February 8–14, 2016
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a CantoMundo Fellow and the recipient of a 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of Solecism (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an editorial advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou and Puerto del Sol, among other places. She writes weekly for the Kenyon Review. On Friday, February 12, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at BRIC House in Fort Greene with Lonely Christopher and Patricia Spears Jones.
Self-Portrait as Golem
I don’t go around leaving red curtains in ex-windows
If I wanna fight about it then only the secret rooms
Where I do not leave fingerprints I no longer have
Fingerprints I’ve left no trace
Behind those red curtains of rented rooms
I’ve cleared the cia customs and homeland
My hands no longer my hands but hummingbird
And faberge I’ve stolen the sunrise of monet
Pinned red feathers to the red chambers doors of thomas crown
And christian grey I have no feelings no lullabies to sing
When I poison them
Traded a nice pair of legs
For no blood no dna if I still had a heart
It would beat the beats of an earthquake
These days I don’t need
To make a sound I’m pandemic
Appear as the red curtains that won’t let you sleep
Weave knots into your back with songs of seabirds
Driving you into the sea it is not revenge
For the times you swore a blood oath
Under red moon and smoky redwood trees
And wished killer clowns from outer space on me
And all the lost souls and critters and trolls
Who I seized in my manos hands of fate
My many many wives I do not keep
Keep a picture of me above an altar of red wine and
Burning effigy the ashes not my ashes they chew in ecstasy
When the moon is full and werewolves
Cannot imprint on me I have cleared
Entire forests and doctor’s orders and her majesty’s
Secret service not even james bond can track me
Not the old red papers I do not collect
Worlds not enough where tomorrow will die
Waking on the red-eye
There by the wing all those nights you lost going
Back in time I am
All of them the eyes of steel bird
The red matter in the sky
–Originally published in The Volta, January 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Recently I wrote about Michael Hafftka and his work for The Kenyon Review and explored what makes one a golem-maker. Then I began to consider the golem itself—a creation who has all the responsibility of protecting a town (in Jewish lore) and yet is denied a soul. This is a poem about learning rage of one’s own, of creating the will where there was not one before; it is not about revenge or regret. Identity is an act of will, no more so than for a golem with growing consciousness.
What are you working on right now?
A series of love poems for my husband centering around a time when the patriarch of his family died and we had to fly to Hong Kong from New York at a moment’s notice. It was a strange, wonderful and bewildering trip.
What’s a good day for you?
When I find the time to edit poems and other writing at Rose Tea House in Flushing, the last stop on the 7 train. It’s singing really bad karaoke songs with fellow poets. It’s looking down at my phone at a certain time of day to see my husband has sent me a range of emoticons.
What brought you to New York?
I went to undergrad at NYU. I always knew I was going to New York. I got to study with some of the most amazing professors and not just poets, but art historians, linguists and literary critics. I studied hard, taking the maximum credits allowed, and I also played hard. I remember going to a club called Life when I was 18 with my much-more sophisticated friends and yet I was the one sitting on the model’s lap at the end of the night. I hit CBCG just before it closed, let a girlfriend dress me in this pleather jacket from Andy’s Chee-Pees in the Village; I still have it. The label says: “DO NOT MACHINE WASH OR DRY. DO NOT DRY CLEAN. IF SOILED WIPE SURFACE WITH WARM WATER.” I remember too a moment of repose when I went to the Frick the first time and sat in the Garden Court under its skylight and wrote my first “serious” poem by the fountain. The poem is called “Shoal” and I actually think it’s the best poem in my first book Solecism. As a Jew of mixed race, I’ve always been lost in the world, but as a Jew of mixed race in New York, being lost was something to embrace.
So you live close to, but not in Brooklyn. 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?
Oh, let me tell you about 7 Train Love. I live in Sunnyside, which is between Long Island City and Woodside in Queens. I came back to New York in 2007 after living in Jerusalem for some time, and I’d actually moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn first. Then I met a wonderful man (sorry, Brian, if you’re reading this) and I still remember taking the 7 train for the first time to see him, where he lived in Woodside. I had no idea after Hunters Point Avenue that the train would go above ground, and as Five Pointz (which is now sadly gone) came into view under the setting sun, I was entranced. Coming down the long winding staircase at 61st Street in Woodside, I felt like I was coming home. I’ve lived in so many places, but it was the first time ever I felt I was home. Even after the wonderful man and I broke up, and I moved back to Manhattan for nine months, I couldn’t forget my 7 Train Love, that stretch of neighborhoods from LIC to Sunnyside to Woodside to Elmhurst to Corona to Last Stop, Flushing. I moved back. Even if my husband and I end up going to Asia for a few years, we will come back here. It’s home. And I regret to say that I’ve seen some gentrification—I do not know why some people come here and then want to replace everything; how about trying to enjoy the culture here as it is? We have an amazing community of all nationalities—Colombian, Dominican, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, Irish, Turkish, Indian to name a few—and I love it. Our building itself is a reflection of our diverse neighborhood. I don’t want it to change.
How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I used to visit my rabbi in Crown Heights, who offered me a great peace of mind when I’d come back from Israel, and I still feel a link to the Jewish community there, though now that I married a non-Jew, it’s harder. I’d like to find a way to reconnect with the population there in the future.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I found in the various poetry communities a way to come to terms with being bisexual, with being agnostic and yet rooted in my Jewish upbringing. I found that by exploring all the incongruities through poetry that new ideas can shape old ideologies, and I’ve found a lot of support for those ideas. I think visionaries like poet Ruben Quesada, for example, are reshaping the landscape for more representation of diverse voices.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There’s too many to name, and I know I’ll forget someone, so apologies in advance. Right now, the following come to mind: Kamiliah Aisha Moon, Rodrigo Toscano, Phil Levine, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Vanessa Gabb, Ana Božičević, Joe Pan, Lynn Melnick, Becca Klaver and of course Walt Whitman. And this one poet who writes these incredible love poems that hit you in the throat, Jason Koo. You know him?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My family, especially my father. I realized this just last year. My father would never call himself a poet. He’s not one to call himself things; no one in my family does that sort of thing. I’ve been writing about them quite a bit for the Kenyon Review. My father changed a lot of rules—both institutionally and within his family—so that I could learn the Hebrew language and Torah like a son. I learned how to read as I did to live under his direction, which is to say, he’d answer my questions with more questions. This is strange too because my father was also a very silent man when I was growing up. Now, he can’t stop talking. When we go to visit, he and my husband talk for hours. My husband is nearly a cheder boy and doesn’t even know it. As a child, I watched the way my mother’s family embraced my father, though they were Mexican Catholic and he was Jewish, and now I’m watching this with my husband who’s Chinese and Buddhist. Recently my eldest uncle passed away; it was very hard on us. In the end he called for not only me but my husband. I wrote a poem about this. Much respect to my college and grad school years, but the poetry came from them. It still does.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
“Birds There is No Moon” by Dorothea Lasky. It’s perfect in every way. Read it aloud. You’ll see what I mean.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Two Murakami novels: Pinball, 1973 and South of the Border, West of the Sun. They sit on my desk; they go into my travel bags with me. Time eludes me here. But now that I’ve written this, perhaps I can find some 7-train commute time to read them. Considering my commute into Manhattan is only 15 minutes, this might prove a long venture.
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?
With poetry, I’m a multi-dipper. Novels I commit to, completely. I’m old school: physical books that I can mark up, write in, make mine.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Rose Teahouse in Flushing. Lucid Café in Woodside. I used to go more frequently, but B and I moved into an amazing apartment and I do most of my writing here now.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I like BRIC, where we’ll be reading, and BAM. Smack Mellon. And all those great BK bookstores: Word, Berl’s Poetry Shop, Molasses, Book Thug, to name a few.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:
I celebrate all the ponies in the field
And what I wild out, you watch over,
For no wilderness calling to me is as good a thrill as you.
Its histories and the artists who are keeping alive those histories.