An Interview with Nick Flynn

By Rodney Phillips

Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter 30.2, Spring/Summer 2005. 

Nick Flynn has received fellowships and awards from, among other organizations, The Guggenheim Foundation, PEN, and The Library of Congress. Some of the venues his poems, essays and nonfiction have appeared in include The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and National Public Radio’s This American Life. He is currently a professor on the creative writing faculty at the University of Houston.

At the time of this interview, Rodney Phillips was the Poetry Center Librarian.

Rodney Phillips: All of your three published books are really different. Can you please describe each of them in a sentence? 

Nick Flynn: I think you should describe each one as well, then we can have a contest. And besides, there are four books: 

Some Ether:

Blurb: an act of shameless self-mytho-poeticising, where Flynn tries to subvert his narrative tendencies by forays into invented "forms."

Over-riding emotion while writing it: Desperation. 

Soundtrack: Plastic Ono Band.

Blind Huber:

Blurb: Hoping to break out of il nuovo confessione, Flynn writes a series of persona poems, which seems to allow messier emotions (self-pity, bitterness, small-heartedness) more free-range, but sends him headlong into pathetic fallacy hell.

Over-riding emotion while writing it: Embarrassment.

Soundtrack: Philip Glass, The Photographer.

A Note Slipped under the Door: 

Blurb: The money-maker, which sank like a stone.

Over-riding emotion while writing: Self-righteousness.

Soundtrack: Donna Summer, I Feel Love

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: 

Blurb: a dodgy slip back into the myth factory, where Flynn appears, or wants to appear, to be free of self-pity and judgment, and to show his shadow side, yet finds it is all still a construct, that the self is a persona, that memory is fiction.

Over-riding emotion while writing it: "This is a big mistake."

Soundtrack: Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around.

Rodney: What two or three dead poets are partially responsible for you? What two or three live ones have affected you (a.k.a., your teachers), and why, or is that how?

Nick: Dead poets: Dickinson still amazes me, how she can slip between realities so fluidly, how she never seems worried if the audience is along for the ride with her. And Berryman, the tension he achieved in the Dream Songs, between high and low culture, between his instinct and his Shakespeare. Rilke took me a while to embrace, but once I did it was pure electricity. That's three; tomorrow, another three.

Live ones: I have this sense that 21st century American poetry, so far, belongs to women: Anne Carson, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Matthea Harvey, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Harryette Mullen, LeeAnn Brown, etc., etc. Many of us men, it seems, are just trying to keep up, or are mired in past glory—a ridiculous, sweeping generalization, I know, and I could name many male poets whose work is stunning, but it does seem like it’s women who are pushing the form forward.

Rodney: Talk a little about your method of composition. In particular how you might use the scraps and fragments you write down here and there, now and then. 

Nick: Well, when I'm walking in a strange city I have this ritual, which is to find three bits of ephemera, usually scraps of paper, usually something torn from advertisements, or maybe a ticket stub, or discarded cigarette pack, trash really, but it has to have some element in it that catches my eye, that interests me, or reminds me of something. I like pages torn from children's notebooks a lot, with drawings on them, though they don't always mix well with other images. Once I find one it might determine what comes next, one that somehow either adds to the one I already have or else works against it, creating some tension or juxtaposition, though if it feels too limiting I'll throw it away and start over. Eventually, over the course of a day, I'll settle on the three scraps of paper, and then I'll force myself to make a collage. I make a collage a day, always from only three scraps, because anything more becomes chaos, and I try to only use things I found that day, and to date the final collage, also finding the "canvas," usually a weathered piece of cardboard, a technique I learned from Bill Traylor. So I have to carry a glue stick, or buy it in a stationary store once I land, which is even better, because I like stationary stores, especially in other countries. I write the same way.

Rodney: You have a lot of friends who are visual artists and have collaborated with some of them in various ways. Can you talk a little about this aspect of yourself? 

Nick: Maybe everything is collaboration, in that we read poetry before we write our own poems, and we watch movies and imagine a poem for each scene, and listen to hardcore music as we're writing poems, and we talk with pals to find out what to read, and we read our poem to friends so we know it's done. I've worked with various other artists over the years—musicians, painters, dancers, filmmakers, other poets, playwrights—mostly just because I enjoy trying to understand another person’s process, and how poetry intersects that process. It seems to make the world bigger.  

Rodney: You have taught poetry to kids of a wide variety of ages. What do you like about teaching and what is not so pleasant about it?

Nick: I actually like most aspects of teaching, especially when I can step out of the way and let the students find what they know. I've had such great poetry teachers over the years, so I've come to see it as near to a guild system as we have, that it really is an oral art, still passed on from person to person, as it has always been. Or maybe that's just true for the last few years, with these MFA programs, but I see them as tying into this ancient tradition. In Hanoi there is a temple of literature 2,000 years old, where young writers would go to learn from masters, and then make their way out into the world.  

Rodney: Did you tell me what you were working on now? This very moment, I mean. 

Nick: At this moment, or this one? I'm working on getting through this semester, actually, looking forward to one day with absolutely nothing to do.