Poet Of The Week

Dominique Townsend

     May 23–29, 2016

Dominique Townsend was born in Asheville, NC and has lived in Brooklyn since 2006. She has a PhD in Buddhist Studies and spent several years living and writing in Nepal and India. Her first book of poems, The Weather & Our Tempers, was published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. She currently works as Head of Interpretation at the Rubin Museum of Art and this fall will begin teaching at Bard College.

Train to a Wake

 
what’s to come

death, yes
loss and decay

but today on a train
northbound for Boston

I am intact
succinct

trying to stay
out of trouble

* * * *

funny how the prospect
of spring means nothing

early February
I can make it

I’m not bothered
nothing troubles me

always been harsh
something like brutal

or blunt

at another moment
when the climate is just

so the idea
of spring

will electrify

trod, trod, trod

* * * *

what do I want
to accumulate

good will
clear impressions kindness
in reality

frank claims
deliberate connections
deep and formed

* * * *

tell me what you’re thinking

death and synecdoche
Mia Farrow twitters
Woody Allen’s
history, a rape

everyone

(who’s everyone)
is married now
or claims to be
self-proclaimed

like Quakers

friends who
like others
say I do
and with that
are forever

changed
I cannot officiate
since I don’t know
the words

would please
be performative?

* * * *

being on a train
and even

a little bored

makes me think of old lovers

who would torment me?

with wanting
tussling
reciting Frost

pillow
talking

trying to appease

* * * *

so many relatives
today

said I love you

after all the claims
venom veins
rhetoric and diatribes

framing slacking shrieking sewing

machines
thrown out the window

after we’d been kicked out as children
after we’d been locked out as kids

however
you
look at it

troubling
to say
how it was
really

in whose reality?

well, we
were locked out

the house

where we lived

we kids

were told

just
imagine
the house

burned down

who among us could sing?

pitch perfect
three children

and a nanny goat
dressed up to please
on a birthday

I believe
I loved
that low
born gypsy
my mother Margaret
was called such names

she had a red ruffled
shirt I admired and asked
her specially to wear it

why can’t she have remained

* * * *

Dorothy’s funeral mass
in the church

hard not to remark

how great
                wondrous
                             and odd

the spectacle is

I loved my grandmother

grammarian
sledgehammerlike

and she could

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I started writing this poem when I was on a train going to my grandmother’s funeral. I finished it on the train ride home.

What are you working on right now?

In the same vein as “Train to a Wake,” I’m working on a series of poems about my family history. It’s making me realize how little I know, factually. So mainly I’m mining the stories my relatives and I tell each other about our family’s past. I’m really interested in the things we’ve said or are quoted to have said in the pivotal moments around death, divorce and so forth.

What’s a good day for you?

Reading for as long as I want in bed with coffee, playing with my son, walking, writing new poems by hand, revisiting old work, napping, seeing art and talking with my partner or another friend whose perspective moves me.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn when I started graduate school at Columbia. What brought me here was the attraction of the perceived “golden age of Brooklyn” and more importantly the friends who had been living here for many years while I lived abroad.

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?

Most of my time living in Brooklyn has been in Fort Greene, where I lived for ten years. I met my partner there and our son was born there. Recently we moved to Bed-Stuy. It’s been just about six months so in a way I still feel like a visitor on the block. Our neighbors are friendly and kind but it’s very clear that the neighborhood is being developed aggressively to appeal to higher and higher income residents, and that is troubling. I spend a lot of time in the park near our apartment, and there’s a mix of families who have lived in Bed-Stuy for generations and people who have just moved here recently from more expensive neighborhoods. We all stand together talking and pushing our kids on the swings, and I love that chance to learn about the neighborhood and get to know people. As much as I like the neighborhood and as grateful as I am to live here, I’m always grappling with the complicated mess of gentrification and my place in that.

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

A little kid once came up to me while I was walking my dog, a fluffy Wheaton terrier, and asked, “Excuse me, miss, is that a sheep?” I guess that could happen in any city where kids don’t see farm animals, but it struck me as intensely urban in a really sweet way.

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

Having a poetry community would mean regularly spending time with people who write and read and who can talk through new work formally and informally together. I don’t have that in the fullest sense but that’s mainly because I have another career that defines my community more actively than poetry does. I do have dedicated readers whom I can send new work to. Their willingness to read and respond has been my refuge for years.

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

Joe Pan. I love his work, which is full of heart and feeling and at the same time extremely brainy and sharp. He also published my first book The Weather & Our Tempers in 2013 and working with him as an editor was an education in itself. He gave me the confidence to forge ahead purposefully in a direction my poetry was going unintentionally. I always look forward to hearing his work, and almost every poem of his prompts a complicated, distinct impression of humor and “ouch.”

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you? Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

My first poetry mentor was Pete Thompson, my high school French teacher who’s also a poet, scholar and translator. I had been writing poetry since I was a kid, but I’d never had a reader before meeting “Doc” as he was called at school. He was an inspired teacher, and that was clear from my first day in his class. I started leaving poems I’d written on scraps of paper on his desk in the morning before school. He got them, and in particular he got the humor, which was pretty dark, and he thought it was funny. It became part of my morning routine to leave poems on his desk. In class or the hall later, he’d give me a wry but most often kind response, with some suggestion about how what I was doing related to a poet whose work I should read. After school sometimes he’d take me to the bookstore and hover in the poetry section rapidly pulling books off the shelf and orienting me in broad strokes to all kinds of writers. He’d spend about 20 minutes and then leave me to read. He’d also invite students to readings when poets came to town. I remember hearing Ashbery, and Peter Gizzi, and there was a really moving reading of Akhmatova’s work we heard in a church. That was the beginning of my poetry education. Pete’s remained a great teacher and friend all these years, and I still send him new poems sometimes. Another mentor was the wonderful Serge Gavronsky, who’s also a scholar of French literature. These were the teachers who, for me, performed the miraculous act of seeing me as a writer.

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

I’ve been wanting to read more Elizabeth Bishop. The top more recent book on my list is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

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 read novels voraciously, one book at a time, and there’s a strong element of escapism in that for me. With poetry I dip in and out of books and tend to spend a few days or a week at a time with each book. There’s no escape for me in poetry. It puts me smack in the world of feeling and thought and experience. I only read printed books. I don’t take notes unless there are phrases or ideas I’d like to use in a poem.

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

I really only write at home.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I used to love the waterfront in Williamsburg—remember how strange and desolate it was? These days I love the parks and community gardens—green space means the world to me in the city.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate generosity,
And what I cling to you let go,
For every misapprehension in me as good as disenchants you.

Why Brooklyn?

Most of the people I love are here.