By Megan Harrington
At the University of Houston, there is no lack of talent and esteem within the Creative Writing faculty. As a student and young artist, I have had the privilege to speak and learn with some of these great writers. When I found myself with the chance to interview Creative Writing professor and poet Nick Flynn, I was excited for such an amazing chance. As expected, Flynn’s interview in no way disappointed. In the busy bustle of Black Hole Coffee House in Montrose, Flynn spoke about the great students of UH, Houston, his art, other people’s art and how these things can all be meshed together to create a great balance.
THE ALETHEIA: Let’s start basic. What do you like about teaching at the University of Houston?
NICK FLYNN: The students are really great. The undergrads are a great mix of diverse population and people that seem hungry to learn. The graduate students come from all over. We have a really great writing program, a recognized writing program, so we get really great students for that, and the faculty here is really great.
TA: You split time between New York and Houston. What do you like about Houston as opposed to New York and vice versa? If you could mix the cities and make one great Super City, would you?
NF: A super city sounds monstrous. I don’t think I’d make a super city. I like Houston just like it is. Houston is great because it is so different from New York. I like the diversity here. It’s kind of a wild city. There’s a whole range of things happening here. The art scene is really great. It’s a good place for young artists to be, which seems really important for a city. You know, New York is unfortunately becoming (or has been for the last 10, 15, 20 years) more and more hostile to young artists because it’s just so expensive and just so brutal. You need to have this influx of young blood in a city and I think Houston somehow is still able to do that.
TA: That’s a really encouraging perspective for Houston artists and for our journal. The Aletheia really strives to create a venue for young artists of all sorts to interact with their community. You teach a class called the Collaboration of the Arts that does something similar to this. Can you talk a little about it?
NF: This class is always an evolving class. We’ve been figuring out how to teach it since it started. It really is like putting a group of people together and getting them to figure out how to work together. You know most of our experiences in the education system are for individuals; you alone creating something, which actually isn’t the reality when you’re out in the world. When you’re out in the world, you’re working with people, so this class, though we’re focusing on art, could be applied to any sort of endeavor one does. In fact, I know it can be because that’s the nature of the world. When you get out in the world, you have to work with people, and that’s the good news actually because you get to work with people. It’s not just all about you. The idea is that it’s not just your effort but part of a combined effort to create something. It’s taking hold in many more schools around the country. There’s a petition to start the class at NYU, and people all around are beginning to catch wind of it, but we are one of the early ones to do it, so we’re very happy about that.
TA: I’m not surprised that the class’s popularity is spreading. I took the class this past Spring, and it is one of the few classes where I believe that what I learned is something that can transcend into my life, though the lesson didn’t come easily or necessarily through traditional means.
NF: Yeah, the class is hard. You really hit the ground having to figure out with your peers what you’re going to do. The direction that you get from the instructors is really just to help you form your own ideas and then to realize them, to make them manifest. So it’s a little different. There’s no answer that you have to come to as a student that the professor already knows. What I loved about this semester is that there was this range of work; really surprising work, that I couldn’t have imagined. The students were creating things that I couldn’t even understand as they were happening. I just had to trust that there was work going on, that there was communication going on, and that I could sort of get a glimmer of what they were doing and try to find someone who could speak to that. I would bring in other artists and then we would just sort of tumble along pretty quickly. To go from not having collaborated to have finished a collaborative piece in 14 weeks is pretty impressive.
[For more information on the Collaboration of the Arts class, go to: http://www.mitchellcenterforarts.org/programs/curriculum-scholarships/interdisciplinary-art-minor-iart/]
TA: I completely agree. There was some great work that came out of that class. What about your personal experience with collaborative projects? Do you think it’s an integral part of art that you should have a conversation with other artists or do you think you can go at it alone?
NF: It depends on who you are. There are a lot of artists who seemingly go at it alone, or seem more solitary than others but I think everyone, any poet, any artist is always in communication with what they’re influenced by and with what they’ve read. Look at Rilke. He is seemingly a solitary artist, but then there are the years that he was Rodin’s secretary; he worked with Rodin; he learned about art from Rodin and ended up writing about Cezanne. He was also in communication with other artists. Maybe not when it came to producing the art, but all those influences come into each other. I think it depends on your temperament. How much you can tolerate an actual living person across from you with their conflicting ideas from to you own. And collaboration, communication is only one part of creation. Ideally, you learn something from that person but it doesn’t keep you from going off and doing your own thing. Hopefully you take that exchange, and then you can apply it to your own work or maybe you then become truly collaborative.
TA: And in line with that, you just had a movie come out. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
NF: Film is the most collaborative of art forms there is. Everything is thought out, down to the objects that are handled by the actors. There’s a whole chain of people who think about the object that ends up in that hand. There’s the manufacturer, and the person who finds it and the person who decides that it is the right thing to hold, how the room looks how the lighting is, etc. It’s wild to see people in the midst of all this. The director has this whole team of people around him that makes it look like his vision or maybe it isn’t how he thinks it will look but it will work. You have to have this control but also have good people around you that can do amazing things. And that was my experience. Just getting to be around that and being part of the conversation. They would show me costumes, and ask my opinion about costumes (like a bag that De Niro might carry). I think the bag actually fell under the props category and you had costumes and props and they had to work together. They’d show me a range of six bags and say okay which one works and maybe you’d take a little of one bag and mix it with another bag. And then there was this amazing prop person who was in charge of making things look old. That was her whole job to make things look worn. It’s kind of like circus people, film people. They all sort of know each other a little bit and they set up camp somewhere for three months and maybe they worked with this person three years ago and this person five years ago and they end up together again for 2 months and run around and disperse again.
TA: Sounds like an entirely different world.
NF: Yes, film people have their own language and everything.
TA: Tell me about any of your upcoming projects. What have you been working on as of late?
NF: I’m doing a collaboration project with a young Israeli composer named Guy Barash. We’ve done two other operas based on my work and we are doing a third one based on this play I wrote called Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins. He’s working on it now. It’s going to be about a three year projects because he wants to do a full length production of it. I’m also doing a book based on making a movie called, The Reenactments. That will come out next year, assuming I finish it.
TA: I can’t wait to read it. So here’s my final question. What would you say to students to encourage them to continue to do art? What sort of advice would you want to instill in them?
NF: Continue to figure out how to split your time. Do the work you need to do to make money to live and the work you need to do to make your art. Try to balance those out. You need a lot of time to become an artist. You might need a roommate rather than living alone. I had a roommate all through my thirties while I was writing in Brooklyn because it was just cheaper, you know? And he was an artist as well. He had a studio, and I wrote at home, and by doing that you could just sort of work half as much. Things like that, like having a community of artists or writers. And you should mingle. If you’re a writer, you should hang out with artists and film makers and film makers should hang out with writers and dancers because you learn from all the other artists, you know? I wouldn’t hang out with just poets if you’re a poet, you know?
For more information on Nick Flynn and his works, visit www.nickflynn.org.