Poet Of The Week

Diannely Antigua

     August 1–7, 2016

Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet, born and raised in Massachusetts. She received her BA in English from the University of Massachusetts–Lowell where she won the Jack Kerouac Creative Writing Scholarship. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in BOAAT Press, Rust + Moth, Potluck Mag, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Drunk in a Midnight Choir and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with three poet roommates.

Misconception

 
It was Sunday and my mother was washing dishes
after dinner, scraping con-con from the bottom

of the rice pot, the congeal and crisp of grains left
over. She hummed a song from church that day:

Si tú tienes fe como un granito de mostaza.
She hit the falsetto and twirled

her voice around the notes, the spill
of the faucet drowned the rest—

Eso lo dice el Señor.
Maybe she was always drowning, hands

elbow deep in the hem of my pant leg,
the cake batter in the silver KitchenAid mixer.

Maybe a Sunday wasn’t the day to ask,
her hands praising the plates, and my dirty question:

Did you enjoy making me?

I don’t know why I had to know then, why in that moment
all I could think about was my father’s bristled chest on her naked

body and hoping he hadn’t hurt her, his weight on her frame,
muscled arms around supple skin, that he kissed

her mouth like he’d kiss the rim of a beer glass, drinking her
in slowly and sighing after. I hoped that his hands

weren’t too tight on her wrists, and if they were, that she liked it,
the familiar grip unfamiliar.

Maybe my father spoke her name into the darkness, conjuring
her lust. I imagine she called him back into her, spell-dazed

with heat and the need to be conjured again.
And I thought about my father’s lips, pursed like mine, the wet

of his cheek the last time I had dinner at his apartment, the soup
still simmering in the boil of July,

how he topped the bowl with hot sauce and lime. I licked the spoon
and he ladled more, feeding me seconds, twenty-six years too late.

And my mother, still cleaning up
his mess. Still saying,

Yes, bella, I enjoyed it.

 
–Originally published in BOAAT, May/June 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem came from a place of doubt and curiosity. My parents were divorced when I was two years old, and I don’t have any memories of them being romantic or even holding hands. I don’t know what that would’ve looked like. Considering the dynamics of my parents’ marriage, something in me needed to know that I was made out of love, not obligation, not force. When I was younger, I didn’t have the language or the nerve to ask my mother. But as an adult, I did. So one day after church, I asked her, “Did you enjoy making me?” I think any mother would have answered yes to comfort her child. I wanted to believe her, but I felt there was more to the story that needed to be told. In this poem, I let myself believe her, yet with reservation. I weave together the complexities of their love story, allowing imagination to tell the truth about the intimate and complicated moment of my conception.

What are you working on right now?

In my poetry, I seek to reckon with my duality of being both Dominican and American, its implications on bilingualism, sex, culture and the self. Currently, my manuscript focuses on memory and the intricacies involved: trauma, tenderness and the blurred lines in between. It explores the historical, the parental and the personal, locating the reader in such places as the island during Trujillo’s dictatorship, my mother’s kitchen and New York City. The poems celebrate and mourn love and loss, religion and language. The voice begs to bear witness to it all, connecting the pieces of a haunted psyche—the story of abuse, the escape from a religious sect during adolescence, and later the immersion into the modern world as a woman grappling to find spiritual and emotional truth in unexpected places. The speaker is not afraid to praise the bodega or the loves of the past. My poetry is not afraid to subvert faith or instill another.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me involves coffee, poetry and dancing. I am a firm believer in the healing power of those three things. Nothing puts me in a better mood than sipping an iced latte, on the train, while listening to bachata and swaying side to side. Poetry is a kind of dancing. It’s about movement, the language in my hand, on my tongue as I read it out loud.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Poetry brought me to Brooklyn. I was accepted into the MFA Creative Writing Program at NYU and moved in the summer of 2015 from Haverhill, Massachusetts. I knew I wanted the pace that Brooklyn had to offer as opposed to that of Manhattan. Brooklyn has a very livable chaos that I find appealing.

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 in Bushwick for about a year now, and it is truly one of my favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It feels very much like home, as there are a good amount of both young professionals/artists and families, especially Latin American families. I feel the neighborhood is a reflection of who I am, both as artist and Latina. I can go to a hipster café around the corner to work on my poetry, or go to Maria Hernandez Park and immerse myself in Spanish, reggaeton blaring from some nearby car stereo. Both are me. Both feel right.

Like most parts of Brooklyn, gentrification is changing Bushwick, pushing out those residents that formed the original makeup of that area. I grapple with trying to figure out what part I am playing in all of this change as a newcomer, yet someone who identifies strongly with the ethnicity and lifestyle of its displaced community.

My neighborhood reminds me very much of Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is where I spent my early years before moving close by to Haverhill. Similar to Bushwick, Lawrence is home to a large Latin American community. Although rated as one of the poorest cities in the state, Lawrence is one of the richest in culture. The next generation is taking the city to a new level, with more spaces and opportunities for young artists to express themselves. To say one lived in Lawrence was to subject oneself to ridicule and judgment. But that is beginning to change. I am proud of Lawrence and what it has done to shape me as both Latina and poet.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

A defining Brooklyn experience had to be crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. I hadn’t decided yet that I was going to move to New York, but when I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, I just knew. If my life were a rom-com, that moment was my “meet cute” with the city. Strangely, I have a habit of falling madly in love with places because of their bridges. There is a transcendental feeling in crossing a body of water that captivates me, the journey of it. Ten years ago, that’s how I fell in love with Seville, Spain, crossing El Puente de Los Remedios every day to get from my homestay to the city center. Brooklyn was no different. The bridge won me over on that cloudy day in March, my hair frizzing, the air thick with the beginning of rain.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I often jokingly and lovingly refer to myself as “just a cult kid living in New York.” Yet there is truth to that statement. After removing myself from a cult-like religious system as a young adult, I’ve struggled with assimilating into the modern world, trying to quench a deep-rooted desire to connect with something higher than myself. To put it simply, my subconscious is always looking for a new cult to latch onto. So far poetry has been the answer, a foundational part of my spirituality, a healthier version of “cult.” I’m not sure how to define my actual religious beliefs, but I do know poetry and am sure of that belief. To me, poetry is religion. Its power is evident.

Similarly, I believe in the poetry community that is Brooklyn, even just within my own apartment. I live with three other poets who are either current NYU MFA students or graduates. We often host poetry workshops or just informally gather around the kitchen table and talk about our work. It’s an invaluable experience being able to connect with my peers in that way. I feel that even where one or two poets are gathered, that is a poetry community.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Most of my favorite poets either live or have lived in Brooklyn at some point in their lives: Morgan Parker, Wendy Xu, Aracelis Girmay, Cathy Park Hong, just to name a few. All women of color. All fierce.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Sharon Olds is my poetry fairy godmother. Truly. There is something about her energy, her tell-all poems, that have always resonated with me. She taught my workshop class my first semester at NYU, which was when I wrote the poem “Misconception.” Her class was a safe space to write about those difficult things that I’d never mentioned out loud before. She encouraged that exploration; her work embodies that very play and questioning. I feel that Sharon Olds and I have similar stories to tell, her having grown up in a strict Calvinist home, and my upbringing, Pentecostal. It wasn’t until taking her class that I started to write about those religious experiences that have now formed the basis of my current thesis. Sharon witnessed the fleshing out of those poems, she saw me struggle, she pushed me to continue.

Although she may not know it, Dorothea Lasky has been very influential to me. I first heard her read in March of last year at the Strand and I was immediately mesmerized by her delivery, the strength yet vulnerability in her voice. One of my favorite Dottie poems would have to be “Ars Poetica.” I’ve memorized the poem, posted it in my room and office, and soon I’d like to get an Ars Poetica tattoo. Out of all the ars poetica poems I’ve heard, Dottie’s has stuck with me the most. It made me view the craft of poetry in a different light. I began to look at my surroundings each day and realized that everything was a poem. I was a poem, because Dottie said so, because I said so: “Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes.” To me, it took away the snobbery of what poetry can become or what is deemed poetry-worthy. More than anything, I’m attracted to the mundane and the magic of it. Dottie’s poem showed me that it was more than okay to feel that way. Her poem has showed me the way. I believe in its message.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

The last book I read was Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. I can’t stop thinking about the poem “To the Mulberry Tree.” It’s sensual, raw, sophisticated. Delicious, really. In the poem, Ross Gay celebrates this moment when bird poop falls on his chin while he’s picking fruit. My immediate response would have been horror, but he surprised me. He honors this experience in a way that I have never seen another poet do. He revels in this moment, finds the poem within this otherwise inconvenience. His ability to pay homage to the simple things reminds me very much of Whitman. Ross Gay truly is the Whitman of our generation. This particular poem came to mind again a few weeks ago as I was walking through the Village on my way to a meeting. I felt something wet fall on my arm as I ducked under a tree-shaded area. My first thought was Oh no, bird poop. I eventually wiped it off, though I’m still not sure exactly what it was. Later, I said to a friend, “What fell on my arm was either one of three things: a raindrop, bird shit, or jizz from the sky. Either way I’m trying to feel blessed.” I tell myself, there was a poem in that moment. I’m sure of it.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Although not book-specific, I’ve been meaning to read more Greek and Roman mythology. It intrigues me since I was never exposed to it in my church high school, and then only briefly later in college. I am constantly coming into contact with beautiful poems alluding to mythology and don’t feel I can access them as much as I’d like to. My goal is to be as comfortable with Persephone as I am with the Psalms. I’d be interested to see how this new knowledge could play into my own poetry.

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 don’t have a specific reading process, but I do try to finish a book before I move on to a new one. I’m a bit neurotic in that way. I want to stay in the mindset a particular book might create. I want it to live in me for a while on its own without interruption. I absolutely need to have a physical copy of the book. I am not a member of the Kindle club. I need to feel the paper, the weight of the book, stretch out the spine. Digital texts don’t lend that same intimacy that I want in my reading experience. I like to mark up the text as I go along, highlight and underline, place an asterisk here, an exclamation point there. I like looking back, seeing the lines that may have surprised or moved me. When I lend out poetry books to friends, I always ask them to write in the text too. I want to see what they’re thinking, as if we’re reading it together, or in conversation with one another. But no one ever writes in my books! I guess giving them permission to vandalize a thing takes all the fun out of it.

I normally don’t plan my reading out in advance. It’s more of an organic process. Maybe it’s a book my friend recommended or something I just bought at the bookstore. Or other times, I just pick one of the many unread books from my bookshelf and carry it around in my purse until it’s finished. However, I am skeptical of too much hype around a book. It’s not as if I don’t want to read it, but I want to do so when the hype has died down a bit, when I can experience it alone and discover its wonder. I like to hole up with the book all by myself, take my time, get to know it away from the crowd.

Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

One of my favorite coffee shops in Bushwick is Little Skips. It’s just a block away from my apartment. There are good eats, great staff and a good playlist all day. At least half of the poems I’ve written while living in New York were born on one of those wobbly tables.

While in Manhattan, I really enjoy Washington Square Park, but nothing compares to Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick. I like to sit and read in the company of children blowing bubbles, skateboards smacking the pavement, ice cream vendors repeating helado de coco over and over like music. One Saturday afternoon, I read all of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars while sitting there on a park bench. Since then, it’s my favorite reading spot.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I like the simple things in Brooklyn. Nothing beats Best Deli and Grocery on Bushwick Ave, open 24 hours a day. I can walk in, say “I’ll have the usual” and they know I mean a turkey club with provolone cheese, pickles and jalapeños. They also know that most times I’ll buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. If I don’t, they’ll say “What, no ice cream today, honey?” It feels good to be known in that mundane, yet intimate way.

Oddly, I really enjoy riding the L train. It’s a place to think, a place to read, a place to admire. I think I fall in love, get married, then get a divorce on that train every day. Beautiful people ride that train. I’m a poet. I notice.

I can’t forget to mention the street art. The Bushwick Collective is an amazing display of work by talented artists. There is nothing quite like it. Walking through Bushwick is synonymous with walking through a living museum. The artwork is always changing. I watch the change, I wave to the artist on the ladder. It’s interactive. It’s inviting. I welcome it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the unmade bed on a Sunday, the Seamless burrito,
     and the scent of myself after sleep.

And what I love has never been kind, has never worshipped me
     like this tortilla on my tongue.
You aren’t as faithful as this
     taste.

For every takeout bag at the bottom of the bin is a thing I haven’t
     said. For
me, “as good as it gets” means the worst it’s ever
     been. But the worst still seems holy, how I emerge from the
     sheets, woman, fed, cleansed of
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.

Dear Brooklyn,

                       help me find my father.

                                               He’s somewhere in the years between Biggie’s
     death and a Dodger’s

              win. He’s not in my apartment, he’s not in this pen

though I just wrote his name. Look, he’s got these brown eyes, dark hair,
     he’s a jack-

                                        0f-all-sins.

                   Bless me, for it’s true, I’ve never kissed that vice, never been one
                        to rob

my own wallet, throw red chips in a pile, call it love.

Why Brooklyn?

Because it never said no.