Thursday Aug 17

BrownNickole Nickole Brown’s books include her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems, and the anthology, Air Fare, that she co-edited with Judith Taylor. The title poem from her forthcoming collection of poetry, Down The Center Line of Spine, won AROHO’s Orlando Poetry Prize in 2010. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years.  Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry and works as the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books.  She lives in Little Rock, AR, where she is the Assistant Professor poetry at University of Arkansas at Little Rock and also teaches at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State.
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Nickole, your life in letters has been remarkable and really fascinating so far.  I guess we should start with the fact that you served, for ten years, as Director of Marketing and Development for the nonprofit, independent, literary press Sarabande Books.  Please share some thoughts about that experience and how it has affected your life as a writer.  What caused you to leave that position and what were the years immediately after that decision like for you?
 
Sarabande was my home one month short of a decade, and when I say “home,” I mean it—that warm office on Dundee is where I went five days a week with my little dog, and five days a week is when I worked hard and was, in return, nurtured and coached in a way that gave me the confidence to do my work better and navigate a world I knew little about when I first accepted my position there. It was my job to shepherd, guide, (and push) the ten to twelve titles we published each year, to see that our books found their readers. I was a literary match-maker of sorts, on the prowl for the best reviewer or reading venue to hook up with particular books.  I began as a shy writer, admiring the work Sarabande selected but practically allergic to the hard edges of business.  By the time I made the bittersweet decision to resign, I can happily say that I had no small part in helping the press find a safe and respected niche in the vast and ever-changing publishing world.

I was always cognizant to separate my own writing from my work at Sarabande, but what I learned from my tenure there isn’t often covered in creative writing programs.  For one, I learned to shrug off rejection. After lugging in carton after carton of entries for our annual contests, it became clear how many achingly good writers are out there, each one leaning on persistence as much as talent to be heard.  I learned how editors—super-human as they may be—read more focused at first, before the exhaustion of the umpteenth manuscript kicks in, so it’s important not to wait until the deadline to mail your submission.  I learned that short, smart, and sweet makes a good cover letter, and quite simply, I learned what a waste it is not to follow the freaking submission guidelines.  Most importantly, however, I learned the difference between working hard to get published and working smart; knowing the aesthetic of the press you’re submitting to (not to mention the name of the editor and what books they’ve published), is far better than wildly flinging your manuscript at anyone who might read it.  Equally so, be patient—seriously, incredibly, Dali-Lama patient—before sending out anything that’s not absolutely ready.  Most submissions get one read, one mighty quick read, and if that first line’s not there waiting, all guns a’ blazing, you’ve wasted precious time (writing time!), not to mention postage.

When I did leave Sarabande in 2009, I did so because I was ready to grow.  I had been teaching as an adjunct at a local university for a bit, just for fun, and quite surprisingly, I fell in love with teaching the same way I fell in love with publishing ten years prior.  Making the decision to leave was scorchingly hard, but Rilke’s “you must change your life” was tacked above my writing desk.  I had no choice—I was 35 years old, and if I were going to make a significant change, I had to do it, now.  Of course, everyone thought I was crazy, and they were right.  Wasn’t I leaving behind a secure position I truly enjoyed? Hadn’t I established myself as a book publicist? There weren’t any viable jobs in Louisville, so I’d have to move away from home-sweet-home to God-knows-where.  There were six jobs listed on AWP’s listserv that sounded remotely feasible. The economy had just bottomed out, and I only had one book and no PhD.  Besides, didn’t I know my responsibilities at Sarabande inside and out, backwards and forwards, with a blindfold on?  This was part of the problem—I needed new challenges, something to bring me closer to the page.  Needless to say, every time I stepped into the classroom, I could feel that zing again. I had to choose love over fear, had to push myself to do something incredible I didn’t quite know how to do yet.

As predicted, the years that followed were a free fall as I plummeted towards financial ruin, piecing my living together working at three different universities and doing freelance work for two presses.  I was exhausted, raw and tired in a way that I didn’t know was possible.  But I didn’t give up.  I didn’t doubt my decision.  Pain is an essential element of growth, and like anything else, I knew if I kept knocking on the right doors, one would have to open.
 

Recently, you were hired as an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.  How have you taken to academic life?  Tell us about your teaching style and how you “teach” creative writing.
 
Okay, this is going to sound hokey, but I adore it.  Absolutely, positively adore it.  I am getting paid, I mean literally given money, to do what I would do for free.  I read; I write. I read deeper; I write more.  I discuss what I’m reading and the process of writing.  I work with colleagues to bring authors into town; I work with colleagues to hire new professors; I work with students to publish their own literary magazine. All this, and free desk copies! All this, and health insurance!  This says nothing of the support—and expectation—to publish my own work.  This coming summer, UALR will be gifting a fellowship so that I won’t have to do anything but work on my poems.  If that’s not a dream, I don’t know what is.  I won’t say this first semester wasn’t damn hard work, but laziness has never been a part of my dreaming.

For most of my introductory and even some of my graduate students, I begin not by teaching writing but awareness. Thus I’ve begun many classes by having students take out their notebooks and draw a tree.  An odd exercise, but one in which helps me quickly make my point, because without fail, the vast majority of students sketch a stick for a trunk and a puffy cloud for leaves, a simple lolly-pop figure that looks nothing like the creaking, nerve-ending giants swaying outside most classroom windows.  I let them know they are not drawing a tree but an icon of a tree, and covering some basic linguistic terms, I explain how the signifier can trump what’s signified. This is the same way that many will not, as Anne Sexton said, write “by putting your ear down close to your soul and listening hard” but will instead travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival and inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech—fake things that make us feel safe. Ostranenie is then the first word I write on the board, and I teach them to say it, first by allowing them to whisper the awkward Slavic syllables and then by cajoling them to say it loud and clear, with all of the strength it demands.

Why start with defamiliarization?  I’m certainly not a fan of divorcing language from meaning nor do I encourage students to write work that substitutes vulnerability for strangeness, hiding behind the cool (relatively publishable) wall of obscurity.  No, I simply try to wake students to themselves and others. I could, I suppose, start by talking about style, but with the exception of the occasional gig at a national writing conference, the vast majority of my students are, with little exception, working class individuals, largely from the rural South.  These students often have a paltry exposure to literature and a reading history rife with boredom and intimidation.  They’ve rarely had the chance to recognize themselves in books, and literature is something unreal to them, bearing little consequence to “real” life. Teaching students style then can be like asking someone who’s never really listened to music to dance.  Instead, I give them ostranenie, which calls for one tool each one of them, without exception, no matter how disenfranchised, has—a body. “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world,” said Eudora Welty.  “Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” It is a re-ignition of the senses that is required to dissolve apathy, the great enemy of the reader and the writer.

As we move towards the process of revision during the semester, my tone changes somewhat as I challenge them to polish and grow their original creations. I remind students about the balance between the necessary forces of both the creative and pragmatic mind, how a successful work is often born out of play but raised with intent.   This word—intent—is key to any workshop I’ve facilitated.  I never pretend to have control over a class or the work produced, and I continually encourage students to have ownership, owning both their writing and reading.  “What is the writer’s intent?” is a question that can be answered without taking ownership over another’s work, be it written by a famous author or a peer.  In offering feedback to a student, I constantly remind my students (and myself) that it is our responsibility to gauge the writer’s intent and to see what can be done to move that writer closer to their own intentions, not mine or anyone else’s.

I’ve had the good fortune to learn how to be a teacher from my students. Sure enough, I’ve learned from my successes as well as my shortcomings.  The real catch is that I mean this work, hell, I dare say I’m meant for this work, and I’m hard-headed enough to keep at it.  As my grandmother, best teacher I ever had, made me promise once, I “hold my head high and keep walking past.”  I will continue to walk, working hard, sometimes failing.  But when this does happen, I will keep Beckett in mind, trying again, failing again, failing better each time.
 

Your first, well-received, volume of poetry,
Sister, was published by Red Hen Press in 2007.  The book has been described as a novel in poems, and it’s a book that takes risks.  The mode is confessional, and it dances around and with contemporary discussions concerning the poetic “I,” the “poetry of victimization,” etc.  When I taught the book, my students, almost to a one, were drawn to the narrator and her story as if to kin, so much so that they were often unwilling to even consider that some of what goes on in the poems may well be artifice in the service of larger truths.  It’s of course a compliment to your writing that they felt this way.  Can you talk a bit about the book and your struggles with it?
 
I’ll answer you here the same way I answered Brian Brodeur of “How a Poem Happens” when he asked me about fact and fiction and how my poetry negotiates between the two: “This was the crux of the problem, always, when writing every one of these poems in Sister. I was telling my truth, my own hard, slippery, fragmented truth, but I wanted, at all costs, to avoid standard-issue confessionalism. I wanted no villains, no victims, and most of all, I needed to scrub all the lies out, whatever they were, even the ones I told myself.”  So when you say “artifice in the service of larger truths,” I can’t say I don’t hiccup on the word “artifice,” but I know what you mean.  The fact is that any writing I publish no longer belongs to me.  What’s more, it’s not written for me, and in the end, it’s not about me anymore.  It’s about that “kin” you mention, that family of readers, and I’m trying to give them the truth I’ve found, any way I can, hell or high water, even if that means jostling the facts and relinquishing ownership of things that have passed through me well enough to let them go.
 

Your nearly completed second book, a portion of which is included in this month’s Congeries, traces a different but no less wrenching personal struggle.  Could you speak to this?  What can you tell us about the book?  What aesthetic or formal considerations have gone into it?  Are these different than the first book?
 
Nope, not yet.  It’s not that I’m hiding the baby bump because it’s still in its first trimester, but I don’t want to dampen my own discoveries either. The poems are different; they have to be, because I’m a different person.  But you’re right—I am wrenching these poems out of myself, out of my own experiences, because it’s the way I work, kaleidoscoping my way around memories, picking up fractured pieces here and there to eventually mosaic it into meaning.  So what is it about?  Well, I won’t give you the full-on, tell-all ultrasound yet, but I can tell you that it smells of magnolia blossom and bacon drippings left to cool and whiten in a can.  And it will begin with a marriage to the best man a girl could ask for, in a house full of Waterford Crystal and bone china.  Then, it will begin again as the young woman leaves everything behind, not knowing why.  Finally, she will come through that dark to find herself.  It will be about coming out—in every sense of the word—and it is my hope that writing these poems might map the way for another with steps sucked down in that same swamp.  It is also my hope that I can cling to the same mantra I used to get me through my first manuscript—again, no villians, no victims—to allow the complexities of all sides to come through.
 

Although you have left Sarabande, you are still very active in editing and publishing.  Can you tell us about the two hats you continue to wear, that of Co-editor, with Robert Alexander, for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series at White Pine Press as well as the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books?
 
I sure am.  The Marie Alexander Series is an imprint at White Pine dedicated to the appreciation, enjoyment, and understanding of American prose poetry.  We’re actively looking for and editing one manuscript annually.  My first acquisition, Postage Due by Julie Wade, is due for publication in the spring of 2013, and this coming autumn, one of Robert’s life-long projects, an anthology of post-modernist prose poetry published from 1910-1960 called Family Portraits, will be published.

Arktoi, also an imprint, was founded by poet Eloise Klein Healy to publish literary works of high quality by lesbian writers.  We’ll be publishing our fourth annual title, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus, by Kelly Barth in time for AWP this spring.  Barth’s manuscript is a memoir, but we’ve also published poets Elizabeth Bradfield and Ching-In Chen, as well as fiction writer Catherine Kirkwood.  We’re currently looking for our next two titles, so if you qualify for our list, make sure to check out our submission guidelines.
 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention for our readers that, after graduating from the University of Louisville and studying English Literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, you were the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson in 1997.  Please let us in on what that was like!

Not an experience that’s easy to describe. I think it might be best for me to borrow from an essay I wrote for Poets & Writers shortly after Hunter committed suicide in 2005.  Here, I am quoting from the article they published:

When I stepped off the plane in Aspen, Colorado, in June 1997, I found a 60-year-old Hunter S. Thompson waiting for me in a convertible Cadillac blasting Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ at full volume. I was terrified; he was giddy. He was playing the song because it was a part of the soundtrack put together for the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that was scheduled to hit theaters the following summer, and he could not have been happier. He had gone to the store before picking me up, and the backseat was filled with bags overflowing with Pepsi, Cap’n Crunch, balsamic vinegar, chocolate, and dozens of tubes of red lipstick. There was an oxygen tank, too, and he instructed me to hold the mask to my face and breathe deeply. He told me he ‘couldn't have the altitude tweaking my work’ during that first night as his editorial assistant. With no more of an introduction than that, he lit up a Dunhill, threw his right arm behind my seat, and began driving across the winding mountainside. He slammed on his breaks once to stop and buy seven bags of black cherries from a roadside stand, and then we were off again, speeding straight to his home in Woody Creek.

My main responsibility was a manuscript titled Polo Is My Life. It had been scheduled to be published in 2000 by the ‘dingbats’ at Simon & Schuster. At that time, Polo consisted of no less than eleven boxes, each one of them representing a chapter, stuffed with everything from typed pages and scribbled napkins to magazine cut-outs, peacock feathers, and Ben-waa balls. It was my job to sort through each box and arrange its contents on a giant corkboard. Then, at about 9:00 in the evening, Hunter would wake up, down three drinks or so, smoke a pipe, and swim twenty-two laps in a neighbor’s pool. At about 2:00 in the morning, he would eat dinner—always with salt and pepper and lemon—and we would begin.

Our sessions go something like this: On the corkboard, among many things, is a banner that reads omnia vincit amor, a brutal photograph of a crime scene, a pamphlet for a wedding chapel in Reno, and several pages of text. I read the pages aloud, he tells a few jokes, smokes some more, gets his house shoes, snorts some coke, coughs phlegm into a waste basket, then types a page. He reminds me of how Polo is ‘a tale of sex and violence, a good old-fashioned love story, like Psycho and Blue Velvet,’ then hands me the new page to read aloud. I read it but, tiring and thinking he’s half out of his mind, I get lazy, accidentally transpose a few words or skip an article. So he reaches under the counter and pinches my leg—hard. I read the page again. He doesn’t like the way it sounds and tells me I’m a mischievous little bitch and wants to know where I stashed the CIA ‘Deep Cover’ files I stole. He throws a peach across the room. He retypes the page and has me read it to him again. This time, he bites on his cigarette filter and stares up at the ceiling while he listens. He is pleased and, smiling, says, ‘Now that's more fucking like it.’ We place the page face-down on the counter and type another.

The full essay can be found at here. If you have any questions about the experience, forget it.  You’ll have to read about it in the memoir I write in my 60s.
 

What question about your writing has no one ever asked?  Would you ask it and answer it?
 
Is that poem really about me?
 
Of course it is, darling.  I’ve been taking notes all along; I’ve been paying attention.  Besides, a girl just can’t write about herself all the time.  You are far more interesting.  I eavesdropped sitting behind you in that rattling trolley and through the muzak at the airport and at the mall. I opened the window to hear what you muttered to yourself as you were stealing pecans from my side yard; I took notes in the office when you snapped at your husband on the phone.  I paid attention.  Your tennis shoes two white buckets on your skinny legs; your Baptist-big hat flopping to church last June; the way you did a rock-climber’s pull up with your fingertips, you delicious show off.  Don’t blame me.  It’s what I do; I notice things; I’m paid to notice.  Besides, that one morning, if I didn’t breathe in your perfume of high jasmine and rubbing alcohol, who would have?  If I couldn’t identify exactly how she held her cigarette, delicate arm straight down, two pink-tipped fingers straight out, would you? If I name that geisha red making a half-moon of lipstick on that margarita glass, who was going to?  We went there all the time to talk of nothing, and even though the restaurant was full, no one else was there. Forgive me, but yes, it’s about you.  All about you. You were talking on your cell in the elevator so loudly, I couldn’t help it.  You were so lost that evening, bending over to hold your cut thumb, but in my notebooks is you, rain-drenched beautiful, crepe myrtle snowflaking your hair.  You were salted as a boy playing in the yard all day; I couldn’t help but write down that smell. You were here then gone, but thanks to this, you never left.
 

What’s next for Nickole Brown?
 
Today, it’s Thursday.  After that, the sheddings of Christmas stuffed in those black garbage bags, then January in Puerto Rico with the fine peeps of Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Provided there aren’t any mishaps in the rainforest, my life should continue with my second semester at UALR when I’ll try to get my Form & Theory students so excited about writing a sestina they’ll forget they’re writing a sestina.  Now, if you listen, you might hear a drum roll starting. . . because. . . after that. . . no, flip the calendar fast past the February cold of AWP in Chicago. . . and spring break hiding out on 11th Street in Manhattan. . . my birthday balloons let go in March. . . to. . . ah, yes! Here we go. . . May—melancholy, crocus-wet May—Derby time, betting time, the month when my end-of-semester grades will be due, after which I will sweetly lock myself in my new office here in Little Rock and look out its seven windows and pace the hardwood floor and drink coffee and fret my fingernails with my teeth.  I will not do the laundry or wash my car, but I will walk the dog.  Yes, I will walk the dog and write.  Then I will drink more coffee and write.  I will doubt myself, throw a fit, and maybe walk the dog again.  You get the picture: next summer, I will write and rewrite and write until this next manuscript is finished.  That’s the goal, yes, the only one: to finish this next book.  Don’t let me gander beyond that myopic optimism; for now, that’s good enough for me.
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Step One, September
 

When you finally
tell him you’re leaving
him, paint your toes
coral, that whore orange
of middle age
when pink is too sweet
and red a color of matching
lipstick feathering with each
pucker, tiny blood lines
that crepe your mouth
into a bright bud of bee balm
smacked flat onto your
lonely face.
 
When you finally
tell him, balance
the bottle
of gummy polish
on your knee, watch
the Hitchcock birds
on a television screen
the size of a closet
door that opens
to a Technicolor scene
where gulls pluck
tiny triangles of flesh
from the beautiful blonde.
 
Tell him
and feel dread
minnows quicksilver
up your legs, tell him
and test the puke edge
of that high
dive of regret
that bounces a split
second before you decide
not to say so, babe,
I was thinking soup for dinner
and instead
say I think
I want a divorce.
 
He will finish
watching the scene
first, look up,
then softly mouth,
huh?
 
*
*
*
Say divorce. Say
decree. Say
dissolution.
Those three D’s,
dumb thud consonant
dragging its dirty
feet across your clean,
white floor.
 
Say D-day, the one
belonging to your generation,
that early live footage
of a man cartwheeling
down Tower One, the sour
joke: the jazz hand
of his body waving
goodbye, all five points
of his falling
 
followed by those first cameras
that aired the fact
that a man’s head fares
no better than watermelon
on glittering city
sidewalk.  Say accident,
the anchor apologizing
for allowing that red
burst to be seen, your real
panic not in the uncensored
image of death or in the face
of the newscaster but the
blackness in between,
 
that second of blank
screen when you swear
you heard
somebody say
cut off that fucking camera,
NOW.
 
*
*
*
Worse, the blue
sky.  Jesus, help us,
the blue, blue
sky.
 
The rest, history—
a photo of folded pink
dress shirts and matching ties
blasted ash white;
asphyxiated rescue
dogs; cranes and ferries
to ant away bits
of sludge hope and lost home.
 
What’s not in the news
is the bad deal
you make
with God—that if one
survivor is found, just one
jawed limb from smoldering
limb, you won’t
leave him, that you’ll
get it fixed,
go to the doctor,
find out what’s wrong
with you, pay to have
two latex fingers
pushed deep inside
searching for endometrial
threads binding your uterus
in a hard knot of no,
not tonight.
 
For three days
straight, you’re lost
in front of that big screen,
waiting
for the sign
to melt blots
of testosterone
under your tongue,
to fill your stomach
sick with every
herb and tincture and tea
promising to find
desire where there is
none.  You bargain for one
hope, just one to
open your legs wide
to the cure
 
but instead find
a flood of fireman’s
water, a lining shed of singed
plastic, burnt hair, dead
motherboards, and bone.
 
*
*
*
Remember, it is
September.
You’ve made a deal
and lost: nothing
that was not screaming
down the street
away from the Hudson
lived.
 
Think: my fault.
Think: narcissist,
comparing the city
block apocalypse
to your petty drama.
 
When it all
fails and the world is
well on its way
to war again, sit in a chair
and tell a therapist how
as a child you held
a Barbie high above you
with one hand and touched
yourself with the other.
 
And how did that make
you feel? she’ll ask,
scratching on her pad.
 
Whatever. I mean,
what kind of shit question is that?
You are not ready
to hear it. Leave her office, don’t
come back.
 
*
*
*
Remember,
autumn, when
bees push their drones
out of the hive,
when they force out
those helpless, bubble-eyed
boys of the queen.
 
It doesn’t matter
they cannot feed
themselves and have no
sting: they have outlived
their usefulness.
 
Gather your things. Count
your dimes. In your palm
is the last
twitch of their black
bodies. Try
to warm them
in your hand then
 
bring them
into the house,
line them on the windowsill
and lie to them: here,
you will be safe.
 
Years later, you will hear
about the ones
who stay—the workers—all
female.  Their eyes
doe eyes, almond shaped,
black patent leather
coin purses
rattling the promise
of musk and honey—
come here.
 
But for now, try
to forgive
yourself.  Find
your bent reflection
in a bright new set
of mixing bowls, sweep
stiff, hollow insects
from the corners
of a new house.  Cut your
fingernails short, wear them
bare.  Have hands
ready for work,
ready to reach into
 
the glisten and sting
of the hive.