Nin Andrews is a great poet and person. She’s kind, creative, funny and genuine. She’s been a friend of mine for some time now, and she’s someone I really admire because of her boldness as a poet. She was one of the first prose poets I was introduced, the first poet I ever read who wrote poems about orgasms, and a poet who is always publishing and always writing new and interesting poems. With her every book, and her every project, I am always eager to see what she’ll do next.
Leah Umansky: As a woman and a poet, would you consider yourself a feminist? If so, when do you think you first started thinking of yourself that way?
Nin Andrews: It’s hard to know when something starts. You know? But I think I have been a feminist for most of my life.
But when did it begin?
Was it when my parents first told me they had hoped I was a boy? That my name was supposed to be George?
Was it when my father teased me, Kiss your elbow and you’ll turn into a boy? As if I wanted to be a boy?
Was it when school teachers favored the boys in grade school, calling on them first, assuming they were the students with the answers?
Was it when I listened to my father talk about my eye problem (I have strabismus): It’s too bad she has such an ugly eye issue. Looks are so important for girls.
Was it when I said I wanted to be a marine biologist in ninth grade, and my father said boys have careers, and girls stay home?
Was it when I first heard about penis envy and thought, Really? I want a penis of my own? Are you fucking nuts?
Was it when I had sex education at school, and Mrs. D. said we girls were going to bleed, sprout pimples, cramp up, smell bad, and turn into bitches once a month?
Was it in seventh grade when I got my period at school, and my teacher gave me an industrial strength Kotex pad, as thick as a banana, that hung on a little sling between my legs, and I spent the day picking which butt cheek to lean on, feeling shame, fear, and anger, asking myself, Is this what being a woman is all about?
Was it when my mother became an outspoken social and environmental activist, and my father was so embarrassed, he wanted to distance himself from her? He suggested she use her maiden name?
Was it when I took long runs or bike rides in the country as a teenager, and was followed by cars with creepy men who would pass me, slow down and pass me again, enjoying their ability to terrify me?
Was it when I applied to Florida Institute of Technology to a special program where I could learn to operate a bathosphere and other marine equipment, and I was accepted by FIT but told no women were allowed into that program because women aren’t strong?
Was it when I went to Bryn Mawr for my freshman year and learned that a lot of my classmates chose a women’s college because they were afraid to speak out in front of boys?
Was it when Geraldine Ferraro was a Vice-Presidential candidate, and people talked about her appearance and clothing, just as they did when Hilary Clinton ran for president?
Was it when I studied philosophy and realized that all the philosophers were men, and most of them, from Aristotle to Hegel, considered women to be incomplete and inferior human beings?
Was it when I listened to Christian radio and heard the preachers tell women they had to look up to their spouses, even when their spouses abused them?
Was it when my grandmother talked about the years when women didn’t have the right to vote?
Was it when I gave a reading to a room full of women, shortly after I wrote The Book of Orgasms, and a woman raised her hand and asked me to define an orgasm, and I soon learned that most of the women in the room had ever an orgasm?
Was it when I began to wonder how and why many American women have shut down their sexual and creative intuition?
Was it when I had children of my own, and watched teachers try to mold my strong-willed daughter?
Was it when I first noticed that some of my women-friends were getting breast implants and other surgical enhancements? And I asked myself, how many men take such drastic measures to keep feeling attractive?
Was it when I first watched Fox News and thought the women, but not the men, all looked like they could have been characters in Mad Men?
Was it when some of my women friends told me they felt their power as women began to dwindle after age twenty?
Was it when I went to a town council meeting to talk about the hazards of fracking, and people made fun of me until my husband stood up and said the same thing? And everyone listened?
Was it at my mother’s funeral, when I was scattering her ashes on her favorite mountain, and I thought how alive she had been all her years. How she never changed her appearance and compromised her intelligence or dreams. And I thought, I want to be like that.
LU: Wow, what a beautiful response. Thank you. Your Book of Orgasms is one of my favorites and was recommended to me at the Fine Arts Work Center, in a workshop I took with David Wojahn years ago. What inspired you to write this book of erotically charged prose poems?
NA: I started writing The Book of Orgasms when I was taking a class at Cleveland State University back in the late ‘80s. Cheryl, a student in the class, read a sexy story about getting laid, complete with graphic descriptions. After she read it, I said the story was too much. I couldn’t handle it. I teased her, You have a lot of nerve.
So where’s your nerve, Nin? she teased me back. When are you going to write something gutsy? And she gave me an assignment. Go home and write a poem about an orgasm.
I protested, of course. I said it wasn’t happening. I said Nin Andrews would never allow orgasms onto her clean white paper.
But that night, the orgasm began talking to me. I could hear it calling, Nin! What are you waiting for?
I decided I’d write one. Just one. One orgasm poem. What could be the harm in that?
LU: How did your Deirdre series come about. I’m specifically talking about your video-poem with artist/writer, Didi Menendez.
NA: Deirdre. Do you ever hear a name and think, I love that name. I want to say it over and over again, as if it were a prayer. Or sing it, as if it were a song. Or whisper it in the dark, as if it were a lover. Because I want to feel it on my tongue. Taste it. Savor it. I don’t know why, but certain names are like that. You know? And Deirdre is like that for me. Though I have never met a Deirdre. Though maybe I loved Deirdre in a past life. And Deirdre was unforgettable and unforgivable. So much so that I still say the name, Deirdre, and swoon. And Deirdre makes me happy, and she makes me sad, like an ache or a memory of something I almost remember but can’t quite. Or of something I want but don’t have and can never name. Except to call it, Deirdre.
LU: I love that. Let’s switch gears and celebrate your upcoming book, Why God is a Woman ( forthcoming from BOA Editions). This is such an intriguing and feministic title! What can you tell me about this new poetry collection. I’m already excited to read it.
NA: Why God Is a Woman is a Woman is a series of poems about an Island where the women rule. The poems were so much fun to write because they allowed me to think deeply about how much of male and female behavior is culturally determined. How much of our misery is a result of some kind of abstract and external idea of who and how we are supposed to be. Not all the poems about the Island are concerned with gender roles. One of the pieces from the book was read on NPR’s Three-minute fiction series. http://www.npr.org/2012/04/29/151614388/thups
LU: I’m a fellow prose-poem poet. I enjoy the form and find it liberating, even though it seems contained. What is your perspective on the forms you use in your writing?
NA: For me, the prose poem walks a slender line between prose and poetry, which is right where my heart is. Because on the one hand, I have a strong narrative impulse, but on the other hand, I like to think in small moments and insights.
I don’t like to write a piece that is longer than a page. The prose poem allows me take a snapshot and frame it. Or to take a series of snap shots and place them one after another in order to replicate a story. Or a stained glass window, depending on the arrangement and how easily it lends itself to linear logic.
LU: I admire those who can merge art and poetry. Tell me how your “Poetry Comics” came about? I especially love your Emily Dickinson ones. What’s next for you in that genre of your work?
NA: I am so happy to hear you like them! I never know what to think of them myself. But I’ve always loved writing parodies and drawing comics, and when my son gave me a computer software program that lets me draw with my mouse, I started drawing literary comics. I am still learning how to use the software.
I am so grateful to Stacey Harwood and David Lehman who have been posting my comics most Mondays on the Best American Poetry Blog. Read some of her comics here, http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/nin-andrews-comics/
LU: Thank you so much, Nin. You inspire me. Everyone, stay tuned on Monday’s for her next Poetry Comic! You’ll love it
Nin Andrews’ poems and stories have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Agni, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001, 2003, 2013), and Great American Prose Poems. She won an individual artist grant from the Ohio Arts Council in 1997 and again in 2003. She is also the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections, and she is the editor of Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet Henri Michaux. Her next book, Why God Is a Woman, is due out from BOA in 2015.
Leah Umansky’s first collection of poems, Domestic Uncertainties is out from BlazeVOX Books. Her second book, Don Dreams and I Dream, is inspired by Mad Men and out by Kattywompus Press in 2014. She is also the host & curator of the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus, and a live twit for The Best American Poetry Blog. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as: POETRY, Barrow Street, Catch-up, and The Brooklyn Rail. Read more at her blog and @Lady_Bronte