March 2010

Richard Wirick


An Interview with Nick Flynn

One of the most incendiary and controversial poets and memoirists of his generation, Nick Flynn first entered the literary spotlight with his two books of poetry for Graywolf Press, Some Ether and Blind Huber. It was the 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, though, that brought him national attention and widespread praise -- Stephen Elliot, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, called the book "a near-perfect work of literature." In Flynn's new memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb, the writer reflects on both the birth of his daughter and the torture of prisoners at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison. Flynn, a native of Massachusetts, now lives in Houston and Brooklyn. He spoke with Bookslut in February 2010.

In The Ticking is the Bomb, you write vividly about the first time you heard of of the Abu Ghraib photos -- you were driving from Texas to New York, and the lead story on the radio was about the photographs. Has your reaction has changed from those first impressions?

It took awhile for the photographs to make any sense at all, really, maybe months, maybe years. Maybe they will never make sense, in a way they can be put aside. One thing about them, it seems, is that they sank very deeply into our subconscious lives, as individuals and collectively, even if we only glimpsed them, even if we turned away. And I think we, if there is such a think as a collective ďweĒ called ďAmerica,Ē have been trying to sort through what they mean since then.†

You mentioned that few photos or pictorial representations matched the earliest photographs, some taken by prison personnel themselves.

Well, they have become the iconic images of this war, which is perhaps understandable. As far as I understand it, there were fewer photographers in this war who were not embedded with the military, and so the range of photographs they could take would be smaller, or more controlled, or even choreographed. But the Abu Ghraib photos are utterly surprising, simply because it seems they depict something never meant to be seen. †

You write about your trip to Istanbul, where you visit men depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos. How were your expectations of these prisonersí mental states confirmed or disproved?

I found a group of men who had integrated the experience of what had happened to them, what had been done to them, in utterly different ways. It surprised me, and then it surprised me that it had surprised me, for of course each man would be utterly different, utterly human.†

How did your daughterís birth -- one of the great framing motifs of The Ticking Is The Bomb -- change your so-called obsessions with torture and terror?

I donít know if her birth did. I was never entirely comfortable spending all day contemplating torture, and Iím still not. †

How does your past relationship with your own father -- explored so well in your first memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City -- inform your own parenting, now that you have a daughter?

Well, for me, it was better that my father wasnít around, considering the way he lived his life. I think his presence would have been rougher than his absence was. I certainly hope that wonít be the case for my daughter.†

Although your relationship with your parents was often strained, do you ever feel that your own parenting style was influenced by theirs?

My relationship with my mother wasnít especially strained. She never hit me. She put a roof over my head, fed me, and was often fun to be around. I might have needed a few more boundaries, but itís likely I would have pushed against whatever she tried to erect. She was young, I was a little wild sometimes. We did OK. In that sense, Iíll likely try to recognize the need for certain boundaries, and weíll see how that goes.†

What advice do you have for fathers-to-be?

One thing I can say is that your child will teach you everything you need to know, if you can learn to listen.†

What have you learned from your wife before/after your daughterís birth?

Childbirth is obviously a very different experience for a man. It was so clear, at times, that whatever psychic turmoil I was going through was a pale imitation of [what] having that experience embodied. Perhaps she taught me the need to be more embodied, or to trust the body more.†

I understand you donít have a spleen. Neither do I.† Would that make us, in past ages, particularly nasty and spiteful?

In the West, the spleen is synonymous with anger, and so when I lost mine, I thought the upside would be that Iíd be all peaceful, but it didnít work out that way, not always. Years later, I found out that in Eastern philosophy the spleen is the center of joy, which didnít seem like the best thing to have lost. [Laughs]

You return to fathers and sons effectively in the "One Simple Question" entry in The Ticking. You quote the amazing William Stafford poem, "A Story That Could Be True," which starts: "If you were exchanged in the real cradle and / your real mother died / without ever really telling the story / then no one knows your name, / And somewhere in the world / your father is lost and needs you / but you are far away. / He can never find / how true you are, how ready." So being cast about, by people/relatives or external circumstances, can make you "ready," father to the man, before your time?

Is that how you read the poem? Thatís cool. It always chokes me up, still, for some mysterious reason, but I donít think I could distill out why, or what it meansÖ

Going back to your statement that each of the Abu Ghraib detainees had integrated the experience in their own unique way; is it the kind of thing you would want to do again, interview people in extreme circumstances like that?

From working with the homeless Iíve found itís something I am able to do, to just sit with someone and listen to whatever it is they are struggling with, and itíll likely be some part of whatever I do. Whether or not Iím of any help is another story.

Certainly seeing the Suck City people in their shelters, including your father, made for a transition to being able to interview people who are sort of at the end of their tether. What did you think of [Susan] Sontagís early, much-publicized commentary on the Abu Ghraib photos?

You mean when she equated what the photographs depicted with our cultureís obsession with pornography? Iíd say she was on the mark, as far as why the grunts were so easily manipulated. It might not have been the whole story, which we are still sifting through, but it was insightful, at the time. Sheís Sontag, for chrissakes.††† †

Did you ever interview anyone you understood to have been subjected to a post-9/11 "rendition," to one of the "black sites" weíve read so much about?

Iíve met Khalid El-Masri, the German citizen who was kidnapped by the CIA and rendered to a black site; I believe it was in Afghanistan. Iíve become good friend with his ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, and when El-Masri has been in New York, weíve gotten together. He was held for six months, tortured, then flown to Albania, where he was left barefoot, yet he somehow made his way back to Germany. His case is well documented, though it seems unlikely that the U.S., even under Obama, is ready to pay him any restitution.† †

You quote the Noah Cross character from the film Chinatown, played by John Huston. Heís a man who has raped and impregnated his daughter, and when itís all revealed he says the famous lines, "Given the right time and the right place, a man is capable of just about anything."

At some point I realized that The Ticking is the Bomb was not simply about the ďfew bad applesĒ at Abu Ghraib, or even about those in the Bush Administration (basically the entire Bush administration) which ordered the torture -- none of that was, or is, very surprising. That Cheney would torture someone is not surprising. What was surprising was how quickly we Americans accepted it, so the book became more a study of the darker impulses in each of us, that led us to embrace torture. Maybe not all of us embraced torture (only 78% in one poll), but we all have darker impulses.†

In the "Fruits Of My Deeds" section of The Ticking Is The Bomb, the compression of which is marvelous, you mention that a filmmaker (in 1999) was interested in having your stepfather Travis, a Vietnam veteran, appear in a documentary where ďthe conceit was whether war trauma passed down through generations.Ē Do you think that propensities like brutality, harsh interrogation techniques -- even torture -- can be passed down inter-generationally?

It seems everything is passed on, both the darkness and the light. Our job is not to water the seeds of darkness. At least thatís what the Buddhists tell me.†

At the end of the "Fruit Of My Deeds" passage you have a moment where the filmmaker, following Travis through Vietnam, and specifically My Lai, gets down on his knees and kisses a Vietnamese womanís hand, asking for forgiveness. Do you think weíll ever have a similar situation with Abu Ghraib? Will Lynndie England or Sabrina Harman or one of those guards ever do that?

The reason we even know about Abu Ghraib is that not everyone went along with what was happening there -- a whistleblower (Joe Darby, I believe is his name), passed the photographs along, as did several other soldiers. Many others refused to participate in the brutality, recognizing what was happening as illegal, as war crimes. Others who were there have done enormous amounts to get the truth out -- Eric Fair, Sam Provance, others. These are the real heroes of this war. Whether what theyíre doing counts as apologies is another question. †

You have as an epigraph to The Ticking Is The Bomb,† an amazing quote from the great child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott. ďIt is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.Ē What are we to take away from that?

Iíve spent a lot of my life in hiding, in one way or another, and found some comfort in it, or at least what felt like comfort, but maybe it allowed me to indulge some of my darker impulses, at times, and those impulses began to feel like disasters. But itís a a koan, isnít it, so itís probably best to let each person meditate on it in whatever way they want.