Poet Of The Week

Betsy Guttmacher

     February 27–March 5, 2017

Betsy Guttmacher landed in Brooklyn in 1998 and is currently director of volunteer programs for a local nonprofit organization. She likes taking pictures of found hearts on the sidewalk @gumloveetc and encourages everyone to look down more. She discovered a late-in-life love of poetry through Brooklyn Poets workshops and is a member of the Brooklyn-based poetry collective Sweet Action. “Melville in New York” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology.

Melville in New York

My pipe is nicer than you might expect.
It has a winged dove carved starboard side,
the dark brown wood rubbed soft by my old thumb
on countless nights outside in rain, in snow
near trash, the ash sucked clean and still, the ache.
The need to find a core more still than mine
is greater than the need to stay inside
or stay alive. When I was young I worked
so hard to stay alive, my mind abuzz with plans
spooling out like morning cast until
my net was full—doormen, the cops, my bride.
But their gaze was not the balm I craved,
it couldn’t shake me free or pull me from the sea.
So I smoked, shot smack, drank up. Not much
could come between my dove and me, crouched
low, in shame, in wind, not salt enough
to stay on land, but there are things I miss.
A night of song, a friend along, an orchestra,
a gallery, a quiet place to think. Now my mind
has spots in it where at night birds alight, touching
down on an archipelago strewn with shards
and shells, on shores, where in dark eggs hatch
so gulls can feed on the turtle-young who crawl
under the palms, the moon, my dove, my pipe
their gain, so slight, so like my threshold of regret.


Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem for the Brooklyn Poets blank verse workshop taught by Jason Koo. Everyone should take his blank verse workshop—I ended up taking it twice! But I still can’t scan a line of poetry correctly. I liked the idea of trying to fit the rambling of an unspooling mind into the tight framework of blank verse, and making the rueful muttering of an addict into an incantation, a meditation on being outside your own life.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing box-shaped poems about the pace of technological change and what we lose in terms of our humanity with advances in efficiency. My internal clock was set to busy signals and boring car trips. Time feels different now, it’s all fits and starts and tangled-up expectations of ever-increasing ease and engagement. Lately I’ve been spending way too much time caught in those heinous telephone auto queues, which definitely does not feel like progress. It feels like a complex society imploding! The challenge is how to write about it without sounding like Andy Rooney shouting from a porch rocker.

I also keep coming back to a series of blank verse poems I started last year from different perspectives of those involved in a terrible tragedy in Massachusetts. A house had to be razed because it was so filled with refuse, overflowing with garbage, junk and, yes, some human remains. A mother and her children had been living there for years. It’s a horrible story. The older kids were getting up and going to school, leaving the babies and toddlers, outwardly normal, inside squalor. The house was on the same block as the police precinct in a small idyllic town. I’m fascinated by what it felt like in there for the mother and the kids, and the forces at play in that physical space.

And, it’s February, so I just wrote a couple of poems about love and marriage.

What’s a good day for you?

Any day that includes a long, long walk. Especially if I find some hearts on the ground. I’ve been obsessively photographing naturally occurring hearts on the sidewalk for the past year and a half and posting them on Instagram. Now they find me. Brooklyn is a walker’s paradise.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Space. I was living in a shoebox on East 19th Street in Manhattan with my now husband. We were cramped and cranky. We heard across the bridge people had things like multiple rooms and hallways … a friend from college grew up on the street where we now live and we got to know the area by hanging out at his house. I couldn’t believe how beautiful and neighborhood-y it was, so when a cheap place on his block opened up we came running.

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?

It’s been almost 20 years since I landed in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. There was nothing intentional about putting down roots here, it just kind of happened, but it’s been a fantastic place to raise a family. My kids grew up running amok in Fort Greene Park and I still often walk to and from work through the park. It’s part of our family DNA now. When spring hits and everything bursts into bloom, there is no place on earth more lovely. It’s been wild to bear witness to the intense gentrification here and all its messy paradoxes. When Mr. Coco opened on Myrtle ten years ago we all did a happy dance. Fresh cilantro! But it’s been painful seeing so many friends and neighbors get priced out. Of course, many of my neighbors were already saying the same when we arrived. And so it goes. We are constantly in each others’ faces trying to figure it out together and it feels good to be in the whirl of it all, working hard to support community and all its moving parts. Except for the Pratt Station post office which remains the most dysfunctional place I have ever encountered anywhere on earth—it’s a form of self-flagellation to try and retrieve a package.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

The other day, I was thinking about when Obama was sworn into office in 2009 and I was chaperoning a school ice-skating trip to the old rink in Prospect Park before the big renovation when nothing was art-directed yet and the snacks were limited to watery hot chocolate, churros and over-salted popcorn. All these little kindergartners from different cultures and backgrounds were sliding around, clinging to the sides and whatever adult they could grab, then the rink music dipped out. Suddenly everyone just kind of stopped and turned their faces up to those old megaphone speakers and listened to the crackle of Obama’s voice taking the oath under a colorless January sky. I remember thinking, yes, Brooklyn.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I’ve only been reading, writing and thinking about poetry for a few years and as I got started I was looking for a place to feel supported and inspired but also challenged to look at my own work critically without fear. Putting thoughts to paper, while exhilarating, is also kind of scary. The permanence freaks me out! And reading out loud can be just plain terrifying. I have been really lucky to fall in with Sweet Action, a local poetry collective started by two excellent poets who met at a Brooklyn Poets workshop. Members are so generous with their time and feedback, and the work shared is really eclectic and interesting. But it all started for me with Brooklyn Poets workshops which are an amazing resource for anyone regardless of experience. I like that you can learn about formal technique or something wacky like somatic poetry, and the vibe is really welcoming. More importantly, you can hang with other poets, let all those other voices wash over you, and then get up there and do your thing in a room full of folks who are into it!

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Last February, I was feeling really uninspired and all caught up in this navel-gazing flutter of How-Do-You-Write-Poems. Then I picked up The Two Yvonnes by Jessica Greenbaum, whose workshop I had taken, and was just so warmed by the pleasure of reading it. She lives down the street from me and I ran into her soon after. She said something so simple and affirming along the lines of, you know, it’s just us, talking to each other, telling each other stories. At the time, that felt transformational. I just breathed this big sigh of relief and got back into the pleasure of telling stories. A really great part of taking Brooklyn Poets workshops for me is getting to know the work of a local poet whose poems I might not have stumbled across yet. It’s been really cool reading the work of folks I’ve taken workshops with like Jessica and Jason Koo, Joshua Mehigan, Natalie Eilbert and David Tomas Martinez. These guys are all amazing!

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Right now my mentors are the awesome members of Sweet Action, who show up every month and try some shit out. Polished, almost finished, unformed, just a thought in search of a host, whatever. Every time we meet it makes me think about how to construct a poem and connect to a reader in a new way.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I found myself rereading Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas recently. On some level, I think what I read really early on in life set my internal ear and still influences me. Particularly Dylan Thomas and his mad alliterative jumble. Under Milkwood is a play that starts in the pre-dawn dreams of a town and wafts through everyone’s stories until evening. The language is delicious and over the top, it’s like a drunken Dr. Seuss spouting out tender insights about the human condition, our yearnings, our secrets and heartbreak. I love how he joins everyone’s consciousness and gives us this experience of an intimate voyeur. It’s one long joyous song weaving us together like so many strands of the same brain. It’s a great antidote to feeling lost on your own island.

I discovered the poet Josh Bell recently. His poem “Vince Neil Meets Josh in a Chinese Restaurant in Malibu (after Ezra Pound)” from Alamo Theory just kills me. It starts, “Back when my voice box / was a cabinet-full of golden vibrators” … How better could you capture the poignant powerful allure of hair-metal excess and its endless circle of need/fulfillment? Well, it only gets more perfect from there, please go read it right now. Even if you’ve read it before, you need to read it again. Go!

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’m a Melville fan and loved Billy Budd but I haven’t read Moby Dick, which is kind of funny since my poem “Melville in New York” is riffing on themes from it. My husband took literally ten years to read it all the way through and we had many conversations about it along the way, so I guess I absorbed a little of the existential salt but I’d love to take it on a long vacation. As far as poems, I feel like I have only scratched the surface, I’m still working my way through the huge Oxford Book of American Poetry that my mother-in-law gave me a while back. That thing is a door stop, it could break your toe!

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?

Paper books, definitely not digital. I still equate reading on a screen with watching TV instead of doing my homework. Whatever I’m doing online makes me feel like I’m sneaking Miami Vice and MTV instead of reading Dubliners or the Odyssey. Plus, books are just better for savoring. I like to fold the page corner down and come back later to rediscover what it was that made my pulse leap. I have a stack of books on the floor next to my bed, and I’m usually ignoring most of them. I’ll nurse something long and dense, like SPQR by Mary Beard, for months but then stay up all night to devour something like Trevor Noah’s recent book. It made me laugh so hard, I made my mom read it and now my daughter’s got it. I’m reading a collection of stories by Joy Williams which is really peculiar and wonderful, and good to turn to in between other books. Often, I find it hard to stay awake for more than a few lines of anything before bed and there’s rarely any other time in my day to read. Honestly, after a long day full of the usual joys and bullshit, sometimes I’d just rather play spider solitaire.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Amtrak. I have been traveling between Boston and NYC on the train a lot recently and being on the quiet car is the best oasis for reading and writing. Do they still have that writer’s residency where you travel the country on Amtrak? I would love to do that!

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the Brooklyn Navy Yard and am always looking for ways to get inside and poke around. It’s such a rich window into the past with all this stuff you just don’t see anymore like a working dry dock. The BLDG 92 Museum did a lovely job capturing the history. The whole place kind of reminds me of Busy Town from those Richard Scary children’s books with all the machinery and vehicles buzzing around. Since I live nearby, many of my walks, runs, commutes to drop off kids at school or to past jobs have taken me regularly around its edges. Going inside the gates for stuff like an art show or tour has this excitement of stepping into a secret off-limits place. I’m psyched about the plans to make it more accessible to the public but also worried about all that decaying splendor disappearing. The creepy intrigue of Admiral’s Row is already toast. The new Naval Hospital Cemetery Memorial Landscape park, this tiny oasis at the corner of Flushing and Kent, is lovely. It’s filled with lush, wild, herbaceous grasses, simple wooden and stone raised paths and even a bee hive. It smells amazing in spring and summer, right there next to the gritty BQE underbelly.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate midsize black holes found hiding in blobbular
And what I am looking for in a big box store you may find
     before I am born
For every twelve pack tastes to me as good as it will taste to you.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s a borough full of free-flowing mitzvahs, no matter what your beliefs (or lack thereof in my case) … call them what you want, but acts of grace abound here!