May 14–20, 2018
Danny Rivera received an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York. His poems and literary criticism have appeared in Washington Square Review, Dislocate, American Book Review, Huizache and other journals. He writes, teaches and lives in Brooklyn. “A Brief History of the 21st Century” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.
A Brief History of the 21st Century
Did you want to be left alone? Mail-order catalogs, magazine reply cards, three-lane highways form an anxious necessity. What is the diagnosis, electric charge? To drag your body across the plaza, Virgen de Guadalupe, ayúdenos, is the dignity of penitence. I have returned for my belongings. In the mountains, children listen to the mouth of war. The men inform me that I am very much alive, if tethered to sleep. At her mother’s breast, an infant answers to the tyranny of faith. As of this writing, there are no casualties. What are you, if not a series of vespers, note by slurred note? More information, redacted, will be revealed following the commercial break. Tell me that I am pretty; please tell me that I am wanted. Without further intervention, the chances of recovery have been calculated at twenty-seven percent. I have learned to reclaim our blood-borne history. Prior to interment, the body must be cleansed in a ritual bath. Is there another name for hunger, a taste for the sacraments?
—Originally published in Newtown Literary #2, Spring/Summer 2013.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wish that I could explain my writing process to make it sound more academic but, like so much of my writing, “A Brief History of the 21st Century” was written in an attempt to process conflict. In this way, the poem was less a creative act and more like a historical record of a difficult time. (Some of the references to conflict are more direct, while elsewhere they are shrouded in metaphor.) The poem, which went through some minor revisions, is one of those rare gifts, in that it basically wrote itself.
What are you working on right now?
I am a high school English teacher as well as a parent, which means that I rarely have the time to work on creative projects. (I am reminded of an article I once read that said writers have to make the time to create.) However, I have been working on a chapbook manuscript called Ancestral Throat, and a piece of fiction—just the second piece of fiction that I’ve ever attempted. At this point, I am not sure that the story holds enough creative heft to justify its existence.
What’s a good day for you?
6:53 AM: Catch the Williamsburg-bound G train, find a seat and read/grade papers (or sleep);
10:45 AM: Students understand a concept, having worked through it on their own;
2:55 PM: Catch the Church Avenue–bound G train, find a seat and read/grade papers (or sleep);
4:00 PM: Receive hugs from my daughter, who tells me about her day.
10:25 PM: The Yankees win!
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The short answer is that I was brought to Brooklyn from Queens by my wife, Laura Modigliani, who is also a poet. Her translations of poems by Florinda Fusco, published in Chicago Review, are especially good.
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 Windsor Terrace for the last seven years. What I like about the neighborhood, as someone who grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, is that it represents the kind of Brooklyn that only seems to exist in the collective imagination, or in film: two- to three-story homes, a sufficient amount of green space and playgrounds for children, and neighbors who help you feel incredibly welcome. Windsor Terrace feels like the opposite of what is happening in Manhattan or elsewhere in Brooklyn—the sameness, the banality of corporate America and private interests taking over, consuming everything else.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
The defining Brooklyn experience I had was not a good one, but I’ve suffered similar experiences in places throughout New York City, so it feels a bit unfair to describe it in this space. Perhaps I should say that the concept of a post-racial America is a long way off, despite the social progress society has made in the last fifty years.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Without community, any creative act is little more than an exercise in ego. I am thankful that I can rely on a number of friends—including fellow poets Gregory Crosby and Reagan Lothes—on whom I can rely for support, guidance and inspiration.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There are far too many to name, but I’ve always been moved by the work of Allen Ginsberg (who taught for years at Brooklyn College), Cynthia Cruz and Ocean Vuong. We all have much to learn from these masters of craft.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Around 2002 I met Deborah Landau, who was teaching a poetry workshop at the New School. Ms. Landau was incredibly supportive of my work; she helped me see that my writing, however undeveloped, had value. Later, while working on my MFA at City College of New York, I had the good fortune of being mentored by world-class faculty, including Elaine Equi, Wayne Koestenbaum and David Groff, among others. These teachers helped me understand—and I’m thinking of a very particular conversation with Elaine, who asked me why there was such little humor in my poems—that there is more to writing than “process” and “art.”
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral is an all-time favorite, but the last book that stood out to me was Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (in a very fluid translation by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies). It is, in very simple terms, a crime procedural, but it is no mere genre exercise. Given its length (566 pages), and the manner in which it dissects police work in the context of Japanese culture, Six Four reads more like a meditation on time and patience. It is an intense book, and I suspect it will stay with me for a long time. The last poem I read that had the same effect on me is “Song of Fulton and Gold,” by Rowan Ricardo Phillips.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been meaning to read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Deborah Landau’s The Uses of the Body. More recently, I’ve heard very good things about Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian and hope to read it soon.
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 always have my hand in a number of books; I rarely read one book at a time, cover to cover. Unless it’s for work, I don’t plan my reading in advance, and typically end up stumbling into a new book when I walk into a store or come across a recommendation. While I recognize the convenience of digital texts, my preference is for physical books, since I’ve always enjoyed the tactile sensation of turning the page. I don’t take notes in the books I read because my mom, who always takes a pragmatic approach to things and was worried I’d damage borrowed schoolbooks, once said: “We have to respect books and the writers who wrote them.”
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve spent so much of my creative life trying to break the rules, so I’d like to try working with the rules by writing a crown of sonnets. I admire (envy?) the poet who has the talent and sense of control required to take on such a difficult task.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to read at my desk at work, once my students have cleared out after the end of class. It feels like a treat, like that candy bar you purposely hid away in a drawer. I only ever write at my desk at home, so that I can look out onto Prospect Park. I’ve done my best work, my most spontaneous work, my most difficult and frustrating work, at this desk, despite the life-changing events (the birth of my first child, losing a parent) that have taken place over the last three years.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Other than Prospect Park, where my family and I spend a lot of time during the summer months, I love the Brooklyn Museum, which is the only place where I’ve seen two of my favorite pieces of art in one place: Kehinde Wiley’s “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps” and Alec Soth’s “Charles, Vasa, Minnesota.”
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this fantasy,
And what I grant you in spirit also belongs to me,
For every thread that encircles me as good as promises arrive
in service to you.
Because there’s Brooklyn, and then there are the places that simply aspire to be Brooklyn.