March 25–31, 2019
Andrés Cerpa is the author of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy (2019) and The Vault (forthcoming in 2021), both from Alice James Books. A recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and CantoMundo, Cerpa has work published or forthcoming in Ploughshares, Poem-a-Day, Kenyon Review, Rumpus, Frontier Poetry, West Branch, Foundry, Wildness and elsewhere. He was raised in Staten Island, NY, and spent many of his childhood summers in Puerto Rico.
Portrait & Shadow
The curtains sail into the room with the memory of presence behind them
while my father waits in the dark taking apart what is left of his former selves,
like a pianist, drunk at the keys, playing the same four notes,
letting them ring in the pedals until they haul themselves back into sleep.
He says, I am shadow
& the thief at the seam of his spine slides through the blades of his shoulders,
hollows the blood, while the dopamine cheapens
like a dollar-store lighter & suddenly, another streak in his Depends
emerges as proof.
This too in Arcadia—
the meadow in twilight’s last streak of red before he enters the tree line,
which is already waiting, its small footpaths like paintings held in storage,
their deep palettes so close they strangle to a labyrinth
laced in an MRI black. The wolf there tears at his tendons,
leaves him always in fog, & if he emerges it is only to watch but not to enter
the burning city & self he still loves.
He says, I am the smoke’s mascara
& I know he is imagining the Bronx he can never return to,
where his youth is held in the thin frame of a bicycle
as it cuts through a billow of smoke. The city burned each night & each morning
he rose to ride through the rubble. The what was,
the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old,
he is kind & clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle,
he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.
—From Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, Alice James Books, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Portrait & Shadow” is the second poem in Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy. As a part of the book, the poem attempts to introduce the different image systems that unfold. There are visual art, cheap lighters, the language of Parkinson’s Disease, the landscape of the burning Bronx and my father’s bicycle. These, in my mind, exist all at once, and I wanted the language of these seemingly disparate image systems to merge. This begins the world of the book and the ending holds a great deal of the love that carries the speaker throughout.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m working on the beginnings of a third book. I’m trying to ask large questions about and of our life in small moments. I’m also attempting to compile something different from the work that I’ve done already in the first two books, and therefore I’m trying to unhinge myself and let the poems breathe in new ways.
My threshold for mystery as both a reader and writer is increasing, and it’s fun to see how that manifests on the page.
What’s a good day for you?
I love to write in the morning. The best days for me are when I have the time to write without the constraint of knowing I have to be somewhere in an hour. When that pressure is relieved, I feel expansive. Those are my best days. Then it’s great to read in the park, go to the movies and let a narrative wash over the day. But most importantly, it’s a good day if I get to laugh with my partner.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I’ve lived on Staten Island the majority of my life and moved to Brooklyn about eighteen months ago. But my family has history in BK. The Puerto Rican diaspora is complex, and my family has been moving back and forth from Puerto Rico to New York City for generations. In ways, each generation has attempted to start over, in search of economic opportunity or a sense of home.
The earliest member of my family to move to the States was my great-grandfather at age ten in 1906. Sometime after serving in WWI, where he saw heavy combat in France, he moved to Brooklyn. His daughter, my grandma, was born in BK. She married my grandpa, who moved to Williamsburg at eighteen and became a welder.
My mom was born in BK, but was living in Puerto Rico by middle school.
But for me, I just wanted a change of pace. After my father died, I needed a break from my neighborhood in Staten Island. Every day I saw where he died, I passed the funeral home, I lived across the street from where he taught me to ride a bicycle, and those visions, that flood, were wearing me down.
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 haven’t lived in Fort Greene very long, but I’ve always loved the neighborhood, the light on the brownstones and how it feels small in some moments. When I was younger, I would come here after class to hang, and in my early twenties I would crash on the couch in the apartment where I now live. A slow Sunday morning in Fort Greene is close to my heart. I like hearing the basketball games down the block, climbing the fire escape to read on the roof, the murmur of midday.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Rather than a particular memory, I have a compilation of days. When I was a child, my dad would often take us to Prospect Park to bike on the weekends. It was both familiar and exciting then. There were so many beautiful bicycles and clubs riding together, and my dad and I would race or try to beat our own times on laps around the park. Now when I bike there, I’m often struck with a strange double exposure, like I can see then and now at once. Racing on the downhill with that feeling is my favorite thing to do in Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
As my life has changed, I’ve needed to expand or think of community in very different ways. There is a great deal of quiet but intense work that poets do, through teaching, editing, reading, mentoring, by writing or recommending work to friends. In all of these roles, and in so many more, people are giving their time and energy to bring poems to one another. Maybe community is not the word, but I feel in communion with.
There is the necessity for very different types of community, but keeping the chain of people, many of whom I do not know, gives me hope; it helps me, even in my loneliness, to continue.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Evan Gill Smith is my favorite Brooklyn-based poet right now. Evan’s poems are at once surprising and cohesive. Often they hold a desire to see the demands and objects of our world, demands that often constrain the human spirit, and use them to liberate the spirit, to see something more.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My first mentor was Jeanne Murray Walker at the University of Delaware. She saw something in my first poems, which were absolutely terrible, and believed in me. After two semesters together, Prof. Walker asked me to be a TA for her introduction to poetry course, which meant that I’d meet with students and lecture for fifteen minutes each week on a poem. Any poem I wanted to talk about. The immense amount of trust that she had in me to let me go up there and talk to my peers was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.
Eduardo C. Corral has been a quiet mentor to me over the years. At the start of my MFA, he suggested a list of books after seeing a few of my poems. Those books helped open my world.
As an MFA student, I was in Rigoberto González’s workshop the semester that I was attempting to write a post-apocalyptic New York sequence, which was not the direction my work would eventually take. But throughout that time, González continually helped me see the bright moments in awkward phrases where I was trying out a style I needed to test and eventually abandon. When I read through those poems and think back to our conversations, I now understand how much he helped me use my failures to build new work.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am continually in awe of Natalie Eilbert’s poem “Black Tourmaline,” which was first published in Foundry and is a powerful moment in Indictus. (Shout out to Foundry and Noemi Press who are both doing wonderful work.)
I aspire to the craft of that poem—its syntax and enjambment, the textures of language. I was blown away by it when I encountered it as a poem on its own, but within the context of Indictus it blooms in expansive ways. I’ve kept that poem and how masterfully it works in those different contexts in mind as I create.
But ultimately, for me, there is something elemental in the poem, a note that reaches beyond, that holds the intangible flame.
I’ve also been reading James Wright’s biography by Jonathan Blunk. Wright has been a companion and guide for me in this wild endeavor, and the biography gives me great comfort, as do Wright’s letters. Here is a moment I feel close to:
“I’ve gone for a long time in a kind of compromise with despair, not conscious of having written much, just conscious of several kinds of defeat,” Wright had told [Donald] Hall in a letter at the end of November. “And yet, somehow, the poems have appeared now and then, accumulating in darkness.”
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I need to read Moby-Dick.
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 like to read one author at a time. When a book fascinates me, my first impulse is to start reading everything that author has published, often chronologically. If that search continues to be fruitful, I continue on and work toward reading their bibliography or at least one or two authors that deeply influenced the original work.
The best books lead us to the creation of other books, help them take a step forward, and I love the unfolding.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to make an earnest effort to collapse time. I think of the poem “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts” by the Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo, which reads, “Sober above Shakespeare’s statue, / Romeo and Juliet have fallen out of love.” I’ll try it in small moments at first, but then I’d like to enlarge that collapsing.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I almost exclusively write poetry at home. I find it immensely helpful to have my books with me during the process. I enjoy the safety and clarity of being alone, so it’s wonderful to write before anyone else is awake or after other people have left the apartment.
The most enjoyable place for me to read is Washington Square Park. When it’s nice out, or in the chills of fall, I like to read and let the sun hit my face until I have to move under a streetlight to get to the end of a chapter or poem. It is very freeing to read outside, and the input of the muffled city, pausing to listen to the jazz band or watch a chess game, helps the work settle in me.
I also love to journal, to give myself the space to reflect in prose, when I travel. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” has always resonated or informed my writing when I’m outside my usual places.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Over the past two years, particularly in the winter, I’ve enjoyed indoor rock climbing in Brooklyn. The fear involved, trying not to fall, having to be absorbed with hanging on, allows me to free my mind for an hour or two from the more metaphorical holding on that I’m doing in my life. You can also find me at every dive bar with a pool table, particularly Alibi.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the first week of snow,
And what I write you write alongside me,
For every footstep becomes me as good as every footstep
For the rooftops and laughter, and for the leaves beneath my bicycle in fall.