Photo by Angela Newman via Unsplash
A LITERACY BEYOND BOOKS
By Jen Sammons
A Conversation with Nickole Brown
he first time I heard poet Nickole Brown, it was through the tinny speaker of my cell phone while lying face down on my bed working through painful knee rehabilitation exercises. It had been quite a year. Not only was I recovering from injury while being a full-time parent to a four-year-old, my family was reeling from recent and devastating trauma. I needed distractions.
That morning I was listening to an episode of scholarly podcast, “Masters of Text.” Brown was a guest on the show that day, and while I hadn’t heard of her before, I listened with curiosity as she read “Fuck,” the foul-mouthed, funny, and heartbreaking poem which opens her collection, Fanny Says. “Fuck is what she said,” writes Brown, of her Kentucky grandmother, “but what she needed / was a drum, a percussion to beat story into song, a chisel / to tap honey from the meanest rock.” I sat up straight, the pain in my knee forgotten. Yes, that’s exactly it, I thought. Me too. A percussion. A chisel. A way to announce, to excavate. I listened to that poem over and over that winter, committing it to memory and letting it help me find the words to tell my own story.
Last spring at the AWP conference in Portland, Oregon, I took the light rail to an off-site poetry reading. Not only was I looking forward to finally meeting Brown in person, I was equally thrilled to meet her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, as she had been the judge who chose my manuscript as the creative nonfiction winner of the Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest that year. Two writers who helped my voice be heard.
After keeping in email and holiday-card touch with Brown and Jacobs, I reached out to Brown to ask her some questions about her new work. When The Donkey Elegies was released last month by Sibling Rivalry Press, I read it in one sitting. In a lyric essay told in twenty-five prose poems, Brown braids the history and mythology of these oft misunderstood animals together with her own muck-boot-deep experience of helping care for them at a local nature center. The end result: writing that is as provocative as it is captivating. What follows is our conversation and correspondence about the inspiration behind The Donkey Elegies, Brown’s innovative use of form, and how spending time outdoors has the capacity to transform.
When reading The Donkey Elegies and To Those Who Were Our First Gods, I was struck by the thematic connections between those two collections and your previous works, Sister and Fanny Says. Do you find you return to the same concerns over and again in different ways? Are there any connections, overlaps, or evolutions of story that a reader might encounter in all of your books?
I’m constantly preoccupied with the idea of home—trying to understand where home is and if it’s safe, trying to suss out what it means when a home is put in danger or torn asunder, what it means to hide in the basement or in the closets, what it means to fling the windows wide, letting all that fresh air rush inside.
For me, this has to do with Kentucky, my own thistled nest called home, that place I worked so hard all my youth to get away from, and once I did, how I did little else but try to save what I could from what I left behind. It is the place that both made me and fractured me. Most of what I write wrestles with these difficult, sometimes ugly truths into which I was born in an effort to understand them better. That said, my first book, Sister, sought to part the caul of silence that had always shrouded me. In a series of epistolary poems addressed to a younger sister, I tried to address the impossible complexities of sexual abuse I’ve carried with me since I was a young child. Then, in my second book, Fanny Says, I tried to give voice to my fierce, contrary grandmother in a biography-in-poems that told the story of her life with abiding love and, as much as I could muster, unflinching honesty that did not turn away from the racism or violence that sizzled under the foundations of her home.
And now? I’m still doing what I’ve always done—the only thing I know how to do—using poetry to find words for those who have little voice of their own, to try to articulate stories without a ready language. But now I’m writing about animals, who, because of us, increasingly either don’t have a home left or find that home spoiled. I’m writing in a Southern, trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving.
Could you share the origin story for your work writing about animals? How did you first conceive of this project?
My wife Jessica Jacobs and I were spending time with the poet Re’Lynn Hansen and her partner on the green edges of a lake outside of Chicago. Someone asked the table what, if anything, each of us would change about our lives if we could do it all over again. While I wanted to say I wouldn’t change a thing, I couldn’t help but say I wished I had gone into environmental conservation and worked to save animals. Later that night, Jessica said something to me that changed everything: I was thinking about what you said earlier, and you can still do that, you know—you can still be that person you were meant to be.
Though I dismissed what she said with a hundred excuses about how it was too late for me and how much time I had already put into the study of poetry, when we got home, Jessica gifted me a membership to a zoo down the street from where we lived in Little Rock. Over the course of the winter, I walked there every chance I got, spending hours watching a silverback gorilla watching me back and getting to know the story of an old grizzly that would lick and sniff the plexiglass between us. Eventually, the zookeepers began to notice me and kindly invited me to feed bits of sweet potatoes to the elephants, and once I even got to give a good scratch to the rhino there, marveling at the warm concrete of his thick skin.
So by the time spring came, I was absolutely transformed. I used an entire stipend from a university reading to invest in every single volume that Reaktion Books had published in their Animal series, filling my shelves with books on badgers and beetles, foxes and moose, snails and flamingos—dozens of texts that began to inform my understanding of animals great and small. As I read them, what struck me again and again was how our perception of each species—if we adored them or despised them, if we ate them or dismissed them, if we found them beautiful or disgusting or simply not worth noticing at all—absolutely determined their fate, and it was then I began to understand what I needed to write.
I can think of nothing more pressing, especially in the slippery chaos of this sixth mass extinction, this period in which human activity is the dominant influence on just about every living thing, down to the rain and the soil it falls on. I’ll use whatever I have—be it my hands or my time or my words—to veer us from what many say is now inevitable. What I’m doing is no longer a choice, really. It’s my charge and my prayer, my calling and plea.
You volunteer with four different animal sanctuaries. Which came first: the desire to write about animals or the desire to spend deep, concentrated time with the animals in those sanctuaries?
This process originated quietly, on the page, with reading, one book after the next, much as I had existed every day until then. All that reading was punctuated by my time wandering that zoo, but as anyone can attest, a visit to a zoo is largely an experience of safe observation, of looking at life from a comfortable remove that’s not too unlike reading. This is important to note because I was once, by all accounts, a girl who left behind her body and became a book, and never had I gone outside much until I was forty.
I was taught that girls just didn’t go into the woods, much less mess with any kind of animal (other than maybe a teacup poodle). My grandmother, fierce guardian she was—would actually make me promise when I left the house not to get raped, by which she meant that I was not to step one foot where men waited for all those Little Red Riding Hoods foolish enough to step from the path. Living in the Kentucky that we did back then, she wasn’t wrong, and the newspapers were always telling stories of the bodies turned up in some creek or park or other. Those lessons trembled deep down, and it was only once I married my trail-running wife that she cajoled me into meandering outside so that I could begin to understand what it was to inhabit a body under the trees.
Eventually though, an alchemy happened. I began to develop a literacy beyond books; for the first time I was able to read the living world. Once Jessica and I left Little Rock and moved to what is now our home in Asheville, North Carolina, I knew what I had to do—I couldn’t just continue to read about animals and observe them from a comfortable remove, not if I wanted to write any poem worth keeping about them. I needed to understand what it was to be among them; I needed to be close enough to smell them, to begin to read their body language. I needed to listen not just to what was written about them but to listen to what the animals themselves might have to say.
So now, whenever I can, I pull on my muck boots to do what I can for the animals with whom I share this land. With all of my travel, I don’t get to go often enough, but when I am home, I try each week to spend time volunteering at Appalachian Wild, an organization that treats injured and orphaned wildlife, and Animal Haven Farm Sanctuary, that provides a home to unwanted and abused domestic animals. I’ve also lent a hand at Western North Carolina Nature Center where I worked with the donkeys who eventually inspired The Donkey Elegies.
It was only when I actually began spending time with these animals—and with the rehabilitators, trainers, veterinarians, and all-around heroes that tirelessly work with these animals every single day—that the poems I was desperately seeking slowly began to come to me.
Can you share more about the relationship between your physical work with animals and what happens when you come to the page?
One thing I return to time and time again in the classroom is the importance of embodiment when writing. On a basic level, this means that writing comes not just from the brain but from the body, that the details fed to us by our senses is what can authenticate an experience and make it sing on the page. When I’m in the barn lugging hay and shoveling shit, I’m stitched to my body in ways that I never am at my desk; I’m forced to live through my animal body like the animal I am (and that we all are). I mean, it’s one thing to write about the earth from a distance, but to literally get it under your nails and in the creases of your sweating neck? Well, that is something far more visceral.
Your book, Sister, is described as a novel-in-poems, Fanny Says is described as an autobiography-in-poems, and The Donkey Elegies as an essay-in-poems. Can you talk about the interplay of form and function in your work?
There’s something unique and spectacular that every genre of writing can do, so why choose? Why should I forego the clarity and suspense of a good story for the high lyricism and attention to language of poetry if I don’t absolutely have to? Can’t I try for both? And why should I abandon the rich texture that a scientific or historic fact can provide even though I’m working in a medium of sound and imagination? I’ve never managed to have it all at once, of course, but when I sit down to write, I enjoy that liminal space between genres and reach for whatever I can to allow the work to become what it needs to be. Hardly ever do I have the audacity to tell a piece what it is before it reveals itself, and it’s only well into a project that I even think to impose line breaks, much less settle on the idea of a piece clearly being a poem.
The Donkey Elegies actually began as a single, two-page poem. It was a ghazal of sorts in 25 couplets, each ending with the word donkey. As I began to revise that piece, I found that each of those couplets began to separate from each other into these delicate, individual little poems with short lines. I knew that I needed to go deeper, so I let them grow with facts, weaving in the history of donkeys, allowing the gravity of their long, exhaustive history with us to darken and expand each piece.
I was still thinking of the pieces as poems, when I talked to Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington of Sibling Rivalry Press, but they confirmed that what I had was actually an essay-in-poems. It was the writing itself that dictated what form it needed to take, and in some ways, prose suits such a hardworking, plainspoken animal. Even better, there’s a chance that prose might reach more readers, allowing for a more comfortable exchange to tell the story of donkeys. And well, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
I’ve heard you describe your project as, “a bestiary of sorts.” How do these two chapbooks, The Donkey Elegies and To Those Who Were Our First Gods, fit into the larger work? In other words, what do we have to look forward to from you in the future?
I’m hoping that both of those chapbooks will nestle down into longer, full-length collections at some point, but it’s hard to say what those books will look like. As each poem is ready, I’m trying to get it out into the world to do its own work, separate from the larger stack growing on my desk. That’s been helpful, especially because the responses I’ve gotten from readers have echoed back to give me some guidance as to how to do this better.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to learn all I can about the living world, both by reading the many books that have completely filled my office and by lending a hand at sanctuaries to simply do the work that needs to be done (or at least to do the little bit of work that I can do).
I continue to teach, because as a good friend advised me once, you should teach what you want to learn. One course I’ve taught almost ten times these past two years is “Writing in the Age of Loneliness: Ecoliterature & the Writer's Task,” titled after the term biologist E.O. Wilson uses to describe the Anthropocene. In it, I try to ask questions that instead of silencing ourselves will urge us on: What is our responsibility as writers to this epoch? How might we depict the suffering of non-human but sentient beings? What impact can we make with our words?
Of course, I don’t have the answers to these questions. No one does, really. But the best poems I believe come to the page with questions, not answers. And while not one of us can promise how this will all end up, there is one thing I will say—I won’t give up on this, not as long as there are living beings out there who can’t quite speak for themselves, not when there are animals—both human and not—who are at the mercy of how we proceed in this age.
To read “Fuck,” as well as Nickole Brown’s other writing published in the Oxford American, click here.
Seth Pennington, editor-in-chief of Sibling Rivalry Press, will be in conversation with novelist Silas House as part of our South Words reading series on February 25, 2020. Full details here.
Enjoy this conversation? Subscribe to the Oxford American