Nick Flynn’s Insult Poetry Defies Grammar, My Heart

Nick Flynn @ McNally Jackson Books

Nick Flynn The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

Proof that Flynn should be America's next poet laureate: the Word Find insult!

I came to Nick Flynn not by his poetry, but by way of his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. This was during the height of my obsession with Raymond Carver, emulating (poorly) his stories and reenacting (with limited success) his life, one six-pack at a time. In these halcyon days, I believed heavy drinking was one step in the short march to a meaningful and respected writing career, that admitting to your friends that you might be an alcoholic was something you reported as if you’d just seen a spectacular car wreck: falsely aghast to cover the pride you know you shouldn’t feel.

I freely admit that it takes not a small bit of mental dexterity and college kid obliviousness to examine Carver’s history and come to the conclusion that alcoholism and promiscuity are badges of successful authors. It’s a meaty chunk of shame I’ve not yet swallowed, much less passed, in the eight or nine years since I first began channeling the spirit of a dead drunken frat boy masquerading as the ghost of Raymond Carver. I like to think that Flynn’s memoir helped purge those demons from both my pen and my self.

Not that it spurred some sort of epiphany, however. Suck City never saved me from four or so years of cock-ups and beat downs. A book can’t save you from yourself. But it was an enjoyable, challenging read written by a self-made fuck-up, and I needed to believe that fuck-ups could succeed, that a drunken phoenix could rise from its pyre of burned bridges. It was amongst the first narratives that invaded the imaginary world I’d created for myself, yet was written so well that I didn’t mind the resulting war of conflicting realities.

After finishing Suck City, I drove my rusted-out Volvo down to Powell’s Bookstore and purchased a signed, first edition of Flynn’s memoir. In fact, Suck City was the first book I can remember deliberately paying extra to own a collectible copy.

Years came and went. I moved from city to city and my collection of first editions coupled and bred. Though I picked up some of Nick Flynn’s poetry since that first read of Suck City, I largely forgot about the experience. I eventually landed in New York, where I began asking for insults. Which led me to McNally Jackson, to see Nat Johnson talk about his new book, Pym.

All of this was flying around my head as I sat down to watch Nick Flynn and Nat Johnson talk writing at McNally Jackson. Johnson was apparently a student of Flynn’s at the University of Houston’s creative writing program, so it was a reunion of sorts. I’d no idea Flynn was “in conversation” with Johnson, prior to showing up. I’d no idea Nick Flynn was still alive. He was smaller than I’d imagined he’d be, as if constant pressure slowly removed the space between things. But, on “stage” at McNally Jackson, he was almost shaking with energy.

Nick Flynn The Ticking Is The Bomb

Kaboom

Although Flynn appeared, during their “conversation,” either nervous or unprepared or perhaps both, their friendship was a pleasant, unexpected parenthetical to the evening. The talk went well enough, and a short Q&A followed. I initially considered raising my hand to publicly air out some of the dirty, shameful things — thoughts and emotions resembling those written above. Thankfully, the memories of the eyes I’d rolled at the nonsensical gushing so many audience members had poured into bored authors’ ears in similar Q&As came rushing back. I kept quiet. Better to wait until I could confess my sins to the internet, where nothing lasts forever.

While Nat Johnson took to the signing table, Flynn popped a squat next to a blonde friend in the audience, cycling between chatting amiably with fans and whispering to his companion. I, too, hung back. Asking interviewers for autographs, much less insults, has always felt awkward — you’re ostensibly there to see the author, not the guy with whom the author’s “in conversation.” But a handful of brave audience members broke through and Flynn seemed happy enough, so in I came.

Though initially dubious, Flynn quickly warmed to the insult idea. He has the look of a life-long smoker and the smile of a con artist, or everyone’s new best friend. The Jonathan Ames of poets, maybe. He’d look natural staring down Paul Newman in the dim light of some smoky pool hall in “The Color of Money.” When his comely companion mentioned she’d heard of Insulted by Authors from another writerly friend, he laughed and admitted he’d have to come up with something to compete against the best. Flynn was another author who took the time to think about the insult, a trait I’m growing to admire more and more. The crowd was thinning out, the baristas were breaking down the coffee shop, but still he concentrated on the insult. Finally, inspiration struck: Nick Flynn is the first author to employ the “Word Find” insult.

Again, the pain of being outside the publishing world was frustrating. I was heavy with questions about craft, his life, his troubles with substance abuse, even his poetry (I’ve never been a huge poetry fan). I wanted to tell him how much Suck City meant to me — means to me — and how excited I was to see “Being Flynn” on the big screen. Hell, I wanted to lie, tell him that his book saved me, that I’m a better man because of it. And maybe I am!

Instead, I thanked him for the insults, and rode the subway home to drink vodka.

6 responses to “Nick Flynn’s Insult Poetry Defies Grammar, My Heart

  1. He came to my university this year…. I tried to read his novel. It was terrible; there wasn’t a single complete sentence anywhere on the first page! I wanted to throw up. Why can’t people write these days?

    • Which book did you read, Haley? He hasn’t actually written a novel yet; so far, he’s written three books of poetry, two memoirs, a screenplay (I think), and maybe a textbook of some kind. Maybe you had the wrong expectations for the book you were reading?

      Or maybe you just didn’t like the clipped style. Fair enough.

  2. Nice. Nice.

  3. Bill-
    Read your blog for the first time today. Read only the 4.12 post, but I may be in love with you. Nick Flynn AND Raymond Carver? Don’t need to know more. Could ask about more of my favorite writers but why ruin an already fine relationship.

    • Hi Kathleen, 

      Thanks for reading. You can add a slew of other contemporary authors to that list: 

      George Saunders
      Michael Chabon
      Steven Millhauser 
      Joyce Carol Oates
      Jonathan Ames
      Jennifer Egan
      Nathan Englander
      Rick Moody

      God. I could go on and on. 

      • Nice.

        Have not read Englander. From your list seems to me I should and will. Not a fan of Oates. 
        Kevin Sampsell ?
        Denis Johnson?
        David Foster Wallace?

        I’m an old lady and love others not so comtemporary: Vonnegut, Graham Greene, Henry Miller. Yeah, on and on.

        My current not so contemporary favorite is Kornel Esti by Deszo Kosztolany. Written in 1933 but oddly postmodern.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *