Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Interview with Nin Andrews

Nin Andrews was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she grew up on a farm. She received her BA from Hamilton College, and her MFA from Vermont College, and is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms; Spontaneous Breasts (winner of the Pearl Chapbook contest); Any Kind of Excuse (winner of the Kent State University Wick chapbook contest); Why They Grow Wings (winner of the Gerald Cable Award); Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane; Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum?; Sleeping with Houdini; and Southern Comfort. She also edited a book of translations of the French poet Henri Michaux, entitled Someone Wants to Steal My Name. A two-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council grant, she has published work in many literary reviews and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, The Best of the Prose Poem, The Virginia Quarterly, The Paris Review and Ploughshares.

Blast Furnace caught up with the busy writer recently for an interview over email. Many thanks to Nin for her time and thoughtful responses. 

photo: Alan Doe
How have you seen your writing change, or your writing process change since the publishing of your first book in 1998?

I really can’t evaluate my own work. I am not objective. I have always written in several styles at once, but I try to streamline my books. Southern Comfort, for example, is not as surreal as The Book of Orgasms, but I am still writing surreal poems. So the books change, and I assume I do, too. But I can’t see myself clearly.

When you note your pieces share common themes, and you are putting a manuscript together, do you sometimes return to older, unfinished drafts of poems and revise or complete them? In other words, what is your writing process? What fuels your writing?

I have many drafts of poems, yes. Do I return to them? Yes. I do try not to keep revising. I have never finished most of my poems. So I write them over and over. Alas. I don’t have a single source of inspiration. Ideas come and go, and sometimes I take a moment to write them down. Sometimes I let them go. Sometimes I keep a journal, and then I stop. Sometimes I find travel and walks inspirational. Other times my mind stays blank no matter what I do. It seems to me that inspiration happens in its own sweet time. And my writing process is simple: I follow the inspiration whenever I can, wherever it takes me, however I can.

Do you tend to be inspired by an overall ideaa 'big picture'—first, or does your work usually start out as individual images or snippets of thought? In the case of Sleeping with Houdini, what territory were you writing in at the time of its creation, or what circumstances influenced the concept?

I write in many directions, and then after a while, one direction takes over. Usually a picture begins to emerge after I have started writing. But it depends, of course, on the particular book. In the case of Houdini, I was using Houdini as an icon for a time in my life when I believed in magic, and was feeling nostalgic for that time.

In some of your books, you begin with meditations told from the perspective of a girl coming of age on a farm, transition to young lady-hood, and then to adulthood. The voice is always distinctive. To quote Peter Johnson, how do yourmini grand narratives of everyday life come to be?

I just talk to myself. I think a lot of folks do this. No? I think it’s easy to develop a voice with a kind of running commentary in the back of one’s mind. But beyond that, I don’t have a clear idea of how I write. It just happens.

You've talked before about the imagination in your poetryfictionalizing your writing, to an extentthough you draw on personal experience. When I readMaking the Sun Rise,” from Houdini, it's as if I've read an intimate 'thought' missive in third-person omniscient: She knew it was / only a matter of time before others saw her brilliance... and that there is a fond attachment on your part to the She. In your many books of poetry, are there specific poems of yours to which you have always felt a special closeness?

I feel close to my poems when I write them, and afterwards I often want to disown them. I love the process of creating. But the creations? I am very self-critical. So I struggle with that dichotomy. I can’t say I feel cozy with any of my work, once I have finished it. I suppose that is why I keep writing. I keep hoping to write something better.

In many quotes about you from the publishing arena, you are referred to as todays quintessential prose poet. How do you feel about that title, particularly since some of your books, like Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, and Orgasms, are not classified as prose poetry, but as fiction? Why not write each of those booksthe character study pieces, the individual segments that reveal plotin traditional fiction novel format?

I don’t pay attention to labels. I don’t notice what people say about my work. But the fact is: I think in short forms, whether in prose or poetry. I don’t think of grander schemes. I guess I am just a bit myopic. Everything I write comes in tiny pieces. Little drips. No rivers or oceans here.

Reading Orgasms and Dick and Jane brought to mind, albeit not similar in tone, Claudia Rankines Dont Let me Be Lonely, a multi-genre work that employs photographic images. What do you enjoy most and what is most challenging about writing beyond borders, outside of constraints, across genres?

I like the humor that comes from cross-genre writing. I think it’s fun to use ads or newspaper articles or dictionaries or whatever images or forms of writing you have at your fingertips as a part of your creative process. There are words and images all around us all the time, swimming in and out of our consciousness, and it’s fun to think of what they are doing...what kind of sense or nonsense they are making.

Lingering a bit on Orgasms...did the idea to use photos come before, during, or after the written manuscript? What about the captions to the photos? Were those already written as separate poems or ideas youd jotted down before photos were a consideration?

The photos came after I wrote the book. I decided to pretend that each one was depicting a species of orgasm.

In the past, you've talked about certain 'obsessions' in your writing. There are recurring ideas, images, and themes in each of your books; for example, angels in Why They Grow Wings; ghosts and the dead in Any Kind of Excuse and Southern Comfort. There are many more, but let's take Houdini, in which it's lying; invisibility versus visibility; reflections in mirrors; water; illusions; silence; magic/levitation; assumption of an identity other than ones owna desire to be someone else (or something else, morphing into the natural world); the changing female bodydiscomfort in ones own skinand expectations of womanhood. How are you continually motivated to write about these ideas/images/themes? How are you able to write about them in new/fresh ways?

I compose in what I like to think of as a dark room, much like a dark room in a photo studio. What comes out in the light, as a developed image, is simply what I did not ruin in the process of developing the poem. Evidently, I am better at certain themes than others. You have named the ones I have managed to bring to light. Of course, as I age, my perspective changes, and so the images change as well.

Two very intriguing poems in Houdini areThe Beautiful Lie,” andDear Confessional Poet”: Define the woman you aren’t and live to tell about it. What a line! Do you ever find yourself falling into too much truth in your writing? If so, what happens when you begin to go down that path?

If I find myself telling too much of the truth, then I think up a few good lies. Unfortunately, the lies are often truer than I had initially thought.

I read a quote from an interview with you, wherein you stated “I always do what I’m told not to.” Has doing what you’re told not to gotten you into trouble in your writing? What do you believe spurs you on in this regard?

I think if you do what you think you can not do, wish not to do, absolutely would never do—in writing, not in life—you find that there is energy there. What you have not spoken about, what you have hidden from yourself, is revealing. What you have blabbed about non-stop is boring. It’s dull. It has no surprise left in it. No shimmer. No magic.

Can you more easily write about place when you are in that place, more immediately and tangibly attached to it, or do you find that you write more effectively about it with distance from it? In addition to Charlottesville, what places are finding their way into your writing todayreal or imagined (like Spendersville, Ohio)?

I do both. I live in Poland, Ohio. I have written some Poland, Ohio poems though none are in books yet. And I think it’s easier to write about Spendersville, Ohio, which is probably a bit like Hudson, Ohio—with all the pretty little white houses with black shutters—when I live close to that kind of town. But I don’t think I could write about my childhood town if I still lived there. I need to have some distance to recreate that world. I’m not sure what other places are making their way into my poetry now. Time will tell.

In a 2008 interview, you said that you told the stories of your childhood to your children because they wanted to hear them, adopting different voices for the people/characters in your stories. Have you ever considered writing a play?

I often mimic others’ voices, and so when I write, I hear them in my head. But I don’t know if I have the endurance to write a play. Maybe some day I will.

Has your work been translated into other languages?

Turkish.

In addition to Henri Michaux, which writers inspire you? Who did you read growing up? Who was the first poet you recall as impactful?

I love so many writers, I think it’s hard to pick one. I love Michaux, Yannis Ritsos, Cesar Vallejo, Max Jacob, Tim Seibles, Russell Edson, Denise Duhamel, Rick Bursky, Morton Marcus, Gary Young, Li-Young Lee, Maureen Gibbon, and many others as well. I think the writer who has most influenced me is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love One Hundred Years of Solitude. The poem I first loved? Ritsos’ poem, “The Third One,” in which three people look at the sea. One talks about it. One sees it. One drowns in it. I feel as if I am the third one.

What do you believe sets you apart from other writers?

I wish I knew. If I could step outside of myself, maybe I would be able to say what or who I am. But I am lost inside my own mind like the third one in the Ritsos' poem. It’s hard to have any perspective when you are on the bottom of the ocean.

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Read Nin Andrews at http://poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21780