June 12–18, 2017
Brendan Lorber is a writer and editor. His first full-length collection of poetry, If this is paradise why are we still driving?, will be published by Subpress this fall. He is the author of several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (ButterLamb Press, 2014). His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Fence, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and elsewhere. Since 1995, he has published and edited Lungfull! magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature which prints the rough drafts of contributors’ work in addition to the final version, in order to reveal the creative process. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a 500-acre necropolis.
There’s comfort in knowing
worse monsters than us exist
but only a monster would be okay
with that Like when you discover
how many problems can be solved
with the demands of soapy water
on salmonella or a slow leak in the line
You’re like this works almost
as well as forgetting about the problem
until larger ones emerge to make
the original seem quaint I should
call you or someone to work it out
Sometimes we get forgetful or
a new phone to distract us from
the much worse trouble those distractions
require The kids in the phone factory
Would they be happy you dropped
yours in the toilet at the bar?
The factory in a country where the word
slave is illegal because slaves are too
important to acknowledge Everyone
wants your life if it would make theirs
a bit better but but most of the world’s
bucket lists are just lists of nearby towns
with drinkable water for your bucket
Maybe enough to mix with soap
or solvent-based amnesia or enveloped
in an exchange where levels of
morality are traded for none at all
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Some poems appear suddenly like a little door in your house you never noticed before and the wild realm beyond it. “Manufactured Discontent” was not one of those poems. It emerged slowly, like America. You could say it took America 241 years to be finished, but finishing a country and finishing a poem are not exactly parallel experiences.
I was at Reel Life, a now long-gone video rental joint off the F train near Prospect Park, unable to find something to watch. The checkout guy in a VanDutch cap was standing on the counter setting up a movie on the screen by the ceiling. It was Manufacturing Consent, the Noam Chomsky doc that I’d only seen bits of before. The rest of the night was all about you, America.
American exceptionalism is real, just not in the way that the right insists. Any old totalitarian regime can use war, slavery and terror to get its groove on. But to make everyone think the regime is legit despite the evidence requires the people to have a sweet skill set that includes amnesia and a neck limber enough to look away no matter which direction the obvious is coming at them from. The exceptional genius of this place is its ability to absorb enormous political resistance, like a giant wetland or liver, with little effect. We’re encouraged to engage in condoned dissidence, the institutional sweet spot where you can protest just enough to feel good about yourself, but not enough to effect change. You know that thing where you and everyone you know have such dirty hands that your hands and everything else is really mostly dirt and washing would be a very bad idea.
It took about fifteen years of rewriting, and one day interviewing Chomsky up in Boston for the Poetry Project newsletter, for this poem to finally accrete around the ideas it wanted to contain. The poem is more frame than picture—the boundaries within which action can happen determine what kind of action there is. Several times over the years all the evidence pointed to the poem being done, but really it wanted to transform again. Maybe the same is true of America.
What are you working on right now?
My first full-length book of poetry, If this is paradise why are we still driving?, due out this fall from Subpress. As soon as I’m done with this interview I’m meeting my editor for a drink, maybe at Sea Witch on 5th Ave. I’ve been working on this single book for twenty years and now it is ready.
And there’s also a novel, a thriller, which maybe you will read in the exciting world of the future. But only if you like con-artist art thieves who get into hot water, not for the things they steal, but for the secret they share.
What’s a good day for you?
Every day starts good with that moment of infinite grace before all the elements of your situation solidify from the gorgeous void. But after that moment, the specificity of consciousness emerges like a bad first date telling you all these things nobody should ever have to hear. A good day is one where those disasters of your personality become kernels of empathy towards oneself and compassion to those around you. There are things I (routinely fail to) do to coax a day in that direction—a long walk, meeting up for breakfast and then writing. But sometimes I manage to pull it off, permitting the cleared meadow to feel possible and the possible to be imminent. Less about doing something that makes the day good and more about entering a state, however precarious. Like looking at a half-empty glass of water and knowing soon it’ll all evaporate and the invisible sugar in there will become rock candy. And candy is magic. Especially candy from the invisible. Like, if that can happen, what other delectables are available to join us all? A good day is sugar all over.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Love. And the subway. Despite the smoke conditions that envelop them both.
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 don’t really consider myself a true Brooklynite because I grew up on Perry Street in Manhattan (long since given over to the oligarchs) and only moved here a couple decades ago. I moved to a block where two streets dead-end into Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s the highest point in Brooklyn, called Battle Hill because the first big skirmish of the Revolutionary War happened here (the rebels lost, but only after taking out most of the high-ranking redcoats). Because of its unique geography, thunderstorms nestle here and create cannon-based reenactments all summer. At the time I showed up, the neighborhood was more of an unnamed Temporary Autonomous Zone between Park Slope and Sunset Park. This block in particular was the best place to bring a stolen car to strip it if you weren’t one of those fancy car thieves with access to a chop shop in Willets Point or pre-gent Bushwick. After you were done, you’d set it on fire to get rid of evidence. This ensured that every one or two weeks the entire block would be tired, having been woken up by an exploding gas tank at 3 AM. It was also the block for gentlemen to have clandestine meetings in their car with business associates or sex workers. There was also a dealer/user who didn’t seem to own a shirt but definitely did have a machete. His highs would coincide with our great dane Sirius’s midnight walk. He would yell down the hill to us, “Sirius, you are the second sexiest motherfucker on this block.” During the gentrification transition, developers came and knocked down almost half the block and dug a deep pit for future townhouse foundations. But then they ran out of money and the pit became a brackish swimming hole for local kids and mosquitoes. A hyperlocal Gowanus Canal, only gross. The block’s mostly fancy now, which contributes to my sense of living in exile in the city where I grew up.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Even though the block is now mostly fancy, you can never achieve 100% Disney. One summer afternoon we were all hanging out on the sidewalk when a car pulled up across the street. Driver got out, walked between his car and the next, undid his pants and started peeing. We all stared, annoyed, but only my neighbor Scott seemed really taken aback. “Oh come on, man. That’s my dentist.”
There are other stories that I can’t tell because they would jack up the people in them. They include lines like “I helped him move to Queens,” “Why would I lie?” and “When you’re able to stand again, tell your boss what I told you.”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Western civilization is really good at weaponizing individuals against each other. Eastern civilization probably is too, and everything in between, but I’m drenched in whatever kind of civilization gets filtered down to us here in the boroughs which is less civilization and more a collection of urges that sort of get along, out of a shared existential jeopardy and sense of amusement. Within that, and because there are so many poets living in this place, there are all these loosely affiliated collectives. In the overlaps, interesting evolutions happen. To borrow an idea from someone who borrowed it from someone else, the community helps me understand the difference between knowing as in I know a fact and knowing as in I know a guy. Because poetry is the least commodifiable of the arts, its practitioners don’t have the traditional capitalist carrots available to them. Some poets accept this non-availability and engage in writing as a practice, an end in itself. And having a community of like-minded acolytes is what makes that sustainable. It’s relatively easy, given the sheer numbers here, to find people who do what you do and enjoy talking about it. It’s less easy to find people who you feel a real affinity with, especially where the economic demands are such that nobody has any time to write, let alone hang out in an expansive way with other writers. By expansive I mean not just help with writing and publishing but with a life that can be brought into ever-closer alignment with the states of mind demanded of poetry. Like the first week of our Brooklyn College MFA when one of us discovered that the New York residency requirement for free tuition could be met by walking to the stationary store on Flatbush Avenue, buying a blank lease form, filling in the address of a shitty New York City apartment and backdating it two years. Not that anyone would do that.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The poets of Brooklyn-based organizations like Ugly Duckling Presse and Wendy’s Subway provide the sense that something wonderful is afoot.
Aside from Walt and Hart, the first poets I thought of through the Brooklyn filter were the ones I got to know in the Brooklyn College MFA program. Just like the best parts of a lot of poetry readings are the talking before and the drinking after, most of that program took place on the long subway ride to and from the last stop on the 2/5 trains. The group of us probably spent more time under the smiling eye of Dr. Zizmor on the train than sitting around the workshop table—so that when we did sit at the table we could say and do things that were sublime. (I’m still not sure what sublime means, but it seems like it probably works here.)
When Anselm Berrigan walked in on the first day, a couple of us were talking about love in the dumb way that anyone talking directly about anything ruins it. Anselm fished around in his backpack, pulled out some echinacea eyedrops and leaned his head back. “Love,” he growled to nobody in particular. “Love is a social construct.” I was too afraid to talk to him for about 10,000 years after that.
As the year progressed, Audrey Raden and Tom Devaney argued a lot because Audrey, whose work is way over every line in the best way, had a habit of using a particularly derogatory word. “That’s really insulting,” Tom said, explaining why. “Sorry, Tom, but that’s how people talk,” she replied. Things got increasingly tense for months until she read one poem that really went for it. We all watched Tom’s face get way red. When she was done, there was dead silence. Tom got to his feet. His chair tipped over. Is he going to walk out? No. Worse. He marched the length of the table towards Audrey. Maybe even he didn’t know what he was going to do. Then Tom leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead, went back, picked up his chair and sat. The tension broke. Best workshop crit in history. And wordlessly, we knew that despite everything, we were all in this together.
I remember Marco Villalobos’s poem “Nobody Move” in which everything else did and the curtain was pulled back on how America really works.
Robert Bové was slightly older than all of us and had a moustache which led Tom to speculate that he was an undercover fed, sent to keep tabs on our teacher Allen Ginsberg.
I was always acutely aware of the other poets who’d sat in that room in Boylan Hall: Marcella Durand, Paul Beatty, Sapphire, Sharon Mesmer, Amy King, David Trinidad, John Yau, Star Black, many of whom I’d gotten to know at the Friday night Nuyorican Poets Café readings that would sometimes go till 4 AM.
I thought also of Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery who had founded the program decades earlier, who respected each other despite their aesthetic differences. I’m probably misremembering what I was told about their détente—John liked Allen but wondered how a person could just keep writing the same poem over and over again. Allen liked John but thought his poems were obvious signs of something biologically, physically very wrong with his brain.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Why the past tense? They still influence me, even if the some are dead. Frank McCourt was my high school English teacher. His teaching style mainly involved leaning on his desk, arms crossed, trying out on us stories that would later appear in Angela’s Ashes. And generally trying to cut through all the adolescent fronting that most people continue to do until their deathbeds. He told us that he would quit teaching the moment he no longer enjoyed it. And then, after a year with us, he quit.
I met Genese Grill at the Café Reggio when I was nineteen and she invited me to a utopian enclave she was forming in Hastings. She introduced me to the idea of intentional communities and to the specific concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, which I began believing in, even as its primary advocate Hakim Bey was giving up on the possibility given the economic and cultural pressures squeezing us. It’s like the line from that movie Arguing the World: “Hey, dad, I don’t know if I believe in god anymore.” “You think god cares what you think?” Creative spaces, separate from the restrictions of the day-to-day world, these spaces don’t care if you don’t believe in them—it just means you won’t be able to find them. And if you do believe in them, you’re probably in one right now, even on line at the grocery with three kids, or stuck in an elevator with your boss.
My father, Marvin Lorber, was an abstract expressionist painter and a guy who had a full-time job to cover rent and food for his kids. His limited money and extremely limited time made it difficult to create work. Also having two kids when he was in his 50s probably knocked the wind out of him. But he did, until the final days, exploring what painting made possible which became more from year to year. When I was a little kid, we used to rent a cheap place in Sag Harbor. At the time it was largely a town of artists and weirdos, and most of the mansions were still potato fields. Every day we’d go to Sagaponack Beach. While my sister and I splashed in the Atlantic, he sat in a chair facing away from the water, drawing the dune grass in the wind. From him I learned which direction to sit, and how to keep going.
Lou Asekoff and Allen Ginsberg, my teachers at Brooklyn College, helped identify what I was on about, even if it didn’t quite align with their own investigations. And there’s Lou’s quietly exploding bodhisattva selflessness in particular, a north star to be guided by.
Tracey McTague showed me how to integrate life, in all its quotidian and majestic threads, with poetry. And that poetry depends on all those elements.
Please don’t tell Aurora, age nine, that she too is a mentor of mine, one of those avatars of majesty, because she’ll insist her playing with my phone just five more minutes is part of a larger lesson I have yet to learn.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Two books involving the mail:
Matthew Burgess’s Slippers for Elsewhere. Just received in the mail from Matthew. So the book feels like a gift, which it is, and which turns all the ideas in it into gifts from his consciousness to mine in a way that sidesteps ego, self, and all that other nonsense.
Also rereading Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth to Aurora at bedtime—the very same copy that I read when I was her age. I wrote Mr. Juster a letter back then telling him how much I loved the book and that I was also a writer, but was having terrible writer’s block. He wrote back immediately. “It’s always nice to hear from someone who’s read my book. Especially from people who liked it. Sorry to hear about your writer’s block. We writers often have that problem, but it passes.”
Living in New York, I try to go out to readings a lot too. I just saw Ariana Reines and Anselm Berrigan read in Jeffrey Grunthaner’s terrific series at Hauser & Wirth gallery in Chelsea. The night’s theme was subjectivity, which was open enough to range from Jim Brody’s visits to Anselm’s house when he was a kid to Ariana’s visionary experience with the sun on a Lower East Side bench.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
My own. Because it hasn’t come out yet. But this fall it will. Part of why it hasn’t come out yet is because, between having edited Lungfull! magazine for years and just enjoying reading in general, I’ve been too busy reading other people’s work.
But for real, it’d be good to read some practical books, just in case. Like How to Defuse an Old WWII Torpedo You Found on the Beach or DIY Tracheotomies in Under Five Minutes.
Also Milton’s Paradise Lost which I keep thinking I’ve read, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t.
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’ll usually have one dominant read going, with several others that interrupt.
I imagine people have a comfy chair they like to read in. My comfy chair is mostly the embrace of a hundred drowsy, irritable commuters on a packed subway car. I like having a couple hours where I’m unable to do anything except read, which the subway is excellent for. Plus the environmental awfulness amplifies the desire to exist inside a different narrative or poem. An hour ago I was holding a pole creepily hot from the last person who was clutching it. My ability to turn pages was physically restricted by some dude’s shoulder, so from East Broadway to Bergen Street I had to be happy with the page I was on. If you want to know about page twenty-three of Ali Power’s A Poem for Record Keepers, I’m kind of a big-shot scholar on it. Other times, I have to hold the book too close to my face to focus my eyes, which is frustrating but opens new paths for creative reading. The overcrowding and delays are pretty exasperating. But the more Governor Cuomo fails to fund the MTA, the more I get to read.
Oh—I missed my stop last week while reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The last time that happened was with Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses. Once I realized my stop was behind me, I just stayed there in the mobile underworld all the way to Coney Island, finishing the book.
I prefer physical books—they broadcast to others what you’re reading as a form of potential connection. I love seeing others reading books/people I love. I like putting notes and things in books as mementos of when I read them. I like being reminded of things, though not necessarily of what they remind me of.
Of course, a great deal of the reading I do is to my daughter Aurora at bedtime, lying on the carpet by her bed until one or both of us falls asleep. Before Aurora, if I woke up on the floor I’d feel pretty lousy about my life choices.
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 sequence of poems to be read only after my death. Or only after the reader’s death. Or maybe a poem written after my death for someone not yet born.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Subway for reading. Bars for writing. Sometimes. Except this one bar where a bro grabbed my journal while I was writing in it. That’s when the one bar fight of my life happened. Violence is almost never the answer, especially with soft poet hands. But this time it worked. I was more surprised than anyone. Got my book back. The bartender ejected the bro and his cackling backup singers, no longer cackling. I ordered another whiskey and kept writing with extremely shaky handwriting.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Secret East River Beach—Not on a map because it only exists for a few hours a day at low tide. In addition to Brooklyn sea glass, it has ten-inch bolts that fall from the bridge directly above. Look out!
Train yard in Sunset Park—Just as you make pacts with people in kindergarten to get married if you’re both still single at age forty, I made a pact with a friend that we would live together in an old train car there if we were still on our own when we were cranky old men.
Green-Wood Cemetery—500 woodland acres in which to get lost. I always bring a penny for ferry toll on the River Styx, just in case.
Sunny’s—And all of Red Hook, including that maraschino cherry factory that was secretly a weed farm, Hometown Bar-B-Que where I always run into someone I haven’t seen in like ten years, and that derelict streetcar behind Fairway that might be gone now.
Brooklyn Navy Yard—It feels like the kind of place you should sneak around in late at night, almost get caught and then have a great story for the rest of your life. Which is also true of Green-Wood Cemetery.
Atlantic Yards—One of my earliest memories is of going to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at BAM when I was four. I had dreams about the Atlantic Yards for years after as a kind of contextless mythic space and it was only one day in my 20s when I turned a corner and saw the tracks for the first time since then that I realized what I’d been dreaming of all this time. In the 1950s, Buckminster Fuller almost built a geodesic stadium there for the Dodgers but Robert Moses blocked it so the Dodgers left Brooklyn.
Maimonides Medical Center ER—Everything worked out okay both times and the chief liked my idea for a motto: “The best worst place in the world.”
The parking lot at the Marine Park Golf Course after hours—It’s not really my story to tell, but it’s a good one.
The mansions around Ditmas Park—My best friend in high school lived in one. I crashed my motorcycle in front of another. Pretty sure they are all haunted, or will be.
Gowanus Canal–What’s living under the surface doesn’t yet have a name, but it has one for us. It will replace humans someday and I want to get on its good side now.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate as an adult the food I hated as a kid,
And what I now cook for dinner you will eat and enjoy because
it’s all we’ve got,
For everything you say bounces off me as good as it sticks to 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.
Technicolor Dream Yards
This mural is that one’s father
says Buckminster Fuller: the best and final Dodger
What’ll an artisanal beanstalk do for you? Jack
the antagonist from every future myth and rob
our finely spun backstory of the silken sin
that lets us all breathe outside a pen
Playing it close is a kind of love
like hiding on the bridge to Brooklyn
in a supergroup with Cobain Winehouse Cohen and Biggie
“Hilde, do you know where we can hide?”
“Sure, I know a place right across the Brooklyn Bridge where they’ll never find us.”
“Where is it?”
—On The Town (1949)