GRACE NOTES: Grace Cavalieri interviews Nin Andrews
GC: What did you wear as Mother of the Bride recently?
NA: OH! What to wear! The stress of weddings! Especially for me who usually will only wear a dress that stretches and slides and can be dropped at the bottom of a suitcase and will still look fine, or almost fine, once I shake it a few times. I waited until three days before the event, and then, in a panic, ordered a small mountain of dresses from Zappos. So many pretty dresses arrived! All for other women. I could almost see them as I took the dresses out of plastic— these other ladies parading around my bedroom like runway models, pretending to be the Mother of the Bride. I called them Runway Moms.
I chose one blue dress. Or rather one dress chose me because it was the only one that fit. A sheath dress with cap sleeves and ruching around the middle. It looked as if someone were grabbing me on my left side. I was told it was quite flattering.
GC: What did you wear when you were the bride?
NA: I got married when I was twenty-four. I remember going to the local department store, Tillman’s on Main Street in Charlottesville, Virginia (this is when department stores were locally owned) and buying a wedding dress of the rack—I think it was the second one I tried on. The dress looked like drapes with a sash. I don’t know why my daughter wasn’t interested in wearing it herself.
GC: When you write a poem, what do you realize about yourself that you didn’t know before?
NA: Maybe what I realize has a lot to do with how I experience poetry, the writing of it anyhow. Poetry, when it’s happening, is like sex. It totally suffuses me. (I like the word, suffuse.) Afterwards I always forget how it worked.
I don’t mean that I literally forget. Of course, there’ s a pen and paper. Or two people. But there is that aha moment, and I sometimes think, Oh! Now I know how this works! But if I try to do the same thing the next time, it’s boring. Because it’s that sudden appearance of a fresh and present moment I seek—something that is not yet past and not yet lost . . . I sometimes think of Martin Buber, how he talked of the different ways of relating to the world: the I-it being the most familiar, referring to relationships in which you see the world as a collection of objects, predictable and useful. And the I-Thou, meaning a a communion with others (or the world) and oneself. In the I-Thou, nothing is formulaic. (Or at least, that’s how I interpret Martin Buber and what he said at length in his wonderful book, I-Thou, or rather, Ich und Du. I love the sound of that, Ich und Du.)
I realized from writing poems that I am a bit of mystic. (Or am I just a poetry addict?) I will do anything for that moment of union. On a good writing day, I feel bold and crazy and sometimes insanely happy, wildly in love with words and the world. But after for several hours of writing, I am usually exhausted. But the I who writes is quite different from the I who lives in the world. When I am not writing, I am introverted and shy. I worry about ridiculous things. Sometimes I get so nervous, I forget my phone number, my address, my maiden name.
GC: Seeing the outer edges as you do, with so much humor, were you always that way as a child?
NA: To a certain extent, yes. I have always lived on the outer edge. I have always been a little bit of rule-bender, or someone who resists the flow. As a girl, I developed this rule or habit—that if someone told me not to do or say something, I did it. Or rather, I often did it. (I did use some judgment.) Good things resulted. So I continued with this habit.
That’s how The Book of Orgasms began. A professor told me not to use the word, orgasm, in a poem, and not to write about orgasms. Never mind that my orgasms were messengers from the divine . . .
This habit is also how, or maybe why, I met David Lehman. My college advisor despised David and told me never to take a class with him. (You know how English departments can be.) Before my advisor told me that, I had no intention of taking another poetry class, but, in an instant, I changed my mind. I left my advisor’s office and walked straight up these creaky wooden stairs and turned to the right, right into David’s office. I had never met him before. Are you Dr. Lehman? I asked in my polite voice, looking down at his desk at a copy of The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. He blinked a few times and said, Yes, may I help you? I blurted out that my advisor had just suggested I take an independent study with him. (I think he knew I was lying.) That was the beginning of a long mentorship and friendship. I will add that if it had not been for David Lehman, I would not be a poet today. It was David who said, in his tactful way, that I was odd. Or different. And that being odd is a gift, not a curse.
GC: Are you an artist who writes; or a writer who does line drawings?
NA: I’m a writer who draws from time to time. It makes me laugh to doodle. I like playing with FLASH and drawing with my mouse, which is a little like drawing with an Etch-a-Sketch. My father was an artist who wanted all of his children to draw. He was always giving us pencil and paper and art books and correcting our pictures. I was the least talented of his children, which means that I am the one of two who still draws. Praise, I think, can backfire. Insults, well, they are rarely a surprise, are they?
GC: If you look at your canon of work, what is the larger story that appears overall?
NA: I am really myopic. It’s hard for me to step back from one page, much less all of my work. I know that at one point, I imagined I was moving forward, away from my first book, The Book of Orgasms, towards other topics and types of telling. My forthcoming book, Miss August, for example, is a collection of prose poems that tell the story of a trans-gendered boy, growing up in the racist South in the late 50’s. It was so hard to write, I didn’t feel like writing once I’d finished it. That is, until a dear friend said to me, I am just so glad you aren’t writing about orgasms anymore. That you’ve matured. You used to embarrass me so with those orgasm poems. And it’s a good thing because you could never become a prize-winning poet if you kept writing that kind of book. That was the day I thought of the title for my new chapbook, Our Lady of the Orgasm.
I don’t know that I will ever mature in the way that my friend would like. I could never become a Stepford poet, or the kind of poet who is invited to read her poems in suburban settings and is guaranteed to make her listeners feel safe and secure in their skins. That’s not my gift. Instead, I tend to write about all that is exiled from our culture, all that is denied a voice, or even existence, in polite company. But my friend is probably right. I don’t think a title like Selected Orgasms, another book I am writing, will win me any literary honors. For that book, I am writing orgasm poems in the manner of poets I admire.
GC: I see your work as significant to feminine mythology in literature. What’s your take on that remark?
NA: Well, I’m flattered. I would like to think there is a place to rethink the feminine in the world, and not just politically. And if I have a role in that, I am happy about it. I also think it’s important to see the mythology we all live inside, if unwittingly. And our cultural mythology is, of course, so deeply masculine. If we could rethink it, I believe our experiences would change for the better. Also, I would add that I see both the feminine and masculine roles quite clearly because my parents were atypical. My father was a gay man who got kicked out of the Navy for having an affair with an officer. He was more feminine and maternal than my mother, and he was the parent I turned to for emotional support as well as for fashion or hair style advice. My mother, a dairy farmer and former school teacher, was more masculine and had no use for feelings or feminine things. My parents were quite different from my friends’ parents. My awareness of gender roles became sharp at a young age.
GC: What’s your favorite color? What does it suggest?
NA: Blue. I like the blue sky above the ocean, that full-on openness of the heavens and its reflection on the waves on a summer day, and how it suggests that anything is possible. No matter what you think of the world, no matter how limited you think it is or you are, you could be wrong. In fact, you probably are. So don’t stop yourself. One day, you just might fly.
GC: What does love have to do with anything?
NA: It’s everything. It’s the only flight there is, really, to continue from the last question. It’s also what makes your words and life glow.
GC: How much of poetry is chance and how much design?
NA: I think that depends a lot on the poet, but for me, it begins by chance. It usually begins in a moment when imagination meets reality. The idea for Why God Is a Woman, for example, began when I was walking to a parking lot one night in downtown Cleveland, and I felt afraid, especially when I heard a car door open near me. I thought, What if I had wings? I thought of how few men have this fear of parking lots and dark alleys and unlit spaces. And I thought of how fear is a natural part of being a woman.
On the drive home, I began to imagine a world where the men were afraid, not the women, where the men were the second and the beautiful sex. The men would have wings because they were the last descendents of the angels. And people from around the world would want to ride them. That was the beginning of my book, Why God Is a Woman.
I say that was the beginning, but I think the idea probably began (at least in some ways) long before that, maybe even when I was a small girl, when my parents told me that they had so hoped I would be a boy, they had named me George before I was born. My father used to say, if I kissed my elbow, I would turn into a boy. And I would think about it. Graphically, especially when I was naked under the sprinkler with little naked boys. I thought their penises looked like my fireman toy. And I wasn’t so sure I wanted one. But I sure liked looking at them. But back to the question, once the idea for the book took hold, I worked as much from design as from chance.
GC. Respond to what Jane Hirshfield said:“Journey enough into language and the heart will speak.”
NA: Language, whatever else it is, is a mystery when you examine it. The way it pretends or attempts to replicate the world and what is in the mind or heart or soul. As a poet, I am forever leaning closer to it, trying to see or hear what needs to be said. And how. And each time I lean in, I try my best to get even closer to the fire, to the truth, to whatever it is that is inside the words and that moves me. Or whatever makes magic happen on the page. Sometimes the language is resistant—it’s hard and cold like the surface of a shell. Other times, it opens easily and lets me in, lets me flow. But it’s never predictable. I can’t guarantee when the heart will speak. Or if the journey will begin or end well.
GC: Why is indirection so important a part of poetics.
NA: You’re asking why should we tell the truth, but tell it slant? Maybe because the heart is not directional. Nor is the soul. The mind, the body? I’m not sure. I sometimes wish we could be more prescriptive, but even if we could follow the same rules, like dancers, all doing the tango, we would still be different. Because, simply put, it is the tango of the heart and soul we respond to. Not merely the mastery of steps. Also, I suppose that our lives are a little more like spirals, like a DNA ladder, than like roads going somewhere. Maybe that is why we don’t even take the roads less traveled. Instead it’s the roads that go nowhere in particular. Because it’s not a destination we seek. It’s a moment. A feeling. A presence.
Poem by Nin Andrews in Chevere group art and poetry show at Sirona Fine Art, December 3, 2016.
Nin Andrews’ poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Agni, The Paris Review, and four editions of Best American Poetry. The author of 6 chapbooks and 6 full-length poetry collections. Her most recent book, Why God Is a Woman, won the Ohioana Award in 2016.