Pointing at the Moon: Nick Flynn and His Feelings

Guest Article by: 
BJ Love

by BJ Love

Nick Flynn has a long and storied history. We know this because he has shared a good chunk of it with us in his memoirs ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY, THE TICKING IS THE BOMB, and THE REENACTMENTS. With so much personal information available, it’s often hard to separate author from speaker, character from public persona.

Even in his less personal projects, like the poetry collections BLIND HUBER and THE CAPTAIN ASKS FOR A SHOW OF HANDS, one easily sees Flynn above the poems manipulating each word, every idea, like a puppeteer with his marionettes.

I don’t mean this as criticism. In fact, I find it to be, in a weird sense, De Niro-esque. What I mean is that De Niro has rarely “disappeared” into a role—including his role as Nick Flynn’s father in BEING FLYNN, the film adaptation of ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT—and frankly, we no longer expect it.

What makes De Niro's portrayals compelling is how each new situation estranges what we see as familiar. De Niro creates a profound sense of empathy in us, his audience, specifically because the character never overwhelms the man playing it. The emotions, the feelings portrayed on the screen seem genuine—perhaps more so, because it’s our old friend dealing with some new and difficult shit.

Likewise comes Flynn’s newest collection, MY FEELINGS.

Considering his past as both a memoirist and poet, it’s hard to not feel as though MY FEELINGS is the culmination of a journey, or at the very least that part in a road trip where you begin to recognize your surroundings and know you’re getting close to home.

Though it would be easy to dismiss the title as pithy, as a joke, Flynn is a writer who has been turning over the events of his life (and the lives of bees) for almost two decades. His history permeates every utterance, completing the picture, and filling in the gaps, using our shared memories.

This is the real gift of being Flynn seven books in: the relationship with the reader is wonderfully and thoroughly established. Like that old buddy you never have to “catch up” with, the collective history between Flynn and his audience is worked masterfully into MY FEELINGS.

The objects and obsessions that once dominated Flynn’s poems and stories now simply inform them. Again, like De Niro fleshing out his own persona in his film roles, this is Nick Flynn the person and poet in his own right, finally—no longer haunted or tortured by his past, but a man who actively accepts and welcomes it, recognizing it as inseparable from his present self.


Brazos Bookstore: MY FEELINGS reminds me in many of ways of your last memoir THE REENACTMENTS in that you manage to build a meta-genre for yourself. Basho wrote, and I'm paraphrasing, that the poem is a finger pointing to the moon—if the finger is bejeweled, we won't see the moon—but to me, you aren't trying to distract from the moon, but saying that your finger is an important part of the equation too. What purpose did you initially have in keeping you, the author, in so many of the poems, and how did that purpose change over the course of writing the book?

Nick Flynn: I like that Basho idea, especially the bejeweled part, which I read as excessive ornamentation, a more baroque style of writing, which isn’t something I have been drawn to (though I don’t rule it out)—without the finger there wouldn’t be much of a poem, there would simply be the moon, which is always there anyway, though without someone pointing to it we often forget. In THE REENACTMENTS, maybe in each of the memoirs, I use my consciousness as the primary lens through which everything filters. I don’t really know how else to do it—that’s the point of memoir, isn’t it? To attempt to describe the world as precisely as possible, recognizing that our perceptions are always tweaked by our inner workings. As for MY FEELINGS, it is a return to a more lyric impulse, after the last two books of poems, which played with persona. I guess one could write a memoir in a persona—maybe everything is in fact simply a performance of self?

BB: There is an absence of loneliness in the book, which seems “against type” in American poetry—not in an I/Thou sense (because that is a foundational element in poems) but in that the Thou is frequently and physically with the I. Even in, "My Joke," a poem that states, "I am the only one in the room," there is a nod to never truly being alone, as there is always another self right there in close proximity. What effects do you see in your work by consistently keeping a Thou close to the I? How do those close quarters affect the poems and your writing of them?

NF: I first thought of Alan Dugan’s poem “Love Song (I and Thou),” which was an early influence. I always read that poem as wrestling with what marriage means, though now when I read your question I realize I had missed the obvious spiritual elements built into the word Thou. I doubt Dugan believed in capital g God, just as I doubt I do, but there is a sense of feeling part of something larger that might be essential to any art—maybe it’s as simply as the pile of books I always lug around, maybe it’s collective memory, maybe it’s hive mind, maybe it’s that I’m married now, but it’s true, I don’t feel so alone, at least not today. Many of the poems in MY FEELINGS are the result of collaborations with other artists; many are attempts to speak about stuff that’s been rattling around inside me for years. Maybe it’s the sense that there’s nothing I can say about what’s going on inside me that someone else isn’t also wrestling with at this precise moment.

BB: Have you always been into collaborating with other artists? Was this a new experience for you?

NF: I have always had some relationship to collaboration, and it has always been good, beginning with the first story I tried to write, when I was eleven or so, which was a joint venture with Arthur Joseph, a Sherlock Holmes type mystery set in Scotland and Egypt. It's nice to get inside of someone else's process, to see if there's anything I can learn. Some of the poems in MY FEELINGS were not written as collaborations, at least not in the traditional sense, but I do think that more and more I rely on others. I spend too much time alone in the dark neighborhood of my mind as it is.

BB: What's your ideal writer/reader relationship? How invested are you in "audience" as you write?

NF: The thing is that anything we do doesn't exist, in some essential ways, until someone else has an experience with it. That said, I try not to think of an audience at all for most of the time when I am working on a project. Only in the eleventh hour do I allow myself that, out of fear of editing myself too early. For the last hour, I want to make sure that what I have written has some grasp on reality, however tenuous.

BB: You have been spinning around a few topics for decades now: your mother's suicide, your relationship with your father, your drug use, your relationships with women. Is it that writing about them makes them more accessible to you? Or that you feel you haven't yet captured your feelings about them? (Or is it something else entirely?)

NF: I'd say that my first few books were written from a place of obsession, and that I came to the end of that as a functional way to be in the world. I have tried, with my last few books, to write from a more meditative place, which seems somehow the inverse of obsession. Or at least it is less damaging, to those closest to me. I hope. Also, though I have written about my mother's suicide, my father's homelessness, etc., in more than one book, some of those books have had as a central focus something much outside of those experiences (a seventeenth-century beekeeper, state-sanctioned torture, etc.). That there are echoes of those central concerns is more me trying to figure out why I'd spent 6 years, say, writing about bees. That seems a central question for anyone attempting to write lyric essay/memoir—to ask yourself why you are writing about this particular thing, and not something else. For me, it happens that often that question leads me back to mom, dad, etc.

BB: As a memoirist with some renown, are you ever sad that your prose gets so much more attention/book sales/movie options than your poems? What role do you see poetry playing in today's literary landscape? AND, what can we (as poets) do to help?

NF: Funny, De Niro is playing all six characters in the upcoming Disney feature of “Bag of Mice,” and we are casting now for the lead bee in the adaption of BLIND HUBER. Wait, that’s not right. Okay, poetry will always exist and is currently thriving outside the dominant economy, and seems quite healthy. A poem isn't supposed to do anything, but simply to be.

BJ Love lives and teaches in Houston, TX. Poems of his can be found in Coconut Magazine, The Sink Review, and diode. His reviews have been featured in Heavy Feather Review, cant, and Quarterly Conversation. Additionally, he produces the podcast Pretty LIT which can be found at www.prettylit.org.

My Feelings: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977108
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Graywolf Press - June 2nd, 2015

Signed copies of MY FEELINGS are available now!

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