up since my daughter has been alive, though it has taken longer to work through some of my more self-destructive impulses. Today I am in a good place, even as I write this on lockdown in the midst of a pandemic.
NT: I believe you have a forthcoming nonfiction book titled Mister Mann, as well as a poetry collection, Stay. What was the writing process like? Did they begin as the same project or did you always consider them to be separate?
NF: Mister Mann is now titled This is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire—I like both titles, but the marketeers thought it would be a hard sell at this moment in our history, a book called Mister Mann by someone who looks like me (white man). I thought that was a good (honest) reason to call it Mister Mann. This is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire is both less mysterious and more so, so that is now its name—Mister Mann is now its nickname. Stay isn’t a poetry collection, but it does have some poems in it. It is a collection of many of the artists I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with since I first began writing, alongside my writing that came out of those collaborations. It also includes excerpts of interviews I’ve done over the years (like this one).