in conversation with Nika Knight

Nin Andrews is a contemporary poet most well-known for her emphasis on prose poetry. Upon the release of her last book, Southern Comfort Entertainment Weekly proclaimed her “the Wonder Woman of poetry.” Nin Andrews is also my aunt — the youngest of my mom’s five siblings — and so I grew up with her poetry on our shelves and her presence at holidays and summer vacations. (The discovery her first book, The Book of Orgasms, on my parents’ bookshelf was how I first learned the word “orgasm.”) I spoke to Nin via email about writing about her childhood, her feelings toward the writing process, and her inclination to stretch the bounds of reality.

Your latest book, Southern Comfort, feels so autobiographical. Why do you write about yourself, and your childhood? How much is fact, and how much fiction? Does it matter?

When I first started writing, I didn’t have any interest in writing about my childhood. I particularly disliked confessional poetry. But after a while, I began to feel like a piece of history, or a character in a vanishing world. Even my dreams felt dated. I suppose I became interested in that vanishing world.

I was afraid, I think, that some day I wouldn’t even remember it. I wanted to write at least one book about it before I entered what Bunuel called “the final amnesia.”

I also realized that I’m unable to tell the stories of my childhood as well as I would like. Like the smells of childhood there is so much that can never be contained in my poems. I think about it sometimes, that fragrance of southern cooking (everything fried in bacon grease), of my father’s talcum powder and whiskey, of my mothers milk-scented breath, of the skunk and manure-scented farm dogs, of honeysuckle, horse sweat, and hay.

There were also too many people in my past, too many to include in a single book: all those siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, farmhands, ghosts. Plus the endless stream of characters who wandered up the dirt road to our farm, seemingly out of nowhere, including Toby who caught snapping turtles with his toes in our pond, Thelma who worked for us for three days then quit suddenly on a Thursday morning after I read her palms, swearing to my mother that I was a witch, Mary who sang like Mahalia Jackson, Frances Bee, who made a fortune lending money to poor black neighbors during the depression, Trig, who started working on the farm when he was in grade school, Mr. Shaver, who drank, lied and let the cows out on the highway, Earnest who could whistle two tunes at once and who stole everything, including my brother’s marijuana, Timmy who shot his wife, went to prison and still works for my mother. “It was what they call a crime of passion,” my mother explains, “and besides, he can fix anything,”as if that excuses everything. And there were many others.

Of course, it isn’t just my childhood I can’t seem to record accurately. Whenever I put anything on paper, whether it’s a story, a poem, a drawing, or even a photograph, I create something else. Even if I’m just drawing or describing the view from my window, what appears on paper is oddly unlike what is there. After a while, it seems as if the page itself, or what is on the page, takes on another reality. And that is the reality I work with.

So in answer to your question about fact vs. fiction, I don’t worry about the literal accuracy. I can try to tell the facts, but I still end up with fictions. (I believe history is a many-layered fiction.) I can’t include all the pertinent details, and without them, I can only tell a partial truth. But does it matter? Yes, I think it matters. I wish I could do more justice to the world.

One story that my mom always used to tell me about your childhood was that your father would hold these sort of contests with all of you kids each night — he’d ask everyone to draw a picture of a horse, for example, and then he’d choose the best drawing. My mom never won the art contests, and as a result she always felt she was bad at art — and then she grew up to become an artist. Did he ever have writing contests? Did you ever win?

It’s strange to think about that. As the youngest, I had an excuse for not winning family contests, but I did win one. It was rainy day, and we were drawing birds in front of the fireplace. My father felt sorry for me and said I had drawn the first place bird. My sisters were furious. That’s not even a bird, one sister said. She was right. But my father insisted that my bird had character. That was the kind of praise I always received: Nin has spirit, imagination, enthusiasm, character, praise designed to mask or avoid the truth. Fortunately there were no writing contests.

When I was a kid, the stories my mom told about your dad made me a bit scared of him — I had this picture of him as very strict, traditional, and distant. But in Southern Comfort, there’s a real sweetness to your relationship with him — the scenes in “Elvis” and “Southern Comfort”, for example, where you’re just being with him after he gets off of work, are so touching. How would you characterize your father, and your relationship with him? How does your relationship with both your parents affect your writing?

My father used to say, If you have something nice to say, don’t bore me. But he later added, but don’t be a turd-delivery device. (He added that clause after I put manure balls in one of the farmhand’s sandwiches—as payback for a black eye.) I think of his words years later as advice for my writing. I don’t want to bore readers by sugar-coating reality, but I also don’t want to be disgusting or cruel.

But my father was complicated. He had both a lot of light and an equal amount of shadow. Even in the two poems you refer to, “Elvis” and “Southern Comfort,” I was remembering two nights Mom was out of town, and Dad and I were drinking whiskey. I was maybe ten or eleven. He would never have played Elvis or sung or danced around the room if my mother were there.

My mother, of course, was another story. She loved literature and would read to us at the dinner table to keep us from fighting. She studied Ancient Greek with Richard Lattimore, and she read the myths and The Iliad and The Odyssey. She was a terrific reader, but she often read what she was interested in, not what you might expect a mother to read to children. One year she read us The Gulag Archipelago. I can still hear her voice in my head.

I’ve just read a few interviews with you, and one thing you said really stuck with me is how you love the process of creating, but you hate the product.

For me writing is like going through the wardrobe into Narnia. I like landing in the snow and following Mr. Tumnus. Narnia, or writing, has its own logic, its own madness and methods, much as dreams do. But when I’m finished and am left with a poem, I have to edit the thing. I become very critical and disappointed then.

Sometimes your poems are overtly political — so many of the poems in Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, for example, bring back the atmosphere of George W. Bush’s presidency. And at other times, your poems feel extremely personal. Is there a line between the personal and the political, for you?

I usually dislike political poetry, but when Bush was elected and then re-elected, I wrote Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, which is political. I couldn’t believe what was happening to our country. I still can’t. It’s like a surreal nightmare, and I keep hoping I will wake up. But recently I’ve been writing about an imaginary world in which women rule. I think these newer poems are political, and yet also personal. The line between the personal and the political is beginning to blur in my work.

Your poems often stretch the bounds of reality — how do you feel about other writers who do the same? (I’m thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, Murakami, to name only a few…) And what sort of writing do you gravitate to, these days?

I love going beyond the bounds, as you suggest, and I adore Marquez. I sometimes feel as if I grew up in one of his novels. I even have a tail. (Okay, almost a tail.) I bet he did, too. Why else would he write about tails?

And I am eclectic in my taste. I gravitate towards books that can take me into their world. I don’t want to go halfway there; I want to be totally immersed. I don’t care what kind of book it is, as long as it takes me all the way. There’s this Ritsos poem called “The Third One” in which he describes three ways of being at sea. One is to look at the sea; the other is to talk about the sea. The third is to drown in the sea. I like to be the third one. I want to drown in a book.

On your blog, you’re currently making a comic a day. When and why did this start? How is the process of drawing and writing a comic different from writing a poem?

I started drawing a comic-a-day this fall after Jimmy, my son, gave me this drawing program, so I can now draw with my mouse. It took me a while to get used to drawing with a mouse, but it’s a fun distraction. But I don’t worry about drawing the way I worry about my writing. I scrawl something on the blog and get on with my life.

Besides comics, have you thought of venturing into other forms of writing beyond poetry — like fiction, or essays?

I have published a few essays in Agni, both their online and the print journal, and I have published a few stories. But I rewrite every piece of fiction I ever write until it shrinks into the size of a poem. I’m not sure why or how this happens. I wish I could expand my work rather than shrink it. They’re kind of like wool sweaters that keep going through the washer and dryer on high heat.

When we emailed a few weeks ago, you told me you were reading Murakami. How do you like him? Have you read the new one?

I love Murakami, but I haven’t read his latest book. I really can’t quite figure out why I love Murakami so much, or how he gets away with what he does. I find myself completely engaged in stories that make no literal sense, that ramble freely through other realities, philosophical contemplations, and Japanese cities, that usually star an unemployed divorced or single man, a teenage girl, a lost cat or two, a prostitute, a few pervy scenes, some New Age or psychic characters, and random thugs and demonic characters. Really? I ask myself. You want to read another one of these novels? Yes, I do!

Full Stop hasn’t covered much contemporary poetry. What poets do you recommend we check out, and why?

There are so many poets out there, writing today, I wouldn’t know which to choose.  So I will just mention three poets whose books are on my desk. First, there’s Tim Seibles’ Buffalo Head Solos.  Tim’s poems are like music.  “Harvest Moon,” for example begins, Big sister, apple light, kiss/on the river, tonight/make each word a strange dish,// each long ache, for once, a gotten wish . . . Then there’s Carol Maldow’s, The Widening, which she calls a novel,  in which each chapter is a prose poem, telling an episode in a girl’s sexual development.  Then there’s Claire Bateman’s latest book, Coronology, which includes a dictionary of crowns. A, for example, begins: The advantage of bearing an asbestos crown is that your thoughts always remain perfectly insulated.

Did you eat your grits today?

Yes, interviews. There are always a few questions I try to dodge or obfuscate. I hate grits.

While I was thinking of these questions, I came across this video of astronauts failing on the moon — maybe it was just because I had just finished re-reading Southern Comfort, but something about it sort of reminded me of your poems. It’s sort of glorious and funny and sad, all at the same time.

Thanks Nika. I think astronauts are like Murakamis. Wouldn’t you want to be up there on the moon with them? But doesn’t it look like a deathscape?

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