I don’t usually post interviews on back-to-back days, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case, because it might be the last interview posted until after November with this November PAD (poem-a-day) challenge coming up. And I’m just so excited to share Nin Andrews with anyone who hasn’t read her work.
You see, there are poets who seek me out for interviews; there are poets who I seek for interviews; and then, there are cases where me and another poet just kind of bump into each other. In the case of Nin Andrews, I was definitely seeking her out after picking up (at random) one of her previous collections, Why They Grow Wings (Silverfish Review Press).
Since I’m an editor, I’ve always got more books than I can possibly read, but I was hooked from the first line of this–to me, anyway–previously unknown poet. After doing a little research, I learned she was not such an unknown quantity, in addition to learning–to my delight–that she recently released two other collections, Sleeping With Houdini (BOA Editions, Ltd.) and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? (Subito Press).
Here’s a favorite of mine from Sleeping With Houdini:
Sleeping for Kafka
I heard on the radio this morning that prayers can heal. Experiments demonstrate that cancer patients who are prayed for, even by an anonymous person, have a better prognosis than those who receive no prayers.
A person can purchase prayers from Grace Church in Kansas by dialing 1-800-prayers. Visa and Mastercard are accepted.
I read that Kafka, a chronic insomniac, felt refreshed after watching his beloved sleep. Sometimes he invited her over, just to admire how she draped herself over his couch, wrapped in immaculate rest.
Some speculate it was the dreams of his beloved he wrote.
Thoughts like dreams drift from mind to mind. Some are heavy and sink to the ground or disappear under water where they grow like sea plants, while others are light and glide upwards like helium molecules.
When Jacob saw angels going up and down a ladder, they were merely tracing his thoughts.
Nietzsche said few people think their own thoughts. Instead they are thought. Many people are dreamt and prayed. They are like seashells inhabited by hermit crabs.
Most of us have no clue whose dream we are.
And with that, here is the interview:
What are you currently up to?
I’m working on two projects, one which I hope might become a New and Selected Orgasms. And another, which is a set of essays and longer prose poems that are very loosely linked by an economic theme. Or money. (I know it sounds boring, so I’m hoping that’s not the case.) I was always told as a child not to talk about sex, politics, or money, and I always do what I am told not to do.
I’ve read that you grew up on a farm. How do you feel your childhood shaped you as a poet?
As a child, I spent a lot of time at the barn with the horses, cows, cats, and chickens. I also spent hours just staring at things—catching tadpoles, or watching ants pull crumbs or dead ants, or bees load up on pollen as they went from flower to flower. We didn’t have a TV or neighbors or other forms of distraction, so I spent a lot of my time daydreaming. I think it’s that empty space or time in my days I became used to as a kid that has shaped me most. It’s the space I still need in order to write or solve problems or just stay sane.
In our correspondence, you mentioned that you’ve noticed a shift in your writing from more surreal work in your first collection (The Book of Orgasms) to more a storytelling style in your book due out next fall (Southern Comfort). Do you think there’s a reasoning or natural progression behind moving from the surreal to storytelling?
I tend to do the opposite of what I am told. Write what you know, my first teachers suggested. But I have never been a big fan of reality. Reality feels like sandpaper on my skin. Sometimes I think I would love to escape the everyday world, and just move into the imagination forever. Music, philosophy, dance, poetry, painting – they all help me do just that. Like good drugs, they offer an alternative to reality. So initially I tried not to write my personal story.
But then, at a certain point, I started thinking about my childhood, and my children used to ask me about my past. And I would tell them stories. Stories about the time the one-armed man who worked on our farm shot a rabid fox. About the time the same man got drunk and let the heifers run loose on the freeway. About this crazy lady who came to the farm and taught me to see ghosts and read palms. Or about a man called Toby who would walk up the dirt road on bare feet some days, and then go down to the mud pond to catch snapping turtles. He said he caught them by feeling in the mud with his toes.
My children wanted me to tell these stories again and again, especially when I imitated the voices of the farmhands, my father, my mother, the crazy people, and the different animals and so on. They said I should write them down. But it’s not easy for me to write about the farm. It’s a bit like trying to break an ocean into drops. And of course, I don’t have an ability to see these pieces objectively.
From your first collection to your most recent, you’ve written a lot of your poems in the prose format. What do you like about the prose poem?
In the beginning, I wanted to write carefully crafted mini-tales. And the prose poem is designed for that. After a while I became interested in all the ways a prose poem can borrow from other forms. So there are prose poems that are like fables, myths and parables, prose poems that are like interviews, love letters, fan letters, horoscopes, plays, advertisements, news reports, etc. There’s so much versatility in the prose poem format. And great opportunities for humor.
Do you feel the structure of poems helps influence the content?
Yes. I think line breaks, for example, are content. The same poem written with line breaks and without them—can have an entirely different effect. And meaning.
I think choosing a form is like choosing a design for a house. If you have a big open space with skylights and a stage, that’s one kind of experience. If you build a large house with a bazillion tiny rooms, that’s another experience.
You mention that the poems in Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? are inspired by actual comments, notes and questions from your husband’s students. Where do you find that you draw the line between reality and fantasy in your own poetry?
In most of my writing, I try to keep reality off-kilter somehow. To offer at least a tiny escape from reality. I do this in different ways, depending on the book. In Dear Professor, I use humor to create that escape.
In the orgasm poems, I am sometimes taking a literal reality and making it surreal. Or a philosophical discussion and putting it in an absurd context. I have, for example, an interview with an orgasm. That poem began when I saw the debate between Senator Bentsen and Senator Quayle. When Bentsen said: Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy, I imagined one orgasm saying to a fake orgasm, Orgasms are my friends. I know orgasms, and you? You’re no orgasm.
In the southern poems, I mix up the characters, recast a father as a farmhand, an uncle as a father, my friend’s mother as my own mother, so that I can gain some objectivity. I want each poem to speak for itself, not for my experience. A poem, I like to think, has its story to tell, its own truth.
The poems in Sleeping With Houdini seem very tightly wound together. When you’re putting together a collection, do you start with an idea and start writing the poems to complete that idea? Or do you write poems and then fill the gaps after you notice a pattern developing?
I will write on one subject for months at a time. I end up with a heap of poems that cling to one another like static electricity. It’s a nightmare to try to organize my obsessions. To try to make a pattern out of chaos. It’s a little like attempting to take tiny pieces of old fabric and sew them into a beautiful dress.
Who are you currently reading?
I was just reading Shirley Jackson. She reminds me a little of my father, her dark sensibility. And Mark Halliday’s new collection, Keep This Forever, which is as brilliant and smart-assed as Halliday always is. And The Lover by Duras, which is fabulous, of course. It’s interesting, now that I think about it. All of these books are taking a bite out of my peace of mind. But they are all teaching me things.
I’ve also been reading Rick Bursky’s The Soup of Something Missing, a little collection I think everyone should read. He’s a poet I’m crazy about. And Carol Maldow’s The Widening, a book about sexual awakening. She calls it a novel, but it’s not. It reads like a memoir written in prose poems. Each page is a chapter. Each page is a beautiful prose poem.
If you had one piece of advice to share with other poets, what would it be?
I never follow advice, so I don’t usually give any either.
For me writing is a little like keeping the barn clean. Every day I check over my work and see if there are any manure balls I need to remove. And every day there are. For sure. So I’m never surprised by a rejection. And I’m always amazed by an acceptance. That someone took something of mine, cow pies and all. So I’m grateful for even the tiniest forms of acceptance.
Not that that’s advice. It’s just the way I survive the poetry business side of being a poet. And how I keep writing.
* Check out Nin’s blog at http://ninandrewswriter.blogspot.com/