At the AWP (Associated Writing Conference) each year Nick Flynn and I have a ritual where we stand in the middle of the bookfair and we will not move until someone comes up and says that they are headed to another booth. We accompany them there, then wait for someone else to come along, taking all volition out of our bookfair experience. Yet while we wait, we have intense, playful conversations with whomever comes by. Chance, serendipity, and inquisitiveness mark Flynn and his poetry, nonfiction, and collaborations with writers, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists. The wild success of his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, later adopted into a film starring Robert DeNiro as his father, has not altered his curiosity and intensity. His latest project, Stay, just out from Ze Books, compiles “threads, conversations, and collaborations,” and chronicles his many collaborations, including with Amy Arbus, Marilyn Minter, and John Baldessari.
You write: “Every project has a moment when it’s completely out of your control and you don’t think you can finish it, and I find that thrilling.”
Was there a moment or moments with this meta-project where this happened?
A project feels out of control, usually, at that moment you are required to push beyond a threshold that you don’t want to cross—one step more and you will be over your head. And, yes, I find that thrilling, and necessary for the project. The issues around Stay were different, in that it is a weaving, an unearthing, of stuff I had already written or made or said, then finding a way to arrange these fragments (often alongside the art and artist it was in conversation with) in a way that felt both coherent and surprising. It was psychically difficult in the sense that it forced me to look back at thirty years of work, so I had to find compassion for my younger self.
How did Stay come about?
Three years ago an acquaintance in Houston, Michael Zilkha (who is now a friend, in the way these collaborations go), approached me with his idea of starting a new press. His idea was to produce a series of editions of writers, culling excerpts of their work into one volume—think those Portable James Joyce or The Essential William Blake books. Coming from the music world (he founded Ze Records), Micheal thinks of them as “mix-tapes.” His friend Glenn O’Brien had recently passed, and Michael had a desire to create a tribute to Glenn and his creative life. When I got involved I proposed that it could be a way to include the influences and visual culture and conversations that allowed the work to exist in the first place.
I’ve always been struck by your creative fluidity, your ability to move through different artforms and collaborations. These moves feel natural, of the moment. What was it like to assemble many of these moments into a fixed thing?
I hate to think of Stay as a fixed thing. I think of it more as a score. If it inspires anyone to take a poem they have written and pass it through many creative filters, I would be happy.
I’m interested in these two lines, from two different pieces:
“Our job as writers, as far as I can tell, is to attempt to express what seems inexpressible.”
“And only silence is perfect.”
Do these attempts ever near the perfection of silence? Or is perfection the enemy attempting to enter the dream state? (Ignore these two questions if they are way off the mark, or answer in a completely different way.)
That line, “only silence is perfect,” was uttered by the great Roscoe Mitchell, during an intimate performance he gave at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. It was a way, I think, to teach us how to listen to his music. For me it is a koan that I will always wrestle with. It helps remind me not to aim for perfection, which is in another realm. As for the dream state, maybe that realm is also perfect, but to get there is a messy process.
At another point you write: “this is where many poems come from, this is where poets live: nighttime, shadows, dreams, darkness, walking with the devil.” How do collaborations help tap into this state? Or do they? Are they something else altogether?
Some part of the process, much of it, is accessed alone. The collaborations can point in a direction you hadn’t considered, can open whole vistas unconsidered… the conversations are for after you have emerged… the collaborators (aka friends) feed you, sustain you, make it all worthwhile, but yes, much of the journey is solitary (as I see what I just wrote I now doubt it’s even true—nothing is done alone, we bring everyone with us on even the most seemingly solitary journey).
I am fascinated by the failed collaboration with John Baldessari. I feel like a collaborator in an imagined project. Why did you include this?
Many potential collaborations never get off the ground, many exist as glimmers of ideas that were maybe just for the conversation where they first manifest. The one with Baldassari had simply progressed much further along than simply an idea. We had a press ready to go, we had spent time together, I sent him a whole box of material for him to respond to…it’s not too late, maybe someday he will send it back.
The great poet of the working class, Phil Levine, critiqued a poem of yours in grad school by saying, “You have more light inside you than this.” What fuels this light now?
Phil was one of my great influences, and that comment by him cut me deeply. I knew it was true, that what came out in my writing was thick with darkness—I think I’m still trying to locate the light he saw.
The pandemic is consuming most of our oxygen right now. Are you imagining work and collaborations now? Or are you gathering?
I’ve done a few collaborative things in the past month, when a friend asks. I read the last canto of Dante’s Inferno for a thing Marie Howe put together for St. John the Divine. I’m talking with my pals Guy Barash and Sarah Lipstate about how to present our William Blake collaboration virtually. I got my undergrad students at the University of Houston to write weekly about what this new reality is like, and I write alongside them. They created a series of Plague Sonnets—maybe we can make a crown of sonnets, a corona of sonnets, which would be appropriate. Mostly I’m trying to stay present in the midst of this, trying to be helpful, mourning those who have been hit harder than me.
Are you teaching your University of Houston collaborative creations class remotely now? When I saw the final presentations with you a few years ago, you were obviously moved and buoyed by the creativity and energy from the students. How is it working in a disembodied space?
That was so great you could be there for those final presentations. That workshop, yes, continues to inspire and feed me… this new reality of teaching it remotely has been challenging, all of us are shell-shocked by how the world has been turned upside-down, but we are moving into our final projects next week, and I imagine I will be once again moved by what they have found.
Nick Flynn's Wunderkammer right now
I listen to the birds.
I listen to the sky, empty of airplanes.
The streets of Brooklyn are now filled with the sounds of sirens, but I am no longer in Brooklyn.
I listen to a collaboration by Guy Barash and Noveller, commissioned as the soundtrack to a version of William Blake’s The Nine Dreams that I have been working on for the past six years. We were to present it as an immersive performance in a series of abandoned rice silos in Houston, but that (along with everything else) is now on hold. The music is gorgeous.
I listen to Amy Goodman.
I listen to The Daily, The New York Times podcast.
I watch Andrew Cuomo.
I watch Rachel Maddow
I watch Some Like It Hot with my daughter.
We watch 1917, where two young men spend the whole film running through trenches to pass a message on to a general who turns out to be Benedict Cumberbach.
Teaching has gone virtual so I continue to read student poems / essays daily.
I give them Nazim Hikmet, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.”
I give them Tadeusz Rozewicz, “In the Middle of Life.”
I read Moby Dick again, preparing for an on-line collaboration, where I will read and discuss it with Andrew Dansby of The Houston Chronicle.
I videotape myself reading the last Canto (34) of Dante’s Inferno for a collaboration with Marie Howe and St. John the Divine—It was from there that we emerged, to see—once more—the stars.