March 6–12, 2017
Brett Fletcher Lauer is the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and the poetry editor of A Public Space. He is the author of the memoir Fake Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures and the book of poems A Hotel in Belgium, and the co-editor, with Lynn Melnick, of Please Excuse this Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation. He lives in Brooklyn. “Song” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology.
The life-long medication
had certain side-effects,
images of identifiable
persons, a November
moon, insect sounds
from the natural world
were presented to my body
as a lethal dose and the
prescribed coping mechanisms
failed; replacing sadness
with the dictionary entry
seven words later. It seems
quaint now. Safely, in a safe
manner; without danger;
without hurt. It wasn’t
worthwhile to make a fuss—
where there is no haunting,
the haunting is invented.
All conversations require
a request and answer and
you can imagine I wasn’t
saying much. I stayed in
Elixir Valley hooded in fog,
where orchids aren’t touched
by frost, by strange boys,
where it is safe to begin
burning jasmine, chanting
the holy name. This requires
one sit very still, one listen
for their organs collapsing
in on themselves like temples.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
After the publication of my first book, I was self-conscious about continuing to write poems which were preoccupied with similar subject matter as the book, which for our purposes here, we can just call THE GENERAL SADNESS OF BEING. Thus the Oulipo gesture in this poem of replacing “sadness” with a word seven words later in the dictionary. As if by changing the terms I could change the poem. If I look at my dictionary on my desk now, it appears I most certainly cheated.
What are you working on right now?
Additional poems on theme of THE GENERAL SADNESS OF BEING.
What’s a good day for you?
I love staying in my apartment with my wife and our cat Fig, watching all the crime dramas, American, British, Dutch, whatever. If we leave our apartment and stay in Brooklyn, we are likely going to Sahadi’s, to BAM, to Unnameable Books, to ICY Signs.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I followed a girl to Brooklyn in 1998. She was a year older than me and was attending Pratt. We had been dating on and off since I was in eighth grade. I transferred from the University of Pittsburgh to the New School. The relationship ended two years later.
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?
Having lived in Brooklyn for almost twenty years now, it seems impossible to track the changes, from the openings and closings of storefronts on my block alone, to churches being torn down and high-rise condos being built, to new trees planted on the median with QR codes. One way to track my Brooklyn residency might be the various hats that I have worn during that time, literally: I moved to Brooklyn wearing a distressed green infantry hat. Then I wore a railroad engineer cap. After that there was a pink trucker hat with some graphic on the front, followed by at least three fedoras, one with a feather. Next a baseball hat with BROOKLYN emblazoned across it. Neighbors would yell “Hey Brooklyn” at me. Or “Brooklyn in the house.” Or “Where Brooklyn at?” Then followed various American Apparel hats, most of them colorful and garish. For Christmas, my father-in-law purchased a NETS hat with my name embroidered on the side. I wore it to a game. The ushers greeted me by name. And now I wear a more muted Herschel cap.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I work on the Brooklyn Book Festival, as the poetry committee co-chair with Camille Rankine, and so I know what follows might seem like blatant boosterism, but here it is: every year, even though I’m running around all day working at the festival or behind a booth selling books, it never fails that at some point during the day, especially if the sun is shining and the tent canopy isn’t shaking from the wind, maybe I’ve had a burrito from Chipotle, a foreign feeling overcomes me and I have to remind myself what exactly it is: optimism. It is an optimism that all these words and paper and books have great meaning to a great number of people.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I think of the poetry community as concentric circles with poetry in the center—the further out the circles go, the less connected I am to that community. We might say, the 105th ring is, like, Cowboy Poets. The first ring is much more than just poetry, though it started out that way. Now those are the people whose couches I crashed on when I was going through a divorce.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I’ve recently been rereading Marianne Moore in FSG’s New Collected Poems and spent some time with the work of David Antin after he passed away.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I think I’ve always wanted a mentor. In high school I sent letters to the poets I was reading, a fan letter to Sharon Olds; a letter to Edward Hirsch after reading an article on T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism; a note to Rita Dove about the role of politics in relationship to the poetry and the poet. They all generously replied! Fishing out the letters now, Rita Dove wrote in part: “To my mind, any poem that directs us to look very carefully at the relationship of the individual to the larger world is, in essence, a political poem,” and also “an artist need not feel superfluous to the political movement if he or she remembers that he/she is also an individual who could act politically when he/she is not writing poetry.” That seems like good advice still.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov. This is one passage that stood out:
… I distinctly heard my soul—with a high thin tinkle, drop by drop—dissolving in the emptiness. The drops were rhythmic and ringing, they had that same familiar glassy sound. This may have been a pseudo-hallucination, I don’t know: It’s all the same to me. But at the time I gave this phenomenon a special name: psychorrhea. Meaning “soul seepage.”
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
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’m always in the middle of many books at once, though I’m trying to shift to a more methodical approach. But sadly I’m a slow reader with a short attention span, so that might not work out.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve been reading Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems (Calligram/New York Review of Books, 2017). The introduction notes: “The expression ‘reversible poem’ huiwenshi designates texts that can be read in two directions: in addition to the usual order they can be read in reverse, beginning from the last word and progressing back upward to the first.” But that is not all, as the flap copy notes, “Its greatest practitioner, and the focus of this critical anthology, is Su Hui, a woman who, in the fourth century, embroidered a silk for her distant husband consisting of a grid of 840 characters. No one has ever fully explored all of its possibilities, but it is estimated that the poem—and the poems within the poem—may be read as many as twelve thousand ways.” I mean, I love everything about that, but I’m not attempting it for any number of reasons.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I know this is bratty, but I can only write at home. Sometimes I make notes on my phone on my commute.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The offices for the literary magazine A Public Space (where I edit poetry) are two blocks from my apartment. The offices are in an old stable, which means the ceilings are high, and there are two large doors that swing open to the street. I had my wedding party there, my book parties, hosted book parties for so many of the poets I love, and in the summer, since my apartment doesn’t have a stoop, my wife and I carry over old fedoras, chipped ceramics, books, out-of-date electronics, DVDs, and sit in the sun talking to neighbors.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate reciprocal depression
And what I feel, you believe is a phantom,
For every version of me is as good as lost on you.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.