Poet Of The Week

Floyd Skloot

     July 31–August 6, 2017

Floyd Skloot is a poet, novelist and creative nonfiction writer. He has won three Pushcart Prizes, the PEN USA Literary Award and two Pacific Northwest Book Awards, and his work has been included in the Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, Best Spiritual Writing and Best Food Writing anthologies. In 2010, Poets & Writers named him in their list of “Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World.” His books include the memoirs In the Shadow of Memory and The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2003 and 2008), the poetry collections Approaching Winter and The Snow’s Music (LSU Press, 2015 and 2008) and the novel The Phantom of Thomas Hardy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Beverly Hallberg. His daughter, Rebecca Skloot, is the bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010). They co-edited the 2011 edition of the Best American Science Writing (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2012). “Toomey’s Diner” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.

Author photo by Beverly Hallberg

Toomey’s Diner

 
                              Empire Boulevard, Brooklyn

Sundays at dawn were whispers and silent
pissing on the inside of the privy bowl.
If belt buckles merely clicked, zippers
crept shut, and the heels of heavy shoes
only thudded together muffled in our hands,
mother slept on as we crept out the door.

Sunday mornings my face seemed to melt
in ripples of chrome circling high stools
at the bar of Toomey’s Diner. The air
inside was thick with breath and smokes
as I spun between my father and brother
waiting for our flapjacks all around.
I saw the soles of my feet turned upside
down in the stools’ silvery pedestals
and knew enough to spin without a squeak.

So this was the world outside. Red leather
to sit on, red formica edged in chrome
where my elbows fit, red menus studded
with paper clips. Signs said Special Today.
This was the stuff of weekday dreams. A small
jukebox at every table, rice to keep
the salt dry, toothpicks, a great pyramid
of cereal boxes hiding the cook.
Sunday was sizzling grease and apple juice
glowing pink, then blue in the sudden shift
of neon. Sunday laughter gave off such
heat that walls burst with sweat.

When the day came apart, I always had
the relative silence of knives and forks
on plates, the delicate lids of syrup holders
snapping shut, coffee slurped from steaming mugs,
coins on the counter, the sound of our bill
skewered by Toomey as we turned to leave.

 
—Originally published in the Hudson Review, 1998.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

In 1997, as my brother was slowly dying from the complications of diabetes, my wife and I flew to California every month to visit him. I was nearing fifty, Philip was nearing fifty-eight, and he liked to reminisce. Or rather, to hear me reminisce and to interject points of clarification as he sat in his recliner, blind eyes shut, nodding and smiling. One Sunday morning I spoke about my memories of our Brooklyn Sunday mornings with our father in the 1950s, recalling the trips to Coney Island or Prospect Park or the cemetery on Long Island where our grandfather was buried. Sundays all began, I said, with a trip to some diner whose name I couldn’t remember. “Right,” Phil said, “Toomey’s.” When I heard the name, the whole scene there flooded back. At home in Oregon I wrote “Toomey’s Diner” with relative ease—it appeared in the Hudson Review in 1998, a year after Phil died, and then was reprinted online by Poetry Daily. A few months later I received an email from one of Toomey’s daughters. She had been sent the poem by a friend who found it on the web, and her warm response to it, and testimony to the accuracy of its details, underscores the way memory hoards its vivid scenes though we may not be able to access them without a magical, Proustian cue.

What are you working on right now?

In April 2016 I completed my ninth collection of poems, Far West, which LSU Press tentatively plans to publish in 2019. Since then, I’ve been writing essays—five, so far, with a sixth just getting started—that are clustering around the idea of shared memories, the way participants in events may recall those events differently (or not at all), the way talking about recalled events can influence how we remember them, the reliability and power of enduring recollection.

What’s a good day for you?

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when I turned seventy and spent some time acknowledging all I felt grateful for. Having lived almost thirty years in the aftermath of a viral attack that targeted my brain, getting to seventy in fairly coherent shape makes me aware of how fortunate I am to have the love of my wife Beverly and my daughter Rebecca, to have seen my daughter’s emergence as a writer who has made a major impact on the world, to have found a way to do my own writing work. For me, a good day is balanced: a morning workout and/or a long walk on the beach or hike in the woods with Beverly. An hour or two or three writing. Correspondence with friends or colleagues. Some reading. A phone call or texts with my daughter. Early evening I cook us dinner while we watch—as a counter to current political developments—MSNBC for analysis and commentary.

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

Until 1957, when I was ten, we lived in East Flatbush, in an apartment building on Lenox Road and Brooklyn Ave. It was across the street from what is now the SUNY Downstate Medical Center but was then an empty lot, and just a block or two from Kings County Hospital. My father owned a kosher live poultry market on Union St and worked six long days a week. As a consequence, his Sundays off were the one day my brother and I had time with him. Over the sixty years since leaving Brooklyn, I have lived in small island or coastal communities, lived with Beverly in a cedar yurt in the middle of twenty hilly acres of woods, lived in college towns and medium-sized cities—there has always been a part of me that’s a Brooklyn boy, a city kid who still wears Brooklyn Dodgers hats, but I’m less comfortable in the dense urban world than I am in smaller cities or especially in quiet, more isolated places.

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

In many ways, the experience recounted in “Toomey’s Diner” is a defining one for me, capturing our Sunday mornings with my father, the tension of our home life and a young boy’s taste of city life outside the family apartment.

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

I was fortunate to come into contact with two mentors who inspired me by refusing to teach me how to write. Instead, in my early twenties, they showed me—in the manner in which they spoke to me, questioned me, encouraged my reading, observed the world we shared—how to be a writer. They spoke to me and listened to me in ways that let me believe my thoughts and feelings, my language, were worthy. Blinded as a child, the prose writer Robert Russell, author of the 1962 memoir To Catch an Angel: Adventures in the World I Cannot See, helped me to see and feel for others, and to describe what I saw and felt in ways that enabled him to “see” them. With his openness to me, he taught me to speak my heart. The great Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, with whom I studied in 1969 and 1970 and have remained friends ever since, helped me understand—by the example of how he lived his life—that the writer’s life is a seamless one, that the discipline in the work mirrored the discipline in the life. He allowed me to understand that what I had to say mattered to him. It was a natural progression for me to take that understanding with me as I wrote.

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

Ron Slate, my friend for more than forty years now, published his first book of poems, The Incentive of the Maggot, in 2005. It was a Bakeless Poetry Prize winner and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a book that seemed to come out of nowhere from this fifty-three-year-old poet who had spent decades in the corporate world. Sophisticated, urgently felt, deeply thought, these were the poems of a fully engaged heart and mind, wise and moving and various, necessary. His second book, The Great Wave, followed four years later and built upon the achievement of his first. I’m waiting for Slate’s third collection, but this is a poet who simply will not rush, will not settle for repeating himself, and I admire his work and his integrity.

I would also like to mention that after learning earlier this year of the Irish poet John Montague’s death, I reread his Selected Poems and savored old favorites. One poem I had not remembered, “Windharp,” struck me as gorgeous in its austere music and was the first poem in many years that prompted me to write a poem of my own in homage.

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

More than ten years ago I gathered a shelf full of boyhood adventure stories that I’d missed reading as a boy—or ever—and hoped to explore as a sixty-year-old man, with the thought that I would write an essay about the experience. But I got sidetracked after starting with Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Mysterious Island), reading ten of his novels and a long biography and writing not only an essay but a few poems about him as well. I never did get back to the other writers whose adventure books I bought, so now at seventy maybe I can do so: H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson …

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 usually have three books going at once. Sometimes they’re books I read to research an essay or poem (for the past few months, one of the three books has always been food-related). There’s always a sports-related book in the mix, usually baseball. And there’s either a novel, a memoir, a biography, or narrative nonfiction. Right now it’s a memoir, David Litt’s forthcoming Thanks, Obama, an account of his years as a staff speechwriter for the president and others in the 2011–2016 POTUS world.

I do plan my reading but often go off on tangents, detours. I read physical books and highlight/make notes/tab pages. I have also kept a reading diary since November 1983, just listing the title and author and genre.

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

I don’t write anywhere but home. In the past, I did enjoy four writing residencies that were highly productive for me (1991, Centrum, Port Townsend, WA; 1993, Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, CA; 1994, Heinrich Boll Cottage, Achill Island, Ireland; and 2004, the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center, Bellagio, Italy).

Why Brooklyn?

Because it took in my immigrant grandparents and gave the Skloots of Volozhin a start in America.