Poet Nick Flynn grew up on Boston’s South Shore and attended New York University. He spent six years working in the Pine Street Inn, a Boston homeless shelter. He has published two books of poetry, Some Ether and Blind Huber: Poems, a how-to-teach poetry book, A Note Slipped Under the Door (with Shirley Phillips) and most recently, his memoir of sorts, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review and other smart-ass magazines. He has also received a number of prestigious fellowships. He was a member of the Columbia University Writing Project, which trained teachers and taught writing to young people, and he currently teaches one semester a year at University of Houston. Nick Flynn lives in upstate New York.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City recounts Nick Flynn’s tumultuous family life (his mother committed suicide when he was 22) and his father, whom his mother divorced when Nick was quite young, had already fallen into a rootless life that led to their meeting in 1987, as his father sought shelter at the Pine Street Inn. Poet Mark Doty opines, “Nick Flynn has given us one of the most terrifying families in American letters, though he approaches each character in this ferocious, inventive memoir with an almost radical sense of compassion, as if all that any of us could do were to stumble ahead with the burdens we are given. The result is a book so singular, harrowing and loving as to be indelible.” Another Bullshit Night joins the ranks of a small group of unforgettable late 20th Century American memoirs (Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Mary Karr’s The Liars' Club, Tobias Wolff’s This Boys Life). In the talk below, Nick Flynn talks about writing and other matters literary and not.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me why you wrote this book?
Nick Flynn: Uh, why I wrote the book. [thoughtful pause] It wasn't any preconceived reason to write it. I don't sit down and think, "This is the book I am going to write next." This is the book that came out, really. As I was writing it I started to think why I might continue writing it, to keep going with it. Some of those reasons were that it seemed like it didn't want to be written. It seemed like I was pushing against something; it seems like it was something that other people had a hard time keeping in their heads. The sentence with the words "father" and "homeless" in it, people's eyes would go blank. So that seemed a good place to go.
RB: It's a harrowing story.
NF: I guess so, yeah. It's funny, when you work with the homeless it's one of the lesser of harrowing stories, I guess.
RB: No, I'm referring to your father's declining state—
NF: On the surface it's a harrowing story, but the more you write it and unearth it you get to see more complexities to it and more similarities to my own story, and hopefully other people would see similarities.
RB: When you say "similarities"—this is not your own story?
NF: When you said it was a harrowing story, I was thinking that my father's story was harrowing.
RB: Your story.
NF: Yeah, I guess my story might be harrowing.
RB: Your story is—I'm reading Robert McCrum's account of having a stroke at the age of forty. And very early he observes that people who are related to the victims don't get enough credit. So we grasp something about homelessness, but we don't often think of the families of the homeless—which they are part of a nexus of despair.
NF: Yeah. Yeah. At the time that I was in the midst of it, it felt there were moments that definitely felt harrowing and overwhelming and it was certainly out of my control. But I still have this sense that it may be a familiar story, except a little more extreme. People struggle with their parents.
RB: Let me see if I have this right: your mother commits suicide; your father had serious problems and spent years out in the streets, in and out of a homeless shelter you worked at; then he got housing but still continued to exhibit anomalous behavior—
NF: —a marginal existence. And I say that's a familiar story, yeah. Almost all my . . . everybody I know has struggles with their parents in some way. Like, everyone I know has some sort of complicated relationship with their parents.
RB: So you are saying there is a continuum of troubles, not a discrete category of level?
NF: Continuum for the whole world, you mean? Or for myself?
RB: For people.
NF: Yeah. It seems like a continuum. Because also within my story you can say my mother committed suicide, but that's kind of tidy. But it doesn't take into account all the . . . the majority of the time I spent with her that was wonderful, that I am blessed to have had. Certainly there were extremes in her life, but those extremes were who she was. Yeah, that's just what it was. So yeah, it's a continuum that includes some wonderful times and some really difficult times.
RB: One of the things people say about suicides is that the surviving friends and family are so adversely affected.
NF: Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah.
RB: I suppose I will forgo the subtlety—
RB: Is there a way in which you recognize any scars from your mother's taking of her own life and the other extreme experiences?
NF: Yeah, sure. I'm scarred. But is that a bad thing though, is the question.
RB: Who gets through life unscathed?
NF: Everyone gets scarred in some way. Mine may be a little more prominent, but from the scars, though, certain things come out of it. You also get certain gifts. Everything has two sides to it, it seems. My father becoming homeless and showing up at the shelter at the time [when] I couldn't imagine anything worse, really.
RB: It was embarrassing? You hated to see him suffer?
NF: It was the whole range of emotions and all of them were stuck on the bad side of the spectrum. Yet from that, in retrospect, an enormous amount of good things have come. It got me to quit drinking. It got me to take writing seriously. It got me to go back . . . to know to be able to track and go back and now have a relationship with him. I got an enormous amount of gifts from that actually. It's difficult to say because you focus on the moment or those years when he was homeless.
RB: Maybe the subtextual issue about asking someone if they are scarred is if they are scarred on the negative side—scarred meaning, are you bitter? Do you react to life in a negative, dark way? My answer from these moments—admittedly a gut call—[is that] you don't seem to.
NF: Well, no, but I sure contain a full range of emotions. [laughs] I have moments of bitterness and unspeakable rage and petty jealousies and ridiculous envies.
RB: It doesn't appear to be the lens through which you are seeing life. You're not sneering or snarling.
NF: People say with the book sometimes, "How did you write this book? it has no self-pity. It's compassionate. Dah, dah, dah." I say, "You should have seen the drafts." They are full of self-pity and ridiculous rages. And I edited them out mostly because when you look at the stuff on page it doesn't ring true, actually. It does feel like a diversion from the essential state. Which, hopefully if you can get to it, is a little purer.
RB: So at the end of this, this is the story you wanted to tell? Having listened to the way people react to the book, would you change anything?
NF: About the book? I have gotten a few reactions from people I used to work with and they were sort of on the line of I didn't include enough of the love and compassion that we all felt toward the homeless within the shelter. I thought I did get that in, but people I worked with felt that was a really large part of the reason we were there—because we did feel this love for these guys.
RB: For a nonwriter maybe that's a legitimate thing to say, but if you give a moment's thought to the story, the love is implied.
NF: I wanted it to be implicit. I didn't want to lay it . . . by actually writing about people and telling it truthfully and honoring them just about the facts of their lives in some way, it was what I was hoping to be doing.
RB: Otherwise it would have come off as self-congratulation. There were two or there people that you continued to pay attention to and stay in touch with. Clearly you are concerned about them.
NF: There is no other reason to do it [except because of the love]. There are a few comments like that from people I used to work with and which I appreciate actually. They have a different view.
RB: It's not wrong.
NF: No, it's not wrong. It's fine.
RB: It's been a while since I read it, but for some reason I thought of Mary Karr's book [The Liar's Club] as the most proximal memoiristic effort.
NF: I like that book. I thought she did a really good job with it. She had the . . . I can't come close to the level of . . . she had that Southern language in the way people talk down there. I felt like [that was] a huge lack in my family because there was so much silence. Absence. I remember reading that thinking I could never do something like this even though I loved the book and that was sort of why she has all these stories, this rich vein of stories to mine. And the way people talk, you know. Maybe that's why I went to talk to my father? To see if there was anything like that.
RB: I find myself constantly being drawn to Southern writers for that reason. I just read terrific novel by a South Carolinian, Ron Rash, called One Step in Eden. He grabbed me from the get-go, and I find the stories that I really can get into are from the Southern writers. It's funny how ghettoized they are.
NF: I just bought Flannery O'Connor's collected stories again. She's incredible.
RB: So you gave up your drinking?
NF: Yeah, I did.
RB: And you got into writing. I guess I missed part of the story. You went to Columbia at what point?
NF: I left the shelter after six years—around 1990—and then I drifted around for a little bit, finishing my undergraduate degree and traveling; and then I ended up getting a fellowship. I was applying to graduate school and New York was one of the places I applied to, but I got into the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. So I went there first for a year and then I went to graduate school. I went to NYU. I needed money so I started teaching at Columbia.
RB: Who was at the Fine Arts Work Center when you were there?
NF: Tim Siebels, a poet. The year before, Ann Patchett was there. Elizabeth McCracken. They sort of had a better year before.
NF: Just names you might remember. They had quite a stellar year that year.
RB: When you are a fellow, what does that entail?
NF: They give you an apartment. A check every month—which is enough to buy rice and beans. And you have all day long down in the crazy little dead town, in the winter and—
RB: You know the town.
NF: I do. I actually didn't live at the Work Center because I knew there were other places to live. The only places I've lived—not on a boat in Provincetown—have been these beautiful places only heated with wood, which is really sort of a mistake.
RB: Because you have to so much wood splitting?
NF: Yeah, it's good but it's a lot of work. And if I go away for a couple of days and come back, the toilet is frozen solid. Really, places that didn't have any heat.
RB: You are living in the Hudson Valley now?
NF: I bought a house about a year ago in the Hudson River Valley.
RB: Near anyone you know?
NF: It's pretty random how I chose it. I'd been in Europe for two years, finishing the book. In Rome. And I came back and felt this dislocation. Part of being in Rome and finishing the book was I needed to inhabit some sort of psychic dislocation. In order to finish it. Or it seemed like that was a positive state in some way. When I came back it was time to stop that. So just I lurched at a house. They have cheap houses up there and I just—
RB: For good reason. There's no work; thus the prices of things are depressed.
RB: What town do you live in?
NF: It's called Athens.
RB: What's a nearby big city?
NF: It's across the river from Hudson, New York. There's a train stop from the city. About 30 miles south of Albany. 30 miles north of Woodstock.
RB: And you a spend part of the year at the University of Houston?
NF: I just started that this year.
RB: Are you teaching with Ruben Martinez?
NF: Yeah. Yeah. But he teaches there in the fall and I'm there in the spring. We each only teach one semester a year.
RB: Is that a department on the rise?
NF: They claim, or now we claim, to be the second-best writing program in the country. Based on the prizes and the publications that students win and stuff. That's what they say. I don't know. It has been for a while. There is a rating system.
RB: What about the University of Texas?
NF: In Austin? It's the Michener Center. It could be really great, but there is a little tension between the English department and the Michener Center because they didn't think that Michener was a good enough writer, so they didn't want to put their name on the thing. But he had millions of dollars so they created a whole separate center. So there is this division—
RB: How do you feel about being a member of the academy?
NF: I have been institutionalized my whole life so it's comfortable. You have to be in one institution or another, it seems like. Unless you want to be like my father.
RB: You are a poet. By self-definition?
NF: Yeah, still a poet. Yeah, I still call myself a poet. By temperament.
RB: What is the poetic temperament?
NF: I have difficulty with a lot of fiction. I have a short attention span for—what seems self-indulgent—long descriptive passages. Or plotlines that veer off in other directions. I like things distilled. I like my writing distilled.
RB: So reading a 500 or 600-page book is not your thing?
NF: I do it, but it has to be a really good one.
RB: Okay, what was the last good long book you read?
NF: Loved Vernon God Little [DBC Pierre]. I thought that was great.
RB: The Booker Prizewinner that lots of people didn't like.
NF: Great voice. He has a strange background—Texas and Australia. He sold a friend's house or something.
RB: It was an odd prizewinner that readers and critics enjoyed whaling on—at least in America.
NF: I didn't think so at all.
RB: The chatter is sometimes the story. Like the National Book Award fuss about five New York-residing women finalists.
NF: [laughs] The horror. Brooklyn is an immigrant community anyway. There are people from all over the place.
RB: Well, if I say I am a woman from New York, do you know anything about me?
NF: None of them were born in Brooklyn. I read nonfiction; I like nonfiction. Like this book Red House [Sarah Messer], a memoir, a fascinating book about the house her family grew up in—which is supposedly the oldest continually lived-in house in America. So things like that.
RB: This is such a powerful story. Do you have any sense that this book may overshadow your poetry? That it may be your emblematic creation?
NF: I hope not. Hopefully it's too soon to tell. [laughs] I have a lot of different things I am working on and that I want to write. I don't even know how many people buy my books or read them. I don't want to know or even care, in a certain sense. I don't look at figures. I just work on the next book.
RB: Stephen Elliott reviewed your book. Am I correct that he is a friend?
NF: He did the review and then we met afterwards—after the review. So, yeah. We've ended up . . . I admire him and his work.
RB: I bring him up because he seems to have the same attitude about his work. He just—
NF: He just does it.
RB: He keeps writing and seemingly he is only frustrated by lack of review attention.
NF: Right now he is in Micronesia building a house with Dean supporters or something. I just got this email, this crazy email. Why are Dean supporters building a house in Micronesia?
RB: Do they know something we don't know? [both laugh] Elliot's personal history is, uh, odd, too. Odder still was [that] when I posted our talk I started receiving critical emails from his father. It was creepy.
NF: That's terrible. Did you publish those?
RB: His father's letters? No.
NF: My father doesn't have a computer, so you won't be getting any from him. He could just walk down here. He's up the street, near Berklee School of Music.
RB: How old is he now?
NF: 74. I'll go see him after this.
RB: He has a copy of your book?
NF: I've given him copies of all my books.
RB: Does he read them?
NF: He reads them and comments on them more than anyone else in my family.
RB: Anyone else meaning?
NF: My brother, my grandfather.
RB: What is your relationship like with your brother, Tad, Thadeus?
NF: He and I live together now. Which is an odd turn of events. You write a memoir and suddenly you and your brother live together.
RB: So he doesn't have to comment. [laughs]
NF: He's right there. [laughs] It's wild. It'll be temporary. He had a place in Boston and he just sold it recently. He feels that bad things are coming in cities and things like that. So he moved and he's going to build a passive solar place up there. Which is very encouraging—he's been talking about this for a long time.
RB: Do you have any contact with anyone in Albany, like perhaps William Kennedy?
NF: I got to meet and have dinner with Kennedy. When I was on the book tour, which is really great. I got to read for the Writers Institute in Albany and that was great
RB: How extensively did you cover the country for your book?
NF: It's been all over.
RB: Any surprises?
NF: At first I didn't know what to expect, and any attention at all for a poet was surprising. And to get a fan letter is surprising. And some of the press, like before the book came out they wrote that I have written a book [about] the years I spent homeless or I've written that I was a drug runner. They just get things wrong. Or my mother and I would steal things together. These crazy things—they just didn't read the book closely or something. At first I'd be upset about that, or I'd want to write to the reviewer and say, "Get it right." But then it just becomes a funny story, actually. After a while you realize that people project so much on a book like this because everyone has a father and I'm telling a story about a father and son. And I'm not telling it quite right in some essential way. Because it's not their story. Which is fine. I love that. I wrote the book intentionally leaving things open-ended so that people could fill it in themselves. Like I didn't want to give answers in the book. There are essential questions in the book that remain unanswered. Like why I didn't bring my father in. That's like the big question in the book, and I answered [it] in other drafts of the book. I decided it was more powerful [to leave it out].
RB: I didn't ask myself that.
NF: A lot of people did. They see someone on the street and they think, "Where's their family? Why don't they get taken in?" So there is a lot of projection like that and after a while I realized it was important just to get people to talk about this stuff—it was a privilege.
RB: We were talking off tape about transcribing. I was transcribing a chat I had with Cynthia Ozick.
NF: She's great. My god.
RB: We were talking about writing fiction and writing essays and she said when you write an essay you know where you are going and what you are going to do—it's clear. But writing fiction you don't know. And if there is something you want say, a point of view that you want to promote, that's not fiction. Maybe I'm taking liberties with her phrasing, but she talked about the invisible structure in her story which she claimed shouldn't be visible. So perhaps if you had filled in the blanks, then the book would have been didactic and—
NF: Yeah, yeah. Who wants to read about the homeless? In some essential way. They don't fly of the shelf, books like that. I would also say that I found in the writing of this book that this is also not predetermined at all, a memoir. For me it wasn't at all. It was full of surprise and mystery and even though you think you know the story you poke a little more and you realize the story isn't what you think it is.
RB: Start with the title. Did you start with this book and say, "I'm going to title it Another Bullshit Night In Suck City?"
NF: No, no, no. I didn't even start knowing it was going to be a book. Or what form it would take.
RB: I take it that's true of the way you write. You sit down and—
NF: The first book was very much like that. Each poem seems to have its own form. I thought I didn't want to write a book where each poem looked like the other poems. Not that I didn't want to; I didn't understand a book like that. It seems that the poem itself should determine what form it was. I thought that with this book, too. The second book is a little more recognizable from poem to poem. But as I was writing it I didn't expect it to be a book either. I felt like I was doing the wrong thing while writing it. It seems like if I feel like I shouldn't be working on a certain project than that's a good sign in some way.
RB: If you shouldn't be?
NF: Yeah. Like this book, it's about a 17th-century beekeeper. Friends of mine who are poets said this is the wrong direction: "Don't do this. Because you wrote a first book that was lyric first-person narrative poems and why are you writing these personal weird poems with bees talking in it? This is not what people like." And it's true—
RB: It's not what people like?
NF: If you like the first book you probably won't like the second book. And if you liked the second book, you probably won't like the first book. I like that.
RB: I hadn't thought of this before—I must confess my interest in poetry has waned since—
NF: —Dylan Thomas. [laughs]
RB: Actually Frank O'Hara and a couple of Latin Americans—Cesar Vallejo and, well, [Pablo] Neruda. Anyway, does one write a book of poetry?
NF: I write books of poetry. Other people write poems. It depends on the poet.
RB: In the same way that one can write short stories—as a group or individually. Is there a poem in Some Ether that's a favorite?
NF: It depends on the day and how I'm feeling and stuff. Want me to name one?
RB: I'd like you to read one.
NF: Uh, [pause] I'll read this one. This is called "Splenectomy." It's one of the later poems of the book. Sort of the direction I may have gone in if I hadn't gone [on to write] about bees or something. Maybe I'll go back into it at some point. Probably the last poem that I wrote in this book.
RB: But there are a number of poems after it in the book?
NF: There is a whole narrative arc to the book. So this is where it fit in the arc. Hopefully you can read one poem and put it down and not read again. But you get something else if you read it like a book:
Hard after the spill to again
pick the motorcycle up, to go back into
the elephant grass, the air inside
green but for the oil, hard
to get up sometimes, even after
a year, each bone un-
centered, stricken sideways, airless
beside the fallen. Go, lay
the bike back in its broken slick,
wave the cars on, something hot
sparks your face, her cry off
left, there, like
sex, you've forgotten her
wrist, go toward it. Tall grass, hairpin,
adrenaline, what makes it so
fast, how her hands end up inside you,
how this is supposed to save you?
RB: Sounds autobiographical.
NF: This is an autobiographical book.
RB: You did have a motorcycle accident. And there was a girl—
NF: Yeah, this is a poem about the motorcycle accident. [both laugh]
RB: So if you were reading this in public, would you introduce it as being the poem about your motorcycle accident?
NF: I'd make some little joke about the title. About "Splenectomy": "As you all know that's the operation when your spleen is removed." I don't know if I'd say that I had a motorcycle accident. I don't think I would go into the whole story about it.
RB: I am tempted to disagree with you. Although there is the joke that more people write poetry than read it—when you inhabit a certain world or subculture it looks larger from the inside. As much as I understand how marginal the literary world is, I see people paying a lot of attention to poetry.
NF: Yeah, did I say that they don't?
RB: Not explicitly. I feel as if you suggested it.
NF: The marginalization of poetry?
RB: The decline of interest in poetry?
NF: It's a limited readership. But people are interested. It seems there is definitely a need for it and people are interested. It's outside the economy. And that's what makes it powerful. Someone said every piece of paper has an indeterminate value. You can print money on it, a deed on it, a will on it. But as soon as you put a poem on it, it's worth less than what it was before. I think that's its strength. Poetry has to exist in order to push the language and push the psychic culture in places that it doesn't want to go. Or it doesn't know it could go. That's its role. It isn't a mass medium. Except for other countries. There [it] has been in other countries. Like Neruda has been hugely influential—and very great poems. For some reason in America, it hasn't taken that way.
RB: I'm very concerned, in large part because I have a young son; it's a source of vexation to me—the overwhelming consumerism. It's desiccating and stripping the soul. If you want to posit that poetry is outside the consumer realm, would you argue that here is some obligation by poets to pierce that realm and change—
NF: —change the larger culture? There are poets that do that. Who happen to do that and maybe succeed. There are poets that have a wider readership in America. There are organizations that support poets. There's a poet laureate. There's the American Academy of Poets.
RB: Someone recently gave a hundred million dollars to Poetry magazine. And they can't seem to figure out how to spend it.
NF: That's a lot of money for poetry. It's difficult because the means of distribution—it gets into all these arguments about who you serve as a poet. And poets seem to have to serve not those in power. That's what it is to be in power. You don't serve those people in power. So you are by definition . . . you are limiting yourself in a certain way.
RB: Do you go to social gatherings where you don't know anyone or few people?
RB: And when the conversation inevitably swings to—
NF: —"What do you do?" [laughs]
RB: Do you say, "I'm a poet."
NF: Yeah. Yeah.
RB: Tell me how the conversation goes.
NF: There's a few ways it goes. It's the only job I can think of where—
NF: Yeah, someone will say, "Job?" And someone will also say, "Oh, I'm a poet, too." A brain surgeon, no one would ever say to him, "Oh, I'm a brain surgeon, too." It's a funny thing. You sort of get used to it. "Okay, that's great. That's great—you write also." And it is. That's part of what it is. There is this need in the culture—they read things and occasionally read stuff where they go, "I could do that." Occasionally you read stuff where you don't know what it's talking about. And you couldn't do that; you feel very separate from it. At a certain point they look at you with pitying glances if you say "Poet." You just accept it. That's what it is. I have friends come by and say, "I don't read poetry. I don't like poetry." I try to read them some poems. I think they are asking for help. Then I realize they really don't want to like poetry. I have a little trouble with someone like that who is closed out to it.
RB: Because of what you point out as shorter attention spans—[do you feel] that poetry would be more accessible and interesting to people because of its concision, compactness?
NF: Well, people read thousand-page books about nothing. It's just to pass the time. They use reading almost as medication to pass the time. I see people on trains reading these books—"Why you reading that book? Of all the great books in the world, you are reading that book?"
RB: Do you actually say something?
NF: I want to. I don't go up to strangers on trains—yet. [laughs] I have a few more years before I'll be doing that.
RB: Yeah, "Give me that piece of trash!"
NF: "Read this!" That's the thing: you see poets in New York, the model of poets is seeing them on street corners selling their poems for a dollar. There's a guy who has a sandwich board there that says, "I have been anthologized with Frank O'Hara and Walt Whitman. Read my poem." And he [had been]. The thing with me is that my father calls himself a poet, too. There was always, also, that poetry meant that you were delusional, that you couldn't be trusted in some way.
RB: Do you feel at all abashed when you say you are poet? Many writers seem to feel hesitant to say that they are writers.
NF: Well, you can say you are a teacher now. I can say that. So— [laughs]
RB: Are you asked, "What do you teach?"
NF: Sometimes. It's like when I wrote Another Bullshit Night. People would ask what I was writing. I'd say I'm writing a nonfiction book. Occasionally that would be enough and end the conversation. Or, "What's it about?" "I worked with the homeless for six years in Boston." And that would be enough. Occasionally they push a lot further; one out of ten would ask what I was writing about the homeless?
RB: Was the place that you first introduced the title in the text a place where you also said something about "God's piss"?
NF: "Dew is the piss of God."
RB: I thought that was wonderful.
NF: [laughs] That chapter takes place right down here [we are talking on the first block of Newbury Street in Boston] in the Public Garden. That's where I picture it taking place. I feel like I might have stolen that from somewhere too. I'm not sure.
RB: I was struck by its originality: "No one thought that before?"
NF: I feel that same way. It might be somewhere else. But I don't remember clearly appropriating it.
RB: What is [the] span of life you look at, including your mental peripheral vision? How far back and how far in the future is imminent for you?
NF: I always thought when you are growing up . . . when you are five years old, now you know what it's like to be five; you can look back five years before you were born. Now that I'm forty-four, I can look back forty-four years before I was born. You can have that sense, that distance. You'll be like, "Oh Elvis, I understand Elvis now." Or The Clash—that was twenty years ago. When I was twenty, that was like people talking about Elvis and it meant nothing to me. Now I am talking about The Clash as if—
RB: Darin Strauss who teaches at NYU—
NF: I've met him. I just read with him with Stephen Elliott. We were the ones responsible for unseating Bush—
RB: Great job. [both laugh] Darin told me his freshman English class doesn't know who Kurt Cobain was. This is only ten years old.
NF: Yeah, it's terrible.
RB: And the future.
NF: About five years. I don't go too far into the future. [laughs] My future.
RB: Planning or fantasizing?
NF: It gets fuzzy after five years. I don't know how much beyond that I can imagine.
RB: Do you think about having a family?
NF: Yeah, I do.
RB: Is this too private?
NF: I say that in the book I have a fear of being a father. I have a lot of friends who are fathers now. I hang out with a lot of kids. The house I bought—I intentionally bought it big. A big rambling house and I have a room for kids in it.
RB: Poets buying houses.
NF: I know—it's crazy.
RB: It must be a cover.
NF: [laughs] No, you buy in the Hudson Valley is what you do. On the wrong side of the river. It's a hundred thousand dollar house. It's crazy. People buy hundred thousand dollar shoes now. Yeah, so I bought this house and it has a whole room for kids to play in. And I have a lot of kids' books because when I taught, I taught kids. It's kind of like rehearsal for something, trying to imagine it. Part of working on the book about my father was to work through some of those things. Or one of the benefits of it. It was not a conscious thing.
RB: Is there a way in which you feel better? Not presuming that you weren't feeling good before.
NF: I worked on the book over seven years. And so in those seven years, there's times you feel good, times you feel bad. It's all a continuum. You swing back and forth.
RB: The writing is over now. Or is it over?
NF: Well, it's not over quite yet. I'm still doing readings from it. It's part of the life that I didn't anticipate—that it goes on after it [the book] comes out. But it does, which is kind of great. And I had to keep it alive in thinking about it in a certain way.
RB: In terms of what you want to do as a poet and writer, are you interested in movies, dance, drama?
NF: It's funny you bring that up. I went to an old bookstore in NYC yesterday, 12th Street Books or something. I looked at a Rauschenberg retrospective. He's like the great collaborator. I'm teaching a class at Houston this spring on collaboration. And so I'm working with the art department, theater department, dance department, and we are inventing this class. I don't know what I am going to do. I am desperately trying to find a book about collaboration or about at least from my discipline. I have done a lot different collaborations with people. I did a play a year ago in New York. I have done dance performances.
RB: What do you mean?
NF: I did a collaboration with some dancers in New York and we did a thing at St. Mark's.
RB: What did you do?
NF: They put me on stage and made me dance. [both laugh] I had text. It was improvisational dance and so they started messing with me. I was just trying to read my text. And they came up and started flipping me over and doing all this stuff. I think it's real important to keep open to different forms and to see the possibilities within different disciplines. And see how they can feed each other. I have done a lot with artists. Artists have taken my poems and worked on them and done pieces with them. I have done visual stuff. There is a friend and we have been mailing things back and forth for five years now. A piece of wood, and we cut it up—my friend Michael Landis; we cut a piece of plywood in half and each take a piece and mail it back and forth and keep changing it, putting things on it. Erasing and changing. After a year we stop and do another one—for five years.
RB: So they are like palimpsests?
NF: Palimpsests, yeah. I take a picture of each because I can't bear to let them go. So we at least have photo documentation. So right now feels like a good period. Four books in the last few years, so it's been a real busy time of producing things. And I'm looking forward to freer experimentation time.
RB: What did it mean for you to be published in The New Yorker? Or the effect?
NF: You get a lot of attention. People you don't know get in touch with you. I talked to another writer who's had a couple of memoir pieces published in The New Yorker. He validated for me that it's a very difficult experience. It's a very strange, psychically difficult experience. Because the piece is not entirely your own. It's The New Yorker's piece. It's edited to sound like The New Yorker. Which is fine. That's their style.
RB: It really undergoes serious editing—meaning changes?
NF: Mine did. I think writing programs now teach writers how to write for The New Yorker.
NF: So they probably don't have to edit as much. But I never took those classes. So my piece, if you read the book, it doesn't sound like The New Yorker. In order to make my piece sound like The New Yorker we had to fight a lot. And then it comes out and you don't really feel it's your piece, but people are responding, "Oh that was a great piece." It is what it is. It was the first big attention for the book. Nothing has been published from the book before. I went into a tailspin for about a month. At the wrong time because I got about 500 emails from people. And I didn't answer them. I haven't even opened them yet. It's terrible. I didn't answer the phone for about a month. It was a hard experience, actually. But you can't complain. It's good. It's out in the world and people read it.
RB: Yes, you can complain.
NF: Well, a lot of people come to the book because of that. And I'd like them to read the book. I stand behind the book. But it was great to work with [The New Yorker]. The editor I worked with was brilliant. Totally brilliant. She made a piece that was—it was just different.
RB: Who was it?
NF: Dana Goodyear. And she was great. She was great to work with. She was a really thoughtful reader. But we forced it into this shape. And that's what it was. So.
RB: What are you looking forward to?
NF: I have a few projects I am working on. It's busy right now. There's several—doing a little more of that play, maybe. I really got into that process. I have a lot of poems that I haven't put together. I took a trip to Africa. When I was in Europe I took trips to Africa a few times—to work on this film down there. Collaborating on this film and it actually came out this September and won its competition at Venice.
RB: What's it called?
NF: Darwin's Nightmare. A documentary—me and the director, who is a friend, we were talking about the issue of representation and how you get someone to see something that's difficult and political in a certain way. But also how to be honest about it. It's a great film, and it's getting all this attention in Europe. They have me listed in the credits as "field poet."
RB: When you said you hadn't opened a lot of your emails for a time—and I don't know why—it triggered my thinking about the notion of an authentic life. Is that a notion you consider and find others of your milieu think about? Leading a life that you believe in.
NF: The people I am closest to and that I get drawn to, yeah, definitely. I would never have used those words, "authentic life," but I understand—it resonates for me.
RB: Do you have words that you like more?
NF: No, it sounds like a good phrase. I don't know that I have ever articulated it. But it makes sense. Like my friend, the filmmaker Hubert Sauper, he celebrates hugely when he wins these prizes, but he goes to Africa and suffers hugely when he's there. And he knows all the political ramifications. I have just been asked to do a benefit reading—when we were in Venice, there was a thing where they were taking photographs of stars. And we just went up there and it was sponsored by this diamond company. So there we these diamonds with guards around. He was just horrified and he couldn't stop himself. "Do you know where these diamonds come from? Do you know where these diamonds come from?" Saying it to everyone who was there. [laughs] He was just furious. He spends all his time in Africa. "These fucking diamonds." So now I have been asked to read at a benefit sponsored by some jeweler in some way. And I'm really torn. I haven't answered the email. What a predicament. [laughs] We get money for the homeless, but I have to stand in front of diamonds?
A bunch of us went during the [presidential] election [campaign]—this was the first election where everyone I know went to other states. We went to New Hampshire. We got New Hampshire. [laughs] So we did all this stuff and it wasn't even like before when we were younger and probably self-righteous, the political involvement. Now it's like desperate, [laughs] "Like what are we going to do? We've go to do something. What are we going to do?" We don't expect the same things. So we are trying to think of other ways to do it. So even writing a book . . . so what can we do living our lives in an authentic way that will somehow turn the culture in some way—some tiny, tiny way.
My book is on homelessness on some level. To get people to read a book about homelessness seems to be a pretty good trick these days. So to have some sort of consciousness opened, even just for a moment. That's what it can do for a moment. One of the projects I'm thinking of is, with a video camera, recording Republicans. I really want to talk to them. Over Thanksgiving [I spoke with] the girl friend in the book—I went down and we got together the next day. Her whole family, the male side, is very Republican. So I got into this thing with her brother which I have done for 25 years. But it's getting scarier and scarier. I'm trying to contain myself and not be judgmental and not have steam coming out of my ears. I think it's very important for the other side—there is such a disconnect in the society. No one can hear each other. He started saying things like Social Security has ruined America. And I'm like, "Wow! It's really worse than I thought." It's way beyond that. It's weirder than we can imagine. So I'm trying to think. That seems to be a place right now where it seems like it's the biggest struggle for me—to talk to those people. So, okay, there is something there. It's like writing these books. You write a book about the homeless, "Why am I doing this? It's hopeless. No one wants to read it." So that struggle would be enough fuel to keep me going for a while.
RB: Good. Keep going. Thanks.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing