An Interview with Nickole Brown

by CHLOE CAMPBELL

NICKOLE BROWN is a poet and fiction writer. She graduated from the M.F.A. Program for Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She graduated summa cum laude from University of Louisville, studied English Literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has also served as the Program Coordinator for the VCFA writing residency in Slovenia, as Publicity Consultant for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and the October 2009 Guest Editor for Connotations Press.

Her debut collection of poetry, Sister, was published by Red Hen Press. Her work has been featured in The Writer's Chronicle, Poets & Writers, Another Chicago Magazine, Diagram Magazine, 32 Poems, The Lumberyard, Florida Review, Chautauque Literary Journal, The Cortland Review, Post Road,The Oxford American, and Mammoth Books' Sudden Stories anthology, among others. She also co-edited the anthology, Air Fare: Stories, Poems, & Essays on Flight.

Currently, Nickole lives in Little Rock, AR, where she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arkansas. She is the Co-editor, with Robert Alexander, for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series at White Pine Press as well as the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books.

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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.

C.C.: 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?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: 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?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: In regards to editing, what drew you to edit professionally?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: What drew you to Marie Alexander specifically, and what draws you to editing prose poetry?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: Has there been a particular work you've edited that you're especially proud of or attached to?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: What's new and exciting at Marie Alexander?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: What's been the biggest challenge for you and your writing since you started with Marie Alexander?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: Have you been producing more prose poetry since starting with Marie Alexander?

N.B.: 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?”

C.C.: 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?

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: 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!

N.B.: 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.

C.C.: Do you have any advice for writers who want to pursue editing professionally?

N.B.: 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.

If 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 sloppy.

C.C.: What's next for you, Nickole?

N.B.: This summer, I'd like to finish my third manuscript, Down The Center Line of Spine.

CHLOE CAMPBELL is a second-year student in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she serves as Poetry Editor of The Greensboro Review.