Poet Of The Week

Matthew Gellman

     December 10–16, 2018

Matthew Gellman’s poems are featured or forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Narrative, the Common, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Lambda Literary’s Poetry Spotlight and elsewhere. He is a recipient of awards and scholarships from the Vermont Studio Center, the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Academy of American Poets, and he was included in Narrative’s 30 Below 30 list for 2018. Gellman holds an MFA from Columbia University and teaches at Hunter College. This past fall, he was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in JP Howard’s Poetry and Memoir workshop.

Beforelight

 
I am thinking of the sister I wish I had,
red hair spilling over the sedan’s back seat
as a boy speeds her through the blue vein
of suburb and out toward the cedar forest.
Her finger hooked in the hole burned into the seat
by someone’s boyfriend’s ash, her head
tilted back, lulled by the driver’s junky radio:
Nothing’s gonna hurt you, baby, as long as you’re with me.
Even now, after years of trying to see her
striding into dusk, all beforelight, all promise,
her dress a galloping of small yellow wings,
my mind still delivers me only this:

that group of boys killing their engine
and doing to her under the cedars’ nimbus
things I will not say in this poem.
Not unlike the boy who held me underwater
in his swimming pool, July, his parents
not home, his whole body locked around me
as he pulled off my trunks, how even now
I can feel a small finger twisting my throat
when I try to tell it, if I were to tell it
completely, if I had a sister to tell.

When I find her along that highway
all her hair will be cut off. She will not speak
all summer and no kite will flutter
in her hands. But in winter, her hair
regrown, she will ask me to drive her
to that forest again, and clutching my arm
in hers, she will look out at the field
that broke her, not trying to say anything,
just rocking back and forth for a little while,
silent as the tundra glittering before us.

 
—Originally published in Passages North, November 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem at 2 AM (I like writing super late at night) the night before my thesis was due for graduation from my MFA program. I hadn’t expected to write anything new because I was mainly focused on organizing all of the poems, but suddenly this spilled out as if it had been waiting for a long time. I have a series of poems about the sister I didn’t have, which explores how my relationship with my queerness as a kid might have been different if she existed. This poem tries to flesh out that imagined dynamic. I also listen to a lot of shoegaze bands (when I write but also in general), so I wanted to write a poem that conjured a similar feeling to those songs.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m working on a more messy, outgoing, cumulative type of poem—I’ve gotten so much more interested in longer poems, poems that leap more freely and spend more time developing a world with the reader. Restraint is a habit I have in my writing—something I don’t want to get rid of, per se—but lately I’ve started to wonder what it would feel like to say a little more and withhold a little less. In workshop this fall, JP had us try writing zuihitsu, a word which apparently means “running brush” in Japanese, which I love. The whole goal of a zuihitsu is to collage different elements together (news stories, conversations, images, bits of prose, song lyrics, personal anecdotes, etc.) regardless of whether they fit together cohesively or not. I’ve been trying to write more zuihitsu, and to write poems that are more willing to expand themselves to incorporate memory, image, politics, dialogue and abstraction all at once.

What’s a good day for you?

In general, if I have time to write, go on a walk or have a really long conversation with a friend, then I count that as a good day regardless of whatever else happens. Talking to someone smart who can teach me about poetry or anything else feels like a major luxury. I feel lucky to have a group of women and queer people in my life, most of whom live in Brooklyn, who confide in me and who let me confide in them. Any time I get to spend with them is golden. I’m also so grateful if I get to spend time during the day helping my students learn something about writing, or about themselves. Seeing a cool art exhibit also helps.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn after finishing my MFA in 2017. I was living uptown and had just gone through a pretty tough breakup, and found my MFA toxic in certain ways, and was generally not very happy. I was craving some distance from my own life, and because I had friends in Brooklyn and had always been intrigued by it, I decided to move here instead. Looking back, it was totally the right decision at the right time. Moving to Brooklyn gave me space to wander, to learn from myself and to get excited about things again—it almost felt like a second life, and still does. I like that it’s slow and fast at the same time, and that I can have privacy but also warmth. The darkness I felt when I first came to New York feels a world away.

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 live in Crown Heights with my friend Ruth Merwin, and have been here for two years. She’s a visual artist and we joke all the time about how we want to turn our apartment into a commune of queer/femme art divas. I like that I’m not that far from the park, and that this neighborhood is generally more green than Manhattan. There’s also way more silence and everything is smaller, more contained within itself.

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

Last year, a poet friend told me to go to her psychic in Bay Ridge, so I did, and I was so transfixed by her powers that I started suggesting that my other friends go to her. Soon, it snowballed into a situation where it felt like everyone I knew was going to see this woman, and we all constantly bring her up and compare our notes over drinks. There’s something so funny to me about the fact we all share this strange experience, and that even in the biggest city in this country word of mouth can carry such weight. There’s an intimacy to that. I also value the fact that so many of my closest friends in Brooklyn also love astrology and mysticism. It can be a huge source of power, creatively and otherwise.

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

Yes! My poetry community keeps expanding to include new and old friends—some from undergrad, some from my MFA, some I meet through other friends, and so on. I also feel fortunate to have friends who are prose writers, visual artists, etc. Building a life full of other artists is something I’ve put conscious effort into, and it’s always a work in progress, but I love that things are always changing. Being involved with Brooklyn Poets has been a wonderful part of that process, and the way everyone in our little workshop group made space for each other’s histories really inspired me. I also work with my friend Carlie Hoffman on Small Orange poetry journal, along with Erin Lynn and Paul Brennan. We have a lot of fun. Moving to Brooklyn has given me more permission to put poetry at the center of my life. It’s a mix of different people with different energies, and I love that.

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

Cynthia Cruz is a poet whose work I always have a hard time putting down. She’s taught me a lot about urgency, pressure, getting the most out of every utterance. I also have always looked up to Marie Howe (does she live in Brooklyn?), and What the Living Do was the first book that taught me to be really honest in my poems. Same with Anne Carson’s work, especially “The Glass Essay.”

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

Oh god—so many and I want to gush about them all! April Bernard was my poetry godmother when I was in college at Skidmore. She was the first person to tell me I was a poet, and I’ll never stop loving her for that. She also really showed me that a poem is, first and foremost, a constructed object—something shaped and molded and labored over in time. Deborah Paredez pushed me to lean into the political fire in me and to translate art into social commentary in ways that I’ll forever be grateful for. Alan Gilbert showed an almost otherworldly dedication to making his students’ poems stronger, and his generosity as a reader and thinker is still something I look up to. Timothy Donnelly taught me to embrace wildness and to go beyond mere function in my writing, to make my poems more open to surprise. And Lucie Brock-Broido taught me that poems can really be a source of magic in the world, and that empathy is the highest form of intelligence. I miss her and think about her a lot when I write.

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

I fell completely in love with Ada Limón’s The Carrying this past fall. I wish I could have her eye for even one day in my life. I also lately have been reading a lot of Wislawa Szymborska. My friend Marcin showed me her poem “In Praise of Self-Deprecation” a few months ago—it’s like a spell that I keep returning to again and again, especially that last stanza. I’ve also found it really helpful to reread a lot of my touchstones, since I’m trying to finish a manuscript and want to reconnect with the voices behind it. Louise Glück, Henri Cole, Thomas James, Sylvia Plath, Li-Young Lee, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, C.P. Cavafy and Natasha Trethewey are some of those voices I keep coming back to.

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

I swear I will one day read all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I have a hard time committing to longer prose books. I feel the same way about Anna Karenina. When I know I’ll probably get obsessed with a character and their life, I stay away until I know I’ll have time to really dive in. I also had my life completely changed by Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, so maybe it’s time for a reread of that (a new read, in a way).

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 and write a lot on my phone because I’m restless and usually need to be moving when I’m thinking. I don’t usually like to be reading only one book at once, either. Reading for me has to be many things at the same time. I feel more inspired when I can hear a lot of different tones, different shades and different textures in my head. It also helps me to alternate between reading poetry and prose. If I read a book slowly, usually I know that means I really love it, because I don’t want to rush through anything that voice has to say.

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

So many things! I would love to write a really long persona poem, maybe in numbered sections, and see what I learn by stepping out of myself a bit more. Frank Bidart’s “Ellen West” is a poem I read often for that reason. I also am blown away by the cento form when it’s done well (especially Nicole Sealey’s “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’”), and would love to try doing something similar with borrowed material in my own writing.

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

I usually read in Prospect Park if the weather is good. Being near that park is probably my favorite part of living in Brooklyn (all those paths!). Those benches by Grand Army Plaza are also cute.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

So many, but I’ll just stick with the ones in my neighborhood: Unnameable Books (because they have so many things I can’t find in other bookstores); Chavela’s (because margaritas); the Brooklyn Museum (because I can go look at The Dinner Party when I’m bored); Bearded Lady (because of the booths tucked away in the back and because of its name). I also love going to movies at BAM. When I need a break from writing, movies always help. It’s nice to absorb stories by just staring at them, without having to worry about how to make everyone move / speak / act.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate what Brooklyn fathers,
And what I jack and rob you pen,
For every Dodger’s sin in me is as good as love in you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because I’ve never felt so understood by a place. I’ve never wanted to stay anywhere this long. I grew up queer in a pretty small town and felt lonely for many of those years, and the fact that I feel none of that loneliness here makes me not even want to consider leaving. I’m generally moody and have a hard time feeling like a place is enough for me, but here I come pretty close. I don’t ever want to feel hemmed in, and Brooklyn never makes me feel that—it’s the sort of place where you can scream and then be quiet for as long as you want.