Nick Flynn & Beth Bachmann
In Between Words: A Conversation on the Extreme

 

NF: Why a poetics of the extreme? Where do we start?

 

BB: I have a habit of fetishizing the extreme: too small, too pink, too all at once. We might say all poems are extreme poems, that the act of writing a poem is an extreme act, a shouting into the void, but I want to talk about poems that take place at the void, at that intersection between the unknown and utterance. Where to start? My real thinking on the extreme begins with Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting, poetry written in response to situations of extremity. Start by telling me about the time Carolyn put you in the isolation tank.

 

NF: If Carolyn had put me into an isolation tank that would have been extreme, but let me clarify: my first poetry workshop, after wandering through my twenties, nearly at the end of my twenties, was with Carolyn at a new agey retreat called the Omega Institute in upstate NY. I was not especially new agey but her work meant so much to me, both her poems and Against Forgetting, so I pulled on my black leather jacket and went. In our first conversation, Carolyn told me she'd done the isolation tank a few days earlier and pretty much insisted I try it— Omega had one on-site, behind the crystal and buddha shop. She didn't put me in the tank, but at that point I'd do whatever she suggested. The isolation tank was one of those coffin-like boxes filled with salt water, sometimes called an immersion tank, sometimes called sensory deprivation tank, that you are sealed into for an hour—there’s a movie about it, Altered States, where William Hurt drops acid in an isolation tanks as some sort of experiment on what the mind can handle (note: bad things happen). A few months before the workshop with Carolyn, I’d quit drugs and alcohol, which left me raw yet open to trying new things and so I did as I was told and it was the most hallucinatory experience I'd ever had, on drugs or off. The water is body temperature, the salt makes you float, there is no light or sound—very quickly the body dissolves, and I was simply consciousness, and shortly thereafter the thread of consciousness dissolved as well. All that makes us human is so tenuous, it seems.

 

BB: I want to talk about what happens to the mind in isolation because part of the extreme grows out of isolation. Extremophiles in nature are organisms that thrive in conditions detrimental to the majority of life on earth – caves, deep seas – and when cavers and divers enter these environments, they sometimes report having an experience called the rapture, or raptures of the deep: the body’s response to depth and darkness. For cavers, it’s characterized by panic and for scuba divers, euphoria. I think that a poetics of the extreme encompasses not only writing in response to public and private violence – war, torture, murder, suicide (the dark) – but also poems of rapture, ecstasy, and love, any situation where the speaker is truly vulnerable or tenuous as you say, in the tank. I think all of our books find poems on both ends of the extreme. I’m wondering if you think there’s a fundamental difference or sameness in your approach to writing poems about violence versus those about love?

 

NF: Just to say this upfront: I'm not fully committed to the idea of myself as an extremophile—doesn't the suffix mean "love of", as in "love of the extreme"? Like an adrenaline junkie? I don't really understand that impulse—it seems the extreme, whether it's war or torture or suicide or just death will come knocking on your door soon enough: I see no need to go looking for it. Neither embrace it nor reject it. If it hasn’t come knocking yet then have a good day—death will come, always does, eventually. Let me think about your question after you define this idea of the extremophile more.

 

BB: Ha, yes; me neither. I am not an adrenaline junkie. I’ve seen enough in my day to know that everything can be dangerous. Who’s to say that the creatures we call extremophiles love the extreme or merely that they’ve found a way to make a home there in the dark? The extremophiles offer a way to think about what happens when we enter the cave or the deep water. Though to return to Forche for a moment, I was happy to see my favorite Andrew Marvell poem, “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn,” appear in the new Poetry of Witness, with its beautiful lines, “Oh, I cannot be/Unkind to a beast that loveth me.” If that’s extremophilia, I might be in.

           Another included favorite is Donne’s “Batter my heart:” I...never shall be free...except as you ravish me – "ravish," which holds both love and violence at its root in rapture/rape/seize/carry. What I find so interesting about the extreme is that it doesn’t seem limited to just the dark, but that so many of its strategies of fragmentation can also turn toward or into rapture or love. Fragmentation appears at that threshold state; rapture doesn’t always lead to ascension, but I like to look at that moment, in the cave, sea, tank, where it could, where what did you say, consciousness/self falls away. So: writing about love and writing about violence – same avenues or...?

 

NF: So fragmentation is a sign we’ve entered into this extreme realm? Maybe that’s a more contemporary strategy, or a more recently recognized necessity...the Marvell and the Donne are syntactically sound, no? I love the Donne as well, the moment when faith comes up against reason, the struggle to reconcile those two needs. I’ll take Donne’s struggle on a purely metaphysical level, to avoid romanticizing the idea of sex and violence being inextricably linked—like death, violence will one day come knocking, but I’d rather focus on this moment when, on this plane, the only plane I really know, sex and violence exist in their own separate boxes, at least for me, at this moment (for those who like to link the two—all power to you). I do like that you used the word “threshold,” for I do believe this is where poetry is found— this no-place, this elsewhere, this beyond—which bring us back to fragmentation. There’s a quote that I really like by the cowboy artist Bruce Nauman: “I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs. It is how the familiar and the unknown touch each other that makes things interesting.”

 

BB: Yes; separate boxes for love and violence, please. Also, I said love, not sex. Love, like death, comes knocking. I’m asking about the way you write about each, the approach. I think for me the way toward each is the same. Maybe because both violence and love can be these threshold states where things fragment: violence as occurring at a breach of empathy and love as attempting to enter the other. It’s easier to see violence as fragmentary, the broken body, the damage done, but love is also fragmentary: we cannot love the whole world or the whole person, but we can love each part as we come to know it, even in the knowledge of there is always more.

        I want to turn to Chris Abani, author of one poem I don’t mind calling extreme, “Rambo 3,” which appears in Kalakuta Republic, in which essentially Rambo 3 is projected onto the killing wall of the prison. It’s truly apocalyptic, in terms of lifting the veil: “the killing wall serves as screen.” It wildly un-anesthetizes movie violence into real violence, mediated through the rapture of soda pop paired with exploding flesh. I bow before it. I started by saying I fetishize the extreme by which I mean I am in awe of this poem’s power. What is extreme about this poem? Its refusal to look away and to tear away the easy ways we visualize violence, while at the same time delicately holding that simple, sweet popping of bubbles on the tongue. Recently Abani described witnessing violence through art (in The Millions) as arresting the “speed of disintegration, to step back and get a hold of the fragments. Like when you break a vase and take a step back. We see at once the detail of pieces and the whole vase. Slowly we bend, pick up the first piece and consider it. This is witness.”

          Let’s talk about the fragmentary on the page. I’m thinking slashes, redactions in The Captain Asks For a Show of Hands; cross-outs, brackets in My Feelings.

 

NF: Yes, Abani’s poem, which I love, takes place in an undeniably extreme place [prison] watching an extremely ridiculous film [Rambo 3], and would seem to come from being both a witness as well as being caught up in that extreme situation (as I understand it Abani was a prisoner in Nigeria for a period of time). It makes me think of two recent books I love—Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture, both of which I guess could be viewed through this lens of the extreme as well. For both Diaz and Rasmussen the struggle is to understand, to empathize with, someone close to them, a brother, someone who shares their blood. Both brothers are presented to us at moments of extreme—suicide and addiction. Strange that attempts to understand those closest to us, those we might imagine would be the simplest to understand, can lead to such extremes of unknowingness and complexity.

            You had said earlier “Who’s to say that the organisms we call extremophiles love the extreme or merely that they’ve found a way to make a home there in the dark?” This suggests those writing this type of poem have no choice—be it psychically or physically—but to write from that place of extremity. I think I try to maintain my agency in this realm, to recognize that I make choices and am able to make choices, even [especially] on the level of what I think, of where I allow my mind to venture, and it does venture into some pretty gnarly places. But for the poem to work, and perhaps for my life to work, I need to be able to pulse in and out of those places—if I packed my bags and moved there, I don’t know how long I would last. I like the word pulse, which I stole from Frank Bidart, to think about this, as it does seem to be what gives a poem it’s life force [there’s a new agey phrase for you]. But to answer your question, the fragments in my poems, when they appear, do seem to come from somewhere beyond that threshold of what I consciously know.

 

BB: I think certain poems do find a way to make a home in the dark and the way they do it is precisely through agency, in a Gregory Orr's Poetry As Survival kind of way. And extremophiles do control their environment. They take the energy source in that environment and convert it into life force (and in a literal, not new agey way!). Maybe it's a balance between exerting control where we can and letting the fragmentation exist at those places or pulses of the unknown.

Abani was crucial to me in the writing of Temper, where I wanted above all to honor the violence by keeping it violent. Not violence for violence’s sake, but made all the more horrifying because it is also human. Temper might be me at my most extreme because the gaze is at that threshold where the head wants to turn (like we said, nobody loves violence) but maintains that uncomfortable liminal space. And I love a poem that respects exactly how extreme violence is. And I love a poem that treats love as honestly. And I think your poems about love are as open as your poems about violence. I’m thinking about your “Epithalamion” – a wedding song which begins with the statement that no one can promise permanence? That’s extreme. An epithalamion is by nature a threshold poem, a poem for the bride on her wedding day. I think what I keep coming back to is that an extreme poem is one that beholds and holds a threshold space and that fragmentation is one marker of the threshold.

            Sometimes I use white space as akin to a sonnet’s volta – the moment of shift or change, a threshold space, a space of interrogation – I think as you say in one poem in Feelings, not the how but the why. Remind me again what you said about the monks and punctuation in Reenactments. I bet it has something to do with thresholds, too.

 

NF: I like that, punctuation as an extreme...I had pointed out that in early Christian texts, illuminated manuscripts, bibles written out by hand, there was not only no punctuation but also no space between the words, for the fear of horror vacui, where Satan flies in and occupies any empty space, even the space between words. One monk, a radical, put a small mark on a page, to slow down the reading, perhaps, and this eventually grew into what we call punctuation. So at that moment a comma becomes an extreme act.

          I like that you brought up love as a counterpoint to violence—I remember Patti Smith saying that love was the only radical act left, and at the time that resonated for me, as a way to turn away from lurking in the shadows, where I thought all poetry was hidden.

 

BB: Extreme punctuation @!!*#*?! Cartoon physics, emoticon. Horror vacui, yes, that's it - but is it a fear of space or a fear of silence? I looked up those monks in the pause and found a book called, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, which argues that a lack of spaces makes it nearly impossible to read silently and I love this idea that removing pause (punctuation or line break in a prose poem) might lift a poem off the page into the threshold of speech.

Saying I love you for the first time, sometimes, is the height of speech at its threshold. For all the talk of extremities, in the end, they are connected to the core, the body, the torso, the chest. The body is a border, one liminal space you can enter. But so is the heart. Definitely, Patti. Also, Derrida who speaks of love as a threshold: “coming toward the other but without crossing the threshold” and loving even the part that is inaccessible and keeping it safe as the other.

        I think as we try to delimit the extreme, it might be useful to ask where/if confession fits in? I said at the outset that for me part of the extreme seemed to be a truly vulnerable/open speaker. Let’s go back to our first books for a moment. When Some Ether debuted it was described as post-confessional and then a decade later when Temper debuted it was reviewed as anti-confessional, which you revised to ante-confessional, another threshold state. What are we now: before, after, or during?

 

NF: Confession, post-confession, anti confession—it all leads back to a lyric impulse, poetry as an utterance from some inner realm that presses up against outer realities (Abani in the prisonyard, or Bachmann (you) in Temper trying to understand—or at least approach—the murder of your sister). And in that case I’m not sure what separates the confessional from the lyric. Maybe some confessional poetry can veer toward the realm of self-pity, but those are poems

that won’t be remembered. These days, now that we are on the other side of all that, confessional does suggest the extreme, a risk that the poet is veering too far from the safe realm of irony, and this is maybe what some folks react against. But I’ve found that once you cross a threshold, there is always something beyond it, some deeper mystery. Unless you are doing it for some effect, some shock value, but that’s not what we are talking about.

 

BB: I ask because I thought My Feelings could be your most confessional or most extreme book because I felt ‘the I’ there is the most naked. To put it in terms of lucha libre, you risk the mask. To confess means to acknowledge/admit but to do so with an audience, to speak in front of another even in face of danger/harm/suffering. I’m thinking of the bracketed [yes]’s in “AK-47,” which to me read like a threshold moment, the moment of confession, where the lyric I says yes, yes, yes.

 

NF: About the idea of confession before an audience, it makes me think of Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation, where he distinguishes between shame (inner) and humiliation (outer), and offers: “Humiliation, an educating experience, breeds identity.” About the brackets, I do think that any parenthetical thought is a way to step outside the seeming confines of the poem—I’m thinking of Bishop’s last line of “One Art” (Write it!) which perfectly echoes Hopkin’s last line of “Carrion Comfort” (My God!). Likely a monk invented the parenthesis so he could insert his own commentary into the Bible. The parenthetical is not simply a pause but a leaping outside the poem into the consciousness of the author, which forces us, the readers, to recognize the artifice of what the poet is doing and commenting on it in some way.

 

BB: I want to think about confession in terms of catharsis, because we’ve written these books about repetition: memory making in your Reenactments and Do Not Rise, my book about PTSD as a memory disorder, a failure to forget. My favorite moment in Reenactments (and since it’s a book about memory making, I feel at liberty to remember my reading rather than look it up!) is where you get asked about catharsis for the millionth time and patiently reveal that reconsolidation of memory in a stressed state is the opposite of catharsis; we might instead term it cathexis, which has holding at its root –

 

NF: Cathexis means holding?

 

BB: It has its root there; I think of it as the act of holding the memory in the body, in the breath, in the mouth, the ear, the hands, the poems, which I guess brings us back to Forche, Against Forgetting (anti-). But catharsis has its root in purging, so I usually laugh and answer that’s not what I was going for aesthetically: vomit. I’ve heard us again and again take a breath at the catharsis question and find a gentle way to say, no. And yet in “AK-47,” confession, that yes, feels like a

purging, an act of admission itself. I was shocked because I always think yeah, yeah, we are writing these books about repetition and holding on, and I think of us as more engaged in a poetics of memory than a poetics of confession, but here I thought that maybe through confession there is a leap into some sort of letting go. What do you think? Is there a balance or tension in this book between holding on and letting go?

 

NF: Simone Weil talks about the Iliad as the poem of force: there’s no hesitation, no pausing, no considering the other. This gets back to the monks and punctuation, pausing adds humanity, considering the other, allowing the self to come out. But we probably think of the Iliad as the more extreme—enactment versus embodiment. The Iliad seems like an enactment of violence whereas your poems, they are embodied, the violence is in your fiber, your body, your soul; this violence is in the body. It is, as you say, a repetition, but it’s also trying to reveal something.

 

BB: I’m going to go back to catharsis and bodies via the Cathars, a 13th century religious sect, who believed God didn’t make the body, Satan did and to be pure is to be bodiless. How is a poem embodied? What is extreme embodiment in a poem vs enactment? How would you rid a poem of its body? I’m stretching here but one thing I think maybe to take the line breaks out or the punctuation? How could you make a poem formally pure?

 

NF: I have some prose poems in the new book, as do you in Cease. The prose poem has a body too. We think of novels and prose as generally taking for granted that the words will fit into a block on the page, but poems think of language as material, as substance, not merely as an abstraction of ideas. One of the reasons we have line breaks is the pleasure of arranging words on a page, which highlights their possibilities—their essence—as sculptural substances. In my attempts at prose poems, I take a seemingly straightforward narrative but attempt to move within it like a poem—the moves, on one level, are more unfamiliar, more unsteady. What about you?

 

BB: I could turn here to Robert Duncan, my muse for Cease, where the unpunctuated prose poems appear. Cease begins with an epigraph from Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” which sounds like it could be a poem of repetition, of memory, of holding, PTSD, but the line I distill is “that is a field folded.” A field is another threshold space, a space between, and to fold it makes it more multidimensional like one of those models of architectural space I’m always pulling you over to when we pass one, which we frequently do. When I think ‘field,’ I think across, horizontal, now up, sky, and finally, the singularity of a field in its surrounding space thus as threshold space. What I love about Duncan’s poem is that it seems to fold time too: often I get to go back to a present meadow but what I go back to is a first permission (a past in the present) that is also an omen of what is (the future of now: the new now) so the poem is 3D in terms of time too!

                I love that it says too, as if it were true “that certain bounds hold against chaos,” as if it were true that chaos could be limited/contained, as if the meadow itself could exist as a space, of peace/meditation. As if we could lie in a meadow and look up at the sky and say, it’s some ether after all, some beauty and hold it, box it, cage it. That as if is also a longing, a question, if?

                And Cease is a book about peace.

 

NF: Cease rhymes with peace.

 

BB: Peace is that fleeting and I tried to capture that loss of sound and space in the unpunctuated prose poems, which are informed by the Century of the Child exhibit we went to and you know I always linger at models of architectural space, dollhouses, dioramas, and the one we saw there that stayed with me was Van Eyck’s design for the Municipal Orphanage, where open spaces and squares were meant to act as transitional spaces that mitigate anxiety in traumatized children. What I wanted to do in Cease was the opposite: to increase anxiety in an effort to capture the pursuit of peace as a fleeting state. I didn’t want to close the field: I wanted to fold it as a way of squeezing out its breath – not to suffocate it, but to resuscitate it, to make it breathe again, sometimes meditatively, sometimes in panic.

             So a prose poem can play with breath and motion in those ways and maybe in a heightened way?

 

NF: I remember that show, at MOMA. What did they put in the orphanage to make children calm?

 

BB: Squares, literal transitional space.

 

NF: Ah, right. I always wondered if Duncan was riffing on Dickinson — “You cannot fold a Flood / And put it in a Drawer.”

 

BB: I thought she said, no floods in bowls?

 

NF: She probably said both. “You cannot fold a Flood / And put it in a Drawer,” begins My Feelings. I take it to mean that you can’t take a moment of disaster and tuck it away—it will always leak out. Whereas Duncan does try to do that and says he can return, yet the poem itself is rangy and wild, which is perhaps closer to life, to memory.

 

BB: But one is a field and one is a flood so maybe Duncan folded flood into field, crisis into meadow, or threshold at possibility of meadow? Because again the whole poem is in the realm of if. And you’re right, the meadow is a memory, “a scene made-up by the mind,” which is a good place to shift to Stein. That same day we were at the MoMa exhibit, we also attended a talk in The Walls and Bridges series put on by your French friends, Villa Gillet, about Salon de Fleurus, which essentially was about threshold space (interactions with the doorman, which was either the entry to the salon or the salon itself) but which seemed to also be a talk about Stein’s continuous present. Part of the prose poem for me with this project is trying to maintain peace, which doesn’t last for very long so the prose poem present tense provides this thrust. Or I like what my old favorite Gwendolyn Brooks says, “my last defense/is the present tense.”

 

NF: Maybe you’re just trying to outrun the PTSD?


BB: Yeah and I think in terms of catharsis, I have these wall poems –

 

NF: Talk about those –


BB: Well, I think that Do Not Rise, the book about war –


NF: Now you’ve written both War and Peace . . .

 

BB: Back to back! But I’d say Do Not Rise is not a book about catharsis or confession. It’s a book about the terms of surrender – what are you going to surrender to, speech or silence or love or the water overhead, but there’s also this tension of rebellion there, an inevitable rising up against the command. The title is Do Not Rise but the unwritten subtitle is fuck you/watch me. But it’s also Donne, “Stay, O sweet and do not rise!” Love and violence, rapture/rupture.

             But in the third book, Cease, I really am trying to surrender to peace; I’m trying to surrender and let go. So those poems are much faster. Because I can maybe get a little closer before I lose it again but in the wall poems, there is a catharsis in tearing down the wall; the first poem ends with ‘a big fat bombglow’ and that is a kind of catharsis, but an easy kind that doesn’t last. So the wall poems –

 

NF: I like that there’s four walls too, you’ve built a room but the first wall gets blown up.

 

BB: yeah, there’s always another wall. But I think Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” would have to be the spirit animal there. What does Frost say? “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” so there is this sense of threshold and boundary but there’s also “something there is that doesn’t love a wall...that wants to tear it down.” Is a wall necessary for peace? We need boundaries to maintain peace but what are other kinds of walls? Catharsis could also be a silence of full disclosure, a breaking down of boundaries between speech and secret, walls and privacy and trying to break down those walls between bodies/people, and I think you talk about it in Feelings too –

 

NF: It’s My Feelings. You keep calling it Feelings. I don’t want to make any claims on anyone else’s.

 

BB: I like that song, you know. Trying to forget my feelings of love. It’s anti- Forche Against Forgetting. Catharsis/Cathexis again!

 

NF: I know you like that song.

 

BB: Ok, sorry: My feelings: very millennial. But I’m thinking of the poem where you talk about that feeling of not having to say anything, of being known in the silence, so if there is a confession or catharsis for me, it’s in that tearing down the wall but in the knowledge that there is always another wall. I was saying before about Derrida and love and trying to cross the threshold of the other but not being able to and keeping safe that part you cannot know. So a wall is not just something to tear down but also something to protect.

 

NF: So that’s the project: you have these walls and you’re tearing them down, not constructing, or?

 

BB: Well, in the end, there are four walls so I’m trying to build a house; I’m trying to find a safety. I guess if you fold a field enough times you get a cube.

 

NF: Like this truck here driving by with the camouflage and duct tape on the wheel wells. But there’s probably no poetry in there.

 

BB: Just pure patrol.

 

NF: Petrol. The poem you’re referring to, where the silence, the need not to speak, becomes a type of catharsis—that poem actually doesn’t end well. It is a temporary stay against confusion at best.

 

BB: Another wall, but with a passage in between (Duncan again – “there is a hall therein”). Should we talk about terrorist extremists? Why not? In my pursuit of defining the extreme, I came across an online quiz: are you an extremist? And the first question was: do you believe in evil? Yes or no?

 

NF: Of course evil things happen in the world, but I’m careful not to proscribe to what is known as devil theory—a view of history as containing a fixed number of bad guys, and that if you get rid of them (Hitler, say) then everything will be fine.

          I’m much more interested in Arendt’s Banality of Evil—bad things happen by people not paying attention, by taking the easy way, by seeking comfort or convenience. So it seems the quiz is saying that unformed belief systems can lead to extremism.

 

BB: I guess it’s the first checkpoint.

 

NF: Let’s go back to this idea of a poetics of the extreme, without drifting into this idea of extremism. I’m thinking about hearing Amiri Baraka read a poem with the repeated line “We Were Slaves” when I first got to New York, which was electrifying in its incantatory simplicity, or reading Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which ricochets between the sacred and the profane, reaching for god but struggling with demons. Wright’s book before Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, The Beforelife, feels more fully in the demon world (or at least wrestling with his own demon’s), and the book after, God’s Silence, feels more fully in the sacred (or at least wrestling with the sacred)—I guess you could say those are more extreme but for me the one that has the deepest pulse is Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.

 

BB: I think that’s why for me the extreme led me to the middle, that for me conceptualizing the extreme was my threshold to get to the threshold.

         Again when I think of the field folded, I think that’s the way for me to see it as a field, as its own entity, so maybe we think of the extreme as bounding both sides but what we are most interested in is that space in between that is heightened in these extreme circumstances.

 

NF: so Duncan’s taking all this chaos and folding it and trying to contain it –

 

BB: – but also saying as if it could be, but also knowing that it can’t. That tension there is what we seem to be most excited by –

 

NF: and he’s pulsing in and out of it—he can’t stay in it, the tenses keep changing, shifting . . .

 

BB: Yeah and I think back to this question of belief in evil? Well, there are evil acts and there does need to be a word for those moments. But believe sounds like the wrong word for the asking. Like I think of Rimbaud, “have faith in this poison.” Do you believe in it? I think of it more as unbelievable; it’s something I cannot fathom. That to me is what makes it threshold – how does a person cross into that kind of violence, how does it happen, and I think that aspect is more intriguing. So failing the extremist quiz, I’ll settle for liminal sibyl.

               Another question on the quiz, though, had to do with susceptibility to groupthink, which in some way sounds like the opposite of the lyric I (there’s no I in team), which maybe we could talk about in terms of your disclaimer at the start of My Feelings. Because like the confessional, the lyric I can be dismissed as too personal/ enclosed. And yet, it’s not that there is no I; it’s that there are many. Talk about the need for a disclaimer to accompany your title.

 

NF: The other side of groupthink is the collective unconscious and I’m very interested in that. In Seattle recently (Hugo House) I taught a three-hour workshop and we spent the first hour on introductions, which may not seem the best use of time but to me, there is no other way to do it. I deeply respect and deeply want to hear why each person is there and what they bring to the table.

             As for my disclaimer, let’s be honest: if you are writing poetry, all anyone’s really writing about is their feelings; you may think you are just describing the world, you might think you’re playing linguistic games, you might have a lot of ideas about what you are doing but basically it is all coming from how you perceive the world, which is your feelings, your perceptions as an individual consciousness. Sentience. A conscious subjective experience of emotion. If a poem is randomly generated by a computer, we are not as interested in it. At least I’m not.

           That said, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the title, which is why it stayed as a title. It seemed so deeply unsettling to call a book that, it kind of incites in people this deep response, that I trust there’s something behind it.

 

BB: It may be the most extreme title ever! And this from the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I think it’s important you say you are drawn to its level of discomfort. Because a liminal space, a space of decision, is by nature uncomfortable: you are between two things, where going one way means not going the other.

 

NF: The wind is picking up. Should we go inside?

 

BB: Let’s stay here. We’re almost through. It feels right to begin and end our talk on the extreme with Forche, who I heard on a podcast, with her parrot in the background –

 

NF: Carolyn has a parrot? Are you sure you’re not making that up? There’s a parrot in “The Colonel.” You just took the parrot from “The Colonel” and put it in real life.

 

BB: Hey, it’s what we learned from Reenactments: memory is in the present tense. I make memory and in my memory, there was a parrot echoing. Speaking of repetition, again, holding on. What she, or the parrot was saying, is that “we don’t live after something; we live in the aftermath,” “in the actual presence of the debris field...” And I remember walking through an exhibit with you last year put on by the Center for Historical Reenactments, Johannesburg, entitled “After-after tears,” which had really good words like “after burial” on display and afterwards I kept calling everything the new after, the new now, which brings us to now.

            I think we could end by going back to something you said at the beginning, describing the threshold as a “no-place;” that hyphen, a bridge itself, is beautiful;

 

NF: I’ve stolen the idea of a place that is no-place from Celan.

 

BB: Right, Celan’s Meridian. U-topia with the hyphen to mark it as a no-place, but I think he later drops the hyphen – doesn’t he? – to cross us into that no-place which is the site of the poem. Because I guess a threshold, like a hyphen, is both bridge and divide. It’s that moment of touch, but I want to brink it even more via a classic movie you’ve written about in The Ticking is the Bomb, and call the threshold a no-place, like home. Some things live (something lives) in the in- between.

         I think that's good. Should we call it a day? 

 

NF: Yeah, that's good. Let's call it a day. 


 

 

 

Found In Volume 43, No. 06
Read Issue
  • Nick Flynn
Nick Flynn & Beth Bachmann
About the Author
Nick Flynn has worked as a ship's captain, an electrician, and as a case-worker with homeless adults. His most recent book is My Feelings (Graywolf, 2014). 
 

Beth Bachmann is the author of two poetry books from the Pitt Poetry Series: Temper, winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Do Not Rise (2015), winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award.