Poet Of The Week

Elisabet Velasquez

     June 13–19, 2016

Elisabet Velasquez is a Latina writer, performer and Madre from Bushwick, Brooklyn. She began performing in 2009 under the stage name Ms. Sick Prose, a name she chose to escape an environment surrounded by mental illness. Writing has become the medium for her escape. She earned a spot on the 2009 Nuyorican Poets Café National Slam Team, for which she helped achieve a fourth-place finish nationwide. Velasquez has also performed at several universities across the country and been featured at venues including the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café, Bowery Poetry Club and the Brooklyn Museum, among others. She is the author of the chapbook PTSD and her work has been published in Muzzle Magazine, Centro Voces and Elephant Journal. Velasquez will be featured at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors: La Casita in July 2016.

New Brooklyn

 
During my last visit to Brooklyn, I found nothing where I left it.
This city doesn’t stay still like it used to. They call it growth. Mami
calls it eviction. She is scared of the way the gringos are turning
her bodegas into gardens. She says flowers remind her of funerals.
I say: Mami, maybe you will feel better if we sit on the steps. I say this
as if the stoop is an open mouth, as if it will remember how we taste,
as if it will not spit us back out for being bitter or worse, for having
too much flavor. I change the subject. “Mami, I got the job I always wanted.”
She hears: You got the job I never had. Your only job is to keep yourself
off government payroll. I laugh and worry more about keeping my body
off a gentrified street because these new art galleries on the block wanna
call my stretch marks abstract, when in reality they are the strings of a harp,
the tag name of God. I am a black book. I am an untuned instrument. One
part graffiti, one part music. Today I looked at the way my bones work.
My body was built in a factory, the kind of factory my mother worked in.
Sewing machines and severe workplace violations. Stains on the floor
from the workers who made a blood pact with it. You know the kind.
Or maybe you wouldn’t know the kind. They have nice windows now.
Real paint, not blood. There are words the thesaurus does not pair properly
with other words. Gentrification. Colonization. I am angry all the time now.
Really, I’m just loud. I don’t know how to talk without sounding like
revolution. Like my throat is all boombox and block party. I argue like
an unraveled cassette tape that could have sounded like music had it been
wound tightly. But in New Brooklyn, they don’t care nothing about my music.
I heard they tried to take down the Avenue of Puerto Rico street sign.
The one we called gra-hahn, the one they pronounce Graham. The one
that’s been there thirty-three years before they tried to take it down—
     which is,
ironically, the age Jesus died. Why they always wanna kill holy things?
They say there aren’t enough Puerto Ricans there these days. They
     pretend they
can’t smell the sofrito in the air, can’t hear the salsa blaring from a third floor
window because a Latino is cleaning house. You hear that? The irony
in the chorus: Quitate tu, para ponerme yo. Quitate tu. Fania knew the future.
Mami knew the future when she taught me to keep some bass in these hips.
They gonna act like they can’t hear you? That’s when you make them feel you.
—and you vibrate like you tryna break the sound barrier, or a stereotype,
and you tell the New Brooklyn that if they tryna clean house,
they will always hear our music in the background.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was born and grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I left in 2011, and I wrote this poem while I was living in Long Island. Every time I visited my mom back in Bushwick, some shit changed, the grocery store was now a guacamole spot, the old factoría was now an art gallery, and the familiar Puerto Rican faces I grew up with were disappearing, along with the culture of the neighborhood and its stories. It pissed me off. That’s where “New Brooklyn” came from, from anger, from an attempt to bring awareness, from a very Bushwick war cry: “Ayo! I see what you’re doing to my neighborhood and I want you to see it too!” I got an opportunity to perform this poem in Gentrified Bushwick at Ghetto Hors d’Oeuvres: Colors. It made a lot of people uncomfortable. Almost like the poem forced them to be in a space where, for the first time in their lives, they did not feel welcome, almost as if I invited myself in without their permission and had the poem colonize their minds, and then I smiled at the irony and did the poem again.

What are you working on right now?

My Resting Bitch Face. After I figure out how to get people to stop asking me if I am mad, I am going to go save the world. Ambitious, I know, but the universe has placed me in some very unique situations throughout my life and when I say world, I mean that person who is just about to give up, I am going to go save them, because someone saved me, and that’s what you do when you receive a gift, you pay it forward.

Without the metaphors and from a strictly logistic standpoint, that looks like attending the VONA/Voices workshop with John Murillo in July at the University Of Miami, performing at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 30th and 31st, releasing my full-length book, finishing the script to my one-woman play, completing a visual project and loving on the people who love me back.

What’s a good day for you?

Yo, any day that I get to feel emotion is a good day. I used to really hate being sad. Like I wanted to be numb. But if I never knew pain how could I appreciate my joy? Also, the dead don’t feel and here I am with all this life to feel. On some practical shit though, any day I get to spend making my children laugh is fucking perfect.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

My mother’s womb.

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 moved back to Brooklyn from Long Island this year. I live in Flatbush now where you can find the best Caribbean food anywhere. Gentrification is slowly trying to leak in, but still the neighborhood has remained authentic to its Caribbean identity, and it makes me proud to see the true culture of Flatbush shining and resilient, something I can’t really say for Bushwick these days.

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

This is one of my most defining childhood memories of Brooklyn. I remember one night in Bushwick, my mother, my two younger siblings and I were walking home late from church as per usual—Pentecostal churches have a bad habit of ending after 11 PM on any given day. My mother hated public transportation and we never had enough money for cabs, so cardio it was. Tired from the long sermon I was not allowed to nap through, and the 30+ blocks we walked to get to the church, it was only natural that on the walk back home I would drag behind mami with my siblings.

On Central Avenue and Stanhope Street, two men faced each other on opposite sides of the sidewalk, guns drawn, pointed at each other. My mother froze; we were about to get caught in the middle of a turf war. One man waved his gun, motioning for her to find another route and yelled “Señora! Vayase con sus hijos!” The other man also demanded my mother book it, “Go lady! Get your kids and get the fuck outta here. NOW!” We ran so quick, we never even heard the gunshots; we did not stick around long enough to find out if it even happened. What I remember most about this is, those two men despite their differences agreed for one second to keep a mom and her kids safe. Man, if that’s not Brooklyn.

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

I have found a poetry community everywhere I go. When I hang out with poets, that is my poety community; when I hang out with my family, that is my poetry community; when I am in a work meeting, that is my poetry community; when I am chilling in Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn, surrounded by trees, strangers and the laughter of children not worried about being displaced, that is my poetry community. Because every aspect of my life is poetry, I am lucky to find community in everywhere I go.

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

Aracelis Girmay, Mahogany L. Browne, Lemon Andersen, Jive Poetic, Mos Def, Biggie Smalls.

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

My very first poetry mentor was my older sister Marilyn. She didn’t know she was my mentor, but she had this diary she would write her life in and I would read it and be amazed. She was the only reason I started writing, ’cause I wanted to see my life on a page too. Mahogany L. Browne came next. I won a coveted spot on the Nuyorican 2009 poetry slam team. I remember the team’s first practice on a Sunday, in a Loisaida community garden, we all went around and introduced ourselves and what we did for a living. When Mahogany introduced herself, I remember her saying, “These poems, it’s what I do for a living. This is my life. This is how I feed myself, this is how I feed my family, this is not a joke.” And I remember that statement paralyzing me and taking me to this whole other space I had not even considered before. I sat there thinking, whoa, people can actually survive off their words. That was a powerful moment for me. Rich Villar is another important mentor in my life. I’ll tell you why: that man is a silent assassin. He does not even have to say anything, but just by watching him closely, you walk away armed with so much knowledge. He often says he is building a literary Jedi. I’m in it y’all. I am always so grateful to be in his space.

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

The last poem that stood out to me was “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” by John Murillo. This poem confirmed my belief that I needed to take John’s class at VONA/Voices 2016.

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 have sticky notes all over my books and I have reader’s ADD. I get so excited to find new books that I read like five books at a time, which I’m finding is no good for retention, so this year I have been focusing on honing into one at a time and taking notes about what I’ve learned, or what I felt, or my general experience reading the book.

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

I’d like to write more outdoors. I tend to write a lot at home, but I really love the scenery in Brooklyn Bridge Park; also I want to sit on the stoop of the building I grew up in and see what energies come through in my writing.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

My favorite Brooklyn space is the Brooklyn smile. That shit is so gangsta.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate survival
And what I’ve survived you can too
For every bad decision is a death that tries to take me
as good things find a suicide note they never finished.

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 got a holy pen
but forgive me father
I’m in love
with sin
with Biggie
with Brooklyn
They don’t wanna admit it, but gentrification took the Dodgers
Brooklyn almost don’t got jack
So I write ’cause my voice is the only thing it can’t rob

Why Brooklyn?

Because people from Brooklyn don’t answer these types of questions.