Local poet revisits her father’s cocaine trafficking in latest collection

MANY SIDES: Poet Nicole Farmer describes her late father as a true chameleon — a onetime boxer turned actor turned professor turned cocaine trafficker. His many lives are captured in her latest collection. Photo courtesy of Farmer 

In her latest poetry collection, Honest Sonnets: Memories from an Unorthodox Childhood in Verse, Nicole Farmer explores her youth spent traversing the United States and the globe.

“I moved 16 times in 18 years,” says the local poet.

Born in Manhattan, Farmer has lived throughout much of the Northeast, Midwest and South. She’s also spent time in parts of England and Mexico. For the past seven years, she’s called Asheville home.

In this month’s poetry feature, Farmer speaks with Xpress about two of her poems — “Daring” and “Conspirators.” Both examine the larger-than-life personality and illegal activities of her late father, Loren Edwin Farmer.


What constitutes a memory? Dad now gone
I simply remember what I remember
true or not. There were only the two of us left
at home: seeing him emerge from the bedroom
in full priest habit as Padre Lorenzo, devout
traveler between Catholic Louisiana and Catholic
Columbia, doing God’s work with a friendly smile —
flamboyant Spanish and a love of Central America,
its people, its culture. You would never guess
he had plastic bags of sugar duct taped under
his pants — practice run for the big day —
me wondering if this was really happening. Now

I ponder his desperation and fear of failure —
dreading invisibility more than death.


I was his eyes, his judge, his confidante:
Did his pants catch when he walked, did he look
convincingly chubby? Was his belly believable? Did he
waddle like a worshiper who loved to eat? — and all I
could think about was how his white plastic
collar contrasted with the black linen shirt,
how his black shoes shone, how much
cocaine would be duct taped to his body,
and what they would do to him if they caught him,
would I ever see him again, would I be allowed
to visit him in the pen? But this was 1979
and he waltzed through customs with a pirouette —
shook hands, smiled, joked — his priest
a role that far surpassed his Broadway debut.

Xpress: Talk to me about the inspiration behind these two poems. 

Farmer: My book Honest Sonnets is a journey through my childhood and a love letter of sorts to my parents and sister. “Daring” and “Conspirators” appear near the end of the collection and are based on memories from my teen years when I was living with my dad in Lafayette, La.

I tried for several years to write a memoir about being a kid in the ’60s and ’70s. These sonnets, and many in the book, began as short stories or prose poems. After reading the American sonnets of Diane Suess, Terrance Hays and Gerald Stern a floodgate opened for me. I found the restrictions of having to tell a story in 14 lines, in the structure of a sonnet, both comforting and challenging. Something clicked, and for three months the poems flowed out of me at a rate of two to three poems per day — a luxury of being confined to my home during the COVID epidemic.

Obviously, my dad — referred to in my writing often as Lorenzo, my old man and Mr. X — is the main character in both poems. He was a true chameleon and the consummate actor on the stage of life as he went from the mean streets of Chicago to being a Golden Gloves boxer, studying acting with Lee Strasberg, appearing on Broadway and years being a college history professor before he made his bold criminal move to raise money he needed to open his own honky-tonk.

Along with being about a specific memory, the poem “Daring” also touches on how memories morph and change over time. Could you speak to that concept and how it informed/inspired the collection as a whole and this poem specifically. 

Memories are elusive. I think acknowledging that in the opening of this poem is my way of saying that I have such vivid memories, and yet I have no one to confirm these images seared in my brain. Some moments fade with time, and others are so pellucid, it is as if they happened yesterday.

The days with my dad, before he departed, are tattooed into my bones because of the fear I felt and my desire to remember him just the way he looked at that moment in case I never saw him again. I know if he were alive, his perspective would be vastly different. In 2015, I wrote a 10-minute play that was given a staged reading in Wilmington, N.C. I was so happy to recount a larger-than-life family legend about him and my sister in a small village close to Oaxaca, Mexico, when he saved her life by staying awake all night killing the scorpions that were skittering across the floor of their one-room hospital. I proudly sent the play to my dad, and he said, “What’s this bullsh*t about?” We had a good laugh.

In this collection, I am trying to define the meaning of home. For me, it is not a geographic location. It is the connection with the people I love.

Were these actual scorpions or a detail you embellished/misremembered within the play? 

Yes — and there were tarantulas, too!

So his response about it being “bullsh*t” was less a dispute about the accuracy and more just a way of downplaying the moment? 


You also mentioned a sense of fear in never seeing your father again. I imagine this relates to his cocaine smuggling and your fear that he’d be arrested. Or did you mean something else? 

Yes, I am referring to when he was going to smuggle cocaine as a way to open his nightclub. He couldn’t find a teaching job anywhere and was working as a teller at the racetrack. I never feared that I would not see him during the many times he and my mom separated and eventually divorced. He was a fiercely loyal father.

Was he ever arrested? 


At what point in your life did you start using language as the way to commit your experiences to memory? And did the urge to remember predate your understanding that you were/are a poet? 

I started keeping a diary when I was living in Cambridge, England, in the second grade. This was tricky because I was dyslexic and couldn’t spell at all. By the time I was in the fourth grade living in West Virginia, I began to dream of being a writer and possibly a spy, because I loved observing people and writing about them. I would hide out and eavesdrop on conversations way above my head — neighbors, family, bus drivers, teachers, my sister and her friends, anyone.

I relied heavily on my journal while my father was traveling without me. It became an outlet for dealing with a life that seemed so different than any of my friends.  It is no surprise to me that I gravitated to the theater and a world of similar artists who also wanted to hide behind a character and escape into a world of fantasy. If you had asked me in my 20s when I was studying drama at The Juilliard School if I ever wrote poetry, I would have laughed. My only poems were very bad attempts to detail my many failed romances. I would say that reading, if not writing, has always been a constant in my life. The summer I was 17, I read over 100 plays and damaged my long-distance vision.

How has your travel influenced your writing? 

I think travel in general is always mind-expanding as it exposes us to other cultures and traditions. Living abroad certainly changed my perspective on the world. The constant moving did two things. First, it created a closeness in my nuclear family that was long-lasting. Second, it manifested as a restlessness when we stayed in one place for longer than usual — this kind of “shouldn’t we be moving again?” feeling, and by the time I reached high school, I was tired of the effort involved in making new friends.

Is there a local collection that recently came out or is forthcoming that you’re excited to read, and why? 

There are more local writers I admire than I can mention. But Mother Body by Diamond Forde is an extraordinary collection of poems. I recently heard her read some of her new poems at Story Parlor and was so impressed by their power and passion.

Brit Washburn has a very unique collection of poems [Notwithstanding] that really resonates with me as a mother. Her poems are so beautifully crafted and have a haunting quality almost like a tragic Irish love song you cannot forget. I am also very impressed with Andrew K. Clark‘s poems in Jesus in the Trailer, so I am eagerly awaiting his first novel, Where Dark Things Grow. Last but not least is Kenneth Chamlee‘s collection of delightful poems, If Not These Things. I keep this book bedside to read and reread.

Who are the four poets on your personal Mount Rushmore? 

I am carving a few more heads — Rainer Maria Rilke, Ada Limon, Ocean Vuong, Ross Gay, Victoria Redel, Natalie Diaz, Sharon Olds, Diane Seuss and Margaret B. Ray.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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