The day before I met Nick Flynn in court, I’d gone to hear him and the poet Kelly Groom read from their respective memoirs. As Flynn read, a slide show of arresting images flashed on a screen behind him: frames from the film based on his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a massive skull with eye sockets like caves, uncertain patterns of light and shadow that could’ve had everything or nothing to do with what Flynn was reading.
Afterward, I approached Flynn and asked if I could interview him about his latest memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb, and collection of poems, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. He apologized and told me his schedule was packed. Then he brightened.
“How about tomorrow? I’ll be in court for jury duty,” he said, fishing for his jury summons. I wrote down the address of the courthouse, and we made a plan to meet in the jury waiting room at 8:45 the next morning. It would be his second court stint in two days. Earlier that day he’d had to settle a ticket for an egregious Brooklyn error: riding his bike on the sidewalk. “A victimless crime,” he told me.
When I arrive the next day, I begin to worry that there is a footnote in some penal code prohibiting interviews in courthouses and I’ll be arrested. I notice a sign that says no food or drinks allowed. Weapons are prohibited too, but nowhere does it say no fraternizing with poets on jury duty, so I walk through the metal detector and into the dingy, sterile halls of justice.
In 2004, the photos leaked from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the world: a naked Iraqi man wearing a leash with an American woman holding the other end; Iraqi men curled on the floor, their ankles cuffed together; blood-smeared floor; more American troops, grinning smugly.
In 2007, Flynn was invited to Istanbul, Turkey, to meet some of the detainees in the Abu Ghraib photographs. He sat in a hotel room along with lawyers and an artist to listen to their stories. At the time, Flynn didn’t know exactly why he was there or what would become of this trip. He just knew he had to go.
The detainees’ testimonies appear three times in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands: on the front and back inside covers, with the majority of the text printed as if it'd been crossed out with thick black marker; as a series of poems titled “seven testimonies (redacted)”; and in full in the endnotes of the book.
In the jury waiting room, Nick and I sit toward the back. No one is talking because no one knows each other, he whispers, and the only voices in the room are our own. We are promptly interrupted when televisions in the corners of the room switch on. The images on the screens look like something out of Braveheart or an old episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, but Nick points out that it’s a video on the history of law or justice. Or something. At one point, someone onscreen appears to have their hands bound together with a piece of rope. We step into the hallway, take seats next to stony-faced men in suits, and begin talking.
Alizah Salario: Do you have any formal training in ethics?
Nick Flynn: No, not at all. I don’t know how they would take a poet on a jury.
AS: Maybe you could say you’re concerned with the truth?
NF: That’s a little slippery with poetry. [Pointing to a man who walks by:] He looks like a lawyer.
AS: He looks important.
NF: Yeah, the truth. I don’t know. I think it’d be too complicated for a poet to be on a jury because we’d end up just questioning what the truth is. I do write nonfiction, so I guess that would help.
AS: But in your memoirs, aren’t you always telling a version of the truth, or of your own narrative? What does that mean, exactly, to tell the true story of your own life?
NF: A lot of it is you do have to get down the stuff that happened. But then most of the work, for creative nonfiction writing, is trying to sort out your perception of what happened, your memories of what happened, the emotional resonance of what happened. I’m really interested these days in seeing where there’s some sort of an emotional charge in something and why. It’s very odd when you start trying to track it, at a reading or watching art; suddenly there’ll be some sort of welling of emotion, and it doesn’t always correspond to anything you can point your finger to. It’s usually very mysterious.
AS: Did you feel those moments last night at the reading?
NF: Oh, in Kelly’s stuff? Kelly’s stuff is great. I was floored. It’s very strange. I can read pages and pages of disasters and horrors and traumas and be engaged by it, and not moved by it. I don’t know why that is or what that says. But then how does that turn into something else? It’s almost like when you turn away from it slightly, you find it or you see some remnant of it. An example is Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The first hundred pages is just a litany of disaster, horrible things happening to a child. I’m not really moved by it. Then there’s this one moment when he goes to bring something to a priest and the priest sort of turns and sees how wretched he is, and says something like “Does anyone know what’s happening to you?” He had some sort of emotional connection to the child. It’s not the bad things that happen. It’s where someone reaches out in a human way to someone else that seems to be charged.
AS: That makes me think about the way people deal with grief or trauma. It’s not necessarily in saying the bad things that happened to you where there’s an emotional charge. It’s almost like you’re expecting to feel it then, so you don’t.
NF: Yeah, then you feel bad for not feeling it then. It’s very strange.
AS: I thought about this when I was reading your poems—about the idea of something being redacted or distilled but then seeming more true or evocative than the original. Your poems have such a different emotional charge than—
NF: —than the testimonies.
AS: Yes, exactly.
NF: I was trying, in some ways, to have the humanity come out of the people that were speaking because that was the experience I had in listening to them. It was those moments of great humanity that were surprising to me and moving to me, and not the moments of torture, because I’d read so much about torture at that point. I knew these horrible things that happened. It’s a strange thing. I think it’s sort of inverted on daytime talk shows. They just reenact trauma, and you’re supposed to have this emotional response from that. I think they don’t really get it. They don’t really get the subtlety of it, or the truth of how to release it or access it. They’re going about it the wrong way.
AS: It’s almost like we want to be bludgeoned with it in order to make us feel something, but then it doesn’t work. But when you were writing, did you feel a sense of responsibility to the detainees? To their stories?
NF: Sure, yeah, to these guys. It’s a real burden in a sense. It’s a responsibility to try to contain that experience. I really just try and contain it to what I know. They’re telling stories too, so it always gets very slippery. I try to present it as “This is what I saw while I was there.”
AS: So it’s sort of a process of piecing things together?
NF: Yeah, and also trying to find these charged moments, too. Saddam's former soldier seemed the most damaged. His narrative was all broken, which was just so interesting. He couldn’t really tell the story. He didn’t really have a seamless narrative. Not that the others were seamless, but he just kept spacing out. You could see he was going back into that space.
AS: I feel like that emotion was replicated in your poems with the insertion of slashes and unconventional line breaks. I felt such a sense of urgency, sort of a spilling forth.
NF: Yes, there’s a sort of tumbling energy that captures the process of making connections. Those line breaks—they’re strange line breaks; actually putting in the slashes is a strange thing. What’s the purpose of that? The whole thing of punctuation is just so interesting. You know, the early written texts were just blocks of language with no spaces between them. There was no space between any of the words in the early days, when monks were transcribing the Bible, because any space would allow Satan to flow into it. You know, empty space, horror vacui; you couldn’t allow for any sort of pausing or stopping. Punctuation actually allowed for hesitation and contemplation and spaces of doubt.
AS: You often incorporate music in your poems—lyrics, ballads, nursery rhymes, references to musicians—
NF: I’m very interested in the music and the rhythm of a piece. It’s just one of our tools as poets. I probably shouldn’t bash other forms, but it does seem like to be a good novelist you should do three things well: you know, character and plot and description. You could do those really well and you’d be a pretty good novelist, but you’d be nothing as a poet. You’d be just starting out. You have to do 20 things well, and music is one of them. Obviously, great fiction writers do many things well, but they can get away with a lot more.
Even in forms, I never trust them. I usually start them and then just sort of intentionally break them because I want not to have any moment of “Oh, I know what’s coming next” or “I know what to expect.” Your mind goes away or just sort of shuts off. I want them to be actively engaged in the process. I’m not sure. I can appreciate work that doesn’t do that—that does lull you, and sweeps you up and you just get carried along, and suddenly at the end you realize you’ve been in another place. But I don’t want to do that. That’s just me. But I’m not against that. I’m concerned with work that lets us be passively engaged with it because right now there’s enough in the world that does that.
AS: That’s not what writing is about for you.
NF: I don’t think that’s what poetry’s about.
Nick is called into the jury room. A woman at the front of the room instructs the jurors on how to fill in the bubbles on their ID cards. “Under ‘Employment,’ don’t leave it blank,” she says. “If you are a housewife, househusband, on SSI, please say so. If you are unemployed, write unemployed.” Later, Nick tells me he put “Poet.” I wonder if this makes him more or less appealing as a potential juror. The woman’s voice is so monotonous that it sounds like chanting.
I go out for a cup of coffee. When I return, CNN coverage of the Casey Anthony trial has replaced the history of justice videos on the monitors. Nick is eating peanuts from the vending machine. We continue.
AS: You’re against torture, but in some sense you seem to be struggling with the idea of it.
NF: It’s funny to be in court talking about it because I spent the last six years hanging out with lawyers. Lawyers have become my good friends. It was, in many ways, a legal issue, or at least that’s where it could be redressed. Lawyers set it up—the torture program—and lawyers could dismantle it, or something. It’s strange and Kafkaesque. These arguments can lead you to anything. They all make perfect sense at certain levels. I think that’s why the lawyer invited a poet to come and listen. Where the pro-torture people won was in public opinion. They managed to nurture and put fuel on this shadow within us and to water the seeds—as the Buddhists say, to water the seeds of hatred within—and they managed to make torture acceptable. It’s surprising how easy it was, in America.
AS: So what is it about torture that’s so confusing?
NF: The potential is in anyone for brutality and violence. The great trick that these lawyers managed to do is to take this sort of private thing, the demons inside us, and legalize them. It was like, okay, if you feel that way, then we’ll make it legal. Like if you feel that in a fit of rage you could torture someone, either to get revenge or to save someone, whatever excuse you come up with, now we’re going to make that the law. It’s just a really bad precedent. So in the book, what I was trying to suggest wasn’t that I was above any of those feelings, but that as a society, we don’t just take any dark impulse we have and legalize it. That’s chaos. It’s utter chaos.
The analogy I use is when I was younger, I used to drive drunk all the time, but I never thought, you know, that we should make this legal. Even at that moment, even in the midst of my darkness, I knew that it was a good thing that this is illegal. The same with torture. It’s a good thing that it’s illegal. We all have the impulses within us, we all may drift toward them one day or the other for retribution or revenge or fits of jealousy or whatever, but you don’t legalize them.
AS: So when you’re using redacted testimonies, how do you handle the fact that you’re taking someone else’s voice? There was a big debate about poems about Hurricane Katrina that used redacted testimonies.
NF: Claudia Rankine is doing the same thing. They call it documentary poetics.
AS: Yeah, it’s a thing. But I guess that’s what part of the debate is about. When you mention incorporating the words of others, you use the words “twisting” and “pulling” rather than—
NF: “Stealing”? [laughs]
AS: [Laughs] Rather than “incorporating.” But the connotations of those words are interesting.
NF: I think one of the exciting art forms in the last half-century has been hip-hop and sort of the sampling thing. You know, Arrested Development and 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of . . . and the Beastie Boys’ early stuff, you know, Paul’s Boutique, where there’s this wild sampling thing. Just all the sounds of the world could be channeled and transformed into something else, and then it stopped because it was illegal and they shut it down. But it hasn’t really been shut down in poetry yet.
AS: Poetry is the final frontier.
NF: No one really gives a fuck about poetry, so you can still sample what you want to. It’s sort of surprising to me that it doesn’t happen more.
AS: So why use poetry and prose to examine the same thing? Do you feel more freedom with poetry?
NF: It kind of depends on what I’m working on. It’s just what comes out. Some things, you work on them for a while and they just become poems. You work on something else for a while and it becomes prose. I do have the sense, at this point, that this stuff is already there; you just have to find it and you just have to pay close enough attention to get it to what it wants to be. It feels very nonwillful in some way.
AS: So you didn’t know what was going to come of it when you went to Istanbul?
NF: No, I didn’t. Some parts of me were thinking I didn’t even have to go because I’d read so much. I’d already read all the testimony. I knew so much.
AS: So why go?
NF: Because you’re offered a chance to. You just have to say yes to that. You have to. The chance to meet the people who are in these photographs you’ve been contemplating for three years is . . . I can’t imagine not going, and I was utterly surprised by what happened.
There was a discussion at Swarthmore and one of the students said, “How could you do this? How could you water down their testimonies? People should see exactly what they did, and you’re trying to make it into something else.” I was sort of trying to bring out their humanity. I think it’s a valid point, but I think anyone who wants to see these testimonies has full access. There are many books out there chronicling exactly what happened, and people don’t read them. They chose not to. This is a way to get people to look at something so you get the essence of the story behind something that’s seemingly benign. It was really hard to make those poems benign because you look at the testimony, everything is just bones being broken and being violated, you know, water being used in horrible ways, so I just brought it down to these elemental things, you know, “They gave me water” or “I heard a dog.”
AS: You mention the elements repeated throughout the poems. Why is that?
NF: Partially, I just became fascinated with just such a basic thing. It came from Elaine Scarry’s essay [The Body in Pain, a study about torture-inflicting pain]. You take the familiar—like in Chile [under Pinochet’s rule]—they would take the familiar objects of the world and use them to torture. It wasn’t like a torture chamber where there’s strange things you’ve never seen, devices; it was really just taking common things—a Coke bottle, a liter full of Pepsi, a bathtub, a refrigerator, a chair—it’s taking the familiar world and defamiliarizing it. That was back in the ’80s, but I have a feeling it’s gotten even darker than that. In the past 20 years it’s turned even darker. Those defamiliarizing objects are now becoming familiar again. So we all know how to torture with these things, so it becomes part of the whole mass culture. Now, with waterboarding, you can go online, you can figure out how to waterboard someone. It’s very familiar now.
AS: It’s almost like the banality of evil.
NF: It becomes punch lines for late-night talk shows. It loses its power. But it still has the same effect on those being tortured.
AS: That’s very true. You’re a poet doing something so political, but I don’t know if you’re trying to make a statement—
NF: I am trying to make a statement—that torture is wrong—but it’s like a pamphlet, so I had to go in and use myself as an example of this shadow nature that is in all of us, and just sort of not deny that and bring it out and see how you wrestle with it.
AS: Do you think you’re drawn to trauma?
NF: From my upbringing, I definitely think I have a heightened awareness of it—if I go into a room, I can pick out the traumatized people. I think there’s a whole lot more to life than trauma, too. It’s more just trying to tune the frequency to something so that when you hear that distant rumbling, you can follow it along.
AS: I wanted to touch on how, now that bin Laden is dead, the debate over torture has been reopened. It’s like people are saying, “See, I told you so, it’s justified.” Isn’t it bizarre?
NF: Yeah, it’s totally bullshit. There’s so many stronger arguments from much more reliable people that torture did nothing. But it has real energy, you know. I am disappointed in Obama for not addressing it directly, and it is going to come back to haunt his legacy, unfortunately, to tarnish him. I mean, it took 30 years for Pinochet to get a trial. You know, all the lawyers I worked with are like, “It’s all for the long run.”
AS: So eventually it’ll all come out?
NF: Yes, unless the world utterly collapses, which is certainly possible. I saw this movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams—have you seen it?
AS: Yes, yes.
NF: That moment, where there’s the one cave painting, I think of bison, and there’s another bison sort of overlapping it, and they were painted 5,000 years apart. I mean, just the idea of that. To think of that, 5,000 years, that’s before our recorded history. Just in the past hundred years we’ve sort of fucked up the earth.
AS: But maybe do you think that’s why we can do things like that, because we’ve lost our memory in some way, like we don’t feel connected in the same way as they did?
NF: Yeah, they say the reason we survived is because we did have this ability to pass on memory through abstract language. That’s the thing that comes of that movie.
AS: There was that panel of horses that were so expressive. Sometimes when I think about why I would ever want to write or why anyone would want to make art, I think of that, how that instinct to reflect and document your world is just so primal.
NF: Did you fall asleep during it?
AS: No, did you? It did get a little slow at points.
NF: I talked to a couple people who fell asleep. I think I dozed for a little bit, which is actually great for that movie, to go into a dream state.
The monotonous voice interrupts us. “When you hear your name, please answer me out loud so I know you can hear me.” It calls eight names followed by seat numbers, and the strangers get up and leave in succession. “The following people may sit in any available seat in Room 9.”
He walks into Room 9, where civic duty awaits.
Poet and memoirist Nick Flynn was born in Scituate, Massachusetts. His debut poetry collection, Some Ether (2000), won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, for which the judges’ statement read: “These poems establish their emotional authority through their very movement—their wayward, whispering music. At once reckless and demure, outrageous and delicate. ....
Alizah Salario is a former Columbia University journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Ms. Magazine, TimeOut Istanbul, Booklist, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.