Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we feature poet and educator, Caroline Earleywine, who reads Nickole Brown for us and discusses writer’s identities in spaces of queerness, gender, and the South.
Erica Hoffmeister: In our emails, you said that despite brainstorming other poets, you still returned to Nickole Brown. What do you think drew you to her poetry that made you feel it was necessary to share her work with our readers?
Caroline Earleywine: What makes me return again and again to Nickole Brown’s work is the way she makes me feel seen. When I was in graduate school, before I ever really wrote about my queer or southern identity, I was lucky enough to have Ada Limón as one of my mentor teachers. She was the one who recommended Fanny Says to me. It was a pivotal moment for me in my writing.
I so admire the way she writes about the South and about family and those complexities and hard truths that come with both. I also relate to the way she writes about beauty and femmeness in the queer community and its ties to nature, gender, and violence. Underneath even the tough parts, there is a joy and resilience found in her work, which is something I cling to right now. So in addition to hoping her work helps others feel seen in the way it has done for me, I think everyone can benefit from those chutes of joy.
As an aside, after I started reading her work, I found out she used to teach in Little Rock where I live and has a couple of books published with Sibling Rivalry, which is a local press. I got to meet and hear both her and her wife Jessica Jacobs read in Hot Springs at Wednesday Night Poetry last year. (And I’m so thankful for being introduced to Jessica Jacob’s work — I aspire to write love poems with the honesty and integrity she does in her book Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going.)
EH: Why did you choose these particular poems of Brown’s to focus on?
CE: I so love the tenderness of “Fuck,” and how it takes a word often seen as crude and raw and inappropriate and turns it into something beautiful. The poem feels like a portrait of Fanny. I don’t necessarily have a person like Fanny in my life, but I feel this familiarity to her. I’m really drawn to this idea of what it means to be a southern woman and how we push up against that conditioning and expectation. There’s such a defiance in those last lines: “My grandmother, who didn’t ask for power, but took it, in full, fuck-it-all-bloom.” I love it for its un-apology and grit. It’s a type of strength that is unladylike as far as tradition, and is typically a type of power reserved for men. I love how Fanny takes up that space, and in writing this poem, it feels that Nickole Brown is occupying that space as well. I also just love how in this poem, and in others in the book, she examines a word that is so specific to a culture. It emphasizes that language is very much alive. It also makes me think of Nate Marshall’s poem, “Finna,” which I’m currently obsessed with.
“An Invitation for My Grandmother” is a poem that means a lot to me. There is grief, there is beauty, and there is the joy of finally being seen. I love the journey the poem takes, both geographically and emotionally. It honestly chokes me up almost every time I read it or think about it. My grandmother died before I was able to come out to her and before I married my wife, and I often wonder what her reaction would have been. She was a true southern woman who always spoke her mind. In that way, Fanny reminds me of her. I actually wrote a poem that was largely inspired by this poem and concept called, “My Grandmother Gives Me Her Approval Nine Years After Her Death.”
EH: As a fellow queer, southern poet and educator, do you find that Brown has influenced in your own work in certain ways?
CE: I feel like she gave me a permission I didn’t know I needed. I have felt, and still feel, a bit of fear and intimidation at the idea of writing about the South. I worry about falling into stereotypes with my portrayal, or getting too negative, or not giving the unflattering parts enough space. The South is filled with such contradictions and pain and beauty, and I so admire the way Nickole Brown holds all those truths in her hand at the same time.
I also feel a kinship and a further layering of feeling “seen” by the fact that Nickole Brown is a queer southerner who is a femme woman. There’s this experience of passing as straight, even to yourself. Heteronormativity is so conditioned and learned that it can make it hard to hear the pulse of your own desire. I feel so much of being conditioned as a woman is prioritizing being the object of desire, specifically to men, instead of examining what you yourself desire. This is further complicated with homophobia all around you because even if you did drown out the noise and hear yourself, there’s this knowledge underneath of other people’s disapproval, sometimes coming from those you love dearly.
A very specific example of this is in Nickole Brown’s poem, “Fanny Asks Me a Question Before I’d Even Ask Myself.” I have one poem that I feel is particularly in conversation with that one, which is “Lesbian Shoes.” Obviously, my work has been very affected by Nickole Brown’s — I held this book closely as I worked on my own manuscript.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on or upcoming publications that you would like to share with our readers?
CE: My debut poetry chapbook is coming out in October with Sibling Rivalry Press! It’s called Lesbian Fashion Struggles. Like the name suggests, the collection is a chapbook that chronicles my experiences as a lesbian, specifically as a lesbian who grew up and resides in the South, with aspects of clothing and identity woven throughout. Much of it is a reframing of my youth through a queer lens. I’m excited and a little nervous to have it out in the world.
Nickole Brown is a Southern poet with an MFA in fiction from Vermont College who has worked and written in various spaces, including a decade-long position at the nonprofit press Sarabande Books, an editorial assistant for Hunter S. Thompson, and Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and she currently works as Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and guest teaches for various programs and workshops. Her novel-in-poems Sister (Red Hen Press, 2007), biography-in-poems Fanny Says (BOA Editions, 2015), and essays-in-poems The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) are considered groundbreaking cross-genre works and speak to identities in lesbian, Southern, and working class spaces. Brown lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her wife, Jessica Jacobs.
Caroline Earleywine is teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, Nailed Magazine, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs. Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in October of 2020. It’s now available for preorder.
Preorder Earleywine’s debut chapbook Lesbian Fashion Struggles from Sibling Rivalry Press.
Read poems by Earleywine as featured in Barrelhouse.
Watch Earleywine read poetry in this video for the Write Bloody Finalist Competition.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/