January 15–21, 2018
Christine Gardiner’s first book of poems, My Sister’s Father, was recently published by Black Lawrence Press, and her work also appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. She holds an MFA from Brown University and a PhD from the University of Denver and is an assistant professor of liberal arts at the College of New Rochelle, School of New Resources, where she is edified by her students and their stories.
I watched my sister watch my father waiting
for the elevator in an airport
on the television in the living room.
There was chain-link by the sandlot
and a starship and a robot, but
I could only see the flicker of my father
in the hallway, with his black assault dogs
heaving thickly through their tusks and
his broken lion chained up in the coat closet.
Still my feet were set in concrete,
and I turned so slowly from one problem
to the other that I was frozen solid
at their center, and the whole world
came into an indolent orbit around me.
And I knew the walls were closing in
because the harlequin darkling beetles
flashed the portent, and because they lashed
electric with their iridescent wings,
and because the walls were closing in.
We were cloistered at these interstices
like demons with neatly pleated wings.
My sister was assisted to the ceiling
as I floated backward on my back
above the driveway like a vehicle
of transient romance or nuclear family—
perfectly balanced and ready to detonate
like the matchbox car bomb I watched my father
stitch into my sister’s intestines or
the cursed words he inscribed in the veins
of the trees in the backyard, where
the sycamore disguised a secret passage
to the hallway, where I watched my sister
watch my father through the keyhole.
He stood on his toes and deliberately
folded the handgun into the bedding
on the top shelf of the linen closet
in the bathroom. Then let himself
out the window. We went back to bed,
but in the morning, our father was there,
the gun was gone, and the linen closet
had evaporated from the bathroom.
It was hard to know what we knew we saw.
—From My Sister’s Father, Black Lawrence Press, 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
As a child, I had a series of recurring dreams. They were so frequent and so vivid that I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between dreamspace and waking life. This poem is composed entirely of images from those dreams and attempts to capture their landscape and logic. It also functions as an emotional turning point in the book My Sister’s Father.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on an experimental, web-based memoir, published under the pen name Pet Murmur.
The first phase of the project was Boy Friends, a serialized alphabet book about boys that narrates my personal history from Adam through Zachary. Each poem is a true confession, dedicated to a real man from my past, so before posting each installment, I would reach out to its subject with a draft of the text, ask for his input, and request permission to use his name and/or image on the site. It was a cathartic process and a real exercise in embarrassment.
Now I’m working on the second phase of the project: Confessional Poetry. These “acts of contrition” are inspired by the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Penance. Each piece narrates a personal sin, failure or wrongdoing to correspond to one of the Ten Commandments. Like Boy Friends, it is a permissions-based project, and the content of each piece is corroborated by its characters.
As a whole, the Pet Murmur project is about innocence, experience and identity—how we learn to be ourselves—and appropriates simple didactic tropes like the ABCs and the 123s to explore the terror and complexity of knowledge itself.
What’s a good day for you?
A long walk and a hot meal with a good friend.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I followed my heart.
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’ve lived between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook since I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, in which time the expansion of Brooklyn Bridge Park has dramatically changed the fabric of daily life in the neighborhood.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I am fascinated by the culture and ritual surrounding alternate side street cleaning.
One morning, for example, I double-parked in front of my building and, according to neighborhood custom, left my phone number on the dashboard. I went back upstairs to finish getting ready for work and was just headed back out the door when I received a call from an angry young woman. I ran downstairs and hurriedly moved the car. The whole process took about five minutes, and the girl was irate. She pulled up next to me, yelled some obscenities and gave me the finger.
As she drove away, I saw she had Jersey plates.
I was shaken, so I went to the bodega and told the proprietor, Mrs. Lee, about what had happened. She gave me a cup of coffee and a chocolate and some good advice. She said, “Next time someone rushes you, move slower. Smile and wave and take your time.”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
In the spring of 2016, I took a Brooklyn Poets manuscript workshop that changed my life. The workshop was led by Joe Pan, a brilliant editor, who consciously builds community and opened his home to us. It felt good to be a student again, and I was really impressed by everyone’s work. Since the class ended, the women in the group—Barbara Schwartz, Elizabeth Devlin, Donna Hunt and I—have continued to meet regularly to champion each other’s writing.
I also collaborate with photographer Emily Dryden and am inspired by the women at Underwater New York.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Reading Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a formative experience.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been studying poetry since I was fifteen and have had many influential teachers and mentors. As a young person, I always felt counterfeit, and the presence of great poets in my life gave me permission, again and again, to write.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
My students and I have been talking about Claudia Rankine, the Racial Imaginary Institute and The Whiteness Issue.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I want to read the mystic poets.
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 interested in the culture of street exchange, and for the last several years, my reading has been largely directed by books that I’ve found on the street.
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 some real love poems.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’ve always done my best writing while walking around.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the Nethermead in Prospect Park. I’m a regular at Sahadi’s grocery and Mazzola Bakery. Bessie’s Brooklyn is a secret arts salon in Bushwick, and Sunny’s Bar and Jalopy Tavern in Red Hook are special places. Prema Yoga Brooklyn is a second home to me, and I love to be in classroom at the College of New Rochelle’s Brooklyn campus at Restoration Plaza in Bed-Stuy.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:
I know these lines too well to fill in the blanks, so I will celebrate and quote Walt Whitman.
“I celebrate myself and sing myself.
And what I assume you shall assume.
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
It’s the only place that’s ever felt like home.