September 26–October 2, 2016
Ally Malinenko is the author of the poetry collections The Wanting Bone, How To Be An American (Six Gallery Press) and Better Luck Next Year (Low Ghost Press), which chronicled her cancer diagnosis. She is also the author of the novel This Is Sarah (Bookfish Books). Her chapbook I’ll Be So Still You Won’t Even Notice Me is forthcoming from Epic Rites Press. She lives in the part of Brooklyn that the tour buses don’t come to and she tweets, mostly about David Bowie, @allymalinenko.
The Things I Thought of When the Doctor Told Me I Had Cancer at 37
I mean come on
why even wonder about anything else
the doctor mentions
and I think
all the scotch
that I’ve put back
and then I wonder
what about those
times I stood in
front of the microwave
for my leftovers
to reheat at work
I watched a
about bottled water
that shit isn’t regulated
and bottled water
some people just have bad luck
and then I run
every lie I have ever told
every cruel thing I have ever done
what if each
cell that bubbled into another
that grew into a millimeter
that grew into a centimeter
what if each one
was a regret
a representation of me
being a bad
only believe in God
when it comes to being punished
it was genes
I worked with this
lady who told
me that Dove
yet I still bought it
that sounds stupid
but still what if
or the drinking
or the microwave
or the bottled water
or the years of smoking
when did I start
and I didn’t quit until 2001
that’s too much math
too many years
birth control pills
I took those even longer
or maybe avoiding the sun
or too much sun
I can’t remember which
are eggs good or bad
that’s heart disease, right
or the bleach in the Tilex
I used to clean the bathroom
it has to be genes
it can’t be my fault, right
like nonstick cookware
or Teflon pans
that I should have thrown away
or make up
I heard there is lead in make up
what about just having breasts
was it inevitable
bound to happen
I’ve been doing that for years
since I first stood over the kitchen sink
when I was thirteen and emerged with brilliantly red hair
just like I always wanted
hair dye is definitely a possibility
wait wait wait
back it up to the sun
because I never use sunscreen
like a stupid person taunting the gods
and I spend a lot of time out in the sun
and that’s when it hits me
like a gunshot
straight to the chest
that if I could
I would unzip
that has carried me
around the world
that bears all my abuse
my sorrow, my joy
if I could
I would unzip it
and climb out
just to feel safe again.
–From Better Luck Next Year, Low Ghost Press, 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It is, quite literally, a laundry list of the things I thought about when I was first diagnosed with cancer at 37, as the title attests. It is more stream of consciousness than many of the other poems in Better Luck Next Year. In fact, it might be the only stream-of-consciousness poem in the book. It also sprung pretty much fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. It definitely can be unwieldy and a bit messy but I think that helps to hit the emotional high point that it aims for.
I don’t know if it’s just me or not, but my knee-jerk reaction to my diagnosis was immediately to find the cause. The easiest thing in the room to blame was myself. As if this diagnosis were karmic. Needless to say, that line of thinking was not very good for my psyche so this poem is a bit of an exorcism.
What are you working on right now?
I’m editing a full-length poetry manuscript for an upcoming collection with Blue Hour, along with a chapbook coming from Epic Rites, and I am once again rewriting my novel for what feels like, and probably is, the millionth time.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is weighed on the scale of a good writing morning. I get up at 4:45 each weekday to carve out 2+ hours of writing time. If that goes well, everything else is manageable. It if doesn’t …
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I grew up in the Hudson Valley about an hour north of the city. I was living with my fiancé in Pittsburgh where I had attended college when my father was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. I had recently been accepted to the University of New Orleans writing program and we planned to relocate there in the spring. His diagnosis made a move like that feel impossible. Instead, I moved to Brooklyn to be closer to my family. I sometimes wonder about that other life. After Katrina would we have stayed in NOLA? Where would I be now? Who would I be now?
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 live in Bay Ridge, which I love, ultimately. It’s a very conservative neighborhood but also filled with a very large Muslim population. In this era of Trump, I have seen some terrible things go down. I want my neighborhood to be better. I’ve been here for, oh my, nine years, which is the longest I have lived anywhere outside of my childhood home. I think Bay Ridge is more neighborhoody than a lot of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Lots of restaurants and shops. Far too many street fairs, though. We have something called a Ragamuffin Parade. I avoid going outside on that day.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I first moved to Brooklyn, my neighbor’s dog, a German shepherd, was killed on our street by a pit bull. It was rough. I stood there in that moment, the street red with blood, and said to myself, “I don’t think I can live here.” As if I knew that I was not made of stuff that strong. I moved upstate shortly thereafter. But I started missing Brooklyn and NYC right away. Within two years I was back. Living here, like living anywhere, means you need to take the good with the bad. I still think about that dog, though. Often.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Inherently introverted, I have never felt the need to participate in a community. I think they’re nice and all but I have always viewed them as things that are for other people. That said, I have made a concerted effort with the release of Better Luck Next Year to participate in the community here. I have a few readings coming up which will be my first in NYC—one on October 7th and another on November 10th at the Parkside Lounge in Manhattan. So we’ll see how it goes.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
John Grochalski. Until very recently he kept a poetry blog in which he wrote a poem every single day for eight years. Every. Single. Day. I would love to have that sort of output. I’m dedicated but not that dedicated.
Also Joanna C. Valente. In fact, when Better Luck Next Year first came out, I used Ms. Valente’s quote about trauma at the book launch. She said, “A trauma is a funeral for one; there is no one to mourn you but yourself. The coffin is empty, since you are still alive, but you must fill it with something … ” I thought that was beautiful and so akin to how I was feeling. These poems are what I filled my coffin with.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Jan Beatty and Ed Ochester, both of whom taught at the University of Pittsburgh, were incredibly supportive of my work when I was first getting serious about poetry. I had the utmost respect for their writing as well as their teaching. Those classes were important especially at a time when I was worried about studying writing—especially worried about telling my parents I was going to study writing. Kris Collins, who was my editor for Better Luck Next Year, has been incredible to work with. He took what was essentially a hot mess of a book and fashioned it into the story that I was trying to tell. Good editors are a godsend. He’s also a brilliant poet himself.
Mentors that I never actually met would include Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and definitely Marie Howe.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Jason Irwin’s book, A Blister of Stars, which chronicles his experiences with illness. I very much connected with it. And not just because there is a shared theme between our work but because he has an uncanny ability to take you into the deepest, darkest moment and hold you there so that you go past the fear and find yourself on the other side. A place of beauty.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
All of Bukowski. I’ve only read a few of them. This would make me incredibly unpopular in some circles. And also Dorothea Lasky, but she’s up next in my pile so that should take care of that.
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 multiple books at once. On average, one or two fiction, a nonfiction, a poetry book and some comics here and there. Because I work in a library, my to-read list is pretty long and books tend to collect and puddle and spill off my shelves. I discover my next read at random but my TBR list is easily a year deep. At this point, it’s like my neverending Netflix queue. I just keep reordering things. I don’t have an e-reader so for me it’s always been physical books. I know there’s a lot to be said about having all my books on me in one device, but I can’t part with the physical weight of a book in my hands. It’s the doorway I get lost through. Even if carrying it causes a backache. I am a note-taker but not as marginalia. I tend to keep quotes and my thoughts about books in my journals.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would love to try an erasure poem, I think because I mentally connect them with sculpture—the act of removing to find the art instead of adding. Negative space versus positive space. But sometimes I feel like that’s cheating. Like I didn’t really write the poem if I didn’t pick each word myself. Ridiculous, I know.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I only write at home, in a closet that was converted into a small albeit cozy office, but I can read anywhere. I love reading on trains. There’s something really magical about being transported by a book and then glancing up and watching the landscape slip by.
I’ve been trying to get better about carrying a notepad and pen with me when I go because I often see things that I think would make a great poem but forget them by the time I get home. But now I just forget I have the notebook on me. Some day, maybe.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Because it’s beautiful and near my home and you can’t walk across it because it’s too high and windy. Actually the Verrazano Bridge in general. When I return to Brooklyn flying into JFK you can always see it. Every time I do it’s proof that I survived—that I made it back home again. I also love Grand Army Plaza because that fountain is gorgeous even when it’s not on. I pass it every day. And Greenwood Cemetery because it reminds you that you’re still alive and that one day you won’t be. Also Basquiat is buried there.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate nothing with you,
And what I bury deep you dig up hard,
For every terrible moment without me is as good as it could
have been with you.
Why anywhere? I guess Brooklyn always felt like home even when it was still new. Like it had always just sort of been waiting for me.