Brooklyn as a Bottomless Cup
by Joe Pan
The following essay is reprinted from Brooklyn Poets Anthology, a landmark collection which gathers 170 contemporary poets that call the Brooklyn home.
* * *
Lately I've been haunted by disembodied lines, little phrases that bubble up unexpectedly and which my mind keeps playing over. Crossing the street, I'm arrested mid-step by snippets of text, or find myself troubled by some lingering musical pairing of words at a checkout counter, wondering where they came from. They aren't of the usual kind my brain snatches from social media or my daily diet of alarming news articles, the raised warnings of a nation in crisis, but feel instead informed by a noticeably conscious effort toward subtlety and interiority, a probing inquiry into language, or some crucial turn of phrase articulating one's experience. After a few moments I'll realize it arrived from a poem in this anthology, some errant bit of wordplay I've carried with me into the city, like this line from Greg Fuchs:
My poem here on the empty black line of your mind
This intro came to me similarly piecemeal, as paragraphs and lines jotted down to remind myself what not to forget. Jason Koo and I decided the best way to tackle any sort of introductory essay was to write separate ones, so we could keep them personal and avoid treating Brooklyn as some monolithic subject; besides, the poems herein do a much better job of approaching the borough independently or ignoring it completely to tease out and define their own relationships and interests. And yet each time I sat down to write out what compelled me to co-edit and co-publish this book, a new wrenching event occurred in our nation's politics, forcing me to reconsider my work in certain aspects more broadly. Soon the personal was merging with these political concerns and a greater sense of Brooklyn's history, and where this book was arriving in that continuum. An earlier version of my introduction began: Brooklyn is a nation of immigrants. Another began: I spent a lot of time in Manny's Pizza on 5th and 5th in Park Slope when I first arrived in Brooklyn in 2003. Like many mom & pop shops, it was soon shuttered due to rising rent costs. And another: No writing is apolitical. And yet another: I remember hearing about Brooklyn as a young kid growing up in the backwater pinelands of central Florida. It was this mythical land of b-boys and graffitied skateparks constructed under overpasses, a city of musicians and writers and gangs, and the poor, like me. It was emblematic of an America larger than my own, chock full of history. It had the Dodgers. The subway. Bagels. That big bridge. Coney Island's monopoly on grease fires and mermaids. The shipyards. That old cemetery. The stalwart brownstones. The basketball courts. MTV and Tina Turner under the bridge, singing "What's Love Got to Do with It?" Kids running through the fanning arcs of open fire hydrants and shoes twisting overhead by their strings.
We're at fucking Cooney Eyeland now not that fancy fuckin abandoned lake inna fuckin Berkshires dontcha wanna be the virgin mother fer me people fallin in love hey Duke what the fuck man getthefuckouttahere dat's my girlfrien's birdsnest
I kept rewriting, managing little scraps of info I'd jot down as I sometimes do when creating a poem, with the faith they'd eventually coagulate into some rudimentary form I could later refine in editing. I found myself scribbling at odd times, in odd places—in a van filled with protest signs en route to the Women's March in Washington DC; in cafés and diners in Manhattan; a few hours before dawn on a hotel bed thinking back to the candlelight vigil I'd attended earlier that night behind the White House, wondering if all the writers who had attended the AWP conference were quickly making major changes to their work to reflect the changing world.
I was a sacrificial smile burning off
lamb's fat after midnight.
—Rachel Eliza Griffiths
But I understood, foremost, and happily, that these anthologized poems would forever speak best for themselves, and in ways I could not hope to summarize; that my introduction would be merely one of a multiplicity of forthcoming gestures used to frame the experience of reading them. As one of my own gestures, I felt the need to address, at the outset, the time in which they are being published, which is an uncertain time, where aspects of our democracy are being challenged and laws rewritten and fights waged in the courts and even in our homes, among family and close friends. And all this arriving on the heels of an era marked by rising tensions, hate crimes, and violence in our streets.
what unarmed boys down on bruised knees?
what mad blue suits?
what men or gods are these?
what mad pursuit?
whose bloodied hands shall stain the earth?
what eye for what eye shall suffice?
who are these coming to the sacrifice?
—t'ai freedom ford
It takes tremendous force
To weaken a building
And turn bricks into rubble
But it doesn't take long
And so—undeterred but no less certain—I went back into the book, into the poems, and listened to the voices, and ultimately chose an introduction that celebrates memory while acknowledging uncertainty. In this way poetry is a lovely affliction: by reading we become hosts to poetry, to the deeply engaged and aestheticized language presented to us, fraught as it can be with urgency and tension. And by taking these words into ourselves, perhaps some part of us becomes changed by them, we who are ourselves composed of many selves in private consultation, reacting to the world.
If I am a mouth,
let there be a chorus of raucous tongues
If I could multiply myself
I couldn't be any more lonely.
In part by rising unexpectedly through one's body with the imprint of someone else's imagination, one of the things great poetry does is shock us. It demands our attention and, in the intimacy and immediacy of reading, asks us to judge, to test our knowledge and experience against these new examples, and mitigate the friction. And perhaps cut free some old biases, or call the work out for its own. When I'm reading poetry I'm hopeful, not just that a poem might be a great one, but that it might challenge me, might undermine my sense of the expected, stir up empathy, or drop me down a well of my own memory, faults, and insecurities. Poetry excites differences, and it baffles, in the way a good argument or unexpected beauty baffles.
My name seems mysterious to me,
Is yours mysterious to you?
So I was very hopeful—ecstatic, even—to embark upon this project with Jason in December of 2014, stemming from a shared desire to seek out and present a broader representation of the poetry being written in Brooklyn today. It was interesting to discover personally what forms and methods local poets were using to investigate and critique contemporary culture, in what ways they were choosing to express their ideas, and where exactly they were locating their emotional and psychological and musical imperatives. Also, Brooklyn is my home, and part of me simply wanted to hear and enjoy the voices of my talented neighbors. I've personally found few greater examples in my travels of closer bonds between unlike individuals than those being forged just beyond my doorstep, few greater confluences of people in the world, with their exceptional beliefs and differing religions and ideas and prejudices, living so closely, so entirely reliant on one other, and offering each such courtesy, as to render them something akin to common-law siblings. Maybe it's just close quarters in a shared economy that allows for this beautiful something that I'd wager is culturally stickier than tolerance and more meaningful than acceptance; it's the kind of thing one experiences as an active participant in the lives of many others. Brooklyn's no heaven, but there's no arguing that it's got a whole lotta love in its heart.
When we reach the other world
We will all be hippies
Speaking of community, to hear some people discuss it, the Brooklyn poetry scene is just one big community, but I've never found that to be the case. Instead it's composed of many different communities, some of which overlap, but many that operate independently, and so partly this collection was us familiarizing ourselves with writers both within and outside our immediate purview. Jason Koo's position as chief architect of Brooklyn Poets made things a bit easier, as his workshops, classes, readings, and open mics draw diverse crowds, from working-class autodidacts and MFA-ers to bar patrons at 61 Local who wander over to see what all the fuss is about. But to generate a true consensus or claim a perfect overview of poets working in Brooklyn today is a task both impossible and unverifiable—we work with blind spots, which we try to remedy, and find ourselves bring introduced to the work of new or unfamiliar Brooklyn poets every day. Which is why we decided early on that this collection should be the first of however many subsequent volumes, to attempt to account for those we've overlooked or who missed the call for submissions or didn't have any work available at the time, and to better chart the enormity of poets currently living in Brooklyn and the new ones coming in every day. Also, a reader may notice going through the bios that some poets have since moved away—to Maine, LA, Baltimore, Kentucky, or Rhode Island to become that state's poet laureate (congrats, Tina Cane!). For reasons economical and personal, Brooklyn has a high turnover rate. Many poets we hoped to include moved on, or hopped over to another borough. Our criteria for inclusion in this book was that a writer needed to reside in Brooklyn currently or have significant claim to the place, having been born or raised here, or having lived here for a significant amount of time in the past. Philip Levine is the only poet we include posthumously, as he was alive when this anthology was conceived, and because Jason and I and others here are big fans of the work of the former Brooklyn Heights resident and it just didn't seem right not to have him represented in these pages. In the end, we've gathered together a group of poets that includes Pulitzer Prize winners, authors with several books, and emerging talents, some for whom this is an early publication in a hopefully storied career.
is covered in little
pieces of paper
It's worth mentioning that when we put out the submission call, we didn't specifically ask for work relating to Brooklyn, but many sent us poems that did. Lucky us—I welcome any chance to walk the different neighborhoods under someone else's care, to get peripatetic on an East River promenade, or traffic underground with the multitudes as the G train squeals into a turn, or gaze out a dark window into the cold night and sense a lover's fear of love escaping him while his lover sleeps. Or find myself indoors, just beyond view of the beach where supposed whales are breaching the rough ocean, confronted by an intensely private moment, as in this poem by Arthur Russell, where a father on his deathbed asks something fragile and deeply human from his son:
The next week, he said, "I asked mother to shake me like a baby. She said no. Embarrassed."
Then I mounted the bed, found his shoulder blades, and did
strange massage for the places that his heart had ceased to serve, and this time
he moaned loudly and shivered and dropped into a thick, robust, snoring sleep
Here we are, in various states of disrepair, needing each other; it's what some of us write from and out toward, these toothy caught-upon intensities. Finding inspiration in this city and its people is a moderately simple task—walk outside and you're confronted by a million different stories, forms, connections. The saturation can at times feel overwhelming. In the loneliest moments one is rendered faceless, claustrophobic, packed-in, perpetually underfunded. Conversely, the sheer energy of the streets can invigorate, sending you back fresh and renewed into the bustle and flow. And yet, as the new buildings rise along the waterfront, as old neighborhoods shift their identities and a new kind of metropolis finds its footing, and despite the inconsistencies and competing realities of its residents, Brooklyn somehow never stops being Brooklyn. I could talk about the abnormal density in the quality of light falling on brownstones in Park Slope in the late afternoon, and what I would be doing is adding to the myth of a place already steeped in it. There's a company that sells dirt from McCarren Park to people online who want a test tube of Brooklyn on their bookshelves, which I feel speaks to some larger stature of the borough in the collective imagination. But in speaking only of these things we can lose the reality of the place. Like anywhere, its people range from welcoming, warm, and gregarious to blithe, insouciant, and downright shitty, and everything in-between. More importantly, the larger problems besetting our nation find their corollaries and worst examples here as well:
I grow into a bright fleshy fruit.
White bites: I stain the uniform.
And I am thrown black type-
face in a headline with no name.
pigeons of every color but exactly one size
mob, scatter, and reorganize
to practice crash landings on the street
that divides the black neighborhood from the white.
These are the realities we face, realities we must push back against daily in order to undermine and resolve them, not just as artists, but as members of our larger communities. Poetry, like any art form, is a product of the individual complicated by their time—poems speak to our values and identities, here in this second decade of a new millennium, to our fears, our injustices, our bodies, our loves and commitments, our various norms and transgressions, to our humor, to our unrests. Yet I expect a reader twenty years down the road will find that these poems speak to them as well, because although a poem is formed in one era, its broader investment is in humanity and language, and those concerns over time probably won't vanish, but more likely deepen.
Perhaps it is natural to be giddy
and full of dread. By giddy, I mean full
of agitated wonder, like maybe
I can really get things done
because I'm organized and intelligent
and super freaked about a lot of stuff.
There's no effective way to summarize poems, thankfully—you have to go read them—and often while proofreading this anthology I'd instead find myself pulled back into the reading of the poems in full, revisiting some sense of mystery or wonder in them. The comedic ones have a special place in my heart, especially when things get bad in the news and I go looking for a pick-me-up cocktail and find something like Joanna Fuhrman's surreal, astutely funny, and deadly accurate take on bro culture:
They say inside each bro is a different
identical bro, and inside that bro is the chicken
that laid the egg that started the world,
but dude, where's your magnetic pocket knife,
your heliotropic brain extensions made
for the afterlife, you know, your poetry?
Which is different but no less effective than when Emily Skillings asks the kind of possibly revealing, possibly ironic question one might discover in one's Facebook feed:
to publicly breastfeed
Or Sheila Maldonado's excruciatingly slow grind of the auger driven into a frenemy:
I am so jealous of how poor you are
of how you are poor
your particular stilo pobre
the way you put no cash and
no money together is uncanny
Lines that push into our sore and tender spots tend to stay with me, too, and this book is full of wonderful examples. They may take the form of open defiance against the habit of accepting received knowledge without question, or present an attempt to mitigate the very non-neutral "neutral zones" between one person and the next, the charged spaces that define othering. Sometimes a line will arrive with a particular rush of energy, fully encapsulating the immediacy of a situation, and like a shout in a small room will define through sound the boundaries of that room, while also giving us a sense of its inhabitants' histories:
"Mijo, your father is coming home soon. Hide your heels."
We need poems that venture unshielded into our truths, our natures, unveiling wounds, charting the gray and complicated and undeveloped spaces. It took me three years before I could write a poem about the time I sat trying to keep a trapped, dying poet awake on a subway platform after he'd been hit by a train. I wrote and published a short article about the occurrence a week later, replete with facts and emotional intensity, but had to wait a good while and let things percolate and settle before I could pursue that kind of humility and pain in any poetic fashion. Same for writing about the homeless folks I've met here in New York while handing out sleeping bags with Brooklyn Artists Helping. I'm completely emptied by the emotional strength left on the page by some of the poems in this anthology, and have to take a minute to reorganize myself back into the present, because one can sense the poet coming to terms with each part of the poem in its construction. Take for example this passage from Dell Lemmon's poem about sculptor Robert Gober, striking at the intersection of sexuality, art, mortality, and politics:
and then those damn sinks that I didn't understand or maybe I didn't want to understand them because
they are so fucking central to what I am saying. Because they are completely emblematic of that time / when so many people died / so young / from a disease / that nobody understood / and it didn't matter how many times / you washed your hands / in those damn sinks /
And I do realize the effect of poetry is personal, needing no justification, but that language is historical and political, and sometimes emotionally reliant on how we identify certain situations with our own experiences and empathy. My aunt died from complications of HIV—this informs my reading. But I'm also aware of and moved by the technical breakdown of the speaker's voice here, formally, how up to this point it's been annoyed with being unable to understand the basic governing concept behind these Robert Gober sink sculptures, and then is suddenly overwhelmed with understanding, a catalyst that immediately powers the voice running through a series of enjambments, these normally invisible rules effectively governing how things should end, and into a cathartic wealth of impotent fury and purging and pain. That poetry is an exceptional space for a variety of formal experiences like this to occur, and that each poem must define this space unto itself, is undeniable, and wonderful, and a reason I return to this particular art form again and again. Because rarely will you find answers and questions and mysteries in such collusion, in a place where one truth can be undermined by another truth.
For my own strength would never suffice unaided by strength out of dark
A rock, I mean, has content
For these very reasons, I became a poet. Started a press. And read through a bunch of poems with my buddy Jason Koo to put before you this first installment of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. I can't begin to imagine what the world will look like when the next incarnation of this anthology hits the stands, but I'm certain the voices of some of these poets will be among those making waves: revealing, pushing, transgressing.
One of two things will happen:
our avatar will live or it never
—Rachel J. Bennett
I want to thank all the poets in this anthology for giving me clarity, hope, joy; thank you for your compassion, your ingenuity, your investigations, your playfulness, your stamina.
you are more than
a reflection of America
I am grateful for the sheer density of this object, for the many pages I get to return to, for these poems offering up views into so many worlds and charged language spaces. This is a gift.
The it of love was on my mind.
And thank you, reader, for making the time to engage with their work. I hope you find some favorites here, and share them with those you think would enjoy them too. I hope you crack the spine of this book in quarters. And I wish the poets among you the very best with your own work; I can't wait to read the important poems that arise from this time we now live in.