Nickole Brown’s books include her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press, and the anthology, Air Fare, which she co-edited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and works as the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books. Brown lives in Louisville, KY, where she is Lecturer at the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University and teaches at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State. For more information, please visit her website.
We have heard her tell the story
over and again, like this: an early spring
tornado, a still, yellow sky,
nuns who said must have felt better
going in than it does
coming out as they gave her
a hot compress and dimmed the lights
She was half my age now, sweet
sixteen and barely healed
when God smacked half the trees
flat and she curled down
under a mattress
in an empty bathtub
in an empty apartment,
a newborn suckling
the tips of her fingers. The porcelain,
cool white womb, had a drain
ready to carry anything
it could swallow to the swollen
brown Ohio, and though the tub
was dry, she used her heel
to flip the drain open, asking
the river to take it, all of it,
especially that moment the month before
when she didn't know better
but to sit up and grab the slippery blue
feet first, an impossible breech, a twist
with a snap that meant
leg braces, special shoes, a grown woman
who would never walk right
in red heels. Frightened in this storm,
she wanted the tender word
birth but knew better now. Birth
meant forceps, rips, umbilical cords
wrapped around the neck. Birth kneaded
the abdomen for more birth, recovered
with douche singed with a drop or two of Lysol,
boiled a set of glass baby bottles in the same
pot that made the pinto beans. Not much more
to hold and so she touched
the blue leg of her bruised baby, cooed
footling, thinking it sounded
more like the name of some imp
than a complication, footling, her shape-shifter
sleeping inside the cup of a trumpet vine,
footling, because she was so young
and who could blame her, dreaming
away and waiting while wind
tore the silk of clouds to shreds,
plucked off pieces of home,
peeled shingles back from rooftops
one by one.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Try as I may, I can’t really say when this poem was composed. I went through my old notebooks, and the earliest threads of what became “Footling” appeared about seven years before the publication of the book. As it is now, it is essentially the first poem in the collection, but it has flipped through so many incarnations it’s tricky to track the origins of this piece.
What I can say is that Sister actually began as a two-page short story. It was a thick, tumbling piece, far too dense to be successful. One of my friends suggested that there was enough for a novel, and after I realized she wasn’t being sarcastic, I told her that was the most ridiculous idea ever. I was ready to charge home and scrap what I had written, but damn it if she wasn’t right. During the course of the next three years, I kept going back to those two pages again and again, plucking and breaking and kneading those first sentences into a shape that made sense. I was, in all honesty, obsessed. What I needed to say had such heat and intensity to it that I knew nothing else would suffice until those words were consummated, until that particular story was told.
Back then, the core that eventually gave “Footling” its spine was toward the end of that two-page story. Eventually, it showed up as the tenth poem in a series, and it began like this: “Thirty years between me / and that Catholic Hospital that stood / where a mall now is. She says: / an early spring tornado, a yellow sky / before rain. . .” and ended with a stanza that is now the poem “A Heartbeat Pillow Too” in the book. Later, after those two poems split apart and cell-divided into their own individual shapes, the poem began: “The hospital where I was born / was Catholic and then knocked down, / made into a mall. Mama's told me / over and again, like this: an early spring / tornado, a still, yellow sky. . .” That’s closer to where it needed to land, but thankfully, I still wasn’t satisfied.
The real moment I began to understand this poem was when I did some research and found that the birth I was trying to describe had a name: a footling is a midwife’s term for a breech birth that is feet first (instead of your typical breech, which is bottom first). It was then I had my title, but more importantly, I realized the birth needed to be first in the manuscript. I also realized the detail about the hospital was irrelevant; the mother’s story, or the telling of her story, needed to come first, before anything else.
The final thing that came to me was that the poem didn’t belong to the narrator, or to me, for that matter; it belonged to the sister that each poem addresses. That’s why it begins in the first person plural point of view, because the story belongs to both of them, to the sisters, together. Thus, the final version of the first lines: “We have heard her tell the story / over and again, like this. . .” It’s the birth of the narrator, but it’s their story and equally belongs to both of them.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Seven years, start to finish. I’ve gone through and counted twenty-eight versions on file, but that’s only the ones I can count on my computer. In between each typed version is a crumpled mess of pencil scribble, hand-written versions with tendrils of lines and notes cluttering the margins. Most of those have been thrown away or are now lost in one of the boxes of writing choking my basement.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration, but I also believe that inspiration only comes after the work is done. Think of it: to inspire means, literally, to inhale, to draw air into the lungs. Now, you can sit there in the chair and wait for inspiration to come, and sure enough, all those little mechanisms will move to involuntarily pull oxygen to your blood. But that passive mode of reception doesn’t generally work for me. I first need to get up and move around; I need to work, to make the lungs work harder, bringing in the great gulps of sky needed to get through a poem. So inspiration? The muse comes to me, but only after I’ve earned her.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Laure-Anne Bosselaar was the one that helped this poem find its shape. Simply said, she sat me down, slammed her hand on her desk, and sternly said, “Brown! Line breaks, line breaks, line breaks!”
You see, my earlier versions paid every attention to crisp, necessary language, but in terms of the shape the poem took, one part of me was half-lazy, fooling myself into believing the words I used would be enough, no matter how they were laid out on the page, and the other part of me was afraid if I reached beyond the typical line that broke the poem into easy grammatical phrases that it would somehow be “wrong.”
Bosselaar’s advice to look at the force of each individual line was imperative to “Footling” as well as the rest of the collection. I began to understand how to control the reader’s pace. The right lines can speed a reading up or slow it down; it can send a reader flying down a steep, overgrown trail, or conversely, force the reader’s gaze to slow down and stay in place. The right line breaks can shove a reader quickly to the next line where a surprise awaits; the right line break can knot a poem back to the beginning. It was a long, intuitive process, but learning how to find a poem’s visual shape was essential to me.
Grace Paley said it better though: “Form is the vessel / in which you give over / the story[.]”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It appeared in Florida Review right before the book came out with Red Hen Press, in 2007.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I let it sit and sit and sit and sit and sit. No child of mine is leaving the house until they’re grown and ready to go out into the world and defend for themselves.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Fact: I was born feet-first in an old, Catholic hospital that didn’t care much for a sixteen-year-old girl in labor. Fact: a tornado hit one month later. The storm practically wiped out Louisville; 315 people died, 5,000 were injured, and our forests and parks are still recovering today. Other facts? The glass baby bottles, the Lysol (an old trick of my great-grandmother’s), the leg braces that I never did wear. I’m still a little pigeon toed.
Fiction: I’m the one that found the word footling, and I was the one that cooed it over and again. I rolled that word around in my mouth for months, saying “footling” to the trumpet vine I planted in my garden, “footling” to the deep purple bruise that welled up after I ran into the corner of a table.
And how did I negotiate the two? Well, this was the crux of the problem, always, when writing every one of these poems. I was telling my truth, my own hard, slippery, fragmented truth, but I wanted, at all costs, to avoid standard-issue confessionalism. I wanted no villains, no victims, and most of all, I needed to scrub all the lies out, whatever they were, even the ones I told myself.
Is this a narrative poem?
Sure enough, yes.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Let me think back. The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom was important for its unapologetic Southern grit. I was also interested in how far I could scatter language and play with sound, and I’m glad I carried a copy of Shattering Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis to VCCA with me when I went to hide in the woods to finish my book. And I also needed permission to tell my own story. Nick Flynn’s Some Ether was essential for that.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
For these poems, I really was writing to my younger sister. But the truth is that my readers emerged after the book was published, and from their correspondences I’ve gotten to know who my ideal reader is. Generally speaking, she’s a woman, but not always. She’s pretty in her way but perpetually unkempt, and she likes it that way. After a long struggle, she’s found a bit of the world she can hide in long enough to read poetry, but she’s been through some shit. She remembers, and she doesn’t plan to forget.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, but not too many people, really. A lot of well-intentioned readers give bad advice, and I’ve been knocked off track more than once by a wily workshop. When it’s seriously finished and I don’t know where to go, I ask my friend Ray McDaniel to take a look at my work.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
All poems, with a heartbeat of their own, differ from the others. But this poem? I feel like it’s more narrative than some of my other work. It’s also safe in other ways: it has that clean left-hand justification with stanzas approximately the same length. This poem reads well on the stage though, and I’ve opened many of my readings from Sister with it.
What is American about this poem?
You mean beside the storm, the pinto beans, and the bad medical care? Well, I suppose I am thoroughly grounded in an American poetic tradition, and I’m Southern to boot, so there’s not much getting around that. This poem also tells about a specific time and place: Kentucky in the 1970’s, all mixed up with black lights and disco and a grueling sort of poverty that sends you to the Piggly Wiggly to figure out how far you can stretch five dollars.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Oh, mercy. Finished. There wasn’t anything else I could have done with it. Stick a fork in it; it’s done.