April 25–May 1, 2016
Candace Williams is a black, queer nerd leading a double life. By day, she’s Head of Community Operations of a podcasting startup. By subway ride and lunch break, she’s a poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixth Finch, No, Dear and PUBLIC POOL. She is the winner of the Clinton Foundation + SELF Women’s Health Codeathon and was featured in SELF Magazine. In a past life, she was a K-5 science, robotics and comic book writing teacher in the South Bronx. She has an MA in Elementary Education from Stanford University and graduated cum laude with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Claremont McKenna College. She will perform “Crown Heights” with a live band at Ghetto Hors d’Oeuvres on April 29th and 30th.
Author photo by Rick Perez
She pulls the curtain back and light engulfs
her pre-war home. The sun illuminates
the parquetry and lines of lacquered oak
around the walls. The kettle boils; she grinds
the coffee beans and weighs the grounds. She drinks
her coffee while she reads the Times. She puts
her pit bull into coat and boots. They do
their morning routine—heading west on Crown
to Rogers; turning right and buying sweets
near President; going east to Nostrand
and walking back to Crown. She walks the heart
of Crown Heights. She walks the ghost perimeter
of Crow Hill Castle—named after murders
of crows that flocked to trees atop the hill;
or darkies lined up on the hill like crows;
or the louring inmates dressed in crow black.
She’s never heard of this Crow Hill because
the county tore it down and built Crown Heights.
The county built and ran the Castle too.
The walls were pitched thirty feet high and made
of stone. Eight turrets enclosed five acres.
Women were jailed with infants in their cells.
The men were forced to dig the city roads.
The women stitched; they sewed 15,000
leather shoes per day. The Sabbath sermon
would ring from chapel under sobs and screams
of men and women whipped with frayed cowhide.
The inmates starved or had to eat the bad
food—rancid butter, rotted fish and meat.
That was then. Now, a CrossFit gym is named
Crow Hill and there’s a coffee shop that’s called
Colina Cuervo, where she likes the croissants.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I saw MoMA’s Jacob Lawrence exhibition last spring and began to study the work of artists and poets funded by the Federal Art Project and Federal Writers’ project in the New Deal. Jacob Lawrence and Robert Hayden did a lot of original research in communities of formerly enslaved people—they took testimonies, found original documents and produced work to honor these narratives. Martín Espada takes a similar approach in his work and I was lucky enough to attend his Cave Canem lecture where he dove into his research process.
A year or two ago, I stumbled across OldNYC, a mapping of New York Public Library historical photos. I entered my address and realized I live on the site of the Kings County Penitentiary (also called Crow Hill Castle). I bookmarked the site and returned to it this February when I was ready to do more research. I spent a few days digging up newspaper clippings, interviews, maps and photos. I wrote timelines of the neighborhood and learned about the free slave communities and how the the construction of Eastern Parkway, Crown Street, Crow Hill Castle and other important landmarks influenced these communities. I put all of my research into a box and put it next to my bed. I knew I wanted to write about Crow Hill Castle but needed time to figure out the approach.
In February and March of this year, I took concurrent workshops with Jason Koo at Cave Canem and Brooklyn Poets. The Brooklyn Poets class focused on blank verse while the other was a survey of poetic form in the interest of catching the mind at work. “Crown Heights” was the final poem I turned in for the blank verse workshop. The assignment was to write an elegiac poem that dove into memory. I realized that blank verse is a wonderful form for leaping through time, space and memory, and decided to write about Crow Hill Castle. I wrote it between 6 and 11 AM on the day of class. My girlfriend is used to me waking up early on Sundays and counting syllables on both hands.
What are you working on right now?
I’d like to finish a manuscript this year. I’m continuing to research and write about Crown Heights. I’m also obsessed with black folktales and my physics, math and macroeconomics textbooks. I’ve enjoyed the flow of writing two poems per week for four or five weeks and then spending a week or two editing and revising those poems.
What’s a good day for you?
Spending the day at Riis Beach.
If it’s not beach season, I like to wake up early and divide my day between writing, training my pit bull and checking out art or going to Prospect Park with my girlfriend.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I grew up in Seattle surrounded by people who don’t look like me. In the 90s, I watched a ton of films and music videos featuring Brooklyn. I craved an intellectual space where people looked like me. In 2009, I graduated from Stanford with my MA in Elementary Education and moved here. I had no job and there was a hiring freeze in teaching. I spent all day at Outpost Café looking for jobs on their WiFi. At night, I would go to free events in Brooklyn. I had just signed a lease and had $50 in my bank account when I landed a teaching job in the South Bronx that August.
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’ve lived in Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Washington Heights and Crown Heights. I’ve lived in Crown Heights for two years. I love it. I feel proud of my blackness here. On the other hand, I feel a sense of guilt and shame. I’m a gentrifier. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can be an accomplice to displaced people seeking justice and fairness. Writing is one aspect of that.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
In 2010, I was on the 5 train at 6 AM on my way to teach in the South Bronx and the person sitting next to me threw up all over me. I continued on to work, washed out my clothes, sprayed myself with Lysol and kept it moving. New Yorkers know how to keep it moving.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I started writing poems in August 2015 and enrolled in my first poetry workshop with Wendy Xu called “Against the State.” I chose that workshop because it’s important for me to find accomplices—folks who write to expose and fight the current state of things. I’ve had experiences in intellectual environments where people have told me I’m too political or shouldn’t consider race, queerness, gender or class in my work. I’m lucky to have found Cave Canem and Brooklyn Poets. Living in Brooklyn, there are also many queer poets and poets of color who are working to change power structures in and outside of the poetry world.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I admire Morgan Parker’s poetry, hustle and experimentation with form. I heard her read “99 Problems” at Bluestockings a few years ago and that planted a seed. When I was younger, I didn’t get into poetry because I was never exposed to anything that reflected my reality. Hearing her read made me realize poetry could be something I enjoy reading.
I love Wendy Xu’s approach. She goes a step further than knowing the rules and experiments at a metacognitive level—How do people make meaning of life? How do readers make meaning of words, sentences, stanzas and poems? How are these metacognitive processes linked and how can they illuminate each other?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I took my first poetry workshop ever with Wendy Xu. She taught me how to do a close reading of other people’s work in the context of a workshop. Not to mention enjambment. I enjamb things now.
I’ve taken two workshops with Jason Koo. He compares poetic form to a keyboard. Blank verse, the sonnet, free verse, sentences, punctuation, etc. are all keys on a keyboard and it’s important that I know how to play all of the keys (even if I don’t play all of them in every song). I’m glad that I’ve had rigorous training in poetic forms this early in my writing career.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes: I’ve read this a million times but was brought to tears when Martín Espada read it at his talk (I wasn’t the only one openly sobbing … ).
“Middle Passage” by Robert Hayden: Black people haven’t been given space to mourn the violence and trauma of our past. This poem gives me space to do that.
“MATT” by Morgan Parker: This poem is incredible.
“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong: I love the precision of the imagery. It’s a pleasure to hear him read because he isn’t afraid of take up space with his voice and honor the silence between words and phrases.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been in the middle of A People’s History of the United States and Debt: The First 5,000 Years for about two years. They both have concepts I’m addressing in my manuscript so I hope to finish them soon. Poetry-wise, I have a large stack of books on my desk including work by Danez Smith, Bettina Judd, Walt Whitman, Amiri Baraka and Fred Moten.
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 three to eight books at a time and tend to dip in and out depending on my mood and interests. Some of my reading is planned from reading lists and reviews I’ve found and others are suggested by friends.
I had hundreds of graphic novels and books but had to downsize my collection when I bounced around Brooklyn. I went 100% digital for a few years—typing, reading books on my computer, etc. I’ve always been more comfortable at a keyboard than with pen and paper. Lately, I’ve taken to my Uniball .68, my Leuchtturm1917 notebook and physical books. I take notes in my notebook and write in the margins. I read poems out loud to myself. Sometimes, I take it a step further and record myself reading on my iPhone or Quicktime.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
There’s something about the white noise and rhythm of the subway that’s appealing to me. When it’s warm, I like to do work outside at Prospect Park.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
At one point, I was seeing something at BAM once or twice a week. They have amazing films, operas, plays and dance performances. I’m surrounded by wonderful roti shops and bakeries on Nostrand.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate a ripe peach at market,
And what I buy you eat over the sink,
For every bite and slurp I hear from the living room lifts me
as good swallows you.