The Flapper Press Poetry Café: Heather Nanni and the Expansive Idea

By Annie Newcomer:

The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of Heather Nanni.


Heather Nanni is a writer and college professor. Her work has been featured in Haunted Waters Press: Splash, Her View From Home, and Writing in a Woman's Voice, where editor Beate Sigriddaughter awarded her two Moon Prizes. Heather’s academic work has also been published in the LD Access/AECOM (Albert Einstein College of Medicine) Manual. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Fordham University and a master's degree from the Applied Educational Psychology Reading Specialist program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Heather resides in New England with her husband and two children.


Catch up with her on Twitter @heather_nanni.


Meet Heather Nanni!


 

Heather Nanni

AN: Welcome to Flapper Press Poetry Café, Heather. Each of the poems that you shared with us for this flash interview has a connection to art and/or artists. With respect to Zelda Fitzgerald, she crossed into both writing and art. Some say that her husband even used parts of her writing in his work, so she was both his muse and contributor to his great success. Share a little bit about your relationship with ekphrastic poetry and what fascinates you about this form.

HN: Hi, Annie. I am delighted to be here! Thank you for having me. You are right about Zelda—her diary entries, her turns of phrase, her life—all of these inspired and are present in F. Scott’s work. I relate to Zelda. She had so many artistic interests—writing, painting, ballet—and deeply appreciated these various art forms. She even sketched a fabulous cover for The Beautiful and Damned with a naked woman sitting in a giant champagne glass. Like Zelda, I too was a dancer; I trained in ballet from the time I was three and later pursued a career as a modern dancer. When I left the dance world in my twenties, I had no idea what to do. I did have a degree in literature but wanted to work in the arts and began interning at an art gallery in SoHo while taking art history classes. My Sundays were dedicated to visiting museums. I am fascinated by the intersection of the various art forms and how one work of art inspires and informs another. As a poet, sometimes I need to focus outward; otherwise, I fear my work will be about and for me alone. It is easy to become stuck in my own head, in my own world. All poetry is personal and unique to the writer, but I want to ensure there is universality to my poems. I love writing ekphrastic poetry and poems about other artists and art forms. Viewing another artist’s work pulls me into their orbit (once I’ve selected a work of art, I become a bit obsessive learning about the artist, the context of the work, listening to the music the artist likely listened to, reading the artist’s favorite writers), and once in another’s space, I can see where we connect, and, if we connect, then I think we can all connect in some way.

AN: A couple of months ago we featured Beate Sigridaughter’s poetry here in the Flapper Press Poetry Café. Congratulations on your two Moon Prizes that she awarded you. Might you explain for our readership what a "Moon Prize" is and why you recommend submitting to Writing in a Woman’s Voice?

HN: Thank you! A Moon Prize is a recognition and small honorarium given to a writer whose work editor Beate Sigriddaughter selects from those published on Writing in a Woman’s Voice during the preceding moon cycle. I encourage women writers to submit to Writing in a Woman’s Voice because of the opportunity to work with Beate. Her mission to provide a platform for women writers to showcase our authentic and creative works is important and noble. She is kind, encouraging, and a fantastic writer herself. Her poems (which you can find online as well as in the many books she has published) are exquisite. It was an honor to share my work on her site along with other women writers, some established and others emerging. On a more personal note, Beate and Writing in a Woman’s Voice will always hold a special place in my heart, because I received an email from her not only accepting but praising a number of my poems during a period when I was feeling very insecure about my work.


AN: Given that you are a professor, please share some of the ways you endeavor to bring your students to poetry so that they "fall in love" with what this reflection on the world offers.

HN: Of course poetry is a fantastic tool for teaching simile, metaphor, imagery, alliteration, and I do use it to illustrate how to identify and use these devices; but my primary purpose for reading and discussing poetry in class is to share how beautiful and profound the written word can be and to encourage meaningful discussion on interpretation in an environment that is safe and where students’ opinions are valued and respected. When she hosted the podcast The Slow Down, Tracy K. Smith recounted (I’m paraphrasing here) discussing with her students why they don’t need to immediately understand a poem to be moved by or appreciate it. When the former Poet Laureate of the United States tells you that you do not need to fully grasp the meaning of a poem upon first reading—well, that is a powerful statement for students who feel pressured to get it right, right away. In class, we sit with poems, read them a few times, listen to recordings of them, get an understanding of who the authors are and the context in which they created their works. Getting a poem is sometimes slow business, and that’s okay; that’s the fun of it. We read works by Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou among many others. One poem that drives the most interesting and animated discussions is Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace.” And when the body of the farmer shows up in Ted Kooser’s “Late February,” everyone is stunned and hooked.

I also want to note that before I attended graduate school and became a teacher, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor. The organization I worked for used poetry as one of its primary reading materials. Poetry is a wonderful tool when working with struggling adult readers because although the words can be relatively simple and easy to decode, that simplicity is deceptive, because underneath is a wellspring of meaning. Most students loved reading and discussing poetry.

AN: In your bio, I noticed that you have two children. How would you advise parents with young children to foster a love of poetry in them? Do you encourage your children to write, and how do you guide them?

HN: Yes. I have a son who is sixteen and a daughter who will turn thirteen this summer. I would advise parents to read to their children, even infants, every day. My favorite memories are of sitting with my little ones on my lap and reading to them. I probably took it to the next level, but it was my policy to never refuse to read if the children asked; so many times dirty dishes got left in the sink because one of the kids toddled into the kitchen with a board book in hand. Reading children’s books aloud is a marvelous way to help kids develop a love of and understanding of the rhythm and structure of language. Also, have books, all types of books, accessible. Have them everywhere in the house. You’ll be surprised at what children will gravitate to as they get older. Sometimes they’ll grab something you think is beyond their level of understanding and find them sitting on the couch, fully engrossed in it. I have always encouraged my children to write, and I think the best way to do this is to encourage reading . . . and to make writing fun. Have materials available to them when they are young—paper, crayons, markers; gift them with journals as they grow older. Don’t nitpick by focusing on errors in spelling or grammar. Praise them for their work. Oh, and talk to them . . . about everything. Talk to your kids all the time. Encourage them to expand on what they're saying. Listen. Use adult language rather than baby talk. Introduce new words. All of this will help them develop a love of language. My son is an aspiring screenwriter and film director and, while my daughter doesn’t dream of becoming a writer, she is a ballerina, and I would say ballet is poetry of a different kind, poetry in motion.


AN: Who are some artists or personalities that you would like to write about in the future? There’s so much work to be done!


HN: Martha Graham! I’ve been floating the idea around for over a year, so now it’s time to sit down and start working on her poem. I also have some ideas for a poem on Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss because, my God, that sculpture is beautiful! Meanwhile, I have an essay in the works on the connection between poetry and Henri Matisse’s artistic process and piles of notes on ekphrasis in Vernon Lee’s short story "Amour Dure."


AN: Heather, since you enjoy writing about artists and their works, have you ever considered taking up painting?

HN: Yes! I keep saying that I’d like to try it—not that I expect to be any good at it, but I think painting would bring me great joy. I talk about painting but never do it. Now that I’ve put this in writing, I must give it a go.

AN: Heather, thank you so much for joining us today. I am excited to share your poetry and their wonderful backstories with our readership. Please join us again in the future.

HN: Thank you, Annie! What a pleasure this has been, and what an honor it is to have my poems featured in the Flapper Press Poetry Café. I would love to join you again!


 

This poem is set in 1920, when Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald honeymooned in Westport, CT. The tragedies of Zelda’s life—her mental illness, struggles to realize her potential as an artist and writer, tumultuous marriage, and untimely death—too often cast shadows over her full story, a story that should include discussion of her intelligence, charisma, humor, wit, and talent. When I think of Zelda, I like to imagine her when she was young and hopeful, and this is the Zelda I present in the poem.


The brief time she and F. Scott spent in Westport is fascinating. They partied hard (some neighbors accusing them of having orgies on the beach), but, while there, F. Scott also worked on The Beautiful and Damned, setting part of the novel in their Westport rental (hence the witches and cats reference), which was on the property of multimillionaire F. E. Lewis, whose mansion on the Sound and lavish parties served as inspiration for The Great Gatsby. This poem captures Zelda when she was in Westport—Zelda after a night of partying, happy and full of hope, sitting alone on the beach watching the sun rise.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda, Westport 1920

Your friends have gone back to the gray clapboard shack

where the spirits of witches with cats conjured yesterday’s revelry in the dark— the stars reflecting on the Sound and everyone dancing to the sound of the fizz in the gin and the waves like music rolling off ragtime, cooling to a jazzy trot— woodwinds and brass pulsing above the static of the phonograph, and now you, damned, beautiful girl, sit on the shore and see the glimmer of orange blossom light,

your wild heart beating the dirge of fading night.

Today. Today you will live as you please, thump in a junk—zozzled, fried, high on hopes, not thinking of tomorrow and tomorrows.

If only. If only there were so many tomorrows.


 

This poem is a response to Henri Matisse’s 1952 collage cut-out La Tristesse du Roi. Matisse said this was his final self-portrait and created the work two years before his death. At this time, he was in ill-health and no longer able to stand at an easel and paint. The work is based on Rembrandt’s portrait of David playing the harp for a sorrowful King Saul. As someone who finds herself in middle-age and fears that time may run out before I am able to accomplish what I want in this world, I am drawn to the work’s themes of aging, death, and the power of art. I am also inspired by Matisse’s ability to adjust to his circumstances and continue to evolve as an artist despite advanced age and illness. The poem is not only a musing on the work but a tribute to the artist’s remarkable life.


Through the use of the black thread—a nod to the beautiful lines Matisse used for his illustrations of poetic works, I attempt to carry the reader along from Matisse’s birth in northern France to his art training in Paris to the southern coast, where he developed his style as a Fauve. Through the journey of his life, I include what was meaningful to him—his love of color, music (and birds!), and his quest for serenity through art. While some viewers see Matisse as the figure of King David bidding farewell to the world, I believe Matisse represented himself through the figure of Saul, soothing the king through his art.

La Tristesse du Roi (The Sorrows of the King), 2007, Henri Matisse

On Viewing Henri Matisse's La Tristesse du Roi

Out the open window, the gray drape billows

and the black thread unspools itself, swirling through the iron haze of northern

might. But the birds. The birds twitter and shine and the thread entwines

and carries them southward

to the city of light where it dips and sways

but bends not to the way of smoke shaded propriety. The doves coo in their antiquarian cages and the line recoils

and recasts itself southward again

to the capacious land of sky and sea

where the birds fly free into the

vast expanse of blue—where all that was

shrinks and grows and the thread black

line distills and pools until

it erupts and thrusts forward—a comet shedding

impossible light, revealing the essence—sensuous, serene—

of what the common eye sees.

It pulses and bends to express

the arabesque of the dancer,

of the river, of the clown of the boy, so close to the sun

before he drowned

but the line measures and defies the distance

to death, tearing like a silver shear cutting petals from the sky which quiver within the blue note of the frame, within the space between all

that’s known and that’s imagined.


I look and wonder—

Are you Saul or David?

In the magnificence of it all

do you weep? As the thread slides

through your fingers and

rewinds around the ever

expanding world, is there grief?


No. I think not. I think you play—

not an ancient cathedral requiem but a joyful hymn heard in the peace

of a sunlit space—a song of beauty

and art, of all that matters, of all that is forever true.


 

This poem is inspired by "Fragments of a Portrait," David Sylvester’s 1966 BBC interview with artist Francis Bacon. During the interview, Bacon explains that he prefers to paint from photographs rather than use in-person sitters, because when he “performs the injury” by distorting the figures, the models take the act as a type of castigation. While listening to the interview, I wondered what Bacon saw in his subjects that led him to distort their forms. I thought of the conflict between the artist’s and subject’s perceptions of truth, and this inspired me to write the poem that explores these often contradictory perceptions and illustrates how we can be unaware or unwilling to see the hurt we cause others and how, when we are forced to see the ugliness within ourselves, it can feel like a violation.

Frances Bacon, Photo by John Dekin

The Subject

. . . people nearly always believe that the distortions of them are an injury to them no matter how much they feel for or how much they like you.

—Francis Bacon, Fragments of a Portrait,

Interview by David Sylvester

I cannot cleave and splay you

from a hook, Butterfly. But I can dissect you, pin your pieces to the table.

What do you think of yourself?

After the injury has been performed?

You are still pretty. Pretty pieces of yourself. Wings like waxed paper tinted phosphorous blue and green.

What about this? Your middle, stripped and displayed? What do you think? Let me take this knife and split it apart. Ahhh, here is your heart. What do you think? Is it pretty too? Even after I have been so cruel?

Here, let me take a picture. Let us look and then I will re-render your image

again and again. Again,

what do you see? Now, can you see how cruel you were to me? Can you see me? There. In your heart. In the wings, the body I have torn apart.


Are you offended by the facts of our dismantled selves?

Should I have been more objective?

I am not afraid of this.

This is not distortion.

This is symmetry.

 

Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Pointa place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.


Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!


FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.

Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.


Submission Guidelines:

1. Share at least three (3) poems

2. Include a short bio of 50–100 words, written in the third person.

(Plus any website and links.)

3. Share a brief backstory on each submitted poem

4. Submit an Author's photo and any images you want to include with the poems

5. Send all submissions and questions to: info@flapperpress.com

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