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Nickole Brown

Visiting Poet

Nickole Brown describes poetry as “a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention.” A child of Louisville, Kentucky and Deerfield Beach, Florida, Brown aims to “knock poetry off its pedestal” and open readers to its multitude of possibilities. Her experience in the literary world is nothing short of exhaustive; she has served as an editorial assistant for the explosive Hunter S. Thompson, directed marketing and publicity for literary presses and festivals, assembled the anthology Air Fare (Sarabande Books, 2004) with Judith Taylor, and taught at a vast array of institutions such as the University of Arkansas and the Writing Workshops in Greece. Her own work is both musical and fearless, realized through her dazzling hybrids of style and form.

The narrator of Brown’s first book, Sister (Red Hen Press, 2007), tells the story of being born during a tornado to a 16-year-old “giggling, cigarette-sneak / mini-skirt-hike girl.” The poems follow the arc of complex family relationships, the “nicotine sheen” of coming of age in the 1970s, and the harrowing truths that lie beneath the surface of a traumatic childhood. Brown’s ear for poetry and her MFA training in fiction fuse into a compelling synthesis. In a review for Quarterly West, Ely Shipley writes that “Brown’s awareness of the book’s form, its how in addition to its what, allows for these poems’ rich complexities.”

This awareness shines brighter in Brown’s second collection, Fanny Says (BOA Editions, 2015), which was a finalist for The Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Prize. In this poetic biography of Brown’s late grandmother Frances Lee Cox, Fanny is a character in more than one sense of the word: plucky, audacious, and larger than life. She douses her clothes and carpets uniformly in Clorox, wears her silver hair sprayed and teased high, and drives a Cadillac Eldorado, “white and waxed and gassed / ready-chrome go.” Fanny teaches Nickole that “without your face on / your face is a turnip jerked round and pale from mud,” tells her “don’t answer the phone, specially if a boy you like is calling,” and counsels that “when expecting, you can smoke and tan and dye your hair but don’t you go reaching up on the clothesline.” Mystified, shamed, and fiercely loved by her grandmother, Brown constructs her portrait from a reservoir of Fanny’s real stories and advice. The poet Patricia Smith proclaimed Fanny Says “raucous and heart-rending, reflective and slap-yo-damn-knee hilarious, a heady meld of lyrical line and life lesson.” Reflecting on the tender and the nasty, the prudent and the problematic, the cordial and the vulgar, these poems grapple with class, race, gender and sexuality, AIDS and domestic violence. In many ways, Fanny Says embodies Brown’s own philosophy that “[poetry] scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new.” Readers will find that something about Fanny—an unshakable essence—lingers long after the book ends. Poet Rebecca Gayle Howell writes that Fanny Says “distills the whole of America into one woman: bawdy, loving, racist, battered, healed, and gorgeous with determination.”

Nickole is at work on her next manuscript, a collection of poems about animals. The book will be a bestiary of sorts but doesn’t consist of the kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it—these poems speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature: beautiful, but damaged and dangerous.

Nickole Brown received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Currently she edits the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press, teaches each fall at the Great Smokies Writing Program. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her wife, the poet Jessica Jacobs ’02.

Select Poems

Lord, I ain’t asking to be the Beastmaster
gym-ripped in a jungle loincloth
or a Doctor Dolittle or even the expensive vet
down the street, that stethoscoped redhead,
her diamond ring big as a Cracker Jack toy.
All I want is for you to help me flip
off this lightbox and its scroll of dread, to rip
a tiny tear between this world and that, a slit
in the veil, Lord, one of those old-fashioned peeping
keyholes through which I can press my dumb
lips and speak. If you will, Lord, make me the teeth
hot in the mouth of a raccoon scraping
the junk I scraped from last night’s plates,
make me the blue eye of that young crow cocked to
me—too selfish to even look up from the black
of my damn phone. Oh, forgive me, Lord,
how human I’ve become, busy clicking
what I like, busy pushing
my cuticles back and back to expose
all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me
tell your creatures how sorry
I am, let them know exactly
what we’ve done? Am I not an animal
too? If so, Lord, make me one again.
Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm
horns, braid back those long-
frayed endings of every nerve tingling
with all I thought I had to do today.
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come, I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.

—originally appeared in Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, July 28,2017

But for one pair of storebought boots,
your two feet grew up barefoot
with no idea you’d be bedridden,
expecting for the last time at forty

your seventh child. And your sixth –
your youngest daughter – my mother,
would play shoe shop with a string.
It’s her favorite story: how she laced

your feet with pretend ribbon,
pretend satin, pretend lace,
how she tied a bow and said,
How about this pair, Mama,

would these do? I can’t say
I was there, but the half of me
that was round and fully formed
nested in the mouth of her ovary,

waiting to be allowed down
its long swan throat, and at times
when I’m too sick to get out of bed,
I curl the edge of a haunted sheet

between my toes to feel
a pair of imaginary slippers
made by a little girl who waits
for me at the edge of my bed. This memory –

is it mine to have? My feet
are three sizes too big, paddle feet,
unpolished, feet that never bore
the weight of child and might never

will. But still, when my body fevers,
when I am weak, there is something
bittersweet threading the loneliest part
of me, something that says, Now,

it’s time. I’ve made you new shoes.
Stand up.

From FANNY SAYS (BOA Editions, 2015)

Satisfaction is a lowly / thing, how pure a thing is joy. / This is mortality / this is eternity.
– Marianne Moore

When Mama called to say you were
gone, I was in New York and climbed
the impossible top of a brownstone to talk
myself down. Don’t get sentimental; dying is what
grandmothers do, 
was what
I told myself, but what I should have done
was invite you there with me. You’d never been
further north than Cincinnati, and the view –
the splatter and fleck of all those lights –
you’d have to see to believe. So now that you’re

on the other side and got your knees working
again, a proposition: Come, lace up your Keds,
walk with me awhile. I won’t say the world’s better –
it’s not – since you left, I’ve seen a pelican
stretch her wings to dry, the dripping
petrol making her into a bent crucifix of oil,
and the penguins have dropped their proud 
eggs into melted ice, and this spring, yet another wind
bulldozed my neighbors, all their homes razed
to slab foundation, their trees now
splintered bone. But can we take a train

out of here – Come, sit next to me,
because out of the window
a girl on a horse jumps a junkyard fence.
She wears a shirt the color of poppies, of bright
soda cans, and I bet you’ll agree: blurred,
it is a brown pony with red wings.

And three years ago: Can I take you there?
My sister, sitting up during a contraction,
how she reached inside
herself to touch the crown of her son
not yet born. I want to show you the look
on her face and that cord 
cut, a rich earth of blood, a thick black
joy. And please, take off your shoes now,

stand with me last October when
I took a wife, barefoot in the grass.
We made our vows, and after, when she held
my jaw with both hands, I could feel
the bones of my skull
rising up to make a face finally

From FANNY SAYS (BOA Editions, 2015)

About Nickole

Poetry Center Reading Dates: October 2017