As an experiment, I shut my eyes and flipped through the pages of Nick Flynn’s new book, Stay. Eyes still closed, I stopped flipping, jabbed my index finger at the open page and decided to write down whatever line I was pointing to. When I opened my eyes, this is what I read: “All living things have shoulders. Period. The end. A poem.”
It’s the last line in an excerpt from Flynn’s memoir The Ticking is the Bomb, from a section where Flynn writes about working in New York public schools. He found the line written on a scrap of paper dropped from a student’s notebook, crumpled and tossed aside: all living things have shoulders. It’s a found poem taken out of its vacuum of school floor and fitted into the larger context of a memoir. Here, it’s part of an excerpt in a book made up of excerpts from all of Flynn’s books. And it’s wedged between a full-page spread of one of Flynn’s collages of found items and a photograph, also taken by Flynn, of someone (a young woman, maybe?) in a panda mask.
It’s a curious document, Stay—curious in a good way. A document of mixed-media “self-portraiture,” as noted by the subtitle. Its pages are populated with pieces from Flynn’s 12 books of poetry and memoir, snippets from interviews, liner notes, et al, etc. Flynn illuminates the texts with his own found collages and artistic collaborations he has engaged in over his career. And everything included touches on the themes constant in Flynn’s work: the impact of his mother’s suicide, homelessness, addiction, politics, and the importance of connection. One of the pleasures of a book like Stay is its ability (rather, its capacity) to surprise. Part of the surprise (and part of the curiosity) is how to read this book: straight through, or skip about.
Stay is published by ZE Books, a new publisher whose mission, in part, is to produce “literary mix-tapes from visionary writers, artists, and musicians.” As a mix-tape, Stay is a compilation. Bits and pieces of complete concept albums; deep cuts; remixes. This mix-tape is more like a bootleg that some diehard made that’s been listened to, dubbed and passed on, listened to again, dubbed and passed on again. It has the warm, lived-in feel of the familiar. Coming across the poem “Her Smoke (Her Trick)” from Some Ether, “A good waitress, I wait up for her / to come home, smoky / & exhausted, her feet / swollen, I wait in her bed. Purple shadows […]” I’m reminded of first reading it after I was compelled to find more of his work after reading “Swarm” from the anthology Legitimate Dangers while in graduate school. And by extension, I remember reading Another Bullshit Night In Suck City over and over one winter in my Columbus, Ohio apartment. Isn’t this what a good mix-tape does? Allows us to associate experience with art?
A mix-tape is a sonic collage: the impact of each song depends on the songs that play before and after. It’s not just about choosing the right songs, the larger task becomes about placement. This is the same space that Stay occupies: how does all this stuff get put together? Much (all?) of Flynn’s work relies on how poems, passages of prose play off their neighboring sections. Collage—and Stay is very much a collage—becomes about play, about juxtaposition, about how one thing takes on a new meaning due to context: how does the poem “Bag Of Mice” read once it’s placed after Josh Neufeld’s cartoon depiction of it? The two distinct pieces inform each other as the metaphor of burning mice in the poem become, in a way, real in the cartoon. The ideas and themes of loss, depression, suicide, become a single voice shouting in an echo chamber with each bounce back a little more complex, a little more revealing.
Look, I know it’s my job in these pages to be critical (or provide critical insight) of the work at hand, but reading Stay I don’t want to be a critic. When Susan Sontag wrote about art’s capacity to make us nervous and uncomfortable, she was writing about resisting the urge to interpret art to the point of destruction. Of sitting with those moments of discomfort. Stay is not a book meant for interpretation or analysis. It’s a book whose ability to make readers/viewers/listeners uncomfortable will change from page to page; the moments of discomfort will differ from reader to reader. That’s the beautiful thing about a book like Stay: the juxtaposition, the play between art forms, and how it allows room for experience, opens up space to sit and feel.
By Nick Flynn
Published March 17
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.