NEW YORK -- On his passport, Nick Flynn lists his profession as "poet," but there is nothing anemic or brooding about his appearance. On a recent afternoon in New York's West Village, he dismounted the bike he rides every day from Brooklyn to Manhattan looking like a man ready to ride another 50 miles. In person, as in his prose and poetry, Flynn is exuberant and present, a friendly force to be reckoned with.
He pushed his long hair out of his face and rearranged his backpack before settling into his favorite Greenwich Village cafe. He talked about everything but his work -- most especially about the birthing classes he had been taking with his partner, actress Lili Taylor, who was about to give birth to their daughter. Nick Flynn, the award-winning poet and the bestselling author of a 2004 memoir "Another . . . Night . . .," whose clever, angry title cannot be printed in full, is happy and healthy. After some prodding, he talked about his career, which he agreed had "not been very calculated or thought out." He paused a moment, staring around the cafe in wonder. "At least not for financial compensation," he laughed.
Flynn is 47 and many of the details of his life can be found in the two books of poetry he has published, "Some Ether" in 2000 and "Blind Huber" in 2002, along with the memoir. This month he returns with his first full-length play, "Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins," to be published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
It's unusual that a play should be published at all before having been produced on stage, but then Flynn's career as a writer has been unusual, even poetic, from the start. The process of writing the memoir is a good example.
"The actual pen to paper was seven years," he said about the memoir. "I started it in Ireland in 1997 and finished it in Rome." The traveling was the result of an annual grant that he stretched to two years through frugal living.
The memoir was published squarely in the midst of a glut of memoirs by better known writers, such as James Frey, Dave Eggers, and Augusten Burroughs. Indeed, as Flynn acknowledged, "if you told me what my book was about superficially, I wouldn't want to read it." But the memoir has continued to sell steadily; its hard-won authenticity clearly has lasting appeal. It details Flynn's childhood in Boston, intercut with his time spent working in a homeless shelter where he bumped into his homeless father.
Though Flynn didn't start publishing until eight years ago, his poetry has appeared in the New Yorker and the Paris Review, and he's won a Guggenheim grant, among other honors. But he has also worked in a homeless shelter for several years, on fishing boats on Cape Cod, as a school teacher in inner city New York for seven years and, most recently, at the MFA program at the University of Houston where he teaches one semester a year. In other words, Flynn has taken the dictum of bringing life to his art.
Having written the two books of poetry, Flynn and his agent sold the book to Norton on the strength of the first 40 pages. "I don't know if they knew what they were getting into," he said, laughing. "This was in 2001, right before 9/11. I'd already written all the pages of the book, they just weren't good enough to show anyone. I knew the structure but I didn't want to show the language at that point. And it took another three years to get it into shape. Which seemed pretty fast to me. They didn't think it was very fast!" he said.
The book reads very much like a prose poem, but it took years to reach that effect. "It was tons of drafts," he declared. The money I spent shipping boxes of drafts from Europe! Just piles and piles of manuscripts," he said, picking at his salad. "But one of the benefits of taking a long time to write it," he said, "is that it really went through a long gestation process, so I could always ask about parts of it, is this really true or not. A lot of self-pitying stuff, for instance, isn't really the truth. The bravado isn't really true, the truth is usually more of a level of gravitas and humor."
Curiously, there is a film project of the memoir in the works, with Paul Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy" "Golden Compass") attached to direct. It is quite surreal to hear the poet talk about his dealings with Hollywood.
"I was in Los Angeles last summer because Lili had a job there," he said, "and I spent a lot of time with the producer and the director who were casting the male lead. The first script Paul wrote was fantastic, kind of like the most amazing Romanian art film you never saw. Anyway, it was green-lit with money on the table for actors and everything and then the strike happened and now we don't know what's happening with it." He shrugged.