Poet Of The Week

Howard Faerstein

     October 27–November 2, 2014

Brooklyn born, currently living in Florence, Massachusetts, Howard Faerstein has gone on to become first a bookmaker (OTB, not small press), then a wanderer of high deserts in New Mexico & SW Colorado, and now is one of America’s legion of adjunct professors (teaching American Literature at Westfield State University) majoring in doo wop, birding & gardening, jazz & poetry. A chapbook, Play a Song on the Drums he said, appeared in 1977 (Owl’s Head Press). No Sweat and other plays have been workshopped and produced at The Westbeth Theatre in Manhattan. Faerstein’s first full-length book of poetry, Dreaming of the Rain in Brooklyn, a selection of the Silver Concho Poetry Series, was published in 2013 by Press 53. His work can be found in Great River Review, Nimrod, CutThroat, Upstreet, 5AM, The Chiron Review, Diner, Sin Fronteras, The Comstock Review, Mudfish, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Main Street Rag, Downtown Brooklyn, Confrontation, Off the Coast and on-line in Gris-Gris, Connotation Press, The Pedestal and Dirty Napkin.

Draft Induction Day, 1969

Because I had no plan to run for President
& was not yet a felon
I walked into Fort Hamilton armed
with drugs & a therapist’s letter.

Ed was there, scratching his thighs furiously,
blood pooling beneath the legs of the stool
& I watched Johnny strip down,
peanut butter spread about his cheeks,
even in the valley of his hole.

I failed the physical’s every test
& by the end how exhausted I was
by the boys waiting to kill, longing to die,
gathered around to copy my answers even as I told them
every one was wrong.

Then the news I was “fit as a fiddle”
but had to return next morning to see the shrink.
Nothing of what I recounted made a bit of difference—
homo, junkie, opposed to the imperial conflict—
but when I explained how I cured myself of syphilis
while living in a California commune
by cutting the tip of my penis into four symmetrical parts
he hesitated then said
            It’s against my better judgement but I’m giving you

I leaped off the chair in great joy,
grabbing the paper,
            a 4F
& headed for the discharge desk where I was jeered & scowled at
& hand-in-hand with Johnny
I skipped out on the pavement of Shore Parkway,
scows plying the Narrows,
carriers taking the boys from Sunset Park & Bed-Stuy
to Chu Lai, to Hua Ky.

–Originally published in The November 3rd Club, Summer 2010.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote “Draft Induction” almost 40 years after the event. It’s a mostly factual account of an encounter that most males of my generation had to deal with … one way or another, dead or alive. The poem depicts the choice I made after my number came up in the lottery. And since the Vietnam War has never truly ended for my generation, and since we have been in a state of constant war ever since, it remains topical. I was called for the draft physical two weeks after Woodstock. And I didn’t feel like going to war at the time.

I hadn’t been writing any poetry for a long time … was more involved with stage plays, screenplays … Then I found myself in New Mexico—with little to do, working in a bookstore, teaching one course in creative writing & I enrolled in an MFA program at New England College and then the poetry came back. This poem was written after the first residency there.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve got about a half dozen starts to poems sitting on a coffee table. And about eight others that might or might not be finished that are taped to the kitchen wall. And there’s a long sequence poem that journals keep rejecting & I look at every other day or so, wondering what I might do to get it out into the world. I’m also working on a chapbook, My Hippocampus Made Me Do It …

What’s a good day for you?

Any day I see a kingfisher is a good day. Don’t recall ever seeing one when I lived in Brooklyn though it is a great place to witness the phenomenon of bird migration … Any day I’m writing is also good. Being with my partner. Being with my family. Being at peace with myself.

How long did you live in Brooklyn? What neighborhood did you live in? What did you like most about it?

I lived in Brooklyn for 50 years. Born & raised in Bay Ridge. Starting with my undergraduate days I lived in Fort Greene, Park Slope (a studio on 2nd Street off the park for $69 a month), Bensonhurst, Kensington, Midwood and probably a few other funky neighborhoods that I no longer remember that are now part of the hip mystique of Brooklyn. My favorite haunts were Prospect Park & the Botanic Garden. And I loved the main library in Grand Army Plaza and living in Park Slope during the late 60s.

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

When I was in high school (Fort Hamilton) a few of us formed a civil rights club in all white, very racist Bay Ridge. There followed death threats, some close calls and we were forced to disband. I would characterize that as a bad experience. A good experience would be living in Brooklyn when my daughter was born … An in-between would be all the years I worked for NYCOTB (New York City Off-Track Betting), getting a Cook’s tour of the borough & writing plays while running the betting parlor(s). I was very glad to finally leave. And when I fled, I wound up living in the woods of Berkshire County for four years. A definite highlight.

Where’s home for you now? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

I can live—very easily in Florence, Massachusetts, a very short distance from downtown Northampton. The region is called the Pioneer Valley, part of the lower Connecticut River Valley. I can’t imagine living anywhere else (and I’ve tried living in many other places). Being a poet here, being involved in any of the creative arts is like living nowhere else (at least in my experience. Santa Fe came close but is much too expensive. Probably even more expensive than present day Brooklyn). Poetry, painting, music are all thick here. And if you’re not into any of that, black bears sometimes stroll through the backyard.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Whitman, because!

Since I’ve now been gone from the borough going on 17 years, I don’t know many poets in NYC, other than old friends.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Brooklyn has changed quite a bit since I left. There weren’t many bookstores. No chains. A few mysterious used bookstores. I did like the Community Bookstore in the Slope (think it’s still there) & there was another on 7th Avenue but usually I’d go to Manhattan: Paperback Gallery, 8th Street Bookstore, St. Marks (which has moved but still exists I’m told). And for a real journey to the past there was Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye Bookstore in the East Village. Now of course there’s a slew of them … I’d love to return & do a reading in one of them some day.

What were your favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?

I wrote & read where I lived. All those working years I was writing my plays in the insanity of OTB … I’m sure I also scribbled a few lines on bar napkins.

What were your favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Prospect Park, Botanic Gardens, the Brooklyn Museum (the way it was, not necessarily how it is now). And BAM was great to catch a concert. (I remember seeing Allen Ginsberg there, sharing the bill with The Band & a California group, It’s a Beautiful Day).

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Richard Jackson’s Out of Place; William Pitt Root’s Sublime Blue, his translation of early odes by Neruda and Root’s own recent volume of poems, Strange Angels; Zoologies, compelling essays by Alison Hawthorne Deming; Gogol’s Dead Souls (well, book one); Thomas Lux’s New and Selected Poems & Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” are on the bedside table.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate raptorial flight & porphyry of time,
And what I take from the movement of birds you shall not threaten,
For every creature is akin to me & as good connects with 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.

Working, moving, high-stepping down Ditmas Ave, father,
always a Yankee or Giant fan but never the despised Dodger,
yes, the old man doing his job, some guy out to rob
him, put a knife to his throat [it wasn’t one of Biggie’s
boys spreading love], dirty snow, bouquet from Grillo’s fish store like sin
like venal love
I tell you Jack
he raised an uppercut like clicking a ballpoint pen
snuffed that mugger’s candle, like only the dead know Brooklyn.

Why Brooklyn?

Yes, why Brooklyn? Good question.

Because of Coney Island I guess. Because of great (reasonable) neighborhood Italian restaurants. (Are there any left?) Because I never felt comfortable in Queens or Staten Island or the Bronx. Because it was cheaper and a short subway ride to Manhattan. Because of the Promenade in the Heights. Because I was born there. Because I left there. Because it was so close to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Because of the bridges & the river. Because of the friends I made. Because it will never leave me.

Because I still dream of the rain in Brooklyn.