For Our Grandmothers
All of them, who clutched their pocketbooks, who hid the money
the light bill in the Bible, who counted, counted, and recounted
stacks of towels. For our grandmothers who stored the white wax
of bacon grease in a coffee can, who tossed
table salt over their shoulders,
who had rules about
stepping under ladders, eating supper's last
biscuit, and the acceptable distance hemmed up from a girl's knee.
For our grandmothers who would not let us call her grandmother,
to be called anything but grandma, for they were too young to be a mother
when they became mothers, and then? You.
For our grandmothers who made us pick our own switch,
hot coffee on a saucer, then sipped from its chipped edge.
For our grandmothers who would not call a cicada a cicada but a locust,
a thirteen-year plague
of them, making an apocalypse of June, for grandmothers who
a tabby not a cat but a tail-switch hex that would slip under your bedroom door,
take your breath
from you, then smother the baby in its sleep.
grandmothers who taught there's a right way and a wrong way-
right is right, wrong's wrong-ain't no sense in between.
who emptied their husband's fish-gut
buckets and bore enough children to run
out of names. For my grandmother, who snatched me from the nurse and wrapped
in her tea-length mink coat. It was cold, almost
spring, and though I was bruise yellow
with jaundice, she took us out of that hospital, settling her youngest daughter,
a teenage mother, careful in the back. With no shoulder
belts or infant seats or air bags,
it was simple: she held me up front for my first ride, she turned the key.
We were on our way, she took us
is what her mama called it. But what I want is a word for the year she bled
freely, a wad of old washrags,
each end pinned to a belt around her waist,
a word for
twelve happy deaths, each unfertilized cell that washed out
saying, Not yet, Fanny, you still just a child yourself,
because this world knows
a girl of fourteen's too old
to be playing Cowboys and Indians but also knows
how young she was when, stiff red feather in her hair, she scrambled
Mama, come quick, I'm bout to bleed
to death. A word for the year she learned to walk
in red shoes pulled from some rich lady's trash, the sound of
those heels down the hall
two guns cocking with quick
clicks, a sound to hide from her daddy in the morning
eating his breakfast of milk and cornpone with a spoon. A word
for the time before
a man swaggered in, bought her a
dime-store coke, bought her very first bra, then took her
to the picture show to see a cartoon with dwarves impossibly
happy to be working the mines.
A year later, she was
expecting-though what exactly I was expecting, she told me,
I couldn't have said. A word, please,
somebody give me, for that season with her uterus
and tight as an inedible green pear, her body keening and cramped in its stall.
A word for all things not yet stretched
to bits, a word for all things not yet broken,
for all things left unbroken, a word for breakable yet unbroken things,
a word for unbroken, expectant things. Tell me,
what is that word?
language is a dialect with an army and navy.
Unpack chester drawers
chest of drawers,
Tandalon to Tylenol,
furelle to foil,
gazebo pills to placebo,
salmonella candles to citronella,
and when the cousin who shoots frogs
out of trees with a pellet gun
graduates first in class,
congratulate him not for being Valedictorian
being Crowned Victoria.
Never drop the friendly s in
and when Monroe belts out
“In The Pines” at full vibrato
the roof, he’ll stop his hammering
long enough to yell down
for rim-rams and tim-tams.
Best always do what your grandfather says,
don’t come back
from the hardware store without them
even if not one soul—not clerk or handyman or contractor—
knows what the hell he wants you to buy.
Not a family
for quiet things, the silent
varmint traps, bad mayo barfed up
with the toe-main poisoning,
running hot and cold with a full-on case of
the walking new monayah you’ll bout never recover from.
It’s like that snotty
b in subtlety—
that sorority chick—her tennis skirt, the white snake
of her ponytail hissing back and forth
you’ll always lose the game, and despite all it,
his money never was good enough—
your daddy never could get in
So rarely one for airs, we swung
the racket like a bat, aimed the ball
for the familiar hills to answer her plain:
Fuck suttle then.
Nickole Brown grew up in
Louisville, Kentucky, and Deerfield Beach, Florida. Her books include Fanny Says, a collection of poems forthcoming
from BOA Editions in 2015; her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press in 2007; and an anthology,
Air Fare, that she co-edited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied
literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, 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, and she was
the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She has taught creative writing
at the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series
in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and is on faculty every summer at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference and
at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State. She is an Assistant Professor at University of Arkansas
at Little Rock and lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs.
In Memory of Hunter S. Thompson: Postcard
From Louisville, Kentucky by Nickole Brown, first published by Poets&Writers
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.
had met Hunter six months earlier when he returned to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, for a tribute. It was the first
time he'd been back in years and, as it turned out, the last time he ever visited. Johnny Depp was with him, studying
his every move for his role as Hunter in the movie. Hunter's mother made an appearance as well, puffing on a cigar from
a wheelchair. It was, without a doubt, an event only for diehard Hunter S. Thompson fans. No one could quite understand
what he was barking into the microphone, and the three-hour event featured Warren Zevon playing a number of Hunter-inspired
tunes, ongoing jokes about the size of Roxanne Pulitzer's breasts in the tight dress she wore that night, and Hunter's
use of a fire extinguisher to blast people off the stage. It was interesting, but I didn't think much about him until
the following spring when I received a phone call with an invitation to go to Colorado to work for him. His previous editorial
assistant had just left, and with the production of the movie and historian Douglas Brinkley collecting his letters, he
said he needed help. So, with much trepidation and even more curiosity, I quit my menial, straight-out-of-college job
and packed my bags.
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, but it remains unpublished. 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. Into the night and past sunrise and sometimes into the next night we continue, characters like polo
heiress Avery Jane Baxter and Charles "Shiteyes" McCrory coming to life, a girl named Jilly marrying her "money-mad
brute of a boyfriend" in Reno and driving off in a Lamborghini Jeep, Jilly having "mind-bending" sex with
a Samoan fighter named Pisa Finai, and then, finally, dynamite exploding at the CNN headquarters, on "the true Generation
of Cowards and Queaslings Who Failed at everything except building new jails and bombing sand-niggers and turning in each
other to the Police."
When we are done, he rarely lets me rest. Instead, if it’s the middle of the night, we might drive to Sheriff
Bob Braudis's house, lay on the horn until his lights come on, then quickly drive away. If it is day, we might go to a
sporting goods store to buy more safari sun hats. Other times he just sits, staring at the television, daring me to go
back to my cabin to fall asleep.
Other work I did for him fills a to-do list that reads exactly like this:
1. Confirm executive meeting with Matt at Atlantic
2. Find HST's cabochon emerald (check the Red Room?)
3. In town, buy batteries, a lighter from Sharper
Image, pool socks, habaneros
4. Copy last night's Polo text and send to Brinkley
5. Remind HST to write back Jaya (necrophiliac
6. Send HST watch to jeweler (in envelope on counter) to replace battery
7. Send note to Bernstein at NY Times
8. Executive meeting at George's office about development project Monday, 5:00 p.m.
9. Tomorrow: lunch with Ed Bradley at 1:00. Burritos?
10. Type letter to Ed Turner
11. For Jeep: check transmission (rough shifting), get wind guards for
windows and sunroof, have left front headlight and fog light fixed, talk to custom guy in Vale about tinting windows
12. Tell Deborah: HST was not feeling well last night—very faint, heart palpitations, had to lay down for
a nap. . .
It was a distinct mixture of important and trivial tasks, of bizarre challenges and sheer boredom. Once I blew
up a propane tank when I finally took correct aim at a flint-charged target. I fed the peacocks, I fought with him for
hours over a missing jar of liquid acid I had never seen, and I ran down to the Woody Creek Tavern for guacamole. I wound
myself up into the Navajo blanket on his couch while watching hours of football, fell asleep sitting up at dinner, and
swept countless dead white moths from his floor in the mornings. I took his blood pressure, and after seeing it was dangerously
high, I made him a peanut-butter sandwich and sat next to his bed until he finally admitted he was sick and wanted to
rest. He could be a perfect Southern gentleman, opening doors, showing me photographs of his high-school sweetheart, making
sure I went to the eye doctor for a checkup. We would call his mother on the speakerphone. And once, when he asked if
he could kiss me and I declined, he simply shook his head, giggling "Fuck it then" and never mentioned it again.
The next evening, he gave me daisies in a paper cup that read “heartbreaking vixen.” But those, of course,
were the good times.
Other times I witnessed his atavistic side. Despite the rumors that followed me home when I left, he never held
a gun to my head or laid a finger on me, but that’s not to say he didn’t throw a tantrum or two. Paranoid,
he would lock everyone out of his cabin for hours at a time, intermittently setting off his alarm and firing guns into the
air. One time I watched him beat his car because his cigarettes were locked inside, and another time he threw me out of
the house for refusing to watch a snuff film. And he was hell on his new kitten, Hugo, especially when he felt I was paying
it too much attention. He would snatch Hugo up, smudge his pink nose in cocaine, and send him darting across the kitchen
floor. If I would get up from our work to shut the front door to keep the cat from fleeing outside, he would berate me with
a round of screaming, furiously yelling at the top of his lungs that would have addled me if not for my own experience
in a fit-throwing family.
He might have, in his own way, respected animals, but he had no compassion for them. For weeks he played a tape
recording of a jack rabbit screaming in a trap. The Red Room off to the side of the cabin looked like the Natural History
Museum with a stuffed fox, buffalo, wart hog, and wolverine. He made me wear an elk tooth around my neck that he claimed
to have gouged out of the animal's skull himself. When he drove past cattle on the road, he would blow his horn and swerve
as close as he could to them. "You need to show them a lesson," he said, "because these bastards will stand
their ground as long as they can, moving at the very last second." It was like he was playing chicken with these
obstinate cows. One bull stood still on the yellow line until Hunter clipped its rump with his fender. He further vindicated
his actions by explaining that if you hit an animal on the road, you must hit it hard to keep it from suffering and from
wrecking your car. He told me he hit a deer once, "not leaving a bone in its body unbroken—a pile of flesh and
bone splinters. I hit it all the way to Woody Creek Tavern."
He often had the same amount of sympathy for
me, especially when I would tire. I remained sober, so when two days without sleep would bring on dizziness and nausea,
he would simply throw a bottle of Maalox at me. "There, goddamnit,” he would huff. “Drink it and shut up."
Nevertheless, I never witnessed the insane rage mentioned in his biographies and suffered no more physical violence than
that. He neither intimidated nor comforted me, and through it all I came to know both a redneck genius with an astounding
memory for even the slightest details and a cranky, elderly dope fiend that never knew when to stop. I stayed as long as
I could, and when I decided to leave, Hunter sent me off with a letter of recommendation for graduate school and a kiss
on the forehead.
A Review of Nickole Brown's Fanny
Says by Parneshia
Jones, first published in Oxford American
Shortly after I started reading Nickole Brown’s latest collection, Fanny Says, I
asked a sixty-year-old woman of Norwegian descent if she had been close to her grandmother. Her body became straight as
a board with the mention of the word “grandmother.” She proceeded to tell me memories of her grandmother
cooking potatoes every night—every way you could imagine a potato being cooked—and how you didn’t want
to mess with her because if you did, even if you were her grandchild, she’d threaten to call the police. I then remembered
my own grandmother—beautiful, over-the-top, and full of resentment. I loved her in her whirlwind, and I know for sure
I will not know the kind of love she had for me again. It’s like that. We don’t choose our grandmothers, and
they don’t choose us, either.Fanny Says is a book of poems that speaks to these natural selections,
the cross-generational connections that make us members of families and of nations.
Divided into four sections and set in Kentucky, the collection weaves a double narrative that folds
together both a granddaughter’s recollections and a grandmother’s persona. The imagery is blunt, the dialect
true, and what unfolds is a metaphoric hope chest, a series of living flashbacks through which Brown creates a poetic treatise
on memory’s workings. In addition to giving us Fanny’s own voice, the poems also offer a granddaughter recalling
her grandmother, inviting the reader to be witness to the contrapuntal realities of love. Consider how in passages like
this one, from the poem “How to Dress like Fanny,” Brown enmeshes impression with image:
Don’t carry a purse but a pocketbook, and
don’t wear a bra and panties
but a push-up Frederick’s
of Hollywood brassiere
and a pair of bloomers—nylon, always white, pulled up
as far as bloomers can possibly go.
shoes, two options: should you need to go shopping
or get your pressure checked, lace up a pair of white Keds.
Otherwise, it’s house shoes, dust-pink slippers
curled from the dryer into tiny, warm cups for your feet.
With subtle technique, Brown encourages the reader to
take liberty with these crisp narratives and provokes us to imagine Fanny beyond the page.
Of course, the collection itself would be acceptable if it was left to the granddaughter to speak Fanny’s
life for her. But not whole. Brown, however, cuts her personal narrative with another persona, allowing Fanny to speak for
herself—building poems from actual transcriptions—and adding to the collection’s depth. These poems are
signaled with a title that begins, “Fanny Says.” Here is where Fanny comes to life, as in these excerpts from
“Fanny Says How to Be a Lady, “ her voice rooted in sassy candor:
1. Never tell your age. If under cardiac arrest and the ambulance comes, the paramedic will ask
lots of questions—the city you live in, the president, your last name. Answer him best you can, but if he asks
the year you were born, say, You’re the doctor here. If you’re so fucking smart, why don’t
you tell me how old I am?
. . .
5. Steer clear of places where common people go. Public
pools ain’t nothing but a sea of hot piss, and if you’re forced to drink in a restaurant, you ask for a
straw, because Lord knows where that cup has been.
. . .
. .] You understand? Be mean, fight for it. Hold that head back, walk straight. You’ll remember what I tell you?
You’ll remember, won’t you?
us find it difficult to tell our family stories—no surprise, as they are usually loaded. One of the accomplishments
of Fanny Says is its skillful and unapologetic confrontation of the shamelessness of Brown’s people—and
sometimes ours. This achievement brims to the surface with “A Genealogy of the Word,” which anchors the collection:
Saying “the n-word” is a cop-out, robbing
of its essential
grit, faked out, vaguely
Pentecostal, pleated and ironed stiff,
like dagnabbit and bullfish and flip it to dip.
Fanny was authoritative
with her cussing, unabashed
with cocksucker and fucker and dick.
Most times, I’d laugh, pour her a fresh Pepsi
or do whatever else she was barking out,
that word made me hot
with shame; out of her mouth
it was visible, a skidmark, a shit
What makes this book essential to the growing cannon
of writers confronting the American heritage is that these poems resist sympathy. Brown resists being the victim of a grandmother
who was loved dearly, but who, once you peeled away her sass and humor, was a racist. Instead, Brown offers us a woman cloned
from tradition and circumstance, a woman loved. Fanny failed to realize her humanity and the humanity of her maid, Bernie
May, as equal—and that’s just the way it was. Racism, sexual violence, sexism, sexuality, and history all come
to blows in this powerful litany while the discovery of a woman’s rooted hate entangles with the poet’s own
. . .
me there was a woman,
to her mother
to her mother,
to her mother,
count it—four generations
back—who was dark
as a bucket of water,
an unstirred pool of black
for sleepers who thirst
in the dead of night.
imagine this poem bought many moments of hesitation with the pencil. But here Brown is at her best—writing calamity
with eloquence, speaking, in the same moment, Fanny’s complications and the poet’s claim on it. This book, like
a grandmother’s love, is not always pretty, but it pulls you in and gives you so much truth.
A Review of Nickole Brown's Sister by Cynthia Arrieu-King
A book of poems about surviving abuse has to battle a lot of clichés,
not to mention a certain incredulity. Therapeutic arts, easy lyric narrative, the awkward showmanship for one's own lowest
moments must all be avoided. In Sister, Nickole Brown invents a rhetorical frame that allows a woman
speaker to address regrets and memories to a sister ten years younger. She also uses double entendre, and a highly imagistic
sensual cataloguing to build this narrative project. These tools create a space for amped-up emotion, a marriage of the
graphic and the intricate, and finally the rehabilitation of scenes from small town impoverished narratives.
the poems to a younger sister, Brown casts what might seem egregious confessionalism in lesser hands as warnings and apologies
for absence. It isn't until the fourth stanza of "It is Possible He Thought" that the descriptions of toys and
presents the father had bought for the speaker is gently interrupted by the appearance of the baby sister:
It is possible the year
before you were born he quit me
and I drew fourth-grade pictures
of swan necks coughing up
eggs into the
that I scored an A by memorizing
test in testicle, fall in fallopian. (42)
Not mentioned again in this poem, the "you"
adds an intimacy and direction to the speaker's new intellectual understanding of what sex is for, rather than viscerally,
wordlessly internalizing the abusive experience of it. At times the baby sister appears in the third person rather than
the second, allowing Brown to establish both intimate and perplexed, distant attitudes towards this friend/intruder where
another friend/intruder has already been incorporated, frighteningly, into the psyche. The sister is "you" in
a poem about keeping her out of the teenage speaker's room ("The Smell of Snake") and what happened when the baby
sister ran into the same room to bang on everything with a wooden spoon ("Tintinnabulation"). Brown's speaker never
truly relaxes at the thought of this sister in danger, yet foreign and kept at a distance as a means of self-protection.
Where the women of this novel are addressed in the third person, second person, and first
person plural, the stepfather is kept at a remove in the third person, and his more vile activities are either met head-on,
or allowed to simmer as double entendres. The abusive stepfather disappears into the basement to build model airplanes,
"bluing himself with late night flickerings of television." The gerund "bluing" can make the reader imagine
the man not only blue in the light the television casts, but cultivating, then denying himself pleasure from something he
seems on-screen. This double meaning asks the reader, "why does he need so much pleasure?" In "One Hundred
and Five Times," an argument between the mother and speaker recycles itself from we've been over this 105 times,
you bring it up every chance you get, into variations such as, "he was 105 times / he was / every chance."
The separation of the mother's words into a stunted, dark account of her husband's actions puts the mother's own knowledge
of what happened into phrases that both avoid and make denials grotesque through collage.
contrast to the subtler double meanings, Brown crafts earthy, visceral, organic surfaces from the expected—fetuses,
ferns, lakes, mud, clitorises, penises—as well as from a lot of thrown and often artificial or manufactured objects.
This teeming surface evades summary and occasionally commentary, the result being a rehabilitation of ugliness into—if
not beauty—a distracted, made surface. The speaker acknowledges having been mesmerized ("It is Possible He Thought")
by a lighter and lighter fluid flamethrower trick the stepfather showed her, and being "underground / with a wild barnyard
kitten / that shit the couch." The Rolling Stones LP cover with the zipper, a reference to the electronic toy Speak
‘n' Spell, Mardi Gras beads, etc., conglomerate as if sealing life whole in ambergris, rather than covering over, or
slowly examining the worst moments.
Brown's grotesque surfaces also imagine the father's
own burden of misfortunes. In "Wasp, Bear, Abacus," we learn there was a woman he wanted to marry who was "killed
in the melting fiberglass cage of his first white Corvette," and his own father used a twelve-gauge to blow a "black
boy's jaw…into a confetti of buckshot and flesh." The only explanations for his behaviors are elaborated metaphors
for his nature listed in the title, and the final lines of the poem in which a "you" (either the reader or the
speaker) takes a hot coal from the fire, and writes on a fence that criminals are "made, not born." By not stating
this as commentary, but showing the idea as acted out graffiti, Brown transforms the difficult action of objectively assessing
a villain into an act not meditatively explained. Where one stops to wonder what is true and what is imagined in the poem,
the speaker's dedication to the seemingly impossible facts—that a life could be so wrong and that he should be forgiven—is
This book dares itself into territory Robert Rebein called the mythical
and cliché'd dirty hick's. For Rebein, where Dorothy Allison succeeded in her candor and specificity, many others
have failed to completely evade sentimentality: A desire to seem authentic via white trash culture can feel false. Brown
tends to bring the (paradoxical) trope of the impoverished idiosyncratic to bear on an addressee, the young sister, with
the goal of warning and explaining her own psychological distance. The most clarification happens not for the sister, but,
it seems, for the speaker's self. If you feel that high emotion and unalienated confession is not art, as Slavoj Žižek
might assert—that it cops to the System where the individual is valued for trying to be different—this book
asks the question: what do you do with specific experience you never chose and from which you must try to recover? In the
end, Brown blows all up into an awful beauty of size, color and sound, regards the narrative from many points in time, then
warns the sister:
...you are not mercury for the
mouths of fish
not a plume of smoke to lift hollow bones. Do not throw it
like a bottle from an overpass onto a
speeding car, do not wait
for it to seed as you wait tentacled in sleeping beauty's hair.
Listen to me, I know how
it works, simply
bury it, but bury it
("How to Forgive") (96).
Click here to read multiple reviews of Nickole Brown's Sister
An Interview with Nickole
Brown by Chloe Campbell, first published at storySouth
Chloe Campell: First of all, Sister, your first book, is incredible. I particularly loved
"Footling", which I also found featured online in several places. Would you say "Footling" is the poem
from Sister you feel is most emblematic of the book? Is there another poem you're more attached to from the collection?
Nickole Brown: Thanks so much. I
think "Footling" received the attention it did because it opens the narrative, and it's also the poem that I usually
started my readings with when I was on tour with the book. It was, in many ways, the poem that took me the longest to write
and was the most difficult to "settle in," so to speak. But is it the most emblematic of the book? I wouldn't
say that, no. When I think of Sister, "How To Forgive" is the poem that people seem to remember. It was
quickly written, a poem that was practically given to me, and it was the last one I wrote-when I put it down, I knew I was
done with that manuscript, that I had gathered what I needed to move forward. It's the poem that matters most to me and
the only one in the collection I know by heart.
Can you talk a bit about your new work, Fanny Says? Is there a narrative running through it, closer to a novel-in-verse,
or would you say it's more thematically centered on Fanny instead?
NB: Fanny Says is a non-fiction manuscript, a biography-in-poems about my grandmother,
Frances Cox, from Bowling Green, Kentucky. She was contrary and complex enough that I couldn't have possibly have attempted
to sketch out her life in prose. This new manuscript isn't exactly linear or narrative, but it does seek out a very particular
story-Fanny's story-and tries to tell it as best I can.
CC: For "Fanny Says How To Be A Lady", what inspired you to use the list form? I know
that as a reader I found it engaging and that it propelled the piece forward pretty quickly; more sentimentally, it reminded
me of my own grandmother. Do you find yourself playing with form in this way pretty often?
NB: Fanny was unlike anyone I've ever known and certainly unlike any other grandmother I've ever
met, so I can't tell you how good it makes me feel that something reflected here made you think of your own grandmother.
In terms of the form, making a list was a natural thing to do: Fanny certainly had a list of her own to keep all of us girls
in check. So form here simply follows function. In general, I try to let the poem tell me what shape it needs to take, and
this was one that knew exactly how it needed to look on the page.
CC: In regards to editing, what drew you to edit professionally?
NB: Editing is, in so many ways, an extension of writing, especially revision. Most of us who
have been in creative writing workshops are, for better or worse, editing others' work on a regular basis, and I've always
enjoyed looking at a piece from the inside out, investigating the mechanics, opening the face of the clock to tweeze apart
those cogs and understand how time ticks. Understanding what can be controlled in a piece-punctuation, syntax, grammar,
white space-soothes the side of me that needs order. The creative process is messy and circuitous and often exhausting in
the way that hard dreaming for eight hours is exhausting. I mean, technically speaking, you get a full night's sleep, but
you're still tired. Editing is a way to pull yourself up from those hot and tangled sheets. It lets you flip the pillows
to the cool side; you smooth the surface and tuck in the edges. Does that make sense? It's a joy to me, to help another
writer rise up from their own dreaming to say what they intended to say more clearly.
CC: What drew you to Marie Alexander specifically, and what draws you to editing prose poetry?
NB: My initial draw to the Marie
Alexander Series was the Founding Editor, Robert Alexander. He has been tirelessly dedicated to the prose poem for nearly
thirty years now, and his articulation of the form-and the need for it to be recognized as an integral part of American poetry-is
what convinced me to dedicate my time to the series. In Family Portrait, our recently published anthology of modern
prose poetry, Robert's Afterword succinctly outlines a history of the form from the King James Bible to Gertude Stein, and
he says that one reason he was drawn to the prose poem is that it gave him "the freedom to play with a mix of characteristics
of tone and style and subject matter that were traditionally the realm of fiction writers, along with other elements that
were traditionally poetic." I, too, like the freedom that plays on the border between prose and poetry and am truly
excited by the possibilities.
Has there been a particular work you've edited that you're especially proud of or attached to?
NB: My first selection for the series-a manuscript called Postage Due I found a few years
ago that was just published this spring-is a wonderfully quirky, heartbreak of a collection by Julie Marie Wade that makes
great use of postcard poems, epistles, lineated verse, and prose poems. In this book, Julie does one of my favorite things:
she brings the best of the high and the low together to utter the unsayable in plainly spoken, often humorous ways. She
writes, for example, of the ache of puberty and repression but in ways that circle around the JC Penney Catalog and Mary
Richards (of the Mary Tyler Moore Show); there are wounded expressions of gender, sex, and violence, but never
once do the poems sink into despair or self pity. These are holy poems, but only holy in the way that one might hold a piece
of pink HubbaBubba to the side of their mouth while reciting an ardently felt prayer.
CC: What's new and exciting at Marie Alexander?
NB: The biggest news is the fantastic reading period we had this past summer. Robert and I found
no less than three manuscripts, which is an unprecedented amount from one round of submissions. All three will be coming
out between next year and 2016. I think this speaks to the health of the series, and I'm thrilled that so many good writers
want to submit their work to us. These upcoming titles are Rochelle Hurt's The Rusted City, ReLynn Hansen's Some
Women I Have Known, and Robert Strong's Bright Advent.
CC: What's been the biggest challenge for you and your writing since you started with Marie Alexander?
NB: As always, time. When I first
started work for the series, I was adjunct teaching at four different universities, and well, let's just say even my dog
started to resent me. Now, I'm teaching full-time at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and while things have balanced
out, it's still a challenge to protect my writing time. This semester, I've reserved one day a week for my own creative
work, and even though I've had to fight for it, that one ten-hour stretch goes a long way to preserve who I am.
CC: Have you been producing more prose poetry since starting
with Marie Alexander?
NB: I think
so, yes. About a fourth of my new manuscript-almost every poem with a title that begin with "Fanny Says"-is all
in the form of prose blocks. Each of these pieces record, almost word-for-word, my grandmother speaking to me, and this
form got out of my way and allowed me to do that. I didn't want a heavy hand, poetically speaking, on these pieces. In general,
these poems I wrote down as she said them, mostly during that time when she was bedridden and had nothing left but talk.
I can't say I'd ever been so happy and so sad at the same time in all my life. Generally, I would listen all night, and
about four in the morning, she would say, "Well, we might as well go to bed now, Koey. I think we've talked just about
everybody. . . . Unless you think there's somebody we ain't covered?"
CC: How does editing so consistently affect your critical eye with your work? Do you ever find
yourself editing too quickly or critically while you're writing?
NB: It's tough, but I try to keep my creative space separate from revision, especially during
those early drafts. Having a critical eye on a blank page will keep it white as the untrodden until it yellows with age,
and you have to give yourself permission to write, as Anne Lamott put it, "shitty first drafts." If I find myself
editing while I'm trying to write, I stop and do something else entirely. You have to keep the act of getting those first
words on the page real, and you have to do it without expectation. I save the red pen (well, my green pen, to be exact)
for later, once the substance is there.
You're both editing and teaching now, and I really wonder which of the two tracks you find impacts your work more frequently?
I'd have to imagine it's difficult to drop both teacher-mode and editor-mode and just allow yourself to write!
NB: It's all a continuum, really, one inseparable from
the next. That would be like looking at a well-fed body and trying to decide which parts were nourished by lunch and which
by dinner. I mean, both teaching and editing are integral to my exercise as a writer, to my service as a writer. Both "modes"
give me just as much as I give, and to be honest, I wouldn't want to separate out those parts of myself. I like it all there
together, keeping me whole.
Do you have any advice for writers who want to pursue editing professionally?
NB: Don't glamorize it, first of all. Some of my students see their future selves editing in pen-stripe
suits, cappaccino in hand, with view of Manhattan out their office window. In reality, most of the time, you might find
yourself at home, hunched over a stack of manuscripts as tall as a Great Dane. You will have coffee-no doubt about that-but
you might be dressed in a pilly man-robe with your hair in a frizzy top knot. There's much work to do; you can always take
a shower later, before your partner gets home.
that's okay with you and this is what you want to do, get experience, any way you can, and don't be fussy about doing all
the jobs that needed to be done in publishing. There's not an editor I know who hasn't stuffed envelopes and updated databases
and answered hundreds of emails from authors fretting about their submissions. Try, if it's available to you, to intern
at an independent press or literary journal, and volunteer yourself up to do whatever needs to be done. Eventually, as you
work your way in, you may be asked to read a manuscript and offer up your feedback. When you do, work diligently. If you're
proofing, use the dictionary, and tattoo the Chicago Manual of Style on your butt. If you're reading through the slush,
don't get frustrated or egotistic. Cockiness isn't pretty, especially now that you've been entrusted the creative spirit
of people you barely know. Respect those authors, and treat them with dignity, even if their writing is weak or gut-bucket
CC: What's next for you,
NB: This summer, I'd
like to finish my third manuscript, Down The Center Line of Spine.
Click here to read an interview with Nickole Brown at How a Poem Happens
Click here to read an interview with Nickole Brown about her book Fanny Says with BOA Editions
Click here to view multiple readings by Nickole Brown