I first met poet Nickole Brown in a talk she conducted on the prose poem at the Fall 2015 North Carolina Writers' Conference. If it wasn't her reading of her poem "Fuck" from her book Fanny Says that hooked me, it was the way she compared the way a poem appears on the page to the difference between TJ Maxx and a Soho boutique: "The more white space you put around a poem, the more precious, the more expensive it becomes." I know from experience that Nickole is a great teacher, and I encourage you to read her thoughts on her students, as well as her thoughts on the power of poetry, in her interview below. Fierce.
"[T]he crux of what I’m seeking is a continuation of what I’ve always done—using poetry to attempt to find words for those who have no voice of their own, to try to save stories that don’t have a language, at least not a kind of language with access to the kind of words that will save it in this world." Nickole Brown
Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?
My students. Now, I don’t know if I can call them “accomplishments” exactly, especially not ones that belong to me, but I couldn’t be more proud of them, truly, especially that motley gaggle of young poets and budding editors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where I taught for four years before giving up my position there to take a shot at writing full-time.
Although I know I made the right decision to take a chance on my own poems and don’t regret that choice, it is something that I miss, especially now that I see what former students have accomplished since moving on from my classroom. . . . There’s Essence London, for example, who showed up to my publishing seminar pregnant and only a week away from delivering her son. I’ve rarely seen anyone withstand their circumstances with more determination, and since graduating, she’s worked her way through the graduate program at Texas Tech and is now studying at Bloomington with plans to return to Arkansas to start her own letterpress. Then there’s Seth Pennington, one of the first tentative voices to emerge from my creative writing workshops down there; he’s just published a stunning first chapbook and is now running an independent press called Sibling Rivalry with his husband. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the shy but quick-witted Caitlin Love—her career took off with an incredible force, and a few years ago she left a much sought-after position at the Oxford American to work as an Associate Editor at the Paris Review. There are so many more—DeLasha Long, Suzi Garcia, Robert Bruno, and Kendalyn McKisick, just to mention a few more—each of whom took what I had to offer as an instructor with a hunger that inspired me to bring everything I had to the classroom.
What I mean to say is these students made so many of the adages ring true—that you get only as much as you give, that teaching is really about learning. In this way, my time with them wasn’t so much about instruction on elements of craft but a shared enthusiasm for what a poem can do in someone’s life. I got to witness that first hand with these students. I didn’t so much as teach them as witness their blossoming, an incredible and unstoppable thing to behold.
What are you currently working on? How long have you been working on it? How did you become interested in it/ where did you get the idea for it?
To answer your question I need to back up a little to this past week in Maine when I was asked for a gala celebrating Beloit Poetry Journal to represent myself as a political poet, sharing my work and my thoughts about poetry in the current administration. This was a tough one for me, but I learned more than I expected once I began to prepare my talk.
I mean, if you would have asked me before this if I was political, I would have said, Nope. No way. Hell no, especially when it came to poetry, something I thought well out of the firing range of the starched, bureaucratic blusterings of the men who made the news and the men who wrote it down. You see, I was born into a particular kind of Kentucky, as a woman, taught that my power—if I were to ever have any—resided in putting on my face and roping in a good husband, and as I could neither swing a hammer with much force nor speak the kind of English heard on the t.v., I wasn’t likely to make what anyone would call “news,” unless you could call the probability that I might make the six o’clock for murdering someone, should I have stayed in the life prescribed to me.
Anyhow, I made a kind of escape, packed up the language I had, rife with all the colloquial malapropisms and pronunciations that was my linguistic heritage and wrote down not the news but what I knew was sure to disappear if I didn’t find a way to tell it. You see, coming from the place I did, we didn’t have any power we didn’t outright take, and when I read Margaret Atwood’s quote, “A word after a word after a word is power,” I took what I could get. Now, I won’t hand you the cliché that the personal is political, but when you don’t have power in this world, any voice you can sound to articulate your story is a kind of political act. So it makes sense that my first book, Sister, sought to part the caul of silence shrouding my childhood in a series of epistolary poems addressed to my younger sister. And my second book? Well, Fanny Says is a biography of sorts, trying to tell the life of my grandmother—a tough-as-new-rope mother of seven who cursed like a soldier and helped to set me right in this world.
And now? Funny as it seems, I’m writing about animals. In particular, I’m using poems to explore animal sentience and our relationship with non-human beings. When I began this project last year, I couldn’t say exactly why I was so obsessed, why I was watching hours of documentaries about everything from gorillas to rock geese to goats, why I was greedily reading all I could find about animal behavior (some 82 books to date), why I began volunteering at any local rescue facilities I could find, giving my time to the Western North Carolina Nature Center as well as Animal Haven, a farm sanctuary here in Asheville. But the more I learn and spend time with animals themselves, I understand the crux of what I’m seeking is a continuation of what I’ve always done—using poetry to attempt to find words for those who have no voice of their own, to try to save stories that don’t have a language, at least not a kind of language with access to the kind of words that will save it in this world.
While I’m at it, I’d like to mention a little story I’ve run across in my research. Many of us will remember Koko, a western lowland gorilla made famous by her capacity to learn a modified version of American Sign Language. Her caregiver claims Koko can make up to 1,000 signs and can verbally understand twice as many as that. But here was also once a male gorilla in Koko’s company. Before his death in 2000, he signed what some say is a recollection of his infancy in Africa: the moment his mother was shot and he was taken into captivity. A direct translation reads, “squash / meat gorilla / mouth tooth / cry / sharp-noise loud / bad think-trouble-look face / cut neck / lip (girl) hole.”
Is this the first poem documented by an animal? Whatever you believe, it marks the first time I witnessed an animal share what I absolutely recognize as poetry—images raw and drawn from the marrow of memory. I’m not ashamed to say I wept when I saw footage of him signing this, and it fired my urgency to push forward with this project, this bestiary that aims to investigate animals and our complex and inextricable relationship with them.
What issue are you currently most passionate about? What is the one thing you would like people to know or understand about this issue?
The environment and the devastation ahead of us, particularly the extinction and mistreatment of countless animals who have nothing to do with the choices we’ve made. But what I want people to know, or what I want to call for, is a new kind of language, one stripped of its clichés and generalities, one that allows us to access the reality and urgency of the situation without simply ranting, an approach that only incites paralyzing fear and denial. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is yet, but a number of writers and thinkers are leading the way towards a kind of thinking that demands awareness, even hope—Kathleen Dean Moore, Rebecca Solnit, David Lukas, and David George Haskell, to name a few that have helped me recently.
What book or film with a female protagonist would you recommend and why? What female author’s, artist’s, or musician’s work would you recommend and why?
An impossible choice, truly. But if I had to send out the top three invites for my very own hero party, I’d send one to Shug Avery from The Color Purple, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Gertie Nevel from The Dollmaker. I’d like to think I’ve got a good dose of each of those women in my blood, especially if it counts how many times I’ve seen those films. And on the record player? I could wear the grooves right off a record by Aretha Franklin or Blondie or Janice Joplin, and though not many know her voice, Sarah Elizabeth Burkey’s singing never tires to my ears. Who else? Well, there’s those novels I turn to, not for the female protagonists but for the writers themselves—Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Harper Lee, Amy Tan. Where would I ever be without these women in my life?
Name one woman who has influenced you/ had an impact on you, perhaps as a mentor. Why and how did she impact your life?
This one is easy for me: Laure-Anne Bosselaar.
How, exactly, to describe her importance to me as a poet? I suppose I could start with a twenty-something version of myself—imagine much bigger hair, much higher, ill-fitting heels, and zero knowledge of how to break a line in poetry. I flew to Bronxville, New York, one June to study under her at Sarah Lawrence College, and here’s what I remember: that she taught from the head of a long table, and every one of her students, especially me, leaned into her, visibly. I mean that—if a photograph of the classroom would have been taken all those years ago, it wouldn’t appear as if we were cocking our heads to listen closer, no. What I’m talking about is something a little more love-stuck and visceral—a dozen Pisa towers leaning from our hard school-room seats, a poetry parody of a V-8 commercial. We were leaning in—quite literally—in the way that sunflowers move their faces towards light, following the sun on its trajectory through the sky. We were practically heliotropic for Laure-Anne, and every time I’ve seen her since—at her readings at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and at the Bowery Poetry Club in the Lower East Side, even at the ever-distracting and crowded AWP Conference—she has that effect on people.
Why? Well, there’s that accent of hers husked with a few years’ worth of smoking that she carried with her from Belgium—part Flemish, part French, her voice relishes the sounds of English in a way that a native speaker never could. Oh, and she’s wicked talented, no doubt, and she works hard—outside teaching, she’s an anthologist and translator and editor, and let’s not forget her three books—each of them collections of exquisite and wrought poems that practice exactly the kind of economy of language, attention to word music, and emotional risk that she tries to instill in her students.
But I think what draws people to her might be something deeper than that, something a little more difficult to explain that I’ve only begun to understand.
To illustrate my point, a story. . . . You see, about four years ago, I got sick. Real sick. A rush-to-the-emergency-room kind of sick. And because I was on tour in Los Angeles and close to one of those neighborhoods in LA you normally see only on television shows, the ambulance took me to a hospital that actually existed in one of Dante’s rings of hell . . . during my three days there, I witnessed things I wouldn’t dare speak of here—abuse and filth and death—and when I thought I’d run screaming into the streets, IV in tow, I called Laure-Anne. She had moved to California by then, so even though she wasn’t within driving distance, I knew she was closer than anyone I could call at home. Now, what I expected was the usual placating response, something like “Oh, it will be okay, honey. Don’t worry; you’ll be home soon.” But no. After weeping into the phone a good half hour, Laure-Anne paused. Then she said something like this: “Good. Good. Do you hear me? Now, you pay attention and you take notes and you write this down. Don’t forget the suffering, the anger that you’ve seen. You pay attention and you use this to understand the world, to understand the way that people are. You keep this close, you don’t forget.”
I was stunned into silence. I didn’t know how to answer, but I did hang up the phone, stop my crying, and got myself checked out of that nightmare.
Here’s the thing, the very thing that I think makes Laure-Anne different—she turns away from nothing. She pays attention—fiercely—to the world, “without,” as Keats said, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” and Laure-Anne embraces negative capability like no other. It’s not that her poems don’t give shelter to wisdom—they’re rife with it—it’s rather that she never forces meaning, never applies pat answers to the complex questions. And—this is important—she doesn’t look away. She doesn’t hide. She pays attention. To the man on the bus talking to his estranged child on the phone, to the man who kicks his dog in the street, to her own childhood in Belgium where her unaffectionate parents and the brute nuns at the convent she grew up in offered her so many reasons to turn away from this world. Her poems ask as many questions as they answer, her poems are sometimes inconsolable, sometimes resigned to the unknowable, but always, always aware. So there’s your answer. Laure-Anne. She’s my best mentor, my bright, bright light.
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Red Hen Press and a new edition will be reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in the fall of 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and the audiobook will be available this August. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and is on faculty at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC.