October 16–22, 2017
Annie Bien is the author of two books of poetry—Under Shadows of Stars (Kelsay Books, 2017) and Plateau Migration (Alabaster Leaves Press, 2012)—and translates Tibetan Buddhist texts into English. She received her first writing grant with a seed commission from the Soho Theatre Company in London. She has published poetry and prose in a variety of journals, garnering a Pushcart Prize nomination, third place in the Biscuit poetry competition and a finalist nod for the Strokestown International Prize. Her translation work is supported by the global nonprofit initiative 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. She is also a Pilates teacher and lives in Brooklyn.
Dance Scene 1989—NYC
Take the F train to Manhattan to Twenty-Third Street,
walk to Nineteenth Street between Fifth Avenue
and Avenue of the Americas—the map of North,
South and Central Americas in the faces
of the dancers squeezing into the elevator, bubbles
of laughter, to the eleventh floor: Alina from Cuba,
Beatriz from Puerto Rico, Julio from Argentina,
Robert from Texas, Kevin from Massachusetts,
the motley modern dance ladies with unshaved
armpits, Mother Gaia thighs next to the sylphs
in pink silk-ribboned toe shoes, grey plastic pants
to take off more sweat on already evaporated frames.
Ernie tells me—The word is don’t pick up the lettuce girl
too quickly or she’ll fart, and then you have to carry
her all across the stage with your head hid under her
skirt. He winks. Then Ernie, Jack, Harry, Greg don’t come
to class anymore; I visit them in hospitals, look at
their wan smiles, faces pale then dotted with lesions.
At 159th Street in the Harkness
Pavilion, suitable for ballet dancers, I sit with John
wearing a New York City Ballet cap. He takes off
the cap and shows me the X and O circles on his head
marked for radiation. He holds my hand and weeps
—no tears—they’ve all dried now, Annie.
I remember him in class, long legs start at my waist,
in black tights and white T-shirt, Giacometti-slim
but elastic like a rubber band. He always says hello,
calls my name like I’m his best friend in the world.
My mother—he says—won’t visit me, she doesn’t believe
in my illness. Sit with me, please.
We sit together. He dies alone.
I still see him, making semaphores with his legs, mid-leap.
—From Under Shadows of Stars, Kelsay Books, 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
In the 1980s, I was a modern dancer taking ballet classes with Maggie Black, the teacher who taught and coached the leading ballet and modern dancers from companies around the world. Maggie also took students like me who were committed to training and performing but as freelancers looking for our dream jobs. Many of my best friends at the time were gay men. Suddenly they were getting sick and dying from AIDS. You would hear the news that so-and-so had “gay cancer.” Then they never returned to their space at the barre. My father died in the emergency room after prolonged illness and repeated trips to the hospital when I had just turned twenty. I didn’t get to say goodbye. Afterwards, I made a vow that I wanted to be there for someone who was sick and dying.
I didn’t know my friend Johnny well when I first met him—only from class. I thought of him as so elegant and glamorous compared to me. I was quite nervous to visit him. But he was so happy to see me, effusive in thanks, and greeted me like I was a long-lost friend. I went up a number of times knowing how lonely it could be in a hospital. I sensed he didn’t have that many visitors. I still remember the dry coldness of his hand when he told me his mother wouldn’t visit him. I didn’t write anything at all about him until after he died, but he always stayed in my mind. When I did write the poem, it came out easily and in a rush.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few things side by side. I can’t consider that I’m doing them all at once since I have to go from one to the other. I’m reworking a collection of poems that I had liked a lot about seven years ago, and now that someone has expressed interest in them, I’ve discovered I’ve changed a lot since then. I also have a grant from 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha for a Tibetan translation of a Buddhist scripture that is in revision. I received an extension when I met a scholar who is very interested in helping me with the accuracy and tone of it. I am also picking up and taking to completion a historical novel on a previous Dalai Lama that I co-wrote with Dr. Robert Thurman of Columbia University.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is when I have the time to sit and read, write and/or translate without feeling rushed.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Finding an apartment for less rent than Manhattan with a lot of windows, a kitchen separate from the bathroom, level floors, and a view of the World Trade Center.
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?
We have lived in Cobble Hill for thirty-six years at two different locations, four blocks apart. When we first moved in it was still very Italian with a strong Mafia presence. If you owned a car you would put a red bow on the rearview mirror so that the neighbors knew you were part of the neighborhood. If they knew who you were, you were very safe and treated like family. The neighborhood felt very homey because once people got to know you, you said hello to each other. Our building was diverse and filled with families. Our neighbors cooked dinner around six o’clock. As one of the newcomer couples to the neighborhood, we could smell all the dinners being prepared on the way home from the subway: the sauces, roasts, stews, all the way up the stairs. Our apartment: dark, cold, and not a whiff of food prepared. We had to walk to Brooklyn Heights to buy groceries if we knew we’d get home after six o’clock in the evening.
The neighborhood has really changed to being young professionals and upscale families, and we know fewer and fewer of the neighbors than when we first arrived. We used to tell friends coming to visit us to immediately turn right getting off the train away from Smith St because it had social clubs, bars, and seemed bleak and dangerous, and come straight up to Court St. We also started to note the nature of our friends: if they were geographical acquaintances (only Manhattan and no bridge or tunnel crossing) or an actual friend by their willingness to come out to Brooklyn.
We lived for two years in Manhattan on the Upper West Side and then downtown on Prince and Elizabeth Sts. Manhattan still has a very different vibe from Brooklyn. I always felt that I had to be “on” in Manhattan because everyone was rushing to do something, while Brooklyn had the feeling of coming home because you were coming home to families.
Compared to where I lived growing up in Northern California, New York City was just an incredibly exciting place. People are driven by what they love to do rather than not being sure if there’s a reason to be driven.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Our neighborhood had a lot of defining moments in the early days. At our first place, we had a downstairs neighbor whom we nicknamed the Mafia Lady. We knew she was married and from the Mafia because we heard her husband was in “college”—meaning serving time for someone else. When he was released and came home he was outgoing and friendly, but also looked very much like someone you should probably steer clear of and not know well at all. One day he took out his barbecue grill and brought it across the street on Court St, setting up a classic grill of sausage and peppers along with two lounge chairs. It was around lunchtime and I was coming back home from the subway. He invited me to join him for sausage and peppers. I politely thanked him for the offer but quickly told him I was a vegetarian.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I have not experienced a poetry community geographically in Brooklyn as far as having a group of writers with whom I meet regularly, although I have enjoyed sharing poems with a few other writers I met through Kelsay Books, and I participate in online poetry groups and meeting in person occasionally. However, it does seem to be a place for me where I can find out about poets and poetry from passing acquaintances or new friends from Brooklyn.
Last December, I was invited to do a poetry reading with other writers published by Kelsay at Berl’s Poetry Shop in DUMBO. It was very last minute, but one of the people I invited was the managing agent for our building and he came. He told me his mother is a poet. Today when I was shopping in a health-food store, I struck up a conversation with one of the salespeople and she told me her father is a poet.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Here I think of the celebrity path in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where, of course, Walt Whitman is listed. I think of him as poet rather than a celebrity, which has a feeling of fleetingness. I also think of all the poets I’ve read while at home in Brooklyn, remembering how happy I was when I went to a public talk by Seamus Heaney at the Morgan Library and mailing him a poem I wrote afterwards wondering if he’d ever get it. A few weeks later, I received a postcard from him thanking me for writing him and saying he was pleased that the talk had occasion to make me “a-swim” with poetry.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I started out writing plays and workshopping them in England and writing poems primarily for myself, so didn’t submit for quite a long time. However, during that time, I did begin by joining online poetry communities which I found very enjoyable and a good way to experience community without having to go to a geographic location. Three mentors have really guided me to trust my writing through their enthusiasm and creative, intelligent minds. The first was Paul Sirett, the literary manager who gave me a seed commission to write a play to be developed at the Soho Theatre Company in London, which helped to open up my creativity. The second mentor was Kate Saxon, who directed one of my plays at the Salisbury Playhouse, also in England, and who taught me a lot about how language communicates. Lastly, Thupten Jinpa Langri, a poet and translator of the Dalai Lama, has taught me a lot about how to read as widely as possible, how to translate, and how to read again while working on translation.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Two books that I love and are by friends of mine:
Augustown by Kei Miller. This is a humorous and heartbreaking story about Jamaica, with all the threads thrown to the heavens and back again. Worth reading over and over again.
Achilles by Elizabeth Cook. This novel, to me, reads like an epic poem, retelling the story of Achilles, and how Achilles affected John Keats. It is so beautifully and sparely written that you have to take in the words slowly, savor them and read them again.
What stands out for me about both of these books is how they cover so much about humanity, love and mortality with such conciseness that I could not help but feel affected.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I started reading Ulysses and never finished, thinking that if it took Joyce seventeen years to write it, I could take that long to read it. It’s been much longer than that now.
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 books in multiplicity, usually depending on what project I’m working on. Since I do translation, a lot of the reading I do is research, studying Tibetan, learning Sanskrit, reading grammar books, reading translations, researching context. Then I take a break and read some poetry, magazine articles, news and parts of novels, bit by bit. I like both physical and digital texts. Having grown up with physical texts, I find them easier to go through, retain and refer to when I need to find something. However, so much of my research is now online, which saves a lot of time, and I appreciate being able to read from a very heavy tome without having to go to the library to borrow it, or to carry it around. I often take notes.
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 write a kavya style poem that uses the metaphor styles of Sanskrit poetry in English in the form of an epic poem.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Sometimes an airplane is one of the best places to read for me, because I won’t get interrupted the way I do at home. I also like reading at the Jefferson Market Library, or outside on a beautiful day.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to go, also Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s so enjoyable to have some tastes of nature in the city. Walking out to Red Hook by Fairway, Ikea and the playing fields and walking past the food trucks at the soccer field gives a taste of industrial Brooklyn and a mix of different ethnicities. If I feel my writing is a bit stuck, going out for a walk immediately seems to get words flowing.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
Ode to Enceladus, Sixth Moon of Saturn, As Revealed
by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft
I celebrate Enceladus, of global ocean and geysers,
And what I beheld you revealed to me, Cassini,
For every flight of fancy in me as good was enhanced by 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.
My dearest Biggie,
The definition of love
means returning the car you didn’t rob
with all tires replaced by the collapsible jack
you invented while in the pen.
Driving home proves to your father
that you ran away not from committing the sin
of lying, but to admitting that you were not an Artful Dodger;
for all roads leading to reality begin in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn encapsulates the kind of person you are.