Poet Of The Week

Corinna Munn

     August 14–20, 2017

Corinna Munn received her BA from Columbia University in 2014 with departmental honors in history. She went on to study Polish at Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation, then lived in Germany as a research and archive assistant at a Holocaust memorial site with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. Since returning to the US last year, she’s questioned just about everything: her relationship to her country and fellow Americans in a new presidential era; her gender identity; why she waited so long to begin learning to play guitar. She is currently working on applications to MFA programs in writing. Munn received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship this summer to study in the Naysayers workshop led by Emily Skillings and Simone Kearney. The Tarot card she most identifies with is the Knight of Cups.

The Favor

 
Will you
do me a favor
and take the vegetable peeler from the second drawer on the right
and, starting here
(she placed her finger on her breastbone),
             peel me?
I mean my skin.
Put it in the garbage disposal.
(She didn’t want it lying around
and making a smell).

Please don’t rush—
             be careful,
especially around the fingernails.
Leave them on.
             (She needed some protection, after all.)
The eyebrows can go
and the hair.
Some things grow back.

Don’t look away,
even if you want to.
You should know how much I appreciate you doing this—
I would do it myself,
             but there are some parts of me I just can’t reach.
(She was afraid she would mess it up.)

Don’t worry about the blood.
I have a mop.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

A couple years ago I heard about a film about a man with no skin. I never watched the film, but the idea of having no skin—the meaning of skin and its absence—stuck with me. Last year, I was living and working in Germany in the archives of a memorial site. I did not enjoy the more mundane inventory tasks I was assigned, and sometimes my mind would wander. One day, in the middle of my work, the idea for this poem sprang up spontaneously in my head. I wrote the first draft in my notebook right then and there.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently taking Jay Deshpande’s workshop on odes, so I’m working on writing more celebratory poems. It’s not my usual mode. The Naysayers workshop I took earlier this summer was a more natural fit for me; its focus was on lethargy, recalcitrance and introversion. Odes make me stretch, which is good, but I’m also interested in exploring the ways one can celebrate from a reclining position. Of course, my longer-term project right now is MFA applications. I’m polishing up pieces for my portfolio.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day is getting up early (even though I’m a champion at sleeping in) and not being tired. A good day is working out until I’m soaked with sweat and feeling aches in places I didn’t know I had muscles. A good day is cooking myself a meal that takes more than fifteen minutes to prepare. A good day is checking off at least sixty-eight percent of my to-do list; but a good day is also all my plans falling through, and going for a walk in the park in beautiful weather instead. It’s conversations with new friends, or quiet companionship with old ones. It’s spending hours playing my guitar, and it’s the feeling of fragmented ideas finally cohering into a poem. It’s a day when the future seems more exciting than scary.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was living in Washington Heights earlier this year and decided to move to Brooklyn just last month. The search for better roommates, lower rent, and an apartment that wasn’t on the fifth story of a walk-up were factors, but I think FOMO also had something to do with it. I knew I only had a limited amount of time left in the city, since I’ll be moving again later this year, and it seemed a shame never to have tried living in Brooklyn. Brooklyn seems like the epicenter of so much that defines my generation, its values and struggles—ground zero of cool, stocked full with every hipster trend from craft beer to secondhand clothes (full disclosure: I love both these things) and where nearly every person you meet seems involved in some sort of DIY artistic collaboration or endeavor; but also ground zero for gentrification, a borough known for historically diverse neighborhoods that are rapidly changing and going up in price. I recognize my privilege in being able to come here temporarily, experience the perks that have made Brooklyn one of the most attractive places in the country for young people, and leave before having to deal with the long-term stressors. It’s important to remember that for many people, Brooklyn is home and has been for a long time, and they either don’t want or aren’t able to leave. I think Brooklyn’s magnetism arises not just from its near mythic reputation as the source of all things desirable to millennials everywhere, but also from its inherent challenges. Brooklyn is a mirror for my generation.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’m living in Crown Heights, just a few blocks from the Brooklyn Museum. As I mentioned, I’ve only been here a month, so I can’t personally speak to how it’s changing, though I’ve heard about the effects of gentrification, of course. Crown Heights definitely has a far different feel from the Manhattan neighborhoods I’ve lived in, Morningside Heights and Washington Heights. There’s more room to breathe here. Washington Heights was especially bustling and lively, but Crown Heights is more relaxed. There’s still plenty of life here, but my street is much quieter and feels more like part of a residential neighborhood. It’s also greener; I really appreciate the trees. Instead of a brick wall, I see leaves outside my bedroom window, just like in my childhood home.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I’m not sure this experience was defining, but it spoke volumes, nonetheless. When I was looking for a place to live in Brooklyn, I checked out a room in Williamsburg. It was a bit over my budget, but it sounded pretty cool—it was in an artist’s loft. I got there and discovered what you couldn’t tell from the photos: that the room was barely large enough for its full-sized bed, and that it didn’t have any windows to the outside. I was (perhaps naïvely) shocked they could charge so much for such a tiny, poorly appointed room. The rest of the flat was what one would expect of a true artist’s loft: hand-built furniture, random bits of sculpture and naked mannequins pinned to the walls, even a swing hanging from the ceiling of the living room. It struck me as the perfect sort of place for a young writer/musician like myself to live while struggling to establish themselves, if it had been a quarter or a third of the price. I wonder if any truly bohemian spaces exist in Brooklyn, or if it’s all bohemian-chic and only affordable if you have a blank check from mom and dad.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

To me, a poetry community means having folks with whom I can exchange my work, and from whom I can get honest feedback. It means being invested in people’s poetry because I’m invested in them as friends. It means being able to go to others for suggestions, whether on what to read next or where to submit. I have found that through Brooklyn Poets more than anywhere else, because of connections forged naturally through the Yawp and workshops. Maybe some poets work well in isolation, but I definitely benefit from community. It provides me with motivation, both to expand my work as a writer and to expand my horizons as a reader. I am more likely to engage with a poem if I know the person who wrote it, and to be more patient, generous and curious in my reading of it. These are important qualities to cultivate when reading poetry in general, I think.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Simone Kearney led the Yawp workshop that made me decide to delve further into poetry this summer, starting with the workshop she led with Emily Skillings. They were both very influential in that they opened me up to new poetic territory and helped me in identifying my tendencies, impulses, and what I might tentatively call my own poetic voice. My fellow students from that class are important to me as well. I’ve stayed in touch with some of them; I love their work, trust their judgment, and respect their critique, which is invaluable. They never fail to impress me, and they push me to keep developing and holding myself accountable as a writer.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Cynthia Mazzant, who teaches creative writing at Penn State in my hometown, has been a nurturing mentor since my high school days. She has provided me with countless opportunities to write, perform and compete, and more recently to teach students and judge competition myself. She instilled in me the value of what poets and performers can offer to the wider community, especially by engaging with young people and getting them involved in and excited about poetry. Most importantly, she never fails to help me see the value of my own work, and her confidence in me has helped carry me a long way.

I’d be remiss not to mention Yvette Christiansë as well. She teaches poetry at Barnard College, and I was fortunate enough to take a class with her as an undergrad at Columbia. That was the first time I had studied and written poetry in a classroom setting, and I benefited immensely from the workshop structure. I was the first student in the class to be up for critique. She tore my poem apart, and I couldn’t be more grateful. She provided me with my starter’s toolbox for critiquing my own writing, and once my eyes were open to what poetry could be and do, there was no looking back.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I read a short volume of poems by Wisława Szymborska a while ago and fell absolutely in love. I was introduced to her work while living in Kraków, where I stumbled upon a museum exhibit of her lesser-known visual work: mostly humorous collages and caricatures. I warmed immediately to her obvious wit and irreverence, and I found that same personality in her poetry as well, but with an extra dose of frankness and unpretentious wisdom. I’ve come to think of her as my poetry fairy godmother; full of mischief and unplumbed depths, but also comfortingly familiar. Now I’m loaning my copy out to all my poetry friends.

I also recently read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. My brother gave it to me as a gift years ago, and I wish I’d read it sooner. It’s the perfect manifesto or guide to young artists of all sorts. Rilke’s ideas on the benefits and necessity of isolation or alienation were (at risk of sounding like a cliché) a great comfort to me. I felt an emphatic yes inside my ribcage at every page.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

There are too many to count. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the poets I ought to read. There are also a great number of classics I’ve been meaning to get to, from Paradise Lost to Moby-Dick (I got a good start on Moby-Dick two years ago and was actually enjoying it, but I couldn’t sustain it). I’m also a huge fan of horror and gothic—my favorite novel is Frankenstein—and have been dying to pick up Dracula and some Lovecraft tales.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I hate not finishing what I start, but that works against me when it comes to reading, because I’m actually quite a slow reader. I like to take my time to absorb things: to picture the images, play out the action, and ponder different lines of thought to their natural conclusions. This means sometimes I’ll stubbornly stick with one book even if it’s taking me forever to finish and I’d be much better off if I let myself off the hook and picked up something lighter for a while. Recently I’ve been practicing bouncing between books as the mood strikes me, but I can’t help but feel a bit guilty about it.

I don’t put much planning into what I’ll pick up next; it’s whatever moves me when I browse over my bookcase. Which means, yes, I prefer print. A few times, out of necessity, I’ve read books on my iPad, but I much prefer having the real thing in my hands. It’s so much more satisfying to turn physical pages and see and feel your progress in the shifting weight on each side of the book.

I rarely take notes, and practically never in the margins. Perhaps I’m too precious about my books, but I don’t like marking them up. If an idea or quote strikes me and I don’t want to forget it, I’ll write it down somewhere else (probably on my iPhone, since it’s always handy).

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I definitely have a tendency to intellectualize, to plan out, and sometimes to overthink. I’d like to try things that force me away from that comfort zone, like stream-of-consciousness, or more imagistic writing, or language that plays with and emerges out of sound more than ideas.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I love working in coffee shops. I find it much easier to get in my zone when there’s a bit of background noise. Silence is distracting to me, whether in libraries or at home. I can’t fill it with music or television, because then my mind latches onto those things, but the buzz of human activity around me is just right. The corner of a café, in a comfy chair and with a cappuccino in front of me, might just be my favorite place on earth. I don’t feel at home in a new city or neighborhood until I’ve found that place. While I was at Columbia it was Max Caffé above 122nd St, and in Kraków it was Massolit Books and Café, which is in the running for my favorite place on the planet.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the north side of Prospect Park, just a few blocks from where I live. The Brooklyn Museum, Eastern Parkway, Grand Army Plaza and the Central Library: it’s one of the few areas that feels like it could be in a European city. I get nostalgic for my European homes sometimes. I also love walking through DUMBO; the sheer verticality of the space, dominated by the monolithic Manhattan Bridge, is dizzying. I feel like an ant walking there, but sometimes it’s good to feel like an ant. Berl’s Poetry Shop, where the Naysayers workshop met, is a favorite spot, with good memories and more good poetry than I could ever hope to read. I’m still searching for new favorite haunts in my neighborhood.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate you,
And what I celebrate, you are,
For every moment with you is to me as good as warm sun on face,
     sweet grapes on tongue and thick-soft socks on feet in
     winter to
you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Home Run Race, 1998

 
When I was six I thought it was strange another man shared the name
     of my father,
but he was called Mark, too, and he made a beeline for me, grabbed the
     pen—
got that black scribble on the card. Didn’t know what it meant, back then
     what a Biggie
it was. Don’t know if it’s worth much now, since he was doing sport’s
     favorite sin,
so who knows if each of those seventy home runs really counted or did
     he rob
Sammy? But I don’t care about that—what do I know about sports?
     (Jack).
Not like Mom. She liked Phillies in Philly, Giants in SF even though she
     was a Dodger;
LA girl couldn’t remember a time they were from Brooklyn.
But me, I just knew that autograph made my big brother smile all like
     love.

Why Brooklyn?

When my brother heard I was moving to Brooklyn, his response was: “The world makes sense now.”