February 5–11, 2018
Benjamin Gantcher’s first book of poems, Snow Farmer (CW Books, 2017), was a finalist in several book contests. His work has appeared in national and international journals including Tin House, Slate, Guernica and the Brooklyn Rail. His chapbook Strings of Math and Custom was published by Beard of Bees Press, and his first poetry manuscript, If a Lettuce, earned finalist honors in the National Poetry Series and Bright Hill Press contests. A recipient of a LABA fellowship as well as residencies from the UCross Foundation and the Omi International Arts Center, Gantcher is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a former poetry editor of failbetter. He teaches math and English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, where he lives with his family.
Self-Portrait Wishing I Were Li Po
floating down the Yangtze
with a wineskin and my flute
the water paddling past hardly looking
a sound that could be talking
the skin of night tightening
the golden raiment falling
houses rising with lamplight
my fat boat rustling the night like a house cat
tonight I perform a reflection of stars
if the kids stop splashing
in the chapters of the music
I plan to scatter wax envelopes
with seeds of subtle feeling
when the world is vanishing
and rooms of the world are blooming
play a ladder of grasses a ladder of lying down
and climb into the attics
and drink my wine
the stars mixed up with wax envelopes
kids strumming the bright chord of the moon
—Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, 2010.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Probably the idea of “floating down the Yangtze / with a wineskin and my flute” came first, and probably I meant to get a laugh from my wife because probably I’d been griping about chores and errands and probably to valorize my laziness.
I wanted to wear the Li Po mask, perform the contrast between me and the mythical vagabond who drowned when courting the reflection of the moon. Also, I wanted to try writing couplets. I like how it came out, the pairs of images floating on the page, the couplets traveling together toward some delta.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing three projects, maybe sections of one book (although I get distracted by separate poems that just pop up). One of the books looks like a Basho travelogue, alternating between prose and poetry, but the journey is imaginary and jumps around in time. The second is “I forget” poems. So far, it’s the evocation of a pre-device-ridden moment and a tribute to a girl I loved when I was a little boy. The third is a book of odes. I’m also writing a Catullus-like takedown of a political figure (“politician” isn’t the right word for him). But our political figure is cruder than Catullus, and it’s hard to get into the spirit of the thing knowing that his atrocities are grosser than anything I can say about his rancid dick. I’m figuring out how crude to be and have an interesting poem, and not be a troll.
What’s a good day for you?
Floating down the river with a wineskin and my flute.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My wife brought me to Brooklyn. It was the Summer of Love, 1997, and I left behind an apartment in what was then a lawless neighborhood, Wall Street. I was living with Doug Fishbone, who was learning to cast in bronze but was really becoming a conceptual artist. Strange things were lying around, like a chicken foot in a block of resin with a hole in it that let the thing rot. Back then the docks were wide open; after dark you could sit on top of the waves, have a little party, read a book. I lived in the living room, in a loft like a cuckoo clock. It was great, but I wanted my own place and in Park Slope I found one I could afford and be closer to my girlfriend. Shortly afterwards, we moved in together in that same neighborhood and later had our first two children there.
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?
In Bed-Stuy people are friendly. We say hello to strangers; we chat with friends and acquaintances. I spend a lot of time in Brooklyn Heights, where I teach. I love my school community, and it feels good to know a lot of people in that area, but it’s a little like being reborn each weekend to be part of a heterogeneous scene. We’re in our fifth year in Bed-Stuy. We lucked into a relatively tight-knit block—neighbors remind each other when it’s time to move the double-parked car; we shovel the next family’s stretch of sidewalk.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I just had a magnificent conversation with an older man on the A train. He was enjoying my kids, talking about his grandchild, and we got to talking about books and movies and politics. He seemed like the most considerate conversationalist you could hope for, voraciously thoughtful.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m lucky to work at a school where poetry is revered. I was a poetry loner for a long time and am now trying to build a poetry community. So, I appreciate Brooklyn Poets. I’ve also been thinking about forming a group of poets who would publish and promote each other’s work—something like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which had Henry Threadgill as an early member. Maybe this exists in certain small publishers and reading series; maybe I’ll be able to join such a group. I’m still a little allergic to membership, but I can get over it—that kind of group would be exciting.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Matthew Rohrer and D. Nurkse have been generous and supportive. They’re great guys and brilliant poets.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Unbeknownst to them, Zbigniew Herbert and Julio Cortázar have been my mentors. Reading Herbert in translation, I can’t even guess at the music he’s playing, but his irony, empathy, whimsy, concision are close to an ideal. The same for his prose.
I found a copy of Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Cortázar’s version of an autobiography, on a sale table around 1990, and even though I didn’t know most of the writers, musicians and artists he was referring to, I recognized a loving intelligence I aspire to. I also figured if I could read a portion of what he read, I’d be educated at last.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
X by James Galvin—he concentrates on having been abandoned until it seems he’s covered every part of it. The poems are exact, forceful even when calling up unnameable complex feelings.
Ecuador by Henri Michaux—his misanthropy can be fun, but what I really love are his flights of fancy. He spends a few pages imagining being able to roller skate on the open ocean (and how the ambulance would get there).
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Don Juan. The Prelude.
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 have several books going at once. In poetry books, I hop around. Sometimes I hop around in other kinds of books, too. Sometimes I plan a course of reading, but I never stick to the plan. So many books look good, and recommendations come from all over. Buying books is a pleasure, so the books pile up. I also like to buy notebooks. I don’t use them for notes, though—when I’ve looked at my notes for future work, there’s no life to them, or I forget about them or don’t know what I meant. But I have volumes of disjointed lines and passages that might become part of new work.
Reading digital text feels shitty. But it’s convenient.
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 svengali, sometimes called a rasputin, a poem that drains the writer but is sure to mesmerize government readers, even those defended by French cuffs.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like a room in the parish house of the church my school rents space from. I like knowing I’m in that gingerbread stone, neatly proportioned fantasy. But I like any room with a view of rooftops. I’d like to stop the F train on its elevated stretch, on the rising curve with views of the cement yards, highway and harbor.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The elevated stretch of the F train. Cadman Plaza near the post office that looks like a castle. I like to watch the flocks of pigeons sweeping up and over the avenue of plane trees. Utica and Fulton—the seagulls and open sky (and garbage) make me and my kids think of the beach. Fulton Park—peaceful, elegant but not totally fussy, homey with a touch of grandeur (the sky).
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my daughter’s red fedora,
And what I glorify of you adore of me,
For every iota that you restore of me as good I praise of 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.
When I moved to the block of the first black Dodger,
(the people’s “Jackie,” small and great like “Biggie”)
Robinson, the son of Robin, bringer of spring who steals home from
of the bosses and gives love,
I believed, as I believe in the pen,
at last I’d landed in the land of my father’s father,
a borough of the soul, a Brooklyn
no boss could rob.
It’s like country and city in one.