Poet Of The Week

Jerie Choi

     August 21–27, 2017

Jerie Choi was born in New Orleans and completed her education in Hong Kong, Spain and Los Angeles, earning a BA in poetry from the University of Southern California. She was a recipient of the Amy Award for poets in 2014 and has performed twice at the New York City Poetry Festival. Also a musician, she was a teaching artist at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in 2015, and has been developing and leading a series of workshops on anti-oppressive music history, focusing on decolonization and resistance, for girls and gender non-conforming youth from underserved communities at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. Choi received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship this summer to study in the Poetic Beasts workshop led by Miller Oberman.

Fable

 
Listen can you hear
the tangle vine singing
to she who whistles through thirty holes in her beak? That is how she
     draws her prey.
My grandmother slipped underground, an accident.
Is she gone? Really?
Why does nobody say anything?
It is normal, dwelling in beds and doorways, rooms and graves. I go
     walking in the garden, the sun full-fledged.
Orange flesh is springing from pregnant trees.
Nature persists in circles,
toad-skinned fruit
gazes from the damp earth,
aboriginal eyes of a bird I once knew.
We are all afraid to take one from the hanging tree.
Screams—look! Look at these thighs, I gave my flesh away—it is our
     protection from the infinite.
Her bed was stolen by the grass.
The square is a human invention.
Skin on her eyes, moss on stone.
I was there that day, yes I tell you I was.
Grandmother removes her dress
and the perfume of white clay seals my throat vinegar-deep.
The body unzips, a wrinkled peel,
blessing my upturned face.
I think again of the simurgh,
sacred bird born a million times from her own egg and curled fingers
     unhatched, hovering, close.
Abuelita drifting down through the pot of oily broth wings crossed
Abuelita floating with the flies in the dog’s bowl moss-blessed and holy
Abuelita moving me as worms do
her fingers inside mine
teaching the two-step to my blessed bones. Abuelita my mouth is your pall,
a rose pressed between the leaves of my lips.
Your featherless wings wrap the tongues of strangers, we crouch in the
     corner.
There is no room
for those still perched on branches,
beyond the womb’s clenched fist.
The swollen organs of virginal oranges,
bruise-soft, are rotten.
All things round are under suspicion of harboring immortality. There is
     no room.
Listen—
I was there that day, yes I tell you I was.
We crouch in the corner as
she removes her dress,
moving me as the worms do,
with curled fingers unhatched, hovering close.
She screams—look, look at these thighs! I gave my flesh away—that is
     how she draws her prey.
Wings crossed
she slips underground
moss-blessed, holy and vinegar-deep.
A gaze from the damp earth
and the perfume of white clay seals my throat.
It was an accident.
Drifting down through the pot of oily broth a million times born from her
     own egg
Is she gone? Really?
Simurgh, perpetual bird
featherless wings wrap the tongues of strangers like moss on a stone.
Orange flesh springs from pregnant trees, floating with flies in the dog’s
     bowl.
You are still perched on branches, aboriginal eyes of a bird I once knew.
     It was an accident.
Your fingers in mine.
My mouth your pall.
Skin grows on eyes
like toad-skinned fruit
and beds are stolen by the grass.
Nature persists in circles,
But the square is a human invention.
We dwell in beds, doorways, rooms and graves.
It is our protection from the infinite.
All things round are under suspicion of harboring immortality. The body
     unzips, a wrinkled peel,
why does nobody say anything
except the tangle vine, singing
to she who whistles through thirty holes in her beak? Can you hear
the two-step dance, my blessed bones?
I go walking through the garden in the full-fledged sun, a rose pressed
     into the leaves of my lips.
The swollen organs of virginal oranges,
bruise-soft and rotten,
bless my upturned face.
We are all afraid to take one from the hanging tree.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I have written several poems and short stories about the death of my grandmother, but this is the only one that was written after she actually passed. I had a weird fixation with that event before it ever happened. It was very strange to look back at what I had written in the past and see how prophetic it was. That happened many years ago now. This summer we wrote a bunch of new poems in workshops and I STILL managed to sneak her into one.

When I wrote this particular poem I had complete writer’s block, and then I found myself jobless. For the entire summer I just meditated and wrote in my journal every day, trying to be a full-fledged musician to make up for the fact that I couldn’t write. One day I flipped back a few pages to my previous entries and this was kind of waiting there. I ended up taking scissors to the pages and cutting up every line and rearranging it, something I’ve done since then with other poems.

What are you working on right now?

I have a general idea of finishing a chapbook-length collection of poems. I’m biracial and descended from two heavily colonized cultures. A couple of years ago those issues became an itch that could only be scratched by writing. It’s all working itself out in my head. I just have to put pen to paper, which I managed to do this summer to an encouraging extent. Being superstitious, I don’t like to say too much about projects that aren’t almost finished. Of course, sometimes saying that you’re superstitious is just another way of saying you’re anxious and neurotic.

What’s a good day for you?

When I get everything done that I hoped to get done, whatever that may be. Also, when I get absolutely none of that done because something spontaneously happened that steered me in an unexpected direction.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Worst reason ever—an ex-boyfriend, eleven years ago now.

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’ve been living in Bed-Stuy for the past seven years now, near the Prospect Heights/Clinton Hill junction. I was probably one of the first gentrifiers who moved to this neighborhood simply by virtue of its low cost, which has changed so much, not only in terms of the structures and businesses, but in the people that I see walking around every day. Soon the rest will begin to change as well.

It is a very fractured neighborhood, which is perhaps why I ended up in it. There’s a lot of tension and confusion on any given day. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly where you stand. The demographic, when I first moved here, was largely Caribbean, Indian and West African Muslim. There were next to no bars or liquor stores back then. Now there’s plenty of hipster joints. Every time I leave my house, I’m amazed by how many white people I see. Suddenly, the local grocery store now carries organic goods. I was happy about that, but I had no illusions about why. I’m sure I will eventually be pushed out by gentrifiers, even though I myself am one. I’m beginning to accept that as a marker of my identity, considering that I am a person of color, with light skinned privilege, and a member of both oppressed and oppressing classes. Similarly, this neighborhood is kind of writhing between two opposing forces, the force of gentrification and the reality of its history. There is a huge homeless shelter for men right around the corner, which contends with the goals of developers and landlords. As someone who has housed some of these homeless men and their belongings, both with and without my consent, in my front yard, I have very mixed feelings about this.

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

There’s plenty of terrible experiences I’ve had, but as I’m in a good mood today, probably the most memorable one was lying down in Sunset Park next to a group of Latino boys playing football, a few yards away from an elderly Chinese man playing a wooden flute, drinking grappa from Italy out of a plastic Poland Spring bottle.

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

I’ve never been one to really rely on community as far as writing goes, and it was only this year that I attempted to find other poets to connect to. The reality is that I connect much more with women of color poets than others. These can be found in many places, whether it’s at Brooklyn Poets or spaces tailored specifically to that demographic, like Apogee Press, which is amazing, or AAWW, or the Pratt MFA for writing, which has wonderful programs for community outreach, also tailoring to women writers of color. I will never forget how it felt the first day I sat in a room writing and reciting poetry with only brown and black women. I felt free. I also felt challenged to be myself in ways that I had never been permitted before, like a plant that is suddenly given water and fertilizer and a bigger container. The pressure is on, to grow. That can be scary too.

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

Ocean Vuong, which is how I found out about Brooklyn Poets when I went to a reading of his a few months ago. I try to be expansive in my poetry reach so there’s not a lot of regional focus, at least, not intentionally.

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

Mentors would be amazing. I never sought them out, and most of my creative peers are musicians or visual artists or filmmakers. I find that to be very enriching. At the same time, sometimes there’s advice that only another poet can give you, and I’ve gotten that through workshops. But my whole life I pretty much wrote alone. I find writing to be one of the most solitary activities. Isolating oneself, though, has its good and bad sides.

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

Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec. That entire book had a deep effect on me. As I said before, I’m grappling with a lot of issues surrounding colonization; reading her take on her identity, her family, her history, her past and present, which manages to encompass the collective and the individual experience, the historical and the personal, in so many different facets, complete in its incompletion—those are all things I would like to harness myself, in my own writing. The idea of so many opposing things coming together to make a new thing, or to take an old thing and place it into a new framework, or vice versa or upside down or back to front, without denying the damage and beauty of our colonized selves, our colonized influences and words and loves, is revolutionary and yet obvious and completely instinctual for me.

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

The Art of Expressing the Human Body by Bruce Lee. Also I can’t believe I’ve never read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn—but I did read the abridged graphic novel version, which was amazing. Also, everything by bell hooks, especially Communion.

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 only read physical books. These days, maybe ever since I got a smart phone, I’ve had trouble finishing one book from beginning to end, and I’ll get randomly inspired and dig out book after book, night after night, until there’s a huge unmanageable pile by my bed, at which point I have to clear them out, put them back, and start all over again. It’s counterintuitive, because perhaps if I were less ambitious and had fewer books in my face all the time, I would actually manage to read one from cover to cover.

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

I’ve never tried any of the Oulipian forms. I love sestinas, villanelles and pantoums, but with the Oulipian ones I always wonder if I’ll get out what I put in. The idea of so much technical restriction seems kind of scary to me as well. In the last workshop I just finished with Miller Oberman, most poets did a Beautiful Outlaw—seeing what they came up with basically convinced me to go for it. Maybe that’s next. Another very important thing, which I actually bought a voice recorder for, is to “write” poems orally. I think for my particular style and my personal shortcomings, that would be a very important exercise.

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

The beach. I go far out to Fort Tilden most days. Any park is great too. But a lot of the time, reading and writing in public is challenging for me, as strangers like to bother me a lot. You would think a book would be a sign that you’re not there to chat.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Sunset Park, because the neighborhood literally fulfills the nostalgia I have for both Latin and Asian cultures and food. That area, and south into Bay Ridge, has the best Chinese and Central American food in Brooklyn, and I go where the good food is. Also, I genuinely love the lake in Prospect Park.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate our mouths and weathered hands,
And what I place into you will bloom in sun and snow,
For every word that falls from me as good as breeds in you.

Why Brooklyn?

My reasons are somewhat unglamorous. Aside from the fact that my best friends are here and I don’t want to leave them, I have considered moving, but ended up staying because it really is easier to make money doing certain things here in New York than in other towns. I have my anxieties about financial security, which I probably inherited from my parents who were very much working-class immigrants when they first came here. In the last year or so, I’ve found better reasons to stay, though—such as the amazing PoC activist communities that are entrenched here and that only a handful of cities aside from New York could contain. Also, the food. Pupusas and soul food and dim sum are all a walk or short train ride away from each other, which I find as comforting as having your grandmother, aunt and distant cousins living near you rather than halfway across the globe.