May 15–21, 2017
Gabrielle Spear graduated from Goucher College with a BA in English and a minor in peace studies. While at Goucher, she studied abroad in Rwanda, Uganda and Palestine researching sites of memory. In 2015, she was awarded a Kratz Summer Writing Fellowship to write poetry and essays about Palestine. She was recently named a finalist in LUMINA’s Borders and Boundaries nonfiction contest and received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship this past spring to study in Leigh Stein’s Poetry After Violence workshop. She is an associate editor for Warscapes and a member of the NYC chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
i stand beside a wall that cuts the sky
tears wounds the size of a betrayed country
into the bodies of the evicted
they don’t say your name enough
so i’ll say it now:
tourists gawk and glorify
of a wall built from prejudice
the bodies of the oppressed
tourists take selfies
it is art now
at the u.s. | | mexico border
the mouth of the american empire
twists words like
into speeches about laziness
and homeland security
while oceans away
the hands of the empire
build more walls
across the bodies of palestinians
i weep at the bethlehem wall
try to hide my pain from the people
who live under its bricks’ regime every day
above me, stands a tower
with a man and a gun the size of my body
a god far too dignified
to house people
instead of his own fears
holocaust part two
the graffiti on the wall reads
the ghettos of warsaw reflect back at him through the tower window
and i can’t help but think:
there is certainly terror
to the guard’s understanding of territory
–Originally published in LUMINA, 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem is part of an essay called “Imiryango,” which means both doorways and gates in Kinyarwanda. The poetry and prose sections in “Imiryango” grapple with my studies abroad in Rwanda and Palestine, and look at the ways tourism is often a form of terrorism. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “My wound was an exhibit / For a tourist who loves to collect photographs.” Through this poem, I wanted to capture the visceral shock I felt standing next to the wall in Bethlehem, problematize my position as a tourist, and draw connections between the many iconic images of walls and their roots in imperialism. I found out about this poem’s publication on Election Day and wept; this poem continues to be my most passionate, articulate plea to a country facing the demons of settler colonialism and racism that our government was founded upon. Our outrage at Trump’s border wall—which was built and planned long before he stepped into office—as well as our calls for an end to the Muslim travel ban and deportations fall flat if they do not also include an end to Israel’s apartheid and solidarity with Palestinians.
What are you working on right now?
Damn, that’s a very loaded question. Nudged by Leigh Stein’s Poetry After Violence workshop through Brooklyn Poets, I recently began writing poetry about my best friend from high school who, three years ago this month, was arrested for molesting a child. He will spend thirty-five years in prison. I’m often drawn to writing poetry and essays that seek to bear witness to atrocities, and I tend to remove myself as much as possible from the scenery of a poem so that others’ stories can be the loudest. But I felt like it was time to start writing about my relationship with my friend, especially because my travels and studies deeply influenced the way I continue to process this unbearable loss in my life. What does it mean to call for justice for survivors of sexual assault while at the same time believing that prisons are never the answer to justice? How do we begin to imagine a world without prisons? How do I experience touch and kiss boys again without panicking? I spent much of college studying restorative justice, and I still have no clue what that looks like. I don’t think anyone really does. But these poems are my messy attempt at it. The poems are all letters addressed to him.
What’s a good day for you?
Lots of sunshine, eating chocolate ice cream out of the carton, a phone call with a friend from the different homes in my life, community organizing work that restores my hope, a dance party, a day where I don’t feel totally wrecked by insomnia, anxiety or the normalization of our current president. One or all of the above.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn for a live-in nanny job in Brooklyn Heights in January of last year. I was actually working for my former high school dance teacher from my hometown in Arkansas. And I had the pleasure of hanging out every day with her two inquisitive, empathetic and hilarious kids. The oldest kid in particular, Winnie, who is now eleven, wrote a new book almost every week. She spoke about her stories with confidence and had a daily writing practice that I admired a lot. She reminded me so much of myself when I was a kid and it is no exaggeration to say that hanging out with her gave me the courage to finally publish my poetry.
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 left my nanny job at the end of last year to live in a co-op in Astoria. I needed to transition out of live-in nanny life and a co-op seemed like the perfect community to become a part of. I continue to commute to Cobble Hill, though, because I recently got a job at an immigrant support center there. I still spend most of my time in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I attended Brooklyn’s Small Press Flea last summer, and that’s where I found out about LUMINA’s nonfiction essay contest on Borders and Boundaries. My favorite moments in this city are often completely serendipitous. I’m ever grateful for whatever compelled me to attend the book fair that day and submit to the contest. Through my interaction with LUMINA, I was able to find a perfect home for my essays and poetry about Rwanda and Palestine.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m not quite sure yet. I definitely feel energized by my housemates who are all artists. They are very supportive about sharing and celebrating works in progress and completed projects. My poetry community is spread out; oftentimes, friends will offer to read my poems and I’m always so grateful. But I’m very shy about being a poet. My goal this year is to venture out and connect with a larger poetry community in New York.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
A Brooklyn poet that immediately comes to mind is Suheir Hammad. Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian poetry goddess. I read her book Born Palestinian, Born Black when I finally began compiling poetry from my college writing fellowship, and her words were the push I needed to complete the work. I also love watching her performances on YouTube, particularly “What I Will” and “First Writing Since.” I have yet to see her perform in New York. It would be an absolute dream.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Almost all writers seem to have a high school English teacher that changed their life, and for me, that teacher was Mr. Davis. I took his creative writing class my sophomore year, and for my final project took on the huge endeavor of reimagining Anne Frank’s diary in the form of poetry. Looking back, it was incredibly important that he took my poetry seriously because it really paved the way for my studies and interests in the years to come.
My Palestinian Arabic professor Zahi Khamis introduced me to Arabic literature, Palestine, and Arabic itself. Until his class, I knew nothing about Arab culture beyond my warped, post-9/11 upbringing. Through Zahi’s patient coaxing, I became acquainted with the works of Palestinian poets and essayists like Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habiby, Taha Muhammad Ali and Edward Said, whose meditations on exile, migration, colonialism and grief radically transformed the course of my life. It is this strong poetic tradition that eventually led me to my writing fellowship in Palestine, and the poem featured here.
My peace studies professor Ailish Hopper is deeply committed to creating poetry that imagines a world beyond whiteness. My junior year of college, I took her class called Rewriting Race, where we discussed the poetics of dismantling white supremacy, how language is a tool weaponized to create race as well as a powerful tool for decolonization. Through that class, I had the honor of meeting poets like Jake Adam York, Douglas Kearney and Claudia Rankine. Ailish always made it clear that poetry can be an instrument for community organizing. I hope to model my poetic practice after hers.
And of course, as I said before, I would be lost without my favorite eleven-year-old sci-fi fantasy writer, Winnie.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The poems “the valley of its making” by Nate Marshall and “what was said on the bus stop” by Danez Smith both beautifully portray solidarity in all its complexities. I’m absolutely obsessed with Safia Elhillo’s book The January Children, especially her poem “vocabulary.” Kaveh Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic has some of the most intense and powerful imagery I’ve ever read. Fatimah Asghar’s “Land Where My Father Died” is a punch in the gut and truth-telling at its finest.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Too many to list! But the ones that immediately come to mind are: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
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 recently discovered Kaveh Akbar’s Twitter and have since been introduced to a wide array of poets. Poetry Twitter is life-giving and I continue to tumble down its rabbit hole. I also made a rather silly pact with myself that, in order to save money and space, I would purchase no new books this entire year so lately I’ve been reading books that I’ve been meaning to read for years. (The pact is semi–working out.) Besides the poetry I read from online literary journals, I’m a firm believer in physical books and note-taking. Admittedly, I’m a little prejudiced against people who prefer iPads and Kindles to physical books.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Because I spend a ton of time commuting from Queens to Brooklyn, I now do almost all my reading on the train. I sometimes jot down writing ideas in my phone, too. But honestly, I tend to work in my room because often the writing is so personal and beds are always the best place to cry.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade because it’s such a glorious view of Manhattan. I frequently reroute my walk through Brooklyn Heights just to see the First Presbyterian Church’s perfect church sign. I’m also a big fan of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, New Women Space in East Williamsburg, Verso Books and Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. I have no idea how I lived near DUMBO for a year and never stumbled upon Berl’s, but now I’m obsessed with it. I’m still mourning the loss of Cobble Hill’s Community Bookstore and BookCourt.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate mango mornings, comfortable silences, a seat across from the avocado tree outside our window, Mama’s cheekbones in a perpetual smile, another day
alive: the daily mourn
And what I know now is that death itself is peaceful, still, comforting even. Easter Sunday only a rude
disruption: This life, this body and blood,
resurrected for you is peace disrupted.
For every life cut down, another grown from loss. Surely, she must imagine sometimes, a world where two of her children don’t exist. Her husband in their place. Their faces distant dreams, misplaced memories, the lingering in the touch of his hand.
Umva. Listen to me. There is still goodness here, as
goodness always sings her survival song.
There is always more life. There is always more life
Still trying to figure that out.