May 22–28, 2017
Cecily Schuler is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based genderqueer writer and performer. Their work is featured in Jai-Alai, Baphash, the Offing, great weather for MEDIA, Duende and elsewhere. They are an assistant editor at Drunken Boat and run Union Square Slam, a weekly poetry open mic and slam in the heart of New York City every Tuesday. While receiving an MFA in writing and social activism at Pratt Institute, and attending residencies at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Home School: Miami and the Vermont Studio Center, they’ve been working on a full-length experimental poetic memoir. Their first chapbook, 296, is available on Next Left Press. This past spring, they received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for study in Joe Pan’s Revisit & Revise manuscript workshop.
When You Call Your Mother, She Will Tell You All Kinds of Stories
How your aunt fell asleep at the wheel and drove herself off a road running through the backwoods of Cherokee County. How this time the road was already in a valley, so she didn’t have that far to fall. How they found her uterus littered with fibroids, an angry clutch of grapes refusing to hold any additional seed. It doesn’t escape you that your aunt is only two years older than you, and that’s important. Not because intergenerational love can’t be a thing, but because before your uncle met your aunt, he stood outside his bathroom door while you showered, joked through the door about having seen your naked tits on Girls Gone Wild: Spring Break Edition. He changes his clothes outside the bathroom door while you scrub yourself with soap. You are using his shower instead of the one down the hall because Michael is home. Thanks to trauma surgeons in Chattanooga, Michael is also still alive. Michael is missing eighty percent of his face after a deer rifle went off underneath his chin while he and his wife argued about who she had slept with the night before and it is not like he didn’t have a reason to be concerned, I mean, all five of her babies have different dads and Michael fathered Number Three, spitting image, and adopted Numbers Two and Four and they all live in a singlewide on her mother’s trailer lot and she has a job at the gas station off a two-lane country road, which is also the main road, and now Michael is one less mouth to feed and/or hear from because Michael’s mouth is in blood-streaked shards on their carpet, his tongue a tangle of twisted muscle, nose, cheekbone, hard palate, a confetti of bone. There is a sharp and blatant U where his brow used to furrow. This was the exit. He has one eye left. We were all supposed to be hopeful he would still be able to see light, but his remaining vision dimmed to darkness within weeks. Michael is “home” now, stacked into the guest room at the end of the hall. Michael is wasted on oxycontin and, for once in his life, no one will give him shit for it. Michael doesn’t remember what happened. His wife’s story says he threatened suicide. We don’t know how to believe her. We tell him there was an accident. The bathroom at the end of the hall is littered with pill bottles and urine catchment buckets and Michael is so wasted so he needs his space to access the bathroom at any given moment. There are medical gizmos and catch pans and clothing shoved around the bed, a tight squeeze, your uncle apologizes through licked lips as he presses himself into you while you lean over Michael to change his shirt around the J tube lodged in his stomach and it is not then or during the shower or after you break a two-year stint with sobriety that night with Michael’s brother Charlie, that makes you stop really stop and ask why you came here. It is a few days later, the day you are leaving Murphy. You and your mom are in the house saying goodbye and then driving the two hours to Atlanta to catch five hours back to Seattle. You have said goodbye to Michael. It is still the last time you have seen him, but you haven’t thought that far ahead yet. Your mother knocks on a closed door next to the front entry. An impatient and muffled Yeah booms against the other side. You and your mother enter your uncle’s office. He is facing away from you, typing and mumbling at a computer screen. He does not turn around, even after you both stand there waiting. After a few seconds, your mom approaches him. “We’re leaving soon. Say goodbye.” He continues to stare and grumble and type as your mom hovers over him. He abruptly turns to her, doesn’t get up, hugs her briefly from his chair. “Thank you. Buh-bye.” He lets go of her, and turns to you. His arms widen. “Come give yer uncle a hug,” he growls. He bunches up his face, opens his mouth, sticks out his tongue, and rapidly waggles his whole face back and forth. As in, he is gesturing to you the intention of motorboating your tits. This is where the memory ends. You must have hugged him anyway. Must’ve spent the two hours to Atlanta staring out the car window with icy vomit behind your sternum. Must’ve gotten on the plane, off the plane, home somehow. The next memory in sequence of this story is two months later, when you have worked up an insurmountable degree of nerve to tell your mom that, for the first time in your life, you aren’t coming home for Christmas. You tell her you can’t be around your uncle. You tell her all the things he did to you that week in August when Michael came home. As you speak, memories come sailing towards you from all kinds of time. As you speak, you are re-membering what has been true for you, and your body, and for bodies such as yours, and perhaps for all bodies. That it was never yours. That it is commodified property belonging to white men. That it is defiant and uncontrollable in its morph. That success/worth is defined by the degree your mind can wrap itself around ie silence the body. Kudzu Factor. Constrictor Status. How efficiently you can separate with a smile? You don’t say any of this because it all happens within the six seconds it takes for you to tell your mother about the shower and the bedroom. She interrupts your revelation with a sigh. “Yeah,” she says. “I don’t know why he does that.”
—Originally published in The Felt: Fulling, 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I don’t recall exactly, but I do think the writing of this particular story stemmed from a communication pattern I was noticing/reckoning with when engaging my mother over the phone. Specifically, I generally want to talk about feelings, and she’s more inclined to report the news. What would happen for me is that I’d call feeling upset about something and be choking some feelings back while I listened to my mom catch me up on the family. While I was choking on these feelings, I would be recalling other times when this pattern had come up. At some point, I had remembered having the phone conversation mentioned towards the end of the piece, and the family patterns that led up to that conversation. Clearly, something I needed to reckon with. In learning to be responsible for my own feelings and my needs around those feelings, instead of harboring resentment, I instead chose to write about it.
What are you working on right now?
I have this idea for a new form that literally came to me in a dream. I’m not sure if it’s an organizing principle for a manuscript or some complicated version of a crown of sonnets. Regardless, it’s a thing I continue to return to. Other than that, I am plugging away at the manuscript I brought to Joe Pan’s workshop this season, and actively fundraising/seeking sponsorship for Union Square Slam, the show I run every Tuesday at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division.
What’s a good day for you?
I love a mellow morning, where I can wake up and loaf about at my own pace. I’m kind of a putterer; I like to move between a handful of different tasks. A good day for me is one where I can have my time to do with it what I need, and where those things include soft pants and snacks and me being horizontal. Also, any day the sun is out, the breeze is blowing, and it’s over sixty degrees is A-OK with me.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The short answer is career change. The longer, more vulnerable story is that I was running two businesses in Seattle that were failing in the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis. I went so broke I had to shut the businesses down and move into my car for nearly a year. I had been writing, performing and organizing in Seattle for about five years at that point. I had noticed that my work and community in spoken word arts was very often the only thing that kept me well and engaged as I navigated poverty, access, queerness, chronic health concerns and my relationships to people and places. During that year in the car, in terms of my next step, I joke about having thrown spaghetti at the wall and watching to see what stuck: what stuck was acceptance into Pratt Institute for their new MFA program in writing and activism. So, that’s the spaghetti path I took.
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 have lived in the southeast corner of Bed-Stuy for two years. I have never seen a neighborhood change so rapidly (although the Capitol Hill and Columbia City neighborhoods of Seattle come in at a steady second). It breaks my heart and makes me furious and sad every day. The mixed-income housing on Ralph Ave, directly across the street from the projects, went under construction a year ago, and is now branded as luxury housing, complete with locked trash bin cages and security cameras. The storefront church, where people would pull chairs and speakers and music equipment out onto the sidewalk and play us all home each Sunday last summer, is gone: it’s now a smoke shop. I already need to sidestep drunk white boys stumbling around outside with their open containers in order to get home, and it’s infuriating knowing the cops won’t regulate them the same way they would regulate/harass black men doing the exact same thing in the exact same place.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
This is a challenging question for me to answer. Not being from Brooklyn, or feeling like I have any right to claim Brooklyn whatsoever, I’m not willing to allow myself to define a Brooklyn experience. Or rather, I’d get reductive and say, isn’t every moment currently happening in Brooklyn defining Brooklyn?
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Poetry community has always to a large extent translated into chosen family and a home base for me. In Seattle, we used poetry readings and writing spaces to regularly see one another, to check in around mental health or social issues, to connect and rally and support. Writing community was inherently and specifically a radicalized space. Here in New York City, the poetry readings seem to have a different function, one based more in commerce and social wealth, of exchanging ideas for the sake of offering, not necessarily to incite action. The poetry community/chosen family I have found here in NYC I have worked very hard through a tremendous amount of heartbreak in order to cultivate. It’s left me leery and hesitant in many ways, and in other ways, much stronger and more sure. I needed to build my own “house” and invite those I care for and about to that house, which was new and intimidating and always questionably successful and imperfect.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Timothy DuWhite and Angel Nafis, from the first time I heard their work, have always been making me sit up straight, count my blessings and get washed clean. Every time, I feel seen, saved, nourished and smarter about myself and this world.
Taylor Steele, Kearah-Armonie and Ashley August are three of the most underrated poets in the scene right now. Buy all their books, watch all their films, go to all their shows, learn their names now.
Honorable mention to Queens-based poets Jeanann Verlee, Mason Granger and Itiola Jones, Staten Island poet Thomas Fucaloro, Bronx poet Noel Quiñones and Rockland County poet Rich Villar, for their deep creativity, but more so for their tireless efforts to restore and grow a resourceful poetry community here in the city.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I will literally do anything Corinne Manning suggests I do, in terms of growing my writing practice. The doors that have opened when I follow Corinne’s advice have been mind-boggling.
Tara Hardy not only created Bent Writing Institute, a working-class queer writing group that I accidentally stumbled into in 2009, and eventually taught at, but also gently hoisted me onto a stage behind a mic and said, “Read.” I haven’t stopped since, and I owe all of that to her. Tara grew a queer poetry community where there was none. Because of that community, I was lucky enough to receive mentorship from Ebo Barton, Sara Brickman and Amber Flame, among many others.
There was a point (among many) where I was feeling down and thinking I just shouldn’t bother writing anymore. I attended a writing workshop led by Airea D. Matthews at the old Hugo House in Seattle, and afterwards, approached Airea to thank her for the class. She complimented my work, and I said thanks and mentioned my feeling of defeat. She first looked at me like I had three heads, then said, “Look, you can do whatever you want with your life. But if you’re a writer, you’re going to keep writing, regardless of what you do with it. You don’t choose writing, it chooses you. So, quit if you need to. But don’t expect writing to stop chasing you down. You might as well just keep writing.”
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Nochita, by Dia Felix. Holy [insert slew of expletives here]. I was totally captivated by this book—it’s a fiction narrative in brief lyric essay form. I’m a huge fan of mixed/hybrid genre work—it’s truly the only thing I’m really interested in reading. And the content of Nochita hit super close to home, in terms of an entirely magical human reckoning with the strange and reckless happenings of their world. I really dug the highly developed interior voice of the protagonist.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Phillip B. Williams, Thief in the Interior
jayy dodd, Mannish Tongues
Airea D. Matthews, Simulacra
Jamaal May, The Big Book of Exit Strategies
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water
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 am firmly on team analog. I also barely ever start a book, and rarely finish a book. I do, however, carry a book or two around with the intention of starting it. When it comes to poetry books, I do a lot of flipping about when the inspiration strikes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Other than the aforementioned poetic form I dreamt up, I’d like to work more with repetitive forms like villanelles and pantoums, and eventually work up to a crown of sonnets. I also want to mess way more with complex forms of contrapuntals.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’m partial to beaches or parks, or kind of anywhere I can lay out on my belly outside in the sun out of the way of noise/traffic and be left to my own devices for hours.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
DUMBO, the Brooklyn Museum, that strip of highway that goes along the water across from lower Manhattan. I like wandering the blocks and checking out the craftmanship of the brownstones and residences. I like all of these places, I think, for the same reason: I’m intrigued by what humans have chosen to build, sustain and preserve. It indicates what is valued by a particular group of people in a particular place, and in that way, acts as a historical record. And, once we know some history, we can get critical to the narrative of the place and time we live in. Knowing the full extent of history allows us to make different, better, more just choices.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the pen of Jay and Biggie,
And what I jack from love, you rob Brooklyn of its honest mouth,
For every father I have had has dodged me; as good a recycled sin
as any—what say 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.
(I did a smash-up of the Whitman and Jay Z prompt.)
Oh, I think you missed a comma there, it’s “Why, Brooklyn?”
And, yeah, I ask myself that every day.