Poet Of The Week

George Kovalenko

     August 20–26, 2018

George Kovalenko is a poet whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, the Iowa Review online, New South, Horsethief and elsewhere. He is the recipient of fellowships from New York University and the Saltonstall Foundation. A founding editor of Poet’s Country, he lives and teaches in Brooklyn.

Meditation with [That Yellow Wood] inside It

You can hear it in my voice:
the way I’m sure of nothing
but the word that must come next.

For instance, when I say success,
I mean that one thing comes
after the other;

I mean the glen is going gold
solely by virtue of its previously
being otherwise.

Passing through the suburb
where you used to live,
on my way somewhere entirely else,

I did not think of the time you told me
autumn smelled to you of carrion
rather than metaphor.

I imagined you, instead, talking about
sublimity as the space between
two simultaneously occupied points:

like an electron.

Or maybe I was just about to tell you
about this dream I can’t stop having.
The dream in which we learn,

I feel, to think.

You know the one. I’m sorry—
I used to paint in bolder
shades of certitude.

Let me try again,
can you hear it in my voice?;
there’s no such thing as


—Originally published in Horsethief Issue Ten, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This one came together during the fall of 2014. I remember a phone conversation during which a friend asked how it was we’d come to have a quantum physics while our metaphysics remained relegated to kitsch, classicism or simple neglect. This seemed like a question that warranted answering. Unfortunately, I think I must’ve also been reading a good deal of Frost at the time. It was also the first of several efforts I’ve since made towards trying to invert the greater Romantic lyric, in other words, a poem in which the images sit inside the meditation, rather than the other way around, the biggest matryoshka inside the littlest one. I don’t think it quite gets there, but it unpacked—for the first time—a way of constellating my thinking that I’m still working through now.

What are you working on right now?

I just got done with my first manuscript this summer. I think probably to spite the fact that this took a lot of hard work, I’m now doing a few poems that need to rescue themselves from their own titles. I’ll have something incredibly stupid like “The Dish that Managed to Piss Off the Locals at the Donkey Sanctuary Charitable Event,” and then I’ll try to squeeze something under that monolith of idiocy that feels bearable. This may very well be a completely nugatory practice but I’m having a good time.

What’s a good day for you?

It’s fall. It’s almost sunny. It’s just chilly enough to wear a sweater. I’ve just picked up a hot cabbage pirozhok from one of the two unmarked wholesale-club bridge tables on Brighton Beach Ave. The afternoon is spent on the boardwalk talking to someone wonderful about something so insignificant for so long it becomes essential.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Graduate school. Real original, I know.

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 now live in East Williamsburg but I’ve moved neighborhoods nearly every year since I came here. I love the near unlimited closeness that comes with living in Brooklyn. I grew up in the California desert and the sky there seems unfathomably distant and unfathomably large. In Brooklyn, I’ve held the sky more than once in the palm of my hand.

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

I once saw a rat king in Crown Heights. That’s all I’ll say about that.

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

Openness and honesty. And I’ve found more of a community here than anywhere else I’ve lived.

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

Philip Levine holds a special radiance to me. I saw him read in Gowanus once. The event was before lunch for some reason and he showed up in a tracksuit. At one point, he stopped mid-poem to thank the audience then mutter, “Phil, you’re a lucky fuck.” It was gorgeous. Additionally, disregarding current residence and historical or hierarchical order, these folks: Walt Whitman, Aziza Barnes, Carlie Hoffman, Wendy Xu, Ariel Francisco, Marianne Moore, Cooper Wilhelm, Morgan Parker, Timothy Donnelly, to name a few.

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

I had a number of generous, patient teachers at NYU: Catherine Barnett, Major Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa. All of them had graceful and particular ways of pointing to where the lines were too full of themselves or how to cast a refraction without killing the shadows. Ultimately though, Jeffrey Schultz is most important to me in this regard. Try as I’d like to, I don’t think I could trace the scope of what he taught me inside and outside of poetry. He has a poem called “J. Begins by Saying The World’s Not as It Should Be” and it may be the only poem that I can say, without any hyperbole, changed my life.

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

Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing have been occupying my time in the realm of contemporary poetry. I’ve also been thinking over Hölderlin’s “Der Winkel von Hahrdt” for the past little bit. It’s a bizarre poem that seems to evade me every time I think I’ve got it. I also just finished working through the correspondences of Theodor Adorno and Alban Berg. All of these things have puzzled and confronted me.

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

All things Mayakovsky.

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 always break the spines. I underline without annotating to save some mystery for later. I move in spirals. I reread. In utopia, everyone always reads aloud.

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

I would dearly love to work on a renshi. If anyone is interested, find me at one of the locations listed below.

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

The Cemetery of the Evergreens. If I could, I’d be there every day.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Human Relations in Bushwick is, in my opinion, the best bookstore in all five boroughs. Skovorodka in Brighton Beach and Okonomi in Williamsburg serve up my three favorite meals almost anywhere in the world. For anyone who dabbles in metal, Saint Vitus in Greenpoint is something of a damned miracle. I’ve spent countless transcendent evenings in that deafening little back room. It’s a beautiful, inclusive space that does a very good job contradicting the more heinous stereotypes of that subculture. Those interested should look for the inverted cross in a window appropriately across from God Bless Deli 2.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the empty space, and sing no thing at all,
And what I unmake you will keep unmaking,
For every nothingness belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Why Brooklyn?

Mostly to get featured on Brooklyn Poets.