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Nin Andrews
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After hearing about the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was reminded of my first grade class, particularly of a workbook for what was then called New Math. The workbook included pictures of sets of objects. Students were supposed to circle the object that did not belong. So one picture might include a bird, a dog, a pig, and a sandwich. The next, a fork, a spoon, a knife, and a tennis shoe. The next, a ring, a watch, a necklace, and a frog. What this had to do with math, I am still not certain. But I liked the pictures, and I loved to think up stories in which one might want to include the circled items. I would explain to Mrs. Wallace, my teacher, that a sandwich could be used to feed the bird, the dog, and the pig. A fork comes in handy if you have a knot in your shoelace. The frog, of course, might have been a prince or princess once upon a time. I was also reminded of discussions I had with the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, back when I was just out of college and first trying to understand the literary world. Eleanor had an acerbic wit and was unsparingly honest. Literary prizes, she suggested, are not all that you think they are. She talked at length about the different presses and literary connections and publishers one might wish to have in order to be a contender, and I remember feeling both disillusioned and discouraged. I concluded that literary success is a bit like economic success in our country. There is the top tiny %, now referred to as the 1%, and that one dreams of becoming a part of, and then there is the 99%. Eleanor also suspected that certain winners are actually compromise-candidates. It’s hard to come to a consensus, she said, adding, we writers don’t agree on many things. That was especially true for Eleanor and me. She loved to ask me who my favorite writers were, and inevitably she would tell me just how much she disliked them. About my beloved Garcia Marquez, she said, I simply cannot abide him. Of the French surrealist poets I adored in those days, she said, Really, I’d rather not get a headache. But you just tell me why I should. Once, when I showed her a poem by Russell Edson, she said, I don’t know what that is. Do you? And we both burst out laughing. Continue reading
Posted 6 days ago at The Best American Poetry
1. Different Ways to Say Fuck I had five eye operations as a girl. After each one, I imagined myself emerging with perfect and uncrossed eyes. I would wait anxiously for the day I could peel back the bandage. But the surgeries were never entirely successful. The doctor always suggested that I have just one more operation. These operations were complicated by my reaction to the anesthesia. The eye doctor had difficulty waking me after surgery. He once called me his Sleeping Beauty, but it was a sleep that worried him. I was sick, too, and usually confined to bed for a week or two afterwards. During that time of recovery, my mother would visit my room with a pile of old books to read aloud. She always chose volumes of myths, fairy tales, poetry, parables, or folk tales, usually antiquated books with beautiful pictures and ornate language. She read one story after another, hour after hour, as I lay, dozing, hypnotized by her beautiful reading voice. A former school teacher, she liked to ask questions about the stories. My answers, she complained, didn’t stay close to the text. I usually told her what a story reminded me of. When I was eight and recovering from my third operation, for example, my mother read me the myth of Persephone. I said the myth made me think of a fight I had had with Trig, the farmhand’s son, a fight that began when he asked, You see what those cats are doing? pointing at the mating tabbies, Tigger and Rain. People do that, too. Only they call it fucking. And one day I’m gonna’ fuck your sister, Sal. I couldn’t help it. I slugged him as hard as I could. That was the day I got my first black eye. My sister, I told my mother, was like Persephone. Only she wasn’t stolen yet. My mother blinked a few times before saying, You shouldn’t get in fights. It’s not ladylike. And then she added, Don’t ever use that word again. And you know which word I mean. If you ever tell a story like that, find another way to say that word. What other way? I asked. Think about it, she said. You’re a smart child. For every word you use, for every sentence you speak, there are many other and better words or sentences to say the same thing. For years after I thought of different ways to say fuck. *** Fucked Up In my freshman year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. I rarely talk about this. Instead I prefer to edit that year out of my life. But the fact remains; I developed what I called a stutter in my mind. I felt as if I were becoming a stuck-record, going over and over the same sentences, thoughts, and ideas. I don’t know if this experience is particularly unusual—after all, many people obsess. But it became a problem when I was writing. I would try to write... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks Angela! I am so happy that you liked this piece. I was a little worried about it.
If I was bored as a child, my mother would always say, Imagine you were in jail. Think of all the things you would want to do but couldn't. Then go do them. But I would keep wondering about what life would be like behind bars. *** When I was girl, I remember driving past the jail in downtown Charlottesville. I don’t know if my memory is accurate or if I only imagined I could see men moving behind the bars—just the tops of their heads. Who’s in there? I asked my father, imagining men on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Just some fools down on their luck, he said. Do you know any of them? I asked. He just laughed. It was a reasonable question. Over the years, a few criminals worked on our farm. (My husband suggests I not elaborate for fear of former farmhands who might read my poetry.) By criminals I don’t mean the petty thieves like Charles who stole farm tools, or compulsive liars like Toby who spent most of his working hours drinking and catching snapping turtles from our mud pond, or unpredictable men like Fred who let the heifers loose on the freeway one night. No, I mean the pedophile, the drug dealer, (okay he was just a marijuana-dealer), and the man who stole a neighboring farmer’s tractor and killed his wife. (But it was a crime of passion, my parents explained, as the murderer continued to work for them for another forty years.) As far as I know, none of these men went to prison. Or if they did, it wasn’t for long. *** My parents’ friend, Betty Smith, told me once that people who lived through the depression, as she and my folks did, had grown accustomed to hiring some of the strange men who wandered up the dirt roads, seeking employment. She was visiting on the day Ernest Holmes arrived at our farm in a Yellow Cab, looking for work. Ernest claimed to be, among other things, a traveling barber. Anyone need a haircut? he asked, lifting his black bag from the cab. Intrigued, my mother said, Why yes. She selected me to be his guinea pig. Together we watched as Ernest set up shop, seating me in a folding chair, wrapping a dish towel around my neck, and placing a blue plastic a bowl on my head before cutting circles around and around the bowl, my hair getting shorter and shorter until it was shaped like a shaggy Yarmulke. My mother immediately hired him to be a cook. Cutting hair and cooking weren’t Ernest’s only skills. He also taught me to drive. And drove me and my sister all over town—to various lessons and school events. With six children in a family, someone always needed to go somewhere. After several years of working for us, Ernest was pulled over by the cops. It turned out he didn’t have a license. This experience might have upset other parents. Mine just... Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
You are too sweet! Thanks Grace!!!
Thank you so much, Jim! You have made my day. Stumble ahead I will . . .
Above is a recent self-portrait after a day of writing -- or of writing frustration. So I want to ask . . . Do you, too, hesitate before you begin a writing project? Sometimes I have an idea, but I have to wait a week or two before I can start. I scribble words on paper, alongside my grocery lists and random thoughts while I wonder, How will I ever begin? It is during this time that I think of a story about God and Adam that my mother used to tell. The story went something like this: After God made the body of man out of wet clay, He laid him in the sun to dry, but then He reconsidered his work. Not bad, He thought. But he sure could use a soul. The soul, hearing God’s words and seeing the dumpy little man, said to herself, No way I’m going into that ugly thing. She flew off and hid. (The soul, by the way, is always feminine. And always wise.) So God had to trick the soul. He sent His angels into the clay man to play divine music of exactly the kind that the soul loved. The soul, hearing the heavenly notes coming from the clay man, could not resist. She slipped inside him but could not get out again. Not as long as the man lived. The soul’s job was to make the man’s life worthy of the songs of angels. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t make sense, but I think of the empty page, the pen, the idea, the scribbled notes as the writer’s clay. To bring the music and the soul into the words, that is the problem. *** One summer, when I was a girl, a family came to live in one of the houses on our Virginia farm. I don’t remember why they came, but I remember my mother warning me, They’re Christian Scientists. I was fascinated. They taught me all about their faith. They also read Tarot card readers and palms and saw ghosts. Mrs. Butler, the mother, had a caged bird that she insisted was an angel, even after it died and lay on its feathered back, talons to the sky. She had a white toy poodle who she said could count. She would say, three, and the little dog would yap, yap, yap. She said she could talk to animals, and they would talk to me, too, if I could figure out how to listen. She had me sit in silence and listen. I was enthralled. That summer I learned how to read palms and how to tell if I was pregnant. One day I read the palms of one of the farmhands who quit immediately after my reading, telling my parents I was a witch. Mrs. Butler said I’d know when I was pregnant when a child’s soul came into my room at night. The soul would check me out before descending into life. Like a fairy or a... Continue reading
Posted May 16, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
In my last post, I compared confessional writing to snake handling and taxidermy, pointing out that taxidermy is like writing about the dead, while snake handling is like writing about the living. I left the topic of snake handling untouched, largely because I am not enthusiastic about writing about my living relatives and friends. But I recently received an email asking me to elaborate on the topic of snake handling. Really, Nin? Have you ever handled snakes? I was asked. (The short answer is not much, but the brilliant southern poet, John Lane, is a snake enthusiast, should you want to search out the writings of a snake handler. But I digress.) I thought I’d start by describing the day I first tried to hold a snake. My sister, D., had just returned from Nature Camp. It was a hot summer day, and I was so happy to see her when she announced, Snakes are really neato, Nin. (Neato was the word back then.) And they're a cinch to catch. Wanna try? I didn’t answer her. She went on to tell me about the herpetologist who was her camp counselor—how he had told her that we are never more than a few feet from a snake in Virginia. To prove his point, she reached out and grabbed a small Eastern Garter snake that was gliding into the Johnson grass by the car, and held it out to me. Grab him beneath the neck, she said. I didn’t point out that snakes don’t have necks. Instead I quickly dropped the snake and jumped back. Are you scared of a little garter snake? she asked. Not exactly, I wanted to say. But I don’t want to hold onto one. I just get this feeling . . . And that’s the feeling I have when I pick up my pen and try to write about the secrets or revealing moments of someone I know, especially someone I love or once loved. The experience makes me think of those early writing classes when everyone was trying to follow the dictum, Write what you know. Our writing material, we were informed, is all around us. You don’t need or want to imitate Poe or Whitman to be a poet. Many of us were reading Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath and using them as role models. The more distressing the material, the more applauded our poetry seemed to be. I felt as if I were trying to grab the creepy or unsavory moments from my days and hold them up for everyone to see. I remember wondering if Wordsworth had been a confessional poet, would he have defined poetry as creepiness recollected in tranquility? Or the spontaneous overflow of toxic feelings? I will always remember one of my early poetry workshops in which a woman’s poems described her boyfriend’s sexual inadequacies. The poems were graphic, and they were hard to erase from my mind. I can’t tell you whether the poems were any good or not,... Continue reading
Posted May 9, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Last winter, Nicole Santalucia, published her first book, Driving Yourself to Jail in July, a delightful chapbook full of the spunk and spirit and incredible life stories. After its arrival, Nicole wrote and asked me, How do I get my book out there? Do I have to become a little prick? No, I wrote back. You have to become a big prick. A big self-promoting prick. Since then, I have thought a lot about the pressure poets feel to promote their books. To tweet them, to Facebook them, to blog them, to Tumblr them in order to get them reviewed somewhere somehow, and to find that illusive key to success. You have to build your social platform, a media-savvy poet informed me. But how? And does it work? Especially if we are all doing it at once? And aren’t we all a little tired of the endless selfies and narcissistic posts about our latest moment in the sun? Am I the only one who feels nauseated by it all? It’s as if we are supposed to become our own personal advertising agencies, selling books as if they were common household goods. But really, who, but a handful of other poets, are our interested buyers? This isn’t Avon we’re selling. Or Tupperware. I had one editor suggest I join a church or the Y in order to find more people to buy my poetry. I am not sure whom among the reverent would purchase books like Why God Is a Woman, Spontaneous Breasts, or The Book of Orgasms, but I suppose anything is possible. I had another editor suggest I move to New York City because, well, who buys poetry books in Poland, Ohio? In New York, he said, I would meet the right people who would give me the right readings, write glowing reviews, and invite me onto the stages where real success happens. (If only such success were as simple as a move! If only I could move with a snap of my fingers!) I had another editor insist I retake my photo for the book jacket because my photograph wasn’t pretty. Should I go to Glamour Shots? I asked. He answered simply, Books by pretty women sell better. Clearly the presses are as desperate as the poets. I’ve had fellow poets show me contracts from publishers in which they have had to agree to review other poetry books by their publisher—as well as provide readings and audiences for poets published by their publisher. I have had friends tell me that that their editors have asked if they could guarantee book sales. And I, like most of my fellow poets, have filled out pages of information for my presses that might, just might help them sell my books. And afterwards, I have felt pathetic. Like a lost cause. Or an ugly teenage girl at a high school dance. I am not, alas, a social-media personality. I try from time to time, but I stink at it. I am naturally... Continue reading
Posted Oct 29, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I suppose I am the garbage collector in this tale. My mother, who will not be with us much longer I think, has been trying very hard to get rid of books. Everyone else has shown no interest. I have now a complete Shakespeare collection from the 1700s, a signed Faulkner, and a lot of very peculiar mouldering volumes. Last time we were all gathered, and my mother once again begged everyone to search the books, I made my pile, and suddenly everyone suddenly became jealous. Some of these old books are so strange, it is hard to explain their value. Language is used so differently from one century to the next, and history, too, changes--the same events told in 1900, for example, are not at all the same at all. But I do pity whoever comes after me.
The three letters, AWP, give me the willies, but I will look for these books in 2012.
I'd love to see a photo of these poppies on the the black armbands when they played their "friendly." I love that, term, "friendly," as opposed to a regular game, of what, a hostile?
I thought I would close this week of blogging with the amazing Nicole Santalucia with a few parodies . . . Continue reading
Posted Nov 12, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Why bitch? you might ask. Indeed why? Especially when the word, poetry, seems at odds with the cultural landscape. Especially when the label, poet, is often synonymous with some kind of annoying and pretentious buffoon, much like those that appear in Kenneth Koch’s story, “The Lockets.” Especially when even the best poets feel pressured to become ceaselessly self-promoting on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and whatever else is new out there, as they seek glory in cyberspace. For comic relief I turn to reviews like DMQ, Gargoyle, Praxilla, Triggerfish, and Plume, and to poets like Peter Johnson, Mark Halliday, Mitch Sisskind, Kenneth Koch, Russell Edson, Henri Michaux, Denise Duhamel, Salvatore Attardo, and of course, the one and only Nicole Santalucia. (There are many others as well, thankfully.) I have to laugh, for example, when Peter Johnson rants and raves in his latest collection Rants and Raves. Consider the opening of his poem entitled “I’ve Tried to Like Poets:” At issue in many of Peter Johnson’s poems is an underlying discomfort with expressing what he actually thinks or feels. (We poets shouldn’t have these bitchy thoughts, right?) Peter Johnson’s poems remind me a little of Henri Michaux, especially the poem, “My Pastimes.” But Michaux, unlike Johnson, has no qualms expressing his emotions. A similar and funny Michaux poem, “The Man Launcher” has been animated and can be seen at the link Also entertaining are Mark Halliday’s essays and poems, such as “Shnordick’s Butterfly,” and “Vexing Praxis/Hocus Nexus,” in which he parodies the fickle and absurd nature of poets and poetry criticism. Then there’s Denise Duhamel . . . I can never resist Denise Duhamel’s poems. I’ve written fan letters and odes to Denise, and I sometimes wonder, where would the world be without Denise Duhamel? One of my favorite poems is her poem, “Buying Stock.” Admittedly, it is not a poem about the toxic aspects of po-biz, but metaphorically speaking, it almost could be. The rest of Denise's poem can be found at : Also memorable are the many poems that celebrate bad poetry readings. Who among us has been spared the experience? I took my friend, S, to his first poetry reading in Cleveland last summer, and he announced, mid-reading, he found the poetry and its delivery to be truly nauseating. Me too! I said. Among my favorite poems about bad readings are Szymborska’s “Poetry Reading” in which she writes: “O Muse where are our teeming crowds?/ Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare/it’s time for this cultural affair.” And John Brehm’s poem, “At the Poetry Reading,” in which he talks of how “he stopped listening some time ago.” How the reader is “from the Iowa Workshop/and can therefore get along fine/without my attention.” (I love a good snarky line.) Instead of listening, the poet begins having sexual fantasies about the reader’s wife. (Always good to keep a good fantasy in mind. You just never know when it will come in handy, especially if you are a regular at... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Bitching with Nicole is one of my favorite pastimes. I know, that sounds odd. How can I explain this? Maybe a story will help. A story about the day the bitching began. It was a Tuesday in October, 2009. Nicole and I were having dinner at the Café Loup with G, a literary agent, who told us we should write a book that sells. We could still write our poems on the side, sort of like a hobby, maybe like knitting, baking bread, or crocheting . . . Instead of objecting or running to the defense of poetry, Nicole immediately responded in a way only Nicole responds. Okay! she said. I will write The Bitch. And that bitch will sell. But someone has already written a book called Bitch, G. objected. No, Nicole said. No one has written THE Bitch. No one knows THE bitch. Because I own THE bitch. And I will write you the bitch, which will sell like no other bitch has ever sold. G. grinned and sipped his martini. Yeah? he said. Okay then. Send me the bitch. Ever since that day Nicole has been composing poems and essays about THE bitch. We have sent each other countless emails, poems, parodies, rants, raves, elegies, essays, comics and laments. All about the bitch. There’s nothing like having a partner-in-crime, especially if that partner is Nicole Santalucia. So for the next week, we will be bitching together on this blog. Or bitch-blogging. I will start with a comic of the first bitching poem Nicole ever wrote, and then with my response to the poem. I will close with a meditation on finding your inner bitch, in case you are having trouble relating to the topic. Analysis of Nicole’s “Bitch” The title of Nicole’s poem might easily offend you. Whatever this title means, you might assume it has nothing to do with you. (After all, who would call you a bitch?) Maybe you have never read a poem like this. So clearly, it is addressed to someone else. And is not compatible with your role of spouse, citizen, and upright pillar of society. Clearly, you should never be seen in the company of a poem like this, a poem that is radical, irreverent, uncouth, a poem that flings it’s bare arms in the air and dances like an infidel in the pristine sanctuary of your mind, urging you to seize the day, change your life, get drunk, stay drunk, on wine, virtue, poetry . . . Or bitching, as you wish. Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 2, 2011