‘The first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds’: An Interview with Kathryn Nuernberger

Nuernberger Kathryn Photo2

Poet and lyric essayist Kathryn Nuernberger won the 2015 James Laughlin award, joining the company of poets like fellow BOA Editions pressmates, Li-Young Lee, Jillian Weise, and the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Having been familiar with her 2010 Antivenom Poetry Award–winning Rag & Bone, The End of Pink fascinated me with its deftness of language and unique influences. Nuernberger is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where is also serves as the director of Pleiades Press. We recently discussed over email about the role of research in her poetry, and how her directorship plays a role in her reading and writing.

You and I share a bond in that we both live in the state of Missouri these days. Considering you now teach and live in Missouri after doing your doctoral studies in Ohio, did you make a conscious choice to return to your home state? What do you appreciate about the Show-Me State?

I never really expected I’d wind up back in Missouri—like a lot of nerdy art types in the Midwest, I think I had my eye on the coasts as final destination point. But after living in Louisiana, Montana, Washington, and Ohio, I was fortunate to find a great job at University of Central Missouri. I know MO isn’t as sexy as a lot of other places in our union, but I’ve found that are an awful lot of brilliant, creative, wonderfully eccentric people here. And my goodness we do have some weird, wild geological formations and excellent spelunking made possible by our spectacularly karst topography. I’ve got some relations in the Ozarks who have also helped me appreciate the terroir of fried morrel mushrooms with squirrel meat and blackberry wine. And, bless their hearts, they didn’t even throw me out of the house when I started going like the most insufferable elitist you’ve ever met about how all this good food gathered locally in season reminds me of the French notion of terroir. They just said, “Well, ain’t that something.”

Current Missouri Poet Laureate Aliki Barnstone states that “Writing is not just about your individual selfhood but also being empathic with other people.” What’s your opinion regarding empathy, writing, and artistic expression?

I think Aliki said it beautifully. I also like what Frank O’Hara said, very cheekily, in his “Personism Manifesto” about this subject. He wrote, “I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified.” I like the idea of the poem providing a space where there can be a profound sort-of psychic intimacy between the author and the reader that isn’t possible in the real world because basic manners and eye contact and itchy noses and stuff like that make it so tricky and weird to really talk to each other. And I also like the idea of that space being a little casual, a little crass, and maybe with a little room for us to fall in love with each other across time and space.

A mentor of mine once told me that it’s not enough to write about what you know, you have to write about what you want to know. I am thinking of one of my favorite poems of yours is “Translations” from your first collection, Rag & Bone, in which the speaker states:

Color is an illusion, a response to the vibrating universe
of electrons. Light strikes a leaf and there’s an explosion
where it lands. When colors change, electromagnetic fields
are colliding. The wind is not the only thing moving the trees

Nuernberger Kathryn Book CoverCan you explain how research plays a role in your writing?

Research is often how my poems begin. I start my writing time every day reading poems by other people. By which I mean I start my writing time every day wallowing in profound feelings of self-doubt and inferiority. This may or may not be the best way to do things, but it’s how I do it. And then I try to get my head back on straight so I start reading in other rhetorical modes that don’t make me so keenly aware of my limitations as a poet. I love Public Domain Review and Cabinet a lot, but also art criticism, Wikipedia stubs, and super-dense literary theory.

Sometimes I’ll get on a jag with a particular subject—I went through a women-in-hot-air-balloons phase a couple years back. Spoiler alert: women in hot air balloons for the first hundred years of ballooning were pretty much all prostitutes or opera singers, because everyone thought it was such a scandal to experiment with the effects of the stratosphere on your lady parts. Second spoiler alert: it was very popular to experiment in all sorts of ways with the rocking baskets and also very popular to just chuck your wine bottles out the side into whatever field you were passing. Which was not super-appreciated by the peasants below.

But to get back to your question—once you know the first aeronauts were women shamelessly fornicating their way through the clouds, how can you not write a poem?

Can you explain how The End of Pink came to be a full-length collection? Did you reach out to BOA Editions or did they reach out to you?

I submitted The End of Pink to BOA during their annual open reading period. And then Peter Connors, the director at BOA, called me up and said he wanted it. I like Peter very much, in part because he calls me up very rarely and every time it’s just to say the thing I most want to hear.

As director of Pleiades Press, I’m curious as to how your experience as an editor informs your poetry and vice versa.

I really love how my work as an editor requires/allows me to read hundreds of poetry manuscripts every year. It’s such a great way to encounter a huge range of new poetry—I don’t think I’d read that many books of poetry if “the job” wasn’t breathing down my neck, but I think I’m a better and happier writer for all that reading. Reading influences our work in ways that are so hard to pin down—mostly I’m inspired by what I read, but sometimes I do encounter the cautionary tale. I find it beneficial to be so constantly steeped in this grand ongoing conversation about poetry and through poetry.

Your poetry involves some interesting characters (Benjamin Franklin, Derrida, Bat Boy), how does their presence influence your poetic psyche? Is there a particular historical or cultural individual that you’d like to write about that you haven’t?

I’ve been writing a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control and my research led me to Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first woman ecologist who traveled to South America in the 1700s to research the plants there. She wrote about the Bird of Paradise, which was a plant that could be used to induce a miscarriage, and while I am fascinated by her, I’m also troubled and disappointed in her, because she did her research in a slave colony and used slave labor to gather her specimens. And though she expressed ambivalence about slavery in her journals, it would be a pathetic stretch to suggest she was any sort of ally. But I keep reading about her because I want to try to find a way to see through the unwritten parts of her story and history more generally to the lives of the women who told her about the uses of this plant.

Those women said that they used the plant for birth control in part to prevent their children from being born into the horrors of slavery and in part to resist their own bodies being used as a commodity by the masters. I’d really like to be able to hear the story of their lives, their struggle, and their resistance in their words. But one of the cruel things about history is the way the voices we most need to hear are the ones that so often are the most aggressively erased.

Can you talk about the role of the Saint Girl persona?

I was raised in a Catholic community that placed a lot of emphasis on morality and social justice. This is a training I appreciated, but there was also a celebration of self-abnegation and insistence on nurturing feelings of guilt and shame that made me feel really messed up.

The Saint Girl persona was born of that tension between feeling a strong desire to do and be good and the contrary notion that happiness might be a necessary part of goodness. Or, to put it more bluntly, I wrote these poems during the years when I was turning away from my work as an activist (among other things, I taught high school in under-resourced schools for a while, and then had a job in the foster care system) and turning towards poetry.

Poetry made me really happy, but I also felt a lot of guilt and uncertainty about the ethics of that choice. So I guess the Saint Girl recipe is something like: (Guilt+Shame) × (Conscience) ÷ Happiness to the power of Poetry = Saint Girl.

One thing I noticed is that you received research grants at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life.

These two awesome libraries are kind enough to open their collections to creative writers and artists as well as to historians and other more conventional researchers. I love libraries and I also love auctions and abandoned cabins and oddball museums. These sorts of research libraries are the perfect combination of such wonderful places. The collections at these libraries include rare books, but they can also bring you collections of stereo cards from the 1904 World’s Fair, so you can see the Pike in 3-D by using this rickety old mahogany contraption. Or broadsides used to advertise P. T. Barnum’s huckster operations. Or pamphlets advertising Dr. Kilger’s quack elixirs and tonics.

At the Bakken you can actually crank a felt wheel until static makes your hair stand on end as Benjamin Franklin used to do as a party trick. (Although he’d have ladies of ill repute there so you could kiss them and get a little blue spark between your lips amongst all that frizziness.) These research libraries are wonderful because you get to interact with physical objects and have physical experiences, which all have the potential to become settings and images in poems about historical material.

You also have a collection of lyric essays coming out (Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past, Ohio State University Press 2017), how does the fluidity of genres (poetry/lyric essay) play a role in your writing? What draws you to the lyric essay?

I love the way genre-blur writing breaks the rules or just forges ahead, as if there are no rules to even contend with. Sometimes, when I’m rambling about history or science or other experiences, I feel the need to provide a fair amount of context so readers can appreciate the landscape where the facts are unfolding. In these cases an essay is born. Other times when I’m rambling I realize that what readers need are moments of silence so they can really process the images or the factoids as they spring forth. In those cases, line breaks prove very useful. I always think some silence is necessary to create the sense of a phone call across the void, so that’s why I haven’t written prose that doesn’t have the adjective “lyric” attached to it.

Stephen King often states that a writer who writes more than he or she reads is not a writer. So, who and what are you currently reading?  

Right now I’m reading (copy editing and laying out, to be precise) EJ Koh’s forthcoming book of poems, A Lesser Love, for Pleiades Press. It’s going to blow all your minds when it comes out next fall. And I keep rereading Nance Van Winckel’s Book of No Ledge, which contains collage and erasure poems made out of an old Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has been keeping me feeling sane and hopeful about human goodness and the beauty of supportive communities in these grim times; while Adrian C. Louis’s poems have been keeping me as pissed off and riled up as I think we also all need to be.

Last question: What is the greatest piece of advice you received from an instructor or mentor?

Maya Jewell Zeller always tells me to try writing it backwards and with more plants in it. Ellen Welcker tells me to quit giving those dead white guys the benefit of the doubt. Laura Read says to start with a song and a great longing. And Jaswinder Bolina once told me to quit whining, in a less blunt and more gentle way. That might be the best advice I ever got.


Furlong Stephen Author PhotoStephen Furlong is a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, MO. His poetry, reviews, and/or interviews have previously appeared in or are forthcoming from Chariton Review, Big Muddy, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Additionally, he has a poem in the forthcoming anthology A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, edited by Joanna C. Valente.


“I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either”: An Interview with Nickole Brown

Joli Livaudais
Joli Livaudais

Fanny Says, Nickole Brown‘s hilarious and touching poetry collection centering around her grandmother, is garnering all sorts of praise. Fanny Says, Julie Marie Wade writes in The Rumpus, “is in essence one long poem—138 pages—chambered like a heart and pumping language like blood to every stanza throughout this single, vital organ.” In the Oxford American, Parneisha Jones writes that “[w]hat makes this book essential to the growing cannon of writers confronting the American heritage is that these poems resist sympathy.”

The author of the novel-in-poems Sister and co-editor with Judith Taylor of the anthology Air Fare, Brown currently works at White Pine Press as editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University, and served as Hunter S. Thompson’s editorial assistant. I got the chance to ask her some questions about Fanny Says, which she answered from her office on a hot summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas.

You’re busy these days. Where are you writing from? 

Hi, Jenna! I’m answering these questions from Little Rock, Arkansas. We’re right on the cusp of summer, which means the mockingbirds are good and loud, repeating their roll call of songs from all the other birds in the neighborhood and throwing in an imitation of a car alarm or two. With the heat index, we’re already in the triple digits, so for today, I’ve retreated into my office with some iced coffee and probably won’t reemerge until the crickets kick up their legs to tell me it’s cool and dark and safe outside again.

I won’t be here for long though; on Saturday, my wife Jessica and I hit the road again, this time to teach for a few weeks at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. After that, I head over to Murray State in Kentucky to hear those big, green dog-day cicadas and work with the graduate students there. The rest of my summer then will be spent on tour, rambling up to New York and P-town then over to New Mexico and every place in between that will have me. By the time I’m able to return, the leaves will be edging themselves orange, which makes me a little sad. It’s a long time to be away from home.

A long way from home indeed. How did you decide which stories about your grandmother to put in Fanny Says? Were there stories about your grandmother that you thought about putting in your book but didn’t?

Well, there were some standards I knew had to make it into the book. How she bought her first car, for example. She was only twenty-three, but even then she had enough moxie to buy the exact one she wanted, even without her husband’s permission, which was unheard of in those days. She ordered it by calling the lot and literally purchasing it over the phone. They delivered the car straight to her door; she had never even driven before.

Or another story of hers: how as a child she used climb up into a tree and stuff her bloomers with green apples. Or how she carried me from the hospital by snatching me from the nurse and wrapping me up in her mink coat. Or how she used to go to church revivals and let her cousin Elizabeth—who “never was right in the head”—take her up to the altar. These are the Fanny Classics, the stories I heard a hundred times growing up and, quite literally, the ones I was fortunate enough to have written down, word-for-word, as Fanny said them. With these little snippets dictated on the page, I felt as if I could write the poems I needed to about her life but still have her speak for herself as well.

But yes, of course, there were many pieces that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve been filling my notebooks with Fanny’s stories since high school, so a large part of constructing this manuscript had to do with sifting through those materials, deciding what to keep and what to cull. Some were cut because they were too personal; even though I wanted to flesh out Fanny’s life, I didn’t feel comfortable revealing stories about others in the family. Others were left behind that weren’t as solid on the page as I needed them to be; even though dear to me, I had to remember that these were poems and had to stand on their own. Still more were lost because, well, I had to serve the reader. I had to remember how complicated her life was, how layered and contrary she became, and I didn’t want to pile so much on that the narrative became tangled and confusing. It’s about choice though, isn’t it? Yes, writing is almost always about choice.

FannySays_COVERDid including or excluding some of the less, shall we say, socially acceptable elements of these narratives influence your choices? I am thinking of issues of racism, or the baby-raising techniques in “Fanny Says How to Tend Babies”? 

Here’s the thing: my charge was to tell her life, close to the way she would have told it. I had to transmit her advice, just as she gave it to me. I mean, I won’t say she didn’t give me some outdated tips on how to raise a baby, but you have to remember that she came from a time when doctors actually encouraged women to smoke in order to keep the birth weight down, which would insure a safer delivery.

And you also have to remember that she had seven children, all of which, miraculously, survived to adulthood. Every single one of her kids (and some of her grandkids, including myself) were raised without breast milk or car seats or any of the contraptions we use now to protect and coddle infants. I don’t think I ever once rode a bike with a helmet until a few years ago, and yes, when I get an upper respiratory infection, I still do as Fanny taught me and choke down a mix of whiskey, honey, and lemon before I fuss with a doctor.

Like all of Fanny’s advice, there might be a whole lot that’s ridiculous, things that you would never dream of doing nowadays, but look closer—there’s a lot of solid advice there too. When it came to raising her children, you can see a fierce independence in everything she said. She was wary of doctors, and rightly so, especially when one considers the medical practices of her time. And she kept things simple.

Many mothers today are tangled up in a web of information, thinking they don’t have everything they need, but she knew better. She’d tell them, “No sense in going out and getting baby magazines and all that expensive shit swinging and rocking and propping your baby up. You won’t use it two seconds, and besides, it won’t be good to you in six months. . .  Use common sense—now, if you’re hot, they’re hot. If you’re cold, they’re cold.”

Now, what was I thinking when I wrote about Fanny’s racism? Well, that is a more complicated question, a conundrum that takes up the entire third section of my book, really, with the long sequence “A Genealogy of the Word.” (I’ve been asked about this before, so I hope you don’t mind if I use a bit of what I’ve written for other interviews as it’s quite difficult to articulate.)

Anyhow, I’ve never worked on a single poem so hard in all my life as I did that one, and it still makes me queasy. You see, it shamed me—it still shames me—the way that Fanny talked sometimes. To make it more difficult, things never were as clear as I needed them to be to get a grip on right and wrong, good or bad, because as hard as it is to believe, one of Fanny’s best friends in this world was a black woman hired to come to her house every morning. They would put on a pot of coffee and cut-up nearly all day, and once I got older, a part of their fun was to rile me with racist banter and jokes. I suppose it was their way to have a laugh at the uptight girl who read too many books, who saw fault in the way things were, and in the not-so-subtle way of politically-correct teenagers, who was casting judgment on a way of life they were trying to live as best they could. I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either.

You see, the legacy of the South, the entire damn culture of the South, well, it shamed me then, and it shames me now. But it’s one thing to turn away from your culture, to even reject it outright; it’s another to abandon your people. I suppose this poem is my way of dealing with some of the ugly truths about my grandmother so that I can understand her better. Li-Young Lee talks about this in his memoir, The Winged Seed, as he struggles with his Chinese heritage in America. He talks about how we all, at a certain age, spurn our own kind and feel as if we should pretend not to know them. “Then we find our kind again and love them,” he writes. “If we’re lucky.”

And now you’ve gone full circle. On your website that you’ve encouraged readers to send you stories about their own grandmothers. Have you learned anything interesting, or been surprised by anything you’ve gotten?

Absolutely. I’m still encouraging readers to send in profiles of their grandmothers, especially if they have their own kick-ass matriarchs that fussed and fought their way to some kind of solid ground in this life. The page, which I lovingly call “The Bingo Hall,” is a memory wall, really, a place where these fierce women can be recognized in some small way.

So far, I’ve gotten grandmothers from Paris and Cuba, Alabama and Appalachia. I’ve gotten Cajun grandmothers and Jewish grandmothers, grandmothers who rose up from coal-mining towns and world wars and abusive husbands. These are women who, like Cynthia Arrieu-King’s grandmother, “smoked, drank, and ate whatever she wanted and lived to be 88.” I love these women. I love them for their chutzpah and tenacity. Things were considerably harder for all women just a few generations back, but that didn’t stop them from driving cars and wearing pants, and well, doing exactly what they pleased.

What do you hope that your readers take away from your book?

I wrote this book because I wanted to understand Fanny, because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her for good. You see, I could feel the memories of her blurring every year since she passed in 2004, and that was unacceptable to me. I wanted my sisters’ kids to know that good fire of hers in their veins, and writing this book helped me remember too. In terms of the reader, well, I’m hoping they’ll keep her alive in their own way too.

At the very least, I hope they’ll get a kick out of her cock-eyed stories, maybe sit for a spell in her particular kind of world. Most importantly—and I’ve said this before—I want readers who have never met anything like my grandmother in their whole life to somehow gather up some of what Fanny had, and if need be, pick herself up from a difficult situation and walk straight past, as Fanny taught me to do, with her head held high.

—interview by Jenna VanWely