The poet as a man

The Lost Sea is a more apt title for Madison County-based poet Keith Flynn’s most recent book than one might realize.

It seems the collection — which took Flynn six years to write — was nearly “lost” three times. When the poet was living in New York City in 1995, a fire destroyed pretty much everything in his apartment — including the precious manuscript. “I didn’t have copies,” he remembers, “so I had to start over. I reconstructed about a dozen of the poems from memory, though.

“Then I put the book back together and was carrying it around for a reading one time when it was still in manuscript form,” he continues. “I put it on the top of my car for a minute. Well, a wind caught it and brought the whole book — all these loose pages — straight up in the air. And there were all these school kids who were across the street, and they came running up and grabbing pages and bringing them to me — like 30 or 40 kids. I lost some of it there. Some of it I never recovered.”

Finally — and most bizarrely — the book was almost lost a third time when a man impersonating Flynn (yes, you read right) absconded with a briefcase containing the manuscript after a show Flynn had done with his rock band, Crystal Zoo. “I was doing a gig here in town and somebody stole my briefcase,” Flynn explains. “And to get a ride to Madison County, the guy impersonated me to somebody. He got out my poems and actually read some of my poems to the driver. And the guy who was driving let him out in Madison County, and … the impersonator left the briefcase in the car, that had the folder with the book in it. But the driver came back to Asheville the next day and went to a bar down on Merrimon Avenue … and he walked in there and said to the bartender, ‘Do you know Keith Flynn?’ And the bartender said, ‘Oh, yeah, I know Flynn.’ And the driver was like, ‘Well, he left his briefcase in my car. I gave him a ride to Madison County, and he left his briefcase in there.’ Now in the meantime, I was losing my mind. I was going through every dumpster down Merrimon Avenue — literally jumping into dumpsters looking for my briefcase. Anyway, I eventually got it back.”

Dumpster diving aside, the literary world (and even garden-variety readers) should be eternally grateful. And a wiser Flynn probably makes copies or types his poems on a computer these days.

Flynn published his first poem at age 19, some 20 years ago. “The first mature poem I ever wrote, and the first one that got published, was called ‘Echoes,’ he remembers. “That was the first time I’d ever been able to use surrealism in a way that spoke to everyday lives of other people. … I began to realize, “Oh, I know what I’m doing. I can do this.” And I was teaching basketball out at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain, and when I got that poem done, I was so excited because I knew what I’d accomplished. So I jumped into the lake and swam across Lake Eden and got the poem all wet and everything. … It was a revelatory moment.”

Originally headed for law school after attending Mars Hill College on a basketball scholarship, Flynn remembers sitting in pre-law classes and thinking, “I don’t belong here.” Then he started writing seriously. [Poet William] Blake made me realize that the most honorable thing that you could be would be to be a poet. I dreamed that someday somebody would actually call me a poet. Then, of course, I had to go to my father and say, ‘Well guess what? I’m not going to law school. As a matter of fact, I’m not even playing ball anymore. I’m committed to being a poet.’ … My father thought I was whacked. … Of course, now my books are getting published and people are reading them. So when my father reads my name in the paper, he thinks it’s cool. One of his friends showed me that he’d cut something out of the paper about me, and that let me know he was proud of me, which I didn’t know for a long time.”

In fact, one of the most poignant poems in The Lost Sea (Flynn’s third poetry collection; he’s also managing editor of The Asheville Poetry Review) is “Lessons in Hunger,” an unblinkingly honest look at his father, which ends with: “My father has stopped drinking./His second attempt in thirty-five years./He descends the stairs, shaking so bad/that he begs me for a joint./But I’m penniless, with a broken fist,/so I have to stay sober./And I realize that my father/has been drunk his whole life/for the same reason./I light his cigarette instead.”

The Lost Seais a tour de force of visceral, earthy verse that tackles such topics as painting, music, cinema, politics and nature — as well as stunningly intimate autobiographical material — in gloriously nonabstract ways. This is poetry set in the real world, not in some didactic poet’s interior space.

A section titled “The Fatigue of Post-Modern Irony” — a set of six interrelated poems — exemplifies this concept best, its blend of simple language and complicated rhythms a nod to the poet-as-musician. “Once/we built/one hundred/thousand bomb/shelters in/America/trying to/make sense/of the/atom’s/terrible/contagions./We never/used/a one,” the first poem in the series — titled “The Puritan Dilemma” — begins. Each poem tackles a different political topic, and the is mapped out in double columns on the page — what Flynn calls a “two-ply.”

The strongest poems in The Lost Sea are driven by abjectly fecund images of nature.

“The Whale in Winter,” for example, is a wildly lush meander that appears to be set in some exotic seafaring locale, but, as Flynn explains, actually takes place in the kitchen as he looks out on a rainstorm. The poem begins: “Socked in by the fog,/the rain’s spidery remnants/chase themselves across the windows./The red maple flames in the wind./All the Halloween leaves answer/in their angry skins, shuddering/down as if from a quiver of arrows.” In the next stanza, a ship becomes the setting: “On the upper deck, the unruly/virtually cyber rusting wives/are guiding their men/with Prozac wafers and crooked fingers/dabbed in clam sauce.”

“The whole poem is compelled by a single image,” explains Flynn. “There was a magazine laid open on the table, and in the magazine there’s a cruise ship sailing between two icebergs. And some figures are moving on the ship, and slowly but surely, the poem begins to tell the stories of the people on the deck. And then those people are moving between the tribes of the whales. And the whales also have their own gender associations that are tied into their societal structures and the way that they communicate. So there are two women that get isolated, that I start to flesh out.

“I’ve been lucky enough in my life to be around a lot of women when they were talking, and they usually speak pretty freely,” he adds. “Women are much more dirty, intimate and honest in their communications with each other than men. And almost invariably, women seek to become intimate with each other, to know each other, and men seek to impress each other. And while men are doing that, they don’t speak as honestly as women do to each other. Anyway, there was a storm outside my kitchen window, and the storm moves right through the creator into the magazine, and the picture just blows out of the magazine and takes on its own life.”

“The Tree of Life” is a ripe, primal poem in which the poet actually becomes nature. “This morning, after much nausea and many sordid dreams,/a tree sprouted from my navel and pushed me down,/its roots spreading in every direction,/like a giant snake that had escaped/from my spleen and shot into the sky./A grove of sycamores shivered in the early light,/the tentacles of the sun probing their muscled shoulders,/scarlet tumbleweeds shining like blood on the silos.” Later, the poem becomes more urgent: “Stunned by fully conscious, I watched as a hawk/passed over me and dropped its prey,/a field mouse with its head missing./My tongue was like an alien, sticking out like a tombstone,/and with it I licked all the fingers of my free hand/like a cat one by one and opened my mind slowly/as if drugged beneath a surgeon’s knife/to see what I had become./A hairy mound of earth I was,/feeling the pinprick of diamonds all along my spine,/my belly ruling a vast reserve of petroleum,/my shoulders transmogrified, shielding/an indifferent cavern of translucent bones.”

“‘The Tree of Life’ was really the last poem that I chose to include in the book,” says Flynn (after I’ve told him it’s my favorite in the book). “I had a hard time with it. I struggled with it because I wondered if it was too sensationalistic or cheesy for a man to turn into a tree. But the only way was to think about it from the tree’s perspective — which I can’t, of course, do. But to try to do that means there has to be some sort of metamorphosis taking place. And was a kind of Kafka-esque aspect to it. After the transformation takes place, I hope the narrator disappears and you start seeing the landscape. If I accomplished that, then the poem works.”

The subjects of Flynn’s poems about art run the gamut from painters (Picasso, Michelangelo, Monet) to dancers (Rudolf Nureyev) to musicians (Gram Parsons, Jeff Buckley, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black). But none of these are high-falutin’ musings. All bring art into the realm of messy day-to-day ministrations. “The Painter as Mantis Sings the Blues” is a journey inside the head of Picasso — a voyage that took Flynn seven years to complete, he reveals: “Dora screamed when I pissed on her bronze head/to improve the patina,” begins one stanza. In Flynn’s work, high art goes refreshingly hand in hand with the boorish insistences of the body.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation Xpress had recently with Flynn about The Lost Sea … and more:

Mountain Xpress: I understand it took six years to finish the book. Was that because it was an incredibly hard book to write, or were there other reasons? And did you deliberately sit down to write what became The Lost Sea, or was it more of a spontaneous thing?

Keith Flynn: Well, I’m a little bit of a deliberate writer. That’s the main reason it took so long. The book started out being sort of a cry about all the environmental losses that we’ve suffered in the last 25 years. And then it turned to other things. It started to become a political statement. It started to become a personal statement. And then it also became … an artistic statement. … I wanted to end the book in a more hopeful manner, with some of the more personal recollections. Each of those poems in the first section [“The Great Spring of the West”] has a body of water in it, which the themes circulate around. And then the middle section [“The Enchanted Loom”] is the first-person narratives from artists. And the third section [“The Fatigue of Post-Modern Irony”] tries to deal with what’s taken place politically. And then the last section [“Still Life With Delirium”], of course, is all autobiographical.

MX: Most of the poetry in The Lost Sea is decidedly focused outward. Was there ever a time when your poetry was more abstractly interior? If so, how did the change come about?

KF: One of the things that turns people off about poetry is the ambiguity and the abstraction and the irony. What I try to do is flush all the irony out and speak to the reader as directly as possible. … I’ve always felt like one of the poet’s primary responsibilities is to simply communicate. I think disdain for poetry is really sort of unnatural, because most of the time we love rhythm and we love the sound of music. And we, as a culture, hold poetry as the highest form of flattery. Like if something’s really elegant or whatever, we call it “poetry in motion.” … But our poets have gotten away from communicating. It’s become kind of incestuous. And as a rock performer, I’m also interested in making an impact. One of the reasons I started playing in a rock band [Crystal Zoo, a hard-rock band for which Flynn is the songwriter and lead singer] was to kind of tenderize the audience for the more complicated intellectual ideas. I’ve sold a lot of books of poetry to folks who’d never read a book of poetry before, as a result. One thing that happens to kids … kids love to have words in their mouths, but by the time they get to the secondary level they’re force-fed Milton and Dryden and Shakespeare before their little gullets are fully formed enough to digest Mother Goose. So I think we have to talk about poetry as a musical enterprise and talk to kids about how it affects their bodies, as opposed to how it affects their brains.

MX: Speaking of that, how do your approaches to poetry and songwriting differ, and how are they similar?

KF: The difference, to me, between a song and a poem is … in a song you’ve always got a melodic structure, you’ve got a groove that you have to deal with. There’s sort of a hindrance, because there’s a metric regularity inside there because you write to the melody. In a poem, of course, you have to create the music internally yourself. So that orchestral or musical structure happens with the sounds of the words and the bump of the words against each other. It’s a very different enterprise. I start from the same place creating both, but they end up in different places, for different reasons.

MX: Obviously many of the poems in the book are about art itself — painting, music, dance. Why do you think it’s important to write poetry about art? And do you paint?

KF: I do some sketches. Usually what I do is that I keep a sketchbook around, so that if I’m editing or writing for several hours and take a break, to keep the creative juices flowing I’ll go to the sketch pad. It’s nonlinear in the sense that I’m not using my mind in the same way. I also listen to music when I write. I listen to a lot of jazz, which a lot of writers think is really crazy. But I’m always trying to keep some sort of internal rhythm happening around me. … I write poetry to be performed out loud. … Like [the late Massachusetts-based poet] Stanley Kunitz said, the page is a cold bed. And I want my poetry to live out in the air.

MX: Regarding your more political poetry, such as “Thirty Years After My Lai,” do you find it tricky to keep the integrity of the poetry — the integrity of the language, I should say — intact while still getting a “message” across? Or do you not separate the two?

KF: I’m more interested in holding up a mirror to society than [in] trying to pick it apart. I’m definitely a liberal, politically. I have my feet in many political causes. I’ve given some flat-out political speeches before, but at the same time … I don’t want my own poetry to be that way. I want it more to resonate with issues, as opposed to specifically saying, “You should be this or you should do that, this is moral or that is immoral.” The only moral law is music, and it’s also the universal language. When the music is right, it flows. When the music is not, it wanders — it breaks down. And rhythm is a moral law. But I don’t have any other moral laws.

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