Poet Of The Week

Isa Guzman

     June 25–July 1, 2018

Isa Guzman is a Boricua, Titere poet from Los Sures, Williamsburg, New York. His work is dedicated to the exploration of issues concerning Puerto Rico and its diaspora, including the political and emotional hardships the community faces. He recently received his BA in English literature from Hunter College. When he’s not Titerando in the tri-state area, or obsessively reading a book, he is publishing his work in magazines such as the Acentos Review, Somos en escrito, La Casita Grande Lounge and the Good Men Project; he is also featured in the anthology The Other Side of Violet (great weather for MEDIA, 2017). He has received the Edith Goldberg Paulson Memorial Prize for Creative Writing and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This past spring, he was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Vanessa Jimenez Gabb’s Poetry and the Times workshop. Currently he is working on his first collection of poems.

Scarcity City

Start tearing down this city block by block, glass pane by glass pane: it’s over.

This experiment in anti-tribal living is over; this experiment in bone-and-carcass economy is over. The flood waters are coming.

Tearful and full of skulls; full of plastic bags and zip ties; full of the rotting souls of fish: it’s over.

And let’s not leave any more of our footprints. The boroughs are being taken back by the Earth.

This artificial heaven, this luciferic heaven has gone on for too long. We’ve made it ugly.

We’ve paved history in concrete and sold off the ghosts.

Jovial summers with salsa sunsets, the lost crack-hours of night, the persistent beat of vein highways: done.

Flood waters come to swallow up our blood.

The squalid and industrial memories of brick roads will erode into ancient cities.

It’s over.

Subway tunnels will attempt to swallow every drop, but eventually drown.

And us? The rich and the landlords will run off first, but still dictate from afar—like they always do. Maybe lock us in our basements while the waters come. Maybe set fires to our homes and rent out the dilapidated waters. Maybe rent out our bodies to roaches—like they always do.

But it won’t last. Tragedies run deep in water, and revolt is just a single layer under that.

Let the faded voice of Héctor Lavoe purify the air: burn away, with passion, the last of the city’s smoke. Let the poetry of Julia de Burgos scatter the last of these glass towers in a beautiful drunken rage. Let the ashes of Miguel Piñero and John Rodriguez regather to turn these waters into an empty page.

It takes a people’s love to make any ruin rise into its full potential, and it takes an ounce of greed to take it all away.

—Originally published in the Acentos Review, August 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Driving up the BQE, to your left, you’ll come to the lit landscape of Manhattan’s skyline. Bright towers of glass with lights hanging in them. I’ve always took a fascination with the tall skyscrapers, but I never found the sight beautiful. On a clear day, the sky is entirely black and empty. These moments of progress and wealth always came with an asterisk (omissions) of what it took and what it takes to keep these behemoths there. Environmental pollution. Wealth inequality. Worker abuse. Hubris. I wanted to write about the flipside of this beauty; keep my ear to the wounds covered up by these lights. Much of the poem was composed during several of these car rides.

What are you working on right now?

Several things! I tend to overwhelm myself with projects. However, I am currently trying to get my first book published. I’m writing a chapbook on gun violence, in response not only to the horrible shootings going on around the country but also to the experiences happening around my block. I am also gearing up to start attending Brooklyn College for my MFA.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me would be reading through some inspiring poetry while drinking a strong cup of Bustelo, workshopping poetry with members of the community, drafting up some poems, and hearing some good music throughout.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Birth. Born and raised in Los Sures, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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?

Los Sures is possibly the most beautiful place on Earth. Most of that beauty is in childhood memory now. I grew up during the culmination of the crack epidemic, when Los Sures was still an incredibly impoverished Puerto Rican (and growing Dominican) community. The abandoned buildings. The yards full of scrap metal and trash. Old wooden garages hiding chop shops. Needle caps nestled between each concrete slab on the sidewalk. Horrific, yeah, but a testament to the community’s survival and strength. The beauty found in these things has been an unlimited source of inspiration for me. I don’t care if it is a contradiction. Today, it has gone the completely opposite direction. Constant construction of condos. More restaurants. An infinite number of bars and coffee shops. Less visible signs of survival. Less shadows, more lights. It kind of feels like everywhere else now, with some echoes of salsa at random.

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

January 1996, Nor’easter. My parents had decided it would be a great day to go to the laundromat. I struggled with them through the snow in my oversized coat, snow smothering me. Once we got there, and began washing clothes, I seated myself by the window to watch the storm rage. The contrast of the calm-running laundromat and the raging storm outside the window felt magical to me. I saw one or two people struggle by and/or slip. I saw a random beach umbrella shoot down the street. And then, when my parents were done, we were back out into the elements being pushed on home.

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

I’ve come to understand poetry community as this: a supportive group of artists (of various genres and personalities) who come together to spit the good word (or bad word) of human dignity and struggle. Communities vary in how they go about this task. I’ve found a wonderful poetry community in my own backyard, dedicated to uplifting Latinx culture and history. I’ve found a community of writers dedicated to the craft, as a means of empowering the individual into exploring themselves and the world. I’ve found community dedicated to exploring political issues and emboldening themselves toward that long struggle of process. You do have to widely navigate throughout the city to find them, but it is really beautiful to see what’s going on right now.

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

The Granddaddy of us all, Walt Whitman. And not necessarily for his work, despite how amazing it is, but for those he influenced. My focus has always been on Latin American poets such as Neruda and Paz, and to find those bridges of influence and history in words/poetry has opened a vista of possibility to meaningful power that could help change the world.

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

Dead: Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Pedro Pietri, Thomas James and Bob Kaufman (to name a few). Living: friends and former professors Dean Kostos, Alice Rosenblitt-Lacey and Rich Villar. They have all, in their ways, helped me realize the potential of my words and ideas to larger and important conversations surrounding life and the way we lead this society. Dean has been particularly valuable in introducing me to the wild lands of surrealism, whose techniques and ideas I keep close in nearly every piece.

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

Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan and the anthology Poetry Like Bread, edited by Martín Espada. Borzutzky has been an amazing contemporary influence to me. The brutal nature of his work, along with his political urgency, is a poetics one shouldn’t ignore. The anthology also stands out for its political urgency, but in an overall historical sense. The constant struggle for true human progress, embodied by the several stories through every poem in the anthology, had me hooked from end to end.

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

Quite a few. I’ve still been meaning to read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in its entirety. Cosmic Canticle by Ernesto Cardenal. Giant Talk, an anthology by Quincy Troupe and Rainer Schulte. Adonis’s Selected Poems. And many, many history books on Puerto Rican culture.

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 try to read up to three books at a time, jumping from one book to another. I try to plan, though my library is so large I tend to pick books to help develop a random fascination that comes up. Of course, I am lucky to have collected such a physical library. I love books, probably too much, but to have the physical words in your hand feels powerful. And yes, I am also a heavy note-taker. So, there are many piles of books and papers everywhere. If I had the space/studio, it would probably end up looking very close to Francis Bacon’s artist studio. For now, I manage.

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

I want to experiment with poetry and visual arts/performance. I want to play with the line’s physical path. I also want to play with collages and word clouds.

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

Friends’ houses. On the subway. At a library. On a walk through my neighborhood. Some of my best poetry stems from random walks.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the spaces by the water. The East River State Park has been an interesting place to go to. I also like the spaces in between, like the Williamsburg Bridge.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the word, and write
what I believe you already know,
for every dust of blood in me as good beats through you.

Why Brooklyn?

             These are the broken lands of the resurrectionist’s pen,
where the drunken bodies of brothers and fathers
are pulled from their graves with imagination and love.

             These are the broken trenches of the bullet dodgers,
where one comes of age by hook or crook, by robbing
the dust out of flowers or the voices from Biggie’s wounds.

             These are the lands of the philosopher kings of Brooklyn:
Louis Reyes Rivera, Whitman, Miller, Tito the carjack
from down the block, and all who speak sin into poetry.