Nick Flynn's works examine self, society

Feb. 10, 2015 at 4 p.m.

The first guest in the spring University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series is Nick Flynn, author of three books of poetry, three memoirs, a play, numerous essays and a variety of collaborations with other artists.

Raised in Massachusetts, Flynn now teaches creative writing at UH when he is not working in New York.

In the self-reflection enacted in Nick Flynn's writing, he embodies the drive to better understand yourself through writing and art. Writing can give voice to traumas that would otherwise remain unspoken.

A one-time ship captain and social worker, Flynn's first volume of poetry, "Some Ether," was immediately recognized for its unique, expressive voice. In his debut volume written in 2000, Flynn demonstrates his commitment to mine the depths of your experiences for creativity, using the violence and trauma of his childhood for creative fuel. In these free verse poems, "Some Ether" is the first attempt in Flynn's work to come to terms with the traumas of his past.

Flynn's 2002 follow-up poetry collection, "Blind Huber," shifted gears to focus on the blind 18th century beekeeper, Francois Huber. In these poems, Flynn examines the life of the man who pioneered the modern understanding of honeybee society. The poems are a compelling portrait of a life's work, and Flynn's lyric dexterity allows him to try many experiments in voice, sometimes taking the perspective of the bees themselves.

In "Another Bull---t Night in Suck City," his first memoir, Flynn examines his life and its traumas again, this time inspired by the night when his long-absent father walked into the homeless shelter where Flynn was working. The 2004 memoir was adapted into the critically acclaimed 2012 independent film "Being Flynn," directed by Paul Weitz and starring Robert De Niro as Flynn's father. As he searches his own past for answers and direction, Flynn's work continues to connect his internal struggle for identity to much larger ideas about society, trauma and freedom.

Flynn's next memoir, "The Ticking is the Bomb," was occasioned by the birth of his daughter. In this book, Flynn returns to the fertile ground explored in many of his earlier works, this time wondering about his own capabilities as a father in a society marked ever more by violence. The most recent work in Flynn's trilogy of memoirs, "The Reenactments," takes his examination of personal history for a surreal turn as Flynn reflects on the experience of turning his past into a memoir, which is then turned into a feature film.

Flynn's poetry, essays and memoirs show his struggles with his past in light of the larger struggles he sees reflected in culture around him. One of the marks of a great writer, Flynn offers no easy answers in his work. Rather, in reading Flynn, one finds a process for reflection and self-evaluation. The reader's own unanswered and unexamined life, then, is what looms unspoken in Flynn's work. Indeed, the reader's life is the great unspoken hush that lingers over all forms of memoir and autobiography.

In some ways, every memoir is a funhouse mirror where a reader can identify with another's life. Through the familiar tools of narrative, readers do so from the inside, identifying with and partially inhabiting a few moments in someone else's life. One of the lingering echoes of memoir, then, is an unvoiced question: What about your story?

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of the American Book Review and an assistant professor of English at UHV. He may be contacted at SartainJ@uhv.edu.


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