Poet Of The Week

Nick Flynn

     June 30–July 6, 2014

In previous incarnations, Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician and a caseworker with homeless adults. He is currently a professor on the creative writing faculty of the University of Houston, where he teaches each spring. His most recent book is The Reenactments (Norton, 2013). My Feelings is forthcoming (Graywolf, 2015). He lives in Brooklyn.


last night I wandered, capt’n, the earth
bright & poison, I

staggered, a forced march, yes, then
digging, a grave, made to dig my own

grave, someone muttered think
, muttered kiss my ass, a body walked into this

hole, I saw my own body, covering itself
with earth, my body becoming



if I understand the memo right, capt’n, we can use
water, but we cannot use earth—that is,
we can simulate drowning, but not
burial—is that right, sir,
capt’n? I’ve read
the memos & I want to do
what’s right


muhammed, ahmed, achmed, whatever
here we are—me & you & these

walls again, fifteen feet thick—packed earth

baked earth scorched earth & out-
side these walls the sand, on

fire, yes, still, & oh
yes, my question, my one simple

question—look at me,
do you think I want to be here any more than you?


capt’n: the memo says we cannot bury
the prisoner, but does that mean we can bury his
son? I mean, does it say we can pretend to bury his son?
capt’n, does the memo say we cannot pretend to bury
the prisoner’s son, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
dig his son’s grave, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
place his son in the hole? I’m trying, capt’n,
& he has still not answered my question


a spigot, a hose, a floor-drain
dead-center—it drains into

the earth, the sand, somewhere out there, out-
side these walls—you can smell it, your

face pressed to the tile, it tastes like
tile you think it tastes like your village you

think all tile you think all tile you

think all tile you think baked
earth scorched earth hospital

yellow yolk yellow dead yellow
sulphur yellow


that dream again, capt’n, as soon as my eyes
shut—the one where the car goes into a skid

& I can’t pull out, the one where I wipe my ass
but the paper never comes clean

–From The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Graywolf, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

EARTH is one of a series of element poems (the others are FIRE, AIR, and WATER) that ended up becoming the structure of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. It is multi-vocal rather than purely lyric, more like turning the dial on a radio and picking up various and simultaneous signals.

What are you working on right now?

Right now? I’m answering these questions.

What’s a good day for you?

Any day I can forget about myself usually turns out pretty good.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?

I moved to Williamsburg in 1992, where I shared an apartment with the artist David Brody until 2001, when I moved to Rome for a couple years. In 2007 my now-wife and I moved to the mean streets of Cobble Hill, where we remain.

What do you like most about it?

I am a huge fan of the Brooklyn stoop culture.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Last Sunday I biked with my 6-year-old daughter to Prospect Park a couple hours before sunset and met two pals (the writers Nuar Alsadir and Stephen Elliott) and we ate hummus from Damascus Bakery and watched people flying kites and wondered why we didn’t have a kite.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Brenda Shaughnessy and Craig Morgan Teicher, because they keep going deeper and bringing surprising things to the surface. And they are a poet couple, which seems like it would be hard to maintain, yet they maintain.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

I love any independent bookstore, but BookCourt is the one closest to my heart, and to my apartment.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I was a member of the Brooklyn Writers Space for a couple years and completely loved it—if I told you my favorite place at this moment I’d have to kill you.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I like biking over to Red Hook and wandering through the lots that sell plants.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

I just finished a book by Eric Fair, as yet untitled, about his time as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib … utterly amazing.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate emptiness,
And what I don’t know you will remember,
For every cell in me is made of you.

Why Brooklyn?

People look you in the eye here, which is Phil Levine’s definition of what it takes to be a poet.