Books In Conversation
Activations: NICK FLYNN with Boo Trundle
(ZE Books, 2020)
It’s possible that Nick Flynn has invented a new kind of printed object with this latest book, Stay. He has selected poems, memoir, and essay excerpts, choice bits from interviews and talks, family mementos, and an intimate treasury of visual art, much of it created in collaboration with friends. A thoughtfully designed art book infused with the spirit of anthology, Stay offers glimpses into Flynn’s living, as well as his writing, and chronicles his persistent inquiry into how living and writing merge to both define and reflect reality.
Boo Trundle (Rail): Let's talk about how this book was put together, how you chose what to include and what to leave out. Some of the visual material in Stay could’ve as easily appeared in a family scrapbook. Photos and archival documents, like a letter from your father on a strange piece of stationery stamped “The Fact Foundation of America.”
Nick Flynn: The Fact Foundation of America. After my father got out of federal prison, he made up this shell company, this fake company. It only existed as a post office box and this letterhead. He’d write letters to people on this letterhead—Patty Hearst, Ted Kennedy—famous people, mostly. And me. I put one letter in Stay to have something with his handwriting on it. And that particular letter, also, is from right before he became homeless, which seemed significant.
Rail: When you were putting these artifacts together, were you working with one designer or with a design house? You said you got matched up with them through ZE Books.
Flynn: ZE Books founder, Michael Zilkha, hooked me up with With Projects in SoHo. I worked there for about six months. I’d bring them boxes of things: collages, books, photographs, collaborations.
Rail: How did the design grow around the objects that you brought in?
Flynn: The main designer, the owner of the company, is a woman named Jiminie Ha. Jiminie was overseeing the project, but she'd assign me to various designers. For some reason there was a large turnover at that time. I’d show up and there'd be a different person I'd be working with. And they were always named Nick. I worked with three Nicks. And her dog was named Nikki. It was very strange.
Rail: That is strange.
Flynn: I'd bring in originals of things and figure out how to get them scanned. Like of my collages or of the letter. And we'd figure out how to get them into the book. As I’m flipping through the book now, I think I brought in mostly original things.
Rail: Can you talk a little about that? How did you bring all the content into order?
Flynn: The book's divided into five or six sections. The sections are—just to read them over—“Begin,” then “Sleeping Beauty (The Mother),” then “Nebuchadnezzar (The Father).” Sleeping Beauty is a way I've written about my mother. Nebuchadnezzar is a way I've written about my father, so those pieces are included in the book. And they go on for quite a while. Nearly half of the book is the mother and father. Motherhood, fatherhood, my mother, my father, me as a father. These are things I’ve written about a lot, so I was trying to show how I move one thing through—I move through this idea and try to look at it in different ways through different books. The “Sleeping Beauty” section about the mother starts with my first poem from my first book, “Bag of Mice,” from Some Ether (2000). Then it keeps returning to ways I've tried to understand who my mother was.
Rail: Is this your biggest literary project, would you say? Trying to understand your mother and your father? Family?
Flynn: Sure, but hopefully it expands out into other, more universal themes, something other people can have access to, too. It's not always just about my mother. It is about the idea of motherhood. I do think trying to understand where you come from is pretty universal, who your parents are and the unlikeliness that you are you.
Rail: Let’s look at one spread, maybe starting with this photo of your mother from 1947. I love the choreography of these pages.
Flynn: I love this layout, too. This is a photo of my mother when she was seven or eight in our hometown standing in water that I've stood in. And it’s facing “Hive,” a poem that’s not ostensibly about her.
Rail: Then there's an excerpt from The Ticking Is the Bomb (2010) about your father and his caretaker. Then we go into “Last Kiss,” an excerpt from your new book, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire (2020), then it’s back to “Dissolve” from The Reenactments (2013). And then, a photo of your daughter dancing with a giant bat. Next page, simply a line from Bluets (2009) by Maggie Nelson. And then, a snippet from a conversation you had with some colleagues, “On Compulsion.”
Flynn: And also you skipped a photo in the middle of it, too, of Julianne Moore.
Rail: Oh, Julianne Moore. Right. Playing your mother in Being Flynn (2012). Can you tell me more about this sequence and how the pieces work together? How you made these choices?
Flynn: Well, before that first photo of my mother is the poem “Hive,” which ends with a house being set on fire.
Rail: Right. We could keep going back and back and back.
Flynn: It all connects. Before that there's a strange jellyfish collage and before that is “Canopic,” the fire. There was an intuitive thing to it. There's always a release of information and then sometimes something will be clearly spelled out, and sometimes something will only be suggested or hinted at. If you'd put the poem “Hive” before the “Canopic” piece where it's revealed that my mother set our house on fire… if “Hive” and the photograph of my mother came before “Canopic,” the flow would have less energy. It’s my experience… I’ve looked back… your compassion would deepen seeing her as a young girl, knowing where her life would lead her.
Rail: How did you narrow down which passages to choose from your books, seeing as they revisit some of the same events and memories?
Flynn: It was funny to read through, because I think that you want and you hope that the books stand up on their own and can't be excerpted. But there are resonant passages. Seeing how one passage talks to a passage from another book was interesting. In any book, in any project, each piece, each line, each word is a hologram of the whole book and so any part you take would have the energy of the whole in it. That's why you make books, I think. That’s why you put it together. You can extract a passage out of it, but that passage has the energy of the whole around it. You can create a whole other book around it.
Rail: Which is what you've done here in a way. With Stay.
Flynn: And it doesn't feel like a brutality to cut these out and to put things next to each other. I've done readings around this when I was writing the next book, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, where I've just read moments from other books where I talk about the fire. Or I talk about a fire. “I'm going to do a fire reading.” And I’d see how they talked to each other. That's probably how these passages ended up together. Remembering, “Oh, yeah, in Blind Huber I have that “Hive” poem, which ends with a house burning.” And then when I read them together I was like, “Oh, that's interesting. They are talking to each other.” Which I wouldn't have thought of at the time. And the next piece in Stay is my grandfather. I bring my grandfather in after showing a picture of my mother as a young girl. And this, the grandfather and mother are very closely connected. Again, not saying anything directly, but he has a certain inappropriateness to him.
And then “The Last Kiss,” which is the last time I see my mother alive. It goes back, it does move in time a bit. Goes back to my mother, her death. And then you get to see a photo of Julianne Moore playing her and then I talk about that. That experience. We go from my mother's death to Julianne Moore, to talking about the experience of watching Julianne Moore and then this photograph by the artists Kahn and Selesnick, my dear friends. They put another friend in a bat costume and put my daughter Maeve in a fairy costume and took this photo of them dancing. It somehow ties into the rest because Maeve is the same age as my mother in the earlier photograph.
Rail: And then you tie it off with this conversation about compulsion. It does seem like you are compelled to keep going back and back to the same images, events, symbols. And you’ve said you like to think of it as a practice, not a compulsion. Here in this piece you say, “I keep returning to the burning house. I think Freud would call it the compulsion to return to the scene of early trauma.” And you mention Buddhism in this same passage.
Flynn: Meditation is the other side of compulsion. I do think meditation is a way to channel the compulsion into something more positive, less destructive. So the compulsion is always there. It is like a fuel. But it needs to be tempered with meditation, the compulsion, otherwise it would be more destructive. Too destructive.
Rail: You transform it into a practice, then. A writing practice. A meditation practice. By transforming a compulsion into a practice you flip it into something more positive?
Flynn: Not as destructive.
Rail: I know that you use meditation in your workshops, as part of the generative writing process. As a portal into what you call “the psychic realm.” In an interview with the poet Rachel Zucker, in Stay, you say if you're not delving deep into the psychic realm, you're not really being authentic.
Flynn: I've talked about that in workshops too, something Brenda Hillman said, that a poem begins in the seemingly autobiographical and then, as you keep working on it, it pushes into the universal. But in order to become a poem, it has to cross the threshold into the deeper mystery. And that's what I mean, too. The psychic realm, that's the deeper mystery. The universal is connected to archetypes and other connections, but the deeper mystery is even below that or above that. That's where the hard work is. Otherwise, we're staying on the surface.
Rail: And how are these poetic practices, and this deeper mystery, related to your experience with Buddhism?
Flynn: I wear it very loosely, because I'm not a Buddhist. I don't think about it too much. I just do it. I haven't committed even to be connected to a Zendō, which I've done in the past. I find meditation to be very helpful in accessing what I think is the psychic realm where poetry lies, where it hides. It hides in that realm. You know, it's the subconscious. All those realms. The unsayable and bewilderment. It all exists in those realms. You can't look at it directly. You have to figure out a way to access it. Meditation is one way to access it. That's why I don't call myself a Buddhist. I use the tools of Buddhism which I find very effective, in order to do something else. I use them for my own—
Rail: Creative practice, for your artistic practice—
Flynn: Yeah. And I think hopefully it would somehow extend into my daily life also. Because I think the precepts are very good. But it's not the path I'm on.
Rail: The Buddhist precepts, then, adapted into creative practice. You describe your father, and his suffering, and your mom and her suffering… suffering seems to be one of your abiding interests. And alongside it, a tremendous amount of compassion in the way you write about both your parents. Was there ever anger, or blame, or judgment? Because I don't see a lot of that in your books. You never hated your dad? You were never mad at him?
Flynn: Oh, no. If you read—I think I have moments of anger. When he was homeless and I was still using drugs and alcohol, I thought about running over him when he was sleeping outside. With the van. That would solve everything. That sounds angry to me. That sounds like an angry thought to have. I definitely have those. There are passages in Stay, and in the book that’s coming out, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire. But even that rage… I sit with it for a while. I sit with the anger and the confusion for a while in order to find compassion in some way. It's necessary. You can't automatically have compassion. It feels like you need to go through all the stages of it to get there, for it to be genuine. You can't just decide, “Oh, I love everybody.” You have to actually see what you feel and recognize what they do and your part in what they've done.
Rail: In your workshop you have an exercise, a prompt to write about the person that you hate the most as a hero. To turn the person you see as a devil into a saint. And to write about them that way.
Flynn: A lot of people don't like that, when I bring that up. A lot of writers get angry when I suggest they try that.
Rail: Well, is that maybe an instinct of yours? A natural way of being? To feel compassion for your mom, for example, and the out of control things that she did?
Flynn: No. The new book goes into really dark destructive things, impulses of my mother that I am looking at very clearly. There will always be compassion or I'll always work toward compassion for them and just generally for all beings in some way. I'll try to do that. I mean it's hard. It's a hard thing. I don't think in either Bullshit Night (2004) or in this new one, I don't think I pull any punches or try to skim over anything. Both of them go deeply into problematic behavior, both of those books. But, in the end, mere anger feels false in a way. Like you're still stuck in the entryway. You haven't actually entered into the whole experience, with your anger. I don't see the purpose of it; doesn't seem the place for it, in a book.
Rail: Was there any sense of retrospective finality when you finished putting this collection together? A feeling of “this is your life?”
Flynn: I might have felt that way if it wasn't one of three books coming out this year. I might have felt, “Now what do I do?” But things are moving forward, you know? Stay is like a time capsule. It holds these 30 years in place. So far, I'm still here. And the other book is coming out in the summer.
Rail: What do you think of the copy on the book jacket, which calls Stay a self-portrait?
Flynn: That was the subtitle from the publisher, Michael Zilkha. But I always had the subtitle “threads, conversations, collaborations.” I'm very happy we used that.
Rail: But Stay certainly has an element of self-portraiture. Can you tell me about that first photo of you on the fifth page of the book?
Flynn: Jack Pierson took that photo on my boat in Provincetown when I was 29 or something and recently sober. Jack and I are the same age. We were both in our late 20s and he had not had his big show yet. He’d come up in Boston and he was moving to New York. This was just before that. So we were hanging out, he was this young artist and he was doing these drawings and taking photographs. He took photographs of all of us. All of us in Provincetown. The title of the book… Stay. That’s from Jack’s piece Stay from 1991, which is also in the book.
Rail: Right, in the book you explain that you came across a label for the “now-iconic wall sculpture” Stay at a show at the New Museum in 2013. The show was called NYC 1993, and the museum label traced Pierson’s use of found letterforms back to the boat you lived on in Provincetown… “the boat was christened Evol (“love” spelled backwards) after a 1986 Sonic Youth album, spelled out in mismatched letters on the stern—the format that would become Pierson’s signature.” You name several other friends whose ideas and efforts were involved with the letters, the boat, the birth of the artwork Pierson later made.
Flynn: The whole thing was a type of collaboration, almost an unconscious collaboration, we were influencing each other. Just the influence of Jack—seeing that Jack could look at those letters and see it as art was powerful. That he could make something of that. It was also the time, back then, the early days of hip-hop, of appropriation, of sampling. That was influential to me, sampling culture. Taking something and making something else out of it. The Beastie Boys’ “Paul's Boutique,” or Eno and David Byrne's “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” Sampling all of these sounds and putting them together. Jonathan Lethem wrote a beautiful essay about it that was in Harper's [“The Ecstasy of Influence,” 2007]. The entire essay was made from appropriated language. The entire long essay, and it was an argument for appropriation. It seemed to flow perfectly, but every word in it, he had taken from somewhere else.
It's a way to break out of the hero myth of the individual artist that creates from their own will and to see that nothing is created alone. It's always a network of people that help you and lead you to where you are, even if it's just influences. People like Jack, and my friend Neal Sugarman, the musician I lived on the boat with. And my friend Phil Terzis, who found the letters for the back of the boat. And Richard Booton, who turned Evol into Venal. All of these people, the book doesn't exist without them. And my relationships with those people, these friends and artists. That's why I wanted to put the book together, too, like this. Rather than doing a collected poems or selected writings. I wanted to have other people in it. Not just to acknowledge these artists, these relationships. It's not just acknowledging them; it’s so essential. It's more than acknowledging. Acknowledging seems secondary. It’s primary, the relationships are primary. The books don't get written without everyone else. None of them do.
Rail: Maybe that’s why you didn’t embrace the idea of calling the book a self-portrait. Maybe you feel it's more of a group portrait.
Flynn: That’s interesting. Maybe that’s why.
Rail: I enjoyed reading about these relationships, the personal connections between you and each piece of visual art you included, and your own collages, each with its own story. You’ve been collecting scraps of paper from cities, streets, catalogs, any kind of surface, it seems, for many years. Appropriating, clipping, recombining. Stay is a collage of many collages. It’s a unique book with a distinctive visual flow.
Flynn: A lot of that was the collaboration of the designers, the various Nicks. The three Nicks. When you arrange it on a computer you have to be aware of which pages will be facing each other. It adds another level of meaning to what you read right before it. Connecting pages that don’t go together in time. For example, a page from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is facing a page from The Ticking Is the Bomb. The artist Mark Adams painted over the page. He painted on the actual book with walnut ink. It’s his own thing. I don't even know why he chose to put this painting on this page. But I think it's beautiful.
Rail: You call Mark’s ink drawings activations. Can you say more about that?
Flynn: It’s a word we use a lot in my collaborative art class at the University of Houston. How to activate something, how to make it come alive. It’s one of the questions you ask when you're making art, or writing, or anything. What activates it? How does the interaction with the reader activate it, or with the viewer? What happens in that moment of activation?
Rail: Right, and your students, too, you invite them into collaboration. You include a cento in the book, a collage poem, “Confessional.” This is a group poem you composed with students in a workshop you taught at the Omega Institute in 2017. You added that you “arranged and transformed” the lines. I think you used that word, transformed.
Flynn: Because I change the lines, too. You change the lines to fit the poem. In the end, it’s weirdly about the poem. You honor the people who began each sentence, but I'm not beholden to the sentence itself. I’m acknowledging the person, then I shape their line or lines it to fit into the poem.
I wrote a group poem yesterday with my undergraduates. Over the last month, I've had them writing pandemic or corona or plague observations. And then I've had them, a couple of times, cull the lines from their notes that were good. Early on, I did it, a month ago. Told them to cull a line from what you wrote that was resonant, and we’d put it all together. We'd make something with it. Then I had them do it again. And a month later, their lines got much better. They got deeper into the virus. Their writing has gotten better. I did a whole corona poem yesterday, which is the only thing I've written in the last two months.
Rail: I love the importance you place on group energy, the fellowship.
Flynn: We've been much more serious about the undergrads at Houston. Before, we used to have all the grad students teach them, and we would just teach the grad students. But we've been focusing on the undergrads. I realized that I wouldn't be a poet if I hadn't taken an undergraduate workshop with James Tate. I wouldn't be a poet now. I might not be a writer now if I hadn't done that. I thank him in the back of the book. Tate. I thank him and my other mentor. When I write about Phil Levine.
Rail: I especially loved the essay about Phil Levine. Maybe because it addresses poetic practices that have influenced you in a broader sense. I want to call them poetic philosophies, but maybe that’s not right. You mention something you learned from Levine, that “a poet’s job is not to play fast and loose with the facts of this world.” You add: “What this would come to mean to me is that there is a world, one that demands—requires, rewards—our attention to it, the type of attention Simone Weil describes as a type of prayer.”
Flynn: Yes. “Absolute attention is prayer,” I think she says.
Rail: This feels like another spiritually inspired artistic practice, like meditation, or compassion. This idea of sacred attention. I’ve heard you talk about trying to be “utterly present,” and something called “the eternal present.”
Flynn: Yeah, the eternal present. I don't know if it’s that exact term. I don't know if I read that somewhere or where I got that term. I guess it’s Buddhist. It's a way to think of being present in the world, that if you're deeply present in every moment, then you're eternally present. We're just here. We're in this moment together. It sounds kind of terrifying in some ways.
Rail: It is terrifying. You also reflect on something you learned from Stanley Kunitz, in your words, that “if you read a poem you like, you must become the person who can write that poem. It's a life's work. How one lives one's life is important.” Attention as prayer, eternal presence, the effort towards right living, how that affects what you write, the art you make, your mother, your father, you…it’s all so powerfully glued to the mat by the word Stay.
Flynn: I had always thought of Stay as the title for a book. At one of the recent events I did, one of the Zoom events I did for Stay, a woman I hadn't talked to in 20 years who I knew from Bread Loaf said that she remembered I used to wear a Stay t-shirt.
Rail: Oh, it's on a t-shirt?
Flynn: Jack Pierson made a t-shirt. I think it was for the Swim for Life, which is something that we do in Provincetown, swim across the bay. And they had a t-shirt every year. And Jack's, that year, was Stay. It just said Stay on it. I really loved that t-shirt. I actually went up to the attic and found it. I still have the t-shirt, which is crazy. And so I always thought about it as the title for a book. I mean, for years, I thought it was a good title. When I did this, it made sense for the whole thing. It just made sense for the whole thing.