October 9–15, 2017
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist and educator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Seneca Review, Plume, River Teeth and many other places. She is a poetry columnist for Stay Thirsty Media and teaches various English-related courses throughout New York and New Jersey. “XXVI.X.MMXIII” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.
By noon, the bay lipped lamp posts.
The sky widened in apocalyptic grandeur.
There is no other way to say it:
the Super Storm arrived.
When the children came home
by four, pumpkins and broomstick-
witch decorations thrashed against
parked cars. In my oven, chicken roasted
with garlic and green beans.
Electrical wires streaked the sky like blue
lightning. One moment I read by the glint
of dim-lit candles, an hour later frozen food
and pots and pans buoyed in the surge.
Its final height five feet: south Brooklyn
submerged. Sanitation plants tumbled,
sewers bubbled. How does the ocean leave?
I wiped shit from my grandma’s nine-year-old eyes,
one of the few photos that somehow survived Dachau,
and now: every wall soaked down to the screws.
Still hard to believe. I half expected half a house.
After high-tide the flames from Breezy flickered blue
and orange before our eyes. Then the pearl glow of the moon
broke through the tempestuous sky,
and we trudged through.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
How could we not be in awe of nature?
It’s not rare, especially these days, to hear a hurricane story. It used to be the worst type of hurricane damage in Brooklyn might be some minor flooding, a few birds’ nests flung from their trees. This is, at least, how I remember Hurricane Bob—walking through my yard, scooping up the broken branches and tethered feathers. South Brooklyn, for the most part, has been spared.
Of course, that all changed with Sandy. Now the threat of a hurricane is as real in Brooklyn as it is in Miami, in Houston.
What happened to South Brooklyn during Sandy still causes its victims to shiver. It’s what makes my stomach hurt the most when I hear about what has happened in Puerto Rico. Recovery is a long process involving lassitude and fear. Part of my recovery process, for anything, involves writing. A year or so after Sandy hit Gerritsen Beach, I was finally able to start making sense of my memories through words.
What I saw early that morning when the storm had passed but the water had yet to subside and sewage bobbed in the streets and my family and I decided, Let’s go, it’s safe now, we need to leave—when we began trudging out of our house through the storm surge—what I saw, the burning of Breezy Point across the bay, the sizzle of the electric wires snapping in the air—that’s the catalyst for making this poem.
What are you working on right now?
Everything—anything! Which is not an exaggeration. Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on two manuscripts; one, a chapbook, Lies Our Mothers Told Us, and the other a full-length, The Drift, so the poems I’m writing are either geared towards one of these projects, or are the start of something new (they are what they want to be really, I just mean in terms of organization). I’m also in the depths of dissertation writing (composition and rhetoric), slowly accumulating a collection of lyrical essays on poetry and prose, and raising an infant, which in so many ways is akin to the art of poetry.
What’s a good day for you?
I live in a position of privilege and I acknowledge this. I am able to take care of my family, to take care of my students, and take care of language. I know that this could be otherwise. I recognize that for many, it is. Every day is a good day for me.
So you were born in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood you’re from. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Growing up, even when I told native Brooklynites where I lived, they would look at me with confusion. I describe Gerritsen Beach as a small fishermen’s village, an Irish Catholic neighborhood (often, I felt like we were the only Jewish family—at one point, we might have been … ) where there are more bars than churches. I spent twenty-nine years of my life in Gerritsen Beach—give or take a few chunks of time for traveling abroad and college. Gerritsen Beach is no Park Slope, the neighborhood I associate with my high school and freedom and learning about marijuana; it is no Bay Ridge, not a place one goes to frequent bars or for the thrilling nightlife; and it is no Williamsburg—though the place has seen many fluctuations and changes, there exist no signs of gentrification like Barcades or even Thai restaurants. Gerritsen Beach is not even like Marine Park, its close neighbor, or Sheepshead Bay, its even closer neighbor. Those areas are larger in size. They have too many shops and schools and people. Gerritsen Beach exists in its own bubble, a one-way-in, one-way-out peninsula tucked between the waters of Coney Island and Rockaway Bay.
Gerritsen Beach is the type of neighborhood where you could walk barefoot across the street to ask your neighbors for an egg or quarter cup of milk. It’s difficult to describe it without going into particular stories, like how the local butcher always seems to know how to do right by his neighborhood patrons and sends food over after a funeral, or how when I was in elementary school, the neighborhood was so safe that we were allowed to leave the building, actually leave the school, and walk to the pizza place for lunch, the student special, $1.75 for a slice and a medium soda, and we’d walk to the pizza place, eat our slice and drink our soda, head to the corner store for something sweet or a pack of gum (then twenty-five cents), then walk to the playground to run around or play some kickball, all without parental supervision or the watchful eyes of the teacher, all because everyone trusted everyone and for the most part, we were good kids. I’m sure there are some of you who can recount a time when a pack of gum was even cheaper than twenty-five cents. I’m also sure these sorts of things just don’t happen anymore.
This past summer I left New York for New Jersey—a stereotypical move, I know, and something I am still coming to terms with. Tucked beneath my New Jersey driver’s license are all of my former New York IDs: I do not want to let them go. Nothing compares to Brooklyn.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
So many to choose.
High school parties in the three-story brownstones of Park Slope. I’d be upstairs in the corner by the window with the boys in the middle of a cypher, believing if I could write a poem I could write a rap.
Fight night. Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. Even the old men smelling fresh from the barber. The scent of a wild night in the air. We drive down Bedford Ave to get to Buschwick to watch the boxing match at a friend’s. Biggie on the radio; the disc jockeys feel the energy, too. The mini mansions. Brooklyn College. Midwood, high school. Then the neighborhood starts to shift. The lights are no longer in sync. Things slow down. We find parking. Walk a few blocks. Arrive.
Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins live in the same home. They have all cooked up a storm: fried chicken, pasteles, tortillas, rice, beans, buffalo wings, hamburgers, hot dogs, deli sandwiches, you name it. The fight won’t start until midnight. Plenty to drink and eat and say until then.
The whole neighborhood is inside, outside. Old men smoke blunts on plastic lawn chairs in the corner of the yard. Kids run around, dizzy from the freedom their parents have granted. Lightning bugs flicker against the backdrop of the street lights.
My friend has set up a projector on the side of the house. Neighbors watch with us from their windows, arms hang loose off of the sills. We have third-row seats, my husband and I, and I’m wearing his jacket and drinking whiskey and my friend is having a blast yelling at Pacquiao as if he can hear him. The food keeps warm on sternos. Everyone is happy to be there, to watch, to root on the underdog.
We leave shortly before the sun rises.
After the blizzard of 2011, when schools were closed and trains stopped running and the streets could hardly get plowed, when the air was cold but calm, with hardly a wind to wisp my hair, my brother and I dug up the snow trapping us on the block in the chilly silence for a quarter of an hour. After that, one by one, my neighbors opened their doors with shovels in hand. The snow was so bad we knew sanitation wouldn’t be coming, so we did it together, worked together, for four hours, twelve neighbors and me, scraping the earth synchronically, gathering, scooping, and every few minutes wondering aloud where in the world to put it, all of that snow. A moment of unity after so much mess.
Ok. I guess that’s enough. These are just a few of the snapshots of Brooklyn to me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn—I almost wrote “here” because to me, wherever I go, Brooklyn goes, too. Now, of course, this isn’t always a great thing—we are known for our attitudes.
I remember a few years ago, when I was commuting via public transportation from Brooklyn to Staten Island to teach an 8 AM class, using a bus, a train, a ferry and another bus, in the early, early morning—often the first route of the day—I’d just watch everyone shuffle back and forth. You get to know the people you travel with. I used to wish I could just stay with some people, watch them go about their day, write about it. Such grit and kindness. The kind of diversity in race and gender and fashion and language you just don’t find anywhere else. That’s what a poetry community means to me—to go out and witness difference, to see always something new, to see something repeated, to document it and to share it.
To me, it doesn’t matter if you are a New York City poet or a Brooklyn poet or a Boston poet or a formal poet or a confessional poet or a … you get it; what I find intriguing is a sense of urgency in telling, a sense of community within the poem that invites me in to learn more, whether or not what I learn falls on the pleasant or disturbing side.
Brooklyn, to me, is a poetry community. But I know that you mean in the sense of communicating and workshopping and attending readings, and what I can tell you about that is that there are so many wonderful poets, so many invigorating readings, and so many delicious opportunities to be involved in re: poetry in Brooklyn, it is slightly overwhelming. If you’re not careful in picking and choosing, you can spend twelve hours a day, seven days a week immersed in nothing other than readings.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
How would we define a Brooklyn poet? What’s the time period one must live in a place for it to stick to the ribs? You can swallow up Brooklyn in mere moments. Some can spit it out just as quickly.
I’m sure you’re going to expect me to say Whitman—and he’s there—he’s influential, yes … but Whitman and I lived in two very different kinds of Brooklyn, looked at the world with two very different lenses.
Anyway, some poets who have claimed land in Brooklyn and whose particular aesthetic/style/content thrill me or have taught me something about rhythm or the line are the Notorious B.I.G. (along with Jay Z, Joell Ortiz and Mos Def … ), Phillip Lopate (he also writes poems!), Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Tom Sleigh, Patricia Spears Jones, Tina Chang …
And then there are poems about Brooklyn … What are your favorite poems about Brooklyn?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Undoubtedly, my professors in grad school—throughout my MA, MFA and PhD programs. I’ll never tire of the thrill of starting a new semester knowing I will be learning something new, even, or especially, as an instructor—each semester is a fresh start, a new direction for thinking. Anyway, in terms of their tireless reading of drafts and spot-on critiques, Phillis Levin, Robert Pinsky, Rosanna Warren, Lee Ann Brown and Stephen Paul Miller have been influential to me not just in regards to my craft, but also my pedagogy. It’s through their guidance and support that I came to decide it was right for me to write, and from them I learned effective teaching methods to encourage this confidence in others.
And then there’s the type of mentorship that comes from reading and rereading those voices that intrigue you over and over again, the seeking out of scholarship and research, the mentorship shared in residencies and writing groups and workshops. I read Joan Didion, Audre Lorde and Anne Carson vigorously, continuously, over and over again. Attending the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley two summers ago also changed me—holistically, wholly, and this is mostly because of the kindness the poets I met and studied with there displayed. It’s the idea, again, of community that goes hand in hand with poetry. We read attentively and supported undoubtedly. What a beautiful thing.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Let’s set aside the books and poems I write about for Stay Thirsty Media—I’m very blessed to be able to write about the poets I love every season. Also, I want to make clear that I believe poets can get much out of reading fiction and nonfiction and drama, just as novelists, essayists and playwrights can get much from reading poetry. And I won’t repeat my three powerhouse women from above—or, maybe I will: Didion, Lorde, Carson. Also, the books that have made me want to go out and write books, books that I am drawn to over and over again, that I want to reread, consume, in no particular order, are: Lighthead by Terrance Hayes; How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda; Hapax by A. E. Stallings; A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry edited by Czesław Miłosz; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate … I can really go on and on and on, but, because we are talking about Brooklyn, I can’t help but mention A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which, when I first read it, seemed as if someone had written my life on the page (Smith said this was the most common comment she’d receive in letters).
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
This isn’t quite for years, but I’ve been planning on getting to South and West, Joan Didion’s most recent collection. I haven’t picked it up because I want to devour it in one reading—I’m addicted to her language in that way. I’m waiting for a national holiday or an evening when my daughter falls asleep nice and early and I know my husband will be home late, so I can sink my teeth into as much as possible in one sitting. Also Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
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?
So my husband, daughter and I recently moved to New Jersey. Unpacking has been a slow process. In any case, two rooms in our basement are still packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with my old notebooks, folders and books—books of poetry, novels, anthologies, plays, textbooks, blank books to write in. I am a note-taker-aholic. I save it all! I love rereading drafts of poems from five years ago, or stumbling upon an essay I wrote on Aristotle for undergrad. I love the touch of books, the smell of them, the way my hands instinctively know how to turn to the pages with my favorite passages.
But. There is always so much to carry! I teach six college courses throughout the week (the life of an adjunct; that is for another anthology, I think!), and sometimes it’s easiest to read on my phone or computer. I’ve found social media especially helpful in the way I’ve been able to join groups in which members share intriguing articles on pedagogy, creative writing, poetry and education at large. Those are the random bits—the sound bites I snack on during the day.
I could never read just one book at a time. I could never carry just one book with me. I would rather forget my wallet. Which I have done. Multiple times. But never the books.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d really like to compose a chapbook made up of a sequence of crowned sonnets. For me, this is an ambitious challenge, but a few poets whose opinions I heavily value have continuously encouraged me to embrace my formal side. What have I got to lose?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The bus—any type of public transportation. I love to observe and write, to be around people (that is, assuming I can’t be around my books in my home). Or with the sun beating down on me, outside, the blank white page almost blinding without my words.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Marine Park. Coney Island and MCU Park. Prospect Park. The Botanic Garden. Roll-N-Roaster, especially on one’s birthday. Red Hook—the Fairway and the Red Hook Winery and Baked (if it’s still there?). These are the spaces of my youth—of sneaking out and making out and rose gardens and food. Delicious food.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the universe,
And what I breathe in you breathe in,
For every sigh releasing from me as good releases as courage
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.
They grew up together, in the Pink Houses, in Brooklyn
New York, lived on separate floors but still my mother and my father
married young were sometimes dumb and full of sin
but always rich with love. Both born slightly before the Dodgers
left for the west. A different world entirely from mine, another
might say I were robbed. In any case, my youth sounded like
MTVNews & Biggie
& Pac, my pen to my paper on my lap, wondering how the others
weren’t stopped dead in their tracks, jacked up on language. I still
whenever I listen to the rhythms and the lights and the voices of my
*Disclaimer: Because I said I was going to challenge myself, I chose this as an opportunity to have fun with form and chose the stanza structure Edmund Spenser follows in The Faerie Queene. In the sequence of nine-line sonnets, the rhyme scheme follows ABABBCBCC. You’ll have noticed I did not follow iambic pentameter. First draft, baby steps.
Because just saying the word is yummy.