posted 2012-02-01 11:07:01

Not Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

Post-confessional writer Nick Flynn gives a reading at Hunter



Peter Dunifon

Staff Writer 

Near the end of last semester, the post-confessional poet and writer Nick Flynn came to Hunter College to give a multimedia presentation and reading in the school’s faculty lounge. Equipped with a Macbook loaded with photos and a projector next to the podium, Flynn cued a meditative introduction to his reading with an abstract black and white video of tree branches focusing in and out of clarity during winter. It may have been symbolic, or maybe just a nice image to look at, but Flynn offered little explanation for it.

He dressed unassumingly in a green pinstriped dress shirt and dark jeans. His messy mid-length brown hair was wind-swept above his deep-set eyes and strong nose. “I’m really glad I can be at a reading I could just ride my bicycle to,” Flynn said, as if he were part of the audience rather than the main attraction.

Nick Flynn’s work has been well-received and he’s won numerous awards for his writing, which includes the poetry collections Blind Huber and Some Ether, and the memoirs The Ticking Is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He read sections from each book along with more recent material.

However, before going into the reading, Flynn warmed up the audience with deadpan commentary on the location of Hunter. “The Upper East Side: that’s like the mouth of the beast,” he said. “I hope none of you live here... None of you look like you do; you all look like train-riders,” he jested to the packed room of mostly creative writing students in Hunter’s MFA program. Moments like this made the reading a unique, enlightening event, tailored especially for fans of Nick Flynn’s work.

One of the first things he read was an unpublished account of his experience watching the filming of his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The introspective narrative reflected on his feeling of estrangement while watching scenes of his past re-enacted before him. Behind him were projected images he shot while on set, making the reading even more palatable.

Flynn’s delivery was calm and contemplative. Despite the somber subject matter, he still managed to insert his dry humor, lightening up the mood in between pieces. He spoke about the importance of imagery as a tool to not just communicate meaning, but feeling as well. He also offered keen insights into his mentality and writing process, and on writing in general, he said, “Whatever you’re writing about should be the most important thing in the world. That’s why you’re writing about it.”

This comment seemed particularly appropriate considering his recent series, “seven testimonies (redacted).” Inspired by the torturing of several Abu Ghraib detainees in Iraq, these poems may stand as some of his most moving works.

While he read them, he showed images of the trial illustrated by Daniel Heyman. Flynn and Heyman traveled to Istanbul together to get to know the ex-Abu Ghraib detainees on a personal, human-to-human level, and work on the project. Through the artists’ investment in the stories of these people, their resulting work shows a strong empathy for the human condition.

Flynn’s poems were crafted from the testimonies using a “CIA technique,” which selectively silenced parts of statements to estrange the messages. The final product is oddly reminiscent of Dr. Seuss-like wordplay, but the conjured images create a stark juxtaposition. One line reads (with dashes indicating removed sections), “I woke up—I asked why—my children,—my wife—my—leg—outside,— my head.”

Certainly, there’s the question of whether or not this type of art is exploitive by aestheticizing the horrors these detainees went through. During the Q&A, someone asked just that, and Flynn looked like he had been expecting the question. Still answering with some hesitation, he recognized that a work like “seven testimonies” does, by nature, aestheticize the experience these detainees went through. However, he contended that his poetry intends to inspire reflection, discussion and further investigation, and that a troublesome element is important. “I’m sort of a fan of discomfort in writing,” he said.

The rest of the Q&A touched on several other interesting topics. One student standing in the back asked a question about Flynn’s writing process behind a tree metaphor at the end of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Reacting with surprise, Flynn asked, “What’s the metaphor, exactly?” The student seemed shocked, and explained Flynn’s own metaphor to him. When he was done, Flynn responded, “I never thought of it like that.”

“Oh, really? Really?” the student said incredulously. Flynn responded plainly, though: he wrote it simply because he thought the tree was a nice image. If it was to stand as a symbol for something greater, that was for the reader to decide and create.