Poet Of The Week

Donna Masini

     November 14–20, 2016

Donna Masini was born in Brooklyn and has lived in New York City all her life. Her books include Turning to Fiction (Norton, 2004), That Kind of Danger (Beacon Press, 1994), in which “Giants in the Earth” first appeared, and the novel About Yvonne (Norton, 1998). Her work has appeared in Poetry, Open City, Paris Review, APR, Parnassus, Ploughshares and the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry 2015 anthologies, among other places. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship and a NYFA Grant, she is a Professor of English at Hunter College, where she teaches in the MFA creative writing program. Currently she is at work on a new book of poems, 4:30 Movie, and has recently completed a novel, The Good Enough Mother.

Giants in the Earth

 
I walk at night, the city building and breaking around me,
over cracked concrete, over broken pavement, over steel plates,
the ground bumpy, uneven beneath me.
I listen for the joy inside my bones,
the steady, even transportation of my blood.
I go down to watch the trucks, the men climb into the earth,
the pulse and rhythm of the city slower, the cadence looser.
Soon I am among them: builders, diggers, sweating their nightly
     excavations;
sandblast, jackhammer, the city making itself over, sloughing off layers.

I love the way things get built at night: people, the body rebuilding itself,
bone, tissue, and skin, the cells of the dermis, the pumping digestions,
the networks of neuron, dendrite, the bustle of the dream pulse.

Caterpillar. FIAT ALIA. Dynahoe 490.
Week by week the machinery moves across Delancey Street,
closer to the river where the pulse begins, slowly,
as I imagine dinosaurs moved. Heavy legs over mud and vegetation.

The forklift moves forward, lifts, as a priest raises a chalice.
Dynahoe 490 swivels to face it.
A man leans in his seat, grips the wheel, grasps the shift,
lifts the claw to raise the long arm,
claws a clump of rocky concrete to the street below,
the teams of men still digging around him. He
lifts shifts dumps, lifts shifts dumps,
the torchlights of the welders sparking in the dug-out hole
against the black night, bridge lights, four bent men circle
a trashcan fire, warming themselves, whisking their hands back from the
     sparks.
And the sparks flying out of the ground look like hell splintering.

Now it seems they are breaking the city down:
streets, trees, buildings coming down; broken lives, lines to families
     broken;
breaking down buildings and grandfathers, bridges, traditions,
the uprooted on their corners.
Thirty-two-year-old men in their beds.

Dreams are the places roots rock.
It comes to me now, one of those nonplaces the mind keeps
returning to: the empty lot at the edge of Brooklyn, cracked glass and
     gravel,
bent cans, tampon wrappers, the overpass, the echo beneath,
and no one to hear it except the screaming child, the projects sulking in
     the distance.

As some knew tree, fish, bird, the patterns and habits,
I knew brick and concrete, glass and light,
the diamond sidewalks that burned in the summers,
round-stoned walkways that shone in the rain,
the cement walk, boxed squares for handball, slate blocks thrust up by
     the movement of trees.

The vibration of jackhammers thrills me, shatters me.
That something could be made of all this breaking.
Sweet rain and sweat and the lovely yellow machinery knocking,
the black gravel curved as the shell of a turtle.

I stand a long time watching them, lean across the fissure into a
     wood-slat hole.
A man’s red eyes glow up at me. He grins, unhooks the lamp from his
     belt and climbs out of the ground.

Sometimes it feels like it’s me breaking apart.

What is the name of that truck, that tool?
What are you making? Where are your children?
What is the sound of a body breaking, the cells rebuilding, the heart
     deteriorating?

The forklift turns.
A shovel falls against the truck’s flank.
Below the streetlife, above the subway systems, the iron girders brace,
and still the machinery plunges, breaking ground, turning the dirt,
     tenderly, as you’d lift a lover’s buttock;
steel pipes like metal pelvises scattered across the pavement,
the banging of tools falling in a strange blue light.

 
–From That Kind of Danger, Beacon Press, 1994.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

In this poem—one of the few from my grad school days to make it into That Kind of Danger—I was beginning to figure out how to “talk onto the page,” to “keep it wet,” to revise without violating the draft. I was deep in Whitman for the first time. I found I could use those long lines to get in the energy, the simultaneity of the city. The underground, my father’s work (servicing oil burners and boilers), Brooklyn streets, traffic, the smell of oil, the greasy work clothes, the images of hell in my catechism—these made up the “mindscreen” of my childhood, my psychic bedrock. This poem is rooted in that.

“I walk at night,” it begins. And I did. I walked and looked. I wrote that poem at night, in my notebook, on scraps of paper, on the street. I took Ginsberg to heart: to walk and walk and find what you need to say. I walked around the Lower East Side (I was living on Pitt and Delancey) looking down into all those open construction sites. All those men. All that destruction and creation.

These were the early years of the AIDS epidemic. So many friends, friends of friends, dying. So many of us living in fear for those not yet diagnosed. I was reading The Lives of a Cell. About termites. About building. About breaking down.

And I was learning how to make something that was mine. Here Galway Kinnell helped me. I’d shown him a poem: “Deep in the Grimy Guts of Brooklyn” (I know, awful title). Short lines. Stanzas. I’d won a prize. Good, good, Galway said. But it wasn’t the poem I’d wanted to write. He looked at my journal, the notes the poem had come out of. What have you done? he asked. I’d taken out everything that didn’t make sense. I’d rearranged and “ordered” it. Galway pointed to my notebook, his typewriter. Here’s your poem, he said. Type it out. Change nothing. That’s the kind of thing that helped me write this poem. I’m not saying I didn’t revise. I did. A lot—mostly toward compression. Sonic and rhythmic shifts. But I essentially let it be. Though, these years later, there are certainly things I would change.

What are you working on right now?

I work really slowly. I now have a nearly completed ms. called 4:30 Movie. I’ve been, in part, influenced by my use of film in teaching poetry, in part by how crucial a part of my life movies have been. Some of the poems use cinematic techniques. Some are “about” films. There are a bunch of “deleted scenes.” The death of my sister two years ago from lung cancer—and the year in which I helped care for her—changed me. Changed my work. It was, is still, a shock. It has required different kinds of structures and “handrails” to write my way in.

I started addressing these interview questions before the election. Now everything is off-kilter. Now I’m working on not giving in to despair. Trying to navigate the anger/grief/dread—what feels like another death. Once I can figure out how to write something other than enraged and disheartened Facebook posts, and consoling emails to grieving students, who knows what will find its way in.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day starts on the night of the previous day when I know I have the next day (preferably days) off and unscheduled. It starts with the looking forward to. On my good day I would get up early, around 7 AM, make coffee and write for a while. I would do my version of meditation. Then I’d read and write and read and drift and write and read and revise and write and drift. Around 2 PM I would walk—knowing I had no specific place to walk to. Maybe I would, late afternoon, go to the gym. A gallery. Or slip into a movie. Toward evening I might meet a friend for coffee or a drink—but I’d rather that happened on the imaginary second or third unscheduled day (week). Maybe I would make dinner and listen to music or an audiobook as I chopped and cooked. Then watch a great movie. Or pick up the novel I’d be in the middle of reading and longing to get back to. In bed, with my cats. On a great day I would re-read something I’d written that day, a draft that really excited me with its possibilities.

So you were born in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood you grew up in. How long did you live there? What do you like about it? How has it changed since then? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I have (at least) two Brooklyns. I was born in Flatbush—on the junction of Nostrand and Flatbush, then lived on New York Avenue until I was almost nine. Brooklyn was, in many ways, exciting. Even overstimulating. At the same time, it was intimate. I knew most of the people in the building I lived in. In my memory it’s dark—browns, grays, window gratings, traffic. A small apartment, four of us kids in one bedroom. But I loved that building. I loved the streets, the neighborhood stores. Impossible to believe now, but I walked to school and home from school. In the first grade. My friends and I went “window-shopping.” We saw scary things—thrilling things. Crazy old women. So many smells on the way home: whiskey, bakeries, Chinese restaurants, laundries, musty churches. So many different kinds of people.

When we moved to Staten Island I missed what I didn’t yet know was called “diversity.” A broader culture, a bigger world. On Staten Island we were outsiders, strangers. “These people from Brooklyn.” The Verrazano Bridge was called the Guinea Gangplank. It was my first experience of not belonging. This feeling would never have occurred to me in Brooklyn. Suddenly we lived among people who had never been to “the city.”

How has Brooklyn changed? We paid $55 a month for our two-bedroom apartment. How much do you pay? Seriously, Brooklyn’s changed so many times since I first lived there. The wave of West Indians where it had mostly been Italian and Jewish. Then waves of gentrification. It seems so much less intimate, though, of course, I’m an outsider now.

In my thirties I moved to Cobble Hill. (“Cobble Hill, Schmobble Hill. It’s Red Hook,” my father said.) Of course now Red Hook is hip and my father wouldn’t recognize the cool-foodie-small-batch-whiskey Brooklyn no one can afford to live in. In fact we all—my father, myself, grandparents, even my students—have our own “real Brooklyn.” Perhaps for all of us, the “real Brooklyn” is the Brooklyn of imagination and memory.

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

I keep thinking of this question—and it seems to me that my “defining Brooklyn moment” was when my family left Brooklyn. The shock of Staten Island. Or, perhaps the defining moment is the first time we went back to visit our building, my grandparents’ apartment, and I looked into the courtyard, up through the clotheslines—to where I didn’t live anymore. I was not yet nine. I think it might have been my first experience of nostalgia. I remember lying on my grandmother’s bed, feeling overwhelmed and trying to write something. This—being compelled to write—was hardly a usual thing for me at that time.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that in Brooklyn when you were here? Why or why not?

I’m blessed with an extensive poetry community—friends, students, “the great dead.” And because Brooklyn will always be a part of me, I feel what’s happening now in Brooklyn—that rich life of young poets—as part of my community. When I lived in Brooklyn as an adult, as I walked or rode my bike across the Brooklyn Bridge, into the city each day, all of it—the streets, people, landscape, Prospect Park, Coney Island, Brighton Beach—felt like my community. So many of my poems came out of this. Even when they don’t mention a specific place.

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

Whitman, of course. Whitman Whitman Whitman.

June Jordan was a crucial, beloved friend and mentor. June lived in Brooklyn for a long time before she deserted us for the West Coast. And though I saw June a fair amount in Berkeley, when I think of her, I think mostly of my time with her in Brooklyn.

There’s the idea of Marianne Moore, or, more exactly, of Bishop visiting Moore on Cumberland St. Moore, herself, not so much until now. And the idea of Auden living in Brooklyn. And Hart Crane living with his lover on Willow Street. The Bridge was a revelation to me.

And my students! So many of them are/have been living in Brooklyn. The young ones. I’m excited by the vital poetry community they’ve been making. (Even if they have to have twelve roommates to afford it.)

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

James Wright was my teacher at Hunter College. I took his classes whenever I could. His literature classes taught me about language. How to read poetry. The pages and pages of poems and novels he could recite by heart inspired me to do the same. His tiny red script in the margins of my essays—Have you read Meister Eckhart? Jacob Boehme? Come and see me. Come in and talk to me. I must insist—show how generous and encouraging and challenging a teacher he was. Later on, through an essay of his, I found Robert Hayden—“Those Winter Sundays”—which opened up possibilities for what I could address in a poem. More specifically, it helped me write about my father.

Audre Lorde was the first person with whom I took a workshop. She changed my life. Audre insisted that poetry is not a luxury. I can’t possibly say here what her mentorship did for me. She took over. Now, she said, you are going to go to graduate school and study poetry. Or you will (as she had done) get a degree in library science. I’d never heard of grad school, MFA programs. Library Science? Many years after she gave a prompt in workshop—“Growing Up in America”—I found myself writing a poem called “Looks that Kill” in which I was able, as best I could, to write out of Vietnam, the violence and horrors and conflicts of my adolescence. Sometimes it has taken years to complete one of Audre’s assignments.

June Jordan I’ve already mentioned. And Galway Kinnell. It occurs to me that all of my living mentors have been deeply engaged politically.

In every class, I ask my students to choose a mentor—a poet they read all semester. So, over the years, some of my mentors: Bishop, Plath, Eliot (who I discovered at 14 and was the first poet I loved), Hopkins, whom I found around the same time. Adrienne Rich. And of course the great poet/essayists who shaped me and taught me how to read and teach and revise. There are way too many to mention, but certainly Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, Berryman, Jarrell, and … and … and …

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

I’ve been reading Ari Banias’s Anybody. It’s daring and thrilling, restlessly, relentlessly questioning. Marie Howe’s forthcoming and compelling Magdalene—I’ve read it in many stages and versions. I’ve carried Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates in my bag since my sister died. Jack Gilbert’s “Brief for the Defense” I continually give out to students. And Michael Klein’s wonderful When I Was a Twin, which everyone should buy and read right now.

Addendum: After the election I pulled out June Jordan’s Directed by Desire—her Collected, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Sara Miles, and crowded with post-its—because when I can access my rage, grief, dread, outrage, but am paralyzed, cannot write anything of my own, I need other poets to fuel my voice until I can get there. June was amazing in her ability to/need to write out of the crisis. Immediately.

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

I admit: I’ve never read Dante’s Purgatorio or Paradiso. What can I say? Perhaps I’m more comfortable in Hell. I’ve only read half of Paradise Lost. I’ve never gotten through the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I start it every time I’m faced with loss, personal crisis. I read about impermanence but never get to the part about compassion, etc. Really, there are too many books I’ve been meaning to read. My list is long. Oh, yes, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I’ve never read the whole thing.

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?

Because I didn’t grow up with books, or in a family of readers, I need books around me. If I could be said to hoard anything, it would be books. They make me feel safe and alive. I’m usually reading several books at the same time. A few revolving poets. I always need to be in the middle of a novel—Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy touched something deep and important in me about language and class. They led me to lots of other Italian books.

I’m a huge re-reader. In fact, sometimes I think I like re-reading better than reading. I always go back to Austen, every year a Virginia Woolf. First and last books of Proust.

I listen to audiobooks while I’m cooking or cleaning, or at the gym. And since—I’m not sure why—listening feels like cheating, I often check into the actual book as well. Then again, if I listen to To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway over the course of a day or two, I can feel the music, the syntax, the repetitions, the whole arc of the book in a way I don’t if I’m reading ten pages a night. Of course, I have those books pretty much memorized. I’m always re-reading and re-assigning my favorite poets, and since I’ve memorized so many poems, I’m re-saying, re-hearing and living inside the structures of them.

I’m never far away from Meister Eckhart, or The Cloud of Unknowing. Sometimes (now is one of those times) I need nonfiction. A book about Ozu’s films. I recently read Lawrence in Arabia: Lies, Deceit and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

My reading is seasonal: I would never read Tolstoy in the summer, or a book like Villette.

Definitely the physical book. But the hoarder in me loves to know I have the collected everything on my iPad. Especially when I travel.

I take notes. I write in my books, the way, I think, my cats mark their territories in my apartment. I copy out quotes—and carry them around. Write them in my notebook, put them on post-its on my refrigerator. They are my talismans.

I love to read cookbooks. I dip in and out of them. The Jerusalem Cookbook. MFK Fisher’s essays. The Cake Bible. What could be more grounding?

Also, I’m obsessive. I keep lists. I can tell you what I was reading (and watching) when, over the past twenty years. Am I alone in this? It feels weird to admit it.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to try to write out of the rage and grief I’m feeling after this election, but I’m not sure how to find my way in. Maybe as a fugue.

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

I used to love to write in the Botanical Gardens—especially the Japanese garden. Such quiet and beauty. Or the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. I loved to write in cafés, but there were none—not really—when I lived in Brooklyn.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Coney Island. And Brighton Beach. I love the Ebbets Field of my father which I never actually saw. I love walking the Brooklyn Bridge early in the morning. And the hallways and small fenced-in “yard” of 1022 New York Avenue—because I go there in my dreams. And because it smelled of my grandfather’s meatballs and sauce.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the moon;
And what I consider, you too might consider
For every beam illumining me, as good illumines 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.

Dodge ball stoop ball catechism sin
one potato two potato leaky pen
Flatbush Red Hook Oh Brooklyn
A-my-name-is-Alice and my father
drinks Bourbon. Bluebell cockle shell, love
drove him to sea. He could have been a Dodger
evie ivy over me—monkey chews tobacco, a Coney Island Jack
Who stole the cookie? Who climbed Miss Mary Mack? Rob
a car? A cookie jar? In Brooklyn? No biggie!

Why Brooklyn?

It’s in me. It just is.