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on publishing siSTER by nickole brown

I shut the door to my car, only I wasn’t inside it. What I needed to do, what I knew I had to do, was to walk back inside, after leaving quietly. There was a line to get to her and my husband was in it, only this was before I called him husband, before I even knew his name. I gripped a copy of her book, Sister, and resisted twisting it like a newspaper, like what my nerves were doing, while I waited.


My back still ached. It was just earlier in the week my body made a wreck of a soda machine in a mental ward, where I worked evening shifts and sometimes night shifts when my relief never came. It was one of those times that a delusional man that stood a good foot taller than I, decided to shove me into the fiberglass front of the machine.

I was 22 years old. New York City hadn’t handled me well. I got the story wrong: left for the city to be who I wasn’t. I was trying hard as I might to not be “the gay son.” I had postponed completing my degree for a job at a start-up production company that floundered at the start of the financial crisis. I was living back at home after not even making it in the city a full year, with the excuse that my dad’s back surgery had gone awry. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, what I wanted to do, other than needing to finish my degree.


I was waiting in line to meet the poet, Nickole Brown, who had amazed me with her reading but even more by being out as an artist and accepting a job at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock teaching creative writing. I hadn’t seen before anyone make something of themselves as a queer person in Arkansas, without it being a secret or something that came back to haunt them. Even on TV, when I was growing up, the channel changed. So I enrolled.


Nickole and I had an instant connection—something like the closest of siblings—but because she was my teacher we couldn’t be friends in the fullest sense. We read poem after poem and worked together on the university literary magazine called Equinox (I was the poetry editor). She took me under her wing and coached me through the making of my thesis project, a collection of poems called How This Is Going to End, which became my first published material.


One Sunday I was invited to a church in Conway, Arkansas, to hear a publisher talk about an anthology called Collective Brightness: LGBTQ Writers on Faith and Spirituality. I’d grown up Pentecostal, so this line was one that I walked carefully and with interest. The publisher was Bryan Borland and I was absolutely taken with him. Here was a beautiful man, a poet, and a publisher, who like me was from a small town in Arkansas. He gave me a copy of the anthology, which included a poem of Nickole’s, and his sheaf of poems he was reading from that day. All this just as I ended a 3-year relationship with another man.


A few weeks later, at the close of the semester, I started an internship with Bryan at Sibling Rivalry Press, which became the start of my career as an editor and designer. Bryan and I became the best of friends practically overnight. He was in a relationship that was also ending, and once it did we fell into each other completely. Six months later, in a blizzard in Boston, we ran away from AWP, the largest writer’s conference in the country, to get married at city hall (it wasn’t yet legal in Arkansas). When we went back to the conference afterward to sell books, we found that our table had been decorated with flowers and writers were toasting us with champagne.


I didn’t know how Nickole and I were mirroring each other, how during this time of change she was, too. She too fell in love, then married another poet, Jessica Jacobs, only a few months after I had married Bryan.


After graduation, Nickole and I finally got to become the friends that we had wanted to be. Our families became each other’s families, sharing holidays and celebrations, sharing what struggles we have.

Then Nickole and Jessica decided to pursue a dream; instead of teaching, they decided to be writers full-time, and to relocate to North Carolina. Because our birthdays are so close together, March 8th and 12th, we decided to share the celebration, before they moved across the country.


SOME BIRTHDAY

a photo essay without images


Photo No. 1

I’m playing guitar, singing “First Day of My Life,”

a song that does what Nickole says good poetry, or

at least the poetry she loves, does: it walks

that line, caught between happiness and sadness.

It’s her birthday and mine was

four days ago. We are both poets

married to poets, and this song is

the one if we were all in junior

high and at the skating rink,

this is the one where we go up to

the person we are in love with

and maybe they don’t even know

we are in love with them, but this is

when we ask them to skate and hold

hands, to risk our knees for another

maybe.


Photo No. 2

Jessica is flexing, all bicep and runner’s tan,

because the lemon cake she holds is incredible,

more dumbbell than dessert, or maybe

it was the quote from Jean Valentine

swirled out of frosting: Blessed are they who

remember that what they now have they once longed

for—the heaviness that is happiness.


Photo No. 3

Jessica is holding Nickole,

who is lost on the couch to the flowers

her mama sent then called to make sure

they would do. Pink and white.

The color about as great as color ever gets.

James Schuyler said that. But it’s not right

for this. This isn’t just some birthday.

This is the night we drink to

the color of a poet’s house, that biblioteca

being packed in boxes, moving to

a house in the not-south.


Photos No. 4 / 5

When it ends, we realize there are only bits of Bryan in

the photos from the party: my husband’s

stray arm, his hair. Even this poem, he watches me

write it, laughs off his disappointment and says:

I AM NOT IN THE PHOTOS AND NOW NOT THE POEM!!!!!!

Sally Mann says photographs rob us our memory,

that with every look you are forgetting more.

This is reason enough for Bryan’s missing:

I have him in mind more vivid than any

still, drinking pear vodka over ice,

his face out of frame and crushing when I sing

the first song I ever played him, “Sweet Carolina,”

and his pestering later: I couldn’t sing along

because you changed it up again. He doesn’t understand

how I change a song for him,

but he never has to know.


Photo No. 6

I look at these photographs; I wonder

if I should tear them apart, destroy a moment to

better keep what I can still recollect, but I don’t

know how much of that I believe.

I’m always doubting. Besides,

what I remember most isn’t on any film:

The funny thing about

Nickole and I blowing out our candles,

the room never went dark, but once

the picture took, the room stayed

in that flash light, stayed bright-bright—

that must have been the color;

Schuyler found delight.


I’ve said before how books saved my life—and they have—but what I haven’t said, what is perhaps more obvious, is that books have built my life, and this one, Sister, was the first brick. It was the book that led me to believe in myself enough to say I am a poet. It is the book that led me to my best friends, to my husband. It is the book that led me to publishing. Now, it has been 10 years since Sister was first published by Red Hen Press, and we at Sibling Rivalry Press are reissuing this important work with a new foreword by Rebecca Gayle Howell and an afterword by Sue William Silverman, plus a truly in-depth author interview. Like all of our titles, Sister will be housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress “among history’s greatest writers for all of perpetuity,” which will never cease to amaze me, but most, this kinship, not through blood—all that mess—but evidenced in ink: all these ways we invent to tie ourselves to those we love.


Order Sister at Sibling Rivalry Press

nickolebrown.com

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little rock, arkansas
seth@siblingrivalrypress.com