Poet Of The Week

Reema Sharma

     September 17–23, 2018

Reema Sharma is an educator and writer living in Brooklyn. She was born in Staten Island, grew up in Queens and graduated from Williams College in 2013 with degrees in English and political science. She received a Fulbright grant in 2014 to teach in Malaysia and this past summer was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Cynthia Cruz’s The Archive as Resistance workshop. Sharma works with survivors of gender-based violence and writes about how terribly we treat one another.

daddy issues (who cares even a little about me?)

 
girl, you’re a mess
every man was a father was a lover
i am always on my knees i say oh yes

slip this over my head take this dress
my body a meek mannequin you uncover
(girl you’re a mess)

slap my face smutty blue while you obsess
mom says don’t you shove her
i say oh yes

my red all over sheets you still persist and press
in sour-aired muted bedrooms we discover
brow kisses & cocksucking—girl you’re a mess

sighing swelling flesh some day may I possess
call me brainless babe while I hover
i say, politely, oh yes

plead for a hasty hand’s guttural caress
beg eternally for the right to recover
but girl you’re a mess.
i am always on my knees i say oh yes yes yes

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was so conflicted about this poem being selected because I’m not certain it’s finished. I don’t like the way it sounds just yet, but I figured, what the hell.

I wrote this during a poetry workshop at Cave Canem with Joseph Legaspi. We were asked to try new forms. I chose the villanelle because I don’t understand meter and also because I like villanelles.

I wrote this more than a year ago when I felt powerless and apathetic about my relationships and my body. I perform very convincingly so everyone thinks I just don’t understand how things work, what things mean—but I think I do, it is just easier to play pretend. My inabilities to speak and to be honest are where this poem began.

People trivialize women’s sexuality. It’s reductive to call disembodiment, alienation or trauma “daddy issues.” I wanted the poem to be a little ugly, blasé, clichéd. When I read this in my workshop, some people laughed and some people were unsettled. Both are the right responses, I think. I also love the repetition of villanelles and wanted it to be a little unpleasant even though it’s sing-songy.

What are you working on right now?

I am a true mercurial type—always scheming, but easily distracted. I’ve started several projects and keep thinking of other things I want to do. I am also trying to return to fiction, but I write many beginnings, not many endings.

What’s a good day for you?

An early morning. A super late night. No sleep, but a nap. A brisk day. A long conversation with a close friend. Reading an absorbing book. Going to see a strange movie. Looking at trees. Sitting alone somewhere outside. Weird stuff happening all day. Stuff I didn’t plan.

I’m kind of laughing because it’s absurdly unproductive and sort of maybe sad? Part of my writing process is doing nothing. I think that’s where a lot of writing/art begins.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

It would probably be more appropriate to ask my parents this question. They immigrated to New York in the ’80s. I was born in Staten Island. I’ve lived in three of the five boroughs. My siblings and I always lament that our parents didn’t immigrate to Canada.

I went to college in the Berkshires and then lived in a small town in Malaysia. I moved back to NY in 2015 after six years away because … where else could I go? Few American cities have the public transportation, anonymity and at least the pretense of diversity. Though every city/place feels so passé—New York included. I will feel bad if people take me too seriously, but also, take me seriously.

I think every native New Yorker gets sucked back at some point. It feels risky to leave for good.

Truthfully I chose to move to Gowanus because of the easy commute to work and the apartment is just beautiful and affordable (for me at this point in my life—there’s a housing crisis in NYC that is unjust). I’ve been a drifter of sorts for the last few years and this apartment is the first space I’m planning on actually making a “home.” The other shitty truth is that I felt like an asshole looking at apartments everywhere else—and my search considered almost every neighborhood in Brooklyn. Some were just about logistics—too far, too expensive, too small. I did not want to live in some renovated soulless space bought by some asshole who doesn’t give a shit about the neighborhood (for example the majority of apartments in Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Bushwick, etc). Also, I’m an intruder too, you know? Gowanus feels “normal” to me—and it’s one of the neighborhoods I know best. Oh and by the way, I live about a twenty-minute drive away from my parents—this is both nice and, uh, probably a little shitty considering how much rent is.

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?

So you’ve caught me in a moment of transition. I spent the summer cat sitting/house sitting for my best friend’s parents in Staten Island. It was a lovely space for writing—close to the beach and quiet. But I just moved to a new place in Gowanus. It’s in a building from 1899 and everything is super creaky, but lovely.

I’ve lived in a bunch of neighborhoods in NYC so I’m not certain which to talk about. I love each borough for different reasons. Queens for the food and the community, Staten Island for the spaces and the attitude (I mean this seriously, no irony here). Brooklyn is okay. It’s my least favorite of the boroughs I’ve lived in so far.

I grew up in a mostly Jewish part of Staten Island. I really love the block I grew up on. It’s next to an expressway and noisy, but there are so many beautiful trees. Staten Island is a lot of things, but it is not pretentious; it’ll always feel down to earth. Queens too.

My neighborhood in Queens is nothing like my memories. We were pretty immersed in the Punjabi community. We used to go for long walks during summer evenings. I spent lots of time in weird concrete parks. And throwing Barbie dolls out of apartment windows.

It’s fascinating how all people who are part of gentrification at whatever stage a neighborhood is at (me included, truly) are defensive and have this dissonance as if it’s others that are the problem and not them. Bad enough to gentrify shamelessly, but then to also pretend there’s no history—to be so blissfully unaware of what these neighborhoods were? I care deeply about the families who can no longer afford to live where they lived for years (my family included). New York has always been a type of capitalist hellscape (and neighborhoods have always shifted in demographics), but there is palpable change in New York that suggests something more brutal. New York feels more segregated than I remember (which could admittedly be nostalgia).

Something in me dies every time I hear transplants talk about valuing/loving authenticity, diversity, working class people, grit/realness. This stuff is part of the backdrop to their New York fantasy narratives. Diversity is great for the scenery and for conversation, not much else. New Yorkers with their “quirks” are great for their anecdotes. But all of that is so othering, so objectifying. I don’t know.

I grew up in too many cockroach apartments around too many people in little rooms to romanticize any of that. I always fantasized about my future adult life in pretty brownstones and mystery luxury buildings. My friend, a native New Yorker, said the New York we grew up in is dead. That sounds dramatic, and I think it is, but it’s also true. Every generation has most likely felt this way, but what I mean is, I had this fantasy of what being an adult in New York would be like one day and now that I’m an adult—it just isn’t the place for that.

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

I feel uncomfortable in lots of spaces in Brooklyn, which confuses me because I too went to a liberal arts college and am some sort of creative and like coffee (and I too went to public school in NYC and my most prized possessions were my hoops and my Nikes which were the most expensive thing I’d own for years). I think that is the thing about being the child of immigrants—perpetually caught in the mix of multiple identities. I feel uncomfortable in most places. But I never feel uncomfortable with wonderful people I’ve met all over this city.

I think I was most reminded of how much I love Brooklyn during the Cave Canem workshop I mentioned. I loved that space—my first workshop with other writers of color. We had a reading at the end, my close friends came, everyone only brought rosé or wine, I brought a cake from a Staten Island bakery. I’m always conflicted and perpetually in existential crisis, but that evening, I just remember thinking, “Oh I understand why I’m here.” Also, waiting for the R (of course!) that night, a high school student came up to me, tapped my shoulder and politely said, “Excuse me miss, I just wanted to tell you that you are beautiful.” I suck at accepting compliments, but I believed him—which I rarely ever do. And I smiled, which I rarely ever do!!

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

A space of encouragement, support, insight and sharing. I have not found that here yet. It’s probably mostly my own fault. I have met lots of wonderful people through workshops. I think my poetry community is just emerging, but also I’m low-key an asshole and I’m not certain I want to be part of a poetry community per se.

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

I love the works of Aldrin Valdez, Omotara James and Laura Cook. Their work has expanded my idea of what poetry can be and what it can do and for that I am so grateful.

Do rappers count as poets? ’Cause I could go on about that …

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

Though I have been writing throughout my life, I think I fell into poetry accidentally. I have to thank Joseph Legaspi because he was the first to tell me that what I was doing was called poetry.

I worked with Jim Shepard in several fiction workshops in college. I am the writer I am today because he helped me become the reader I am. He pops into my head from time to time—bits of his snark and his wisdom.

A non-poetry mentor is Nimu Njoya who just believes in me. So much of what shapes my poetry has come from work I’ve done with her. She reminds me always to value my ideas and to trust myself.

Then there are all the writers whose work has taught me so much: Charles Simic, Claudia Rankine (fellow Williams alumna!), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Etheridge Knight, Amrita Pritam, Anne Carson.

And lots of non-writing things I can ramble on about endlessly. Film and art really shape my writing. Music has been the other side of my obsession with language—I remember every lyric ever and only recently recognized how much that influences my writing.

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

Last books: The Door by Magda Szabó; The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov.

Both are political and personal in the way I like art to be.

Last poem: this poem I saw on a Poets House bookmark—

Rice and Beans

 
They are better together
Me and Jayden
We are better together

 
—Josh, fourth grader from PS1

I want to give this kid a hug.

I also took Cynthia Cruz’s The Archive as Resistance workshop and I sincerely mean it when I say that every person in that workshop wrote poems that have stayed with me.

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

I never finished this book of Borges stories. I never finished One Hundred Years of Solitude or Homegoing. I would like to finish those because they are in my room still so I guess I should. I mean, there is so much to read. I can’t even begin to list poetry! I never finish any of those books because good poems always make me stop reading.

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 dip in and out of multiple books. I do have certain books I want to read … eventually, but I certainly do not read with a plan. Of course I love physical books—but having a Kindle helped me get more reading done. I can put multiple books on my Kindle Paperwhite (important because it doesn’t hurt my eyes!). I am moody, so different moods call for different books. It was also my savior when I was moving around/traveling. I take lots of notes. I underline, circle, doodle, write in the margins. I keep a small notebook where I also usually write questions or thoughts after I read. In my Kindle, I abuse the highlight tool.

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

Ghazals. And something that really blurs the line between fiction and poetry.

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

Trains, ferries, subway stations, all dirty NY beaches in whatever borough especially in winter. My bed, and other people’s beds. Parks too I guess, but lately less so. I am a phone writer so I usually take down some lines or ideas whenever wherever. I also seek out diners because no one is usually in them and I love pancakes. I found a random one deep in Queens. It was 7 AM and raining. The waitress asked me what I was doing out there all by myself. I told her that I am always all by myself.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I don’t know which I hate more—writing bios or answering questions about things I love.

The R train because I think in the span of my lifetime that’s the train I’ve taken the most and I feel safe there? This one part of Bay Ridge where I used to teach an English class. The BQE. Brighton Beach, too. Coney Island only when it’s cold. The weird Union Street bridge/Gowanus Canal. This dirty flat part under the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side at night. That park in Bay Ridge you can see the Verrazano from. That’s as close to favorites as I can get. I have a few bars and cafés I love, but I can’t mention them at any rate, because I wouldn’t want any of you there. I can’t say with full confidence what I love or why I love it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate alone hair veiled sticky,
And what I miss most is you asleep coated in drool,
For every moment as good is never enough for 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.

I am sort of embarrassed by whatever I wrote, but my mom did not raise a quitter (this is a lie, I give up easily, most times I don’t even try). This was really hard! I don’t have enough dignity to know when not to share. So you know what, here it is.

We only had cement parks that’s dead ass Brooklyn
some green though in the Shaolin land of my father
nearby, miles of dear graffiti misspelling love.
As kids we sang it was all a dream for Biggie.
Even so only ~*Lil Kim*~ lyrics on AOL—a jump off to sin.
Me, though, Queens good girl didn’t know jack.
Truth or dare me to steal the deaf kid’s pen
his face all red and wet so I say they told me to rob.
There go my dreams of being a crooklyn dodger.

Why Brooklyn?

The people and the communities, the buildings and the trees, the shitty lovely trains, and I’m a cool girl, so obviously the ~vibes.