Poet Of The Week

Judy Schneier

     February 18–24, 2019

Judy Schneier is a poet and psychotherapist living in Park Slope. She is a member of the Sweet Action Poetry Collective and a regular attendee of the monthly Yawp in Cobble Hill, and she recently started taking workshops through Brooklyn Poets. Her two teenage sons appreciate her knowledge of current podcasts, and her dog, who is utterly devoted, makes whiny noises that sound a lot like speech. Schneier originally came to New York as a dancer at age eighteen and continues to study and practice salsa dancing. She was a finalist for the 2018 Yawp Poem of the Year award for the poem below.

My Minnesota

 
If I move in with Julie’s family they can call me Julie—
I would only have to change one letter of my name.
I’d be happy to bake the cookies her sisters always bake for family
     parties.
Chocolate chip cookies are one of the few things I make well.
I could make them over and over for every family party.
I don’t know how to arrange flowers and
I don’t like to learn new things,
but if they do it over and over for every party
I could pick it up eventually.

I would go to the parties every weekend
and sit quietly in a corner
and watch the children play.
I’ll talk about the weather with Julie’s sisters
and we will get a head start on planning the next party.
Though of course it will be just like the last one.
That’s what I like about Minnesota.

Julie’s parents might hope I’ll be like her
but I’m sure they will quickly see
that I’m more like them.
I will also lose the keys,
but I can probably climb through the window more easily.
I’d like to be useful.
I’ll put Julie on speed dial in case we need her.

I know the winters are cold but I like to spend
a lot of time at home streaming Netflix
and stretching my hamstrings.
A simple life full of family—
that’s what I want.
To be gathered in, nested,
smiling at everyone with no one demanding too much from me.

I’m sure they are pleased that I make cookies,
but even happier that I really want to make them.
Unlike Julie who really wanted to leave
and never make them again.
But we won’t say anything bad about her,
after all she is their real daughter,
even though we now have the same name
and I live here and she’s so far away in the big city.
And I never roll my eyes when mom and dad lose their keys and phones
     and shoes,
when they forget to pay bills, buy food or do laundry.

I forget all those things too.
Unlike Julie, who’s so very helpful and never forgets anything,
but she does get that certain look in her eye
and her mouth gets just a little bit tight when she sees we are confused.

It’s the stress of that big city life that keeps her juggling things and
     running around
like a chicken without its head, as my mother would say.
I mean my biological mother not Julie’s mother.
Julie’s mother would never say an unkind word about Julie,
except that it’s strange for someone to like a big dirty city
with no family better than Minnesota
where people care for each other and have lovely celebrations.
It’s not as though you have to live in Brooklyn to have good politics or
     entertainment.
Our Netflix stream just fine thank you very much.
Hard to know what Julie was looking for that she couldn’t find at home.

I agree but say nothing. I’m sure Julie knows what’s best for her.
She likes those expensive cafés, and waiting for the R train.
She likes watching dirty bags fly down the street,
and the cyclists who surprise you when you step off the curb.
She’s gotten used to those rude, harried people who are not related to
     her.

It would be confusing if she returned—
our names are so similar.
But that’s ok, I’ll make name tags:
Julie S. and Julie H.

She can tell me her favorite animal (mine’s a poodle) and I’ll make a
     tracing on cardboard.
I’ll cut them out and write out our names in block letters.
We can fasten them on with masking tape
so we don’t ruin our blouses with safety pins.
I know Julie will have hers forever and
I’ll probably misplace mine pretty quick.
But think about it,
if Julie’s there, she can help me find it.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem during a Brooklyn Poets retreat two years ago. I was hanging out a lot with Julie Hart and we were talking about our families. I found her family in Minnesota genuinely appealing. I probably wouldn’t last too long there, but there is definitely a part of me that wants to be nested, surrounded by family, with nobody expecting too much of me. This sounds like what it is to be a child and especially a little sister. I’m no longer a child but I miss being a child because I did feel safe and loved back then. And I am still a little sister to my two older sisters. One of these sisters is the person I trust most in the world.

There is a warm safe feeling which certain families provide. I believe my family of origin and Julie’s offered us this. I’m well aware that the cost of membership can be spending your time doing things that are of no interest to you. The rituals that bind people together and keep them predictably in the same place interacting with each other can also drive some people crazy and stifle that special individual thing inside them that’s trying to get out. I certainly know that feeling.

Still, the warmth of belonging to a family and feeling loved and accepted unconditionally is something I yearn for. The loss of family is the subject of many of my poems, which are often very dark. So while this poem is ironic and I myself am equally an escapee from my family of origin (a Julie as much as a Judy), I believe the poem works because the reader senses the genuine yearning that exists alongside the irony.

What are you working on right now?

I’m revising a long poem written without much irony. I’m trying to create a structure that feels like a person engaged in an activity but unable to stop a flow of painful memories. I want the reader to see how this internal thought process, and the emotions it evokes, affects her behavior in the world. That behavior then affects the way people respond to her. She is aware that the state of mind her memories evoke make her unsteady. She is unsure if her responses are justified in the present moment or a response to the past. Over the course of the poem, the intensity of her emotion is revealed through the flow of her memories, her actions, and her thoughts in the present. It’s a more complex piece than I’ve attempted before.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me can take many forms. It could be a day where I get to do a lot of dancing or a day where I feel I did some good writing. It could be a day I spent time with a friend and felt a strong connection. It could be a day where I feel I did a good job in my therapy practice. It could be a nice day with my kids. I’d say a nice day with my kids would be a very good day. It could be a day where I just got things done that needed to get done and that I don’t like doing, but I did them and didn’t feel too stressed.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was living with a boyfriend in the East Village in an apartment with very noisy neighbors. My friend had a big loft on Douglass St in Gowanus. We were part of a crowd who did contact improvisation (a dance form that developed in the ’60s). The loft was big enough to dance in, and it was cheap! When she left for New Mexico I took it over. I lived there for ten years. Its cheap rent allowed me to mess around with dance for more years than I perhaps should have, but I did love that loft. We danced there, we had little performances; it was a cool place. One boyfriend (not the East Village one) drilled rock-holds into the walls so he could practice climbing. It was safe because it had no alleyways and there was a gas station on the corner (still there, I think—Douglass and 4th Ave) that provided light to see down the street. The De Martinos, fish distributors who owned the building and worked downstairs from me, may also have had a little protection. Alas, they wanted to sell it. They put generators on the roof that kept me awake at night until I left. But that may always be my favorite place, the home of my hopeful youth.

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 like to look out my window at the turf of Washington Park. It has been the subject of two of my poems and referenced in a few more. My son’s bar mitzvah took place at the Old Stone House and the kids ran around outside on it. My kids, their dad and I played frisbee and baseball and soccer on it. Now I run illegally on it with my dog after dark. He refuses the dusty dog run.

I walk through the playground on my way to Café Martin for lattes. I recall taking my children to the pre-renovated version with a big fountain in the center. Some evenings I’ve gotten my kids gelato at the killer (as in great) gelato place on 4th St and 5th Ave, and we’ve gone on the swings again. It’s almost painful to have their childhood so close I can almost touch it. But if I wasn’t here, wouldn’t it slip away entirely? There was the big slide and the swirly slide; the swings then had too narrow a footprint and the moms were always afraid some child would get kicked in the face by standing close to claim the next turn. Now they are much safer. I actually don’t think I can remember everything in the old playground; it’s merging with the new one in my mind.

I go to the farmers market and my son is always telling me to buy pickles but we usually still have pickles in the back of the fridge. I do buy that overpriced raisin bread, and the overpriced olive oil suffused with garlic and the overpriced scallion pancake with bacon that my younger son devours. They know him, call him by name and start cooking him one as soon as they see him. My other son wants the frozen pops in assorted flavors, cheaper if you buy twelve. I buy twelve. We always taste a lot of cheese. If my kids are there I’ll buy a piece; otherwise I just taste it. I always taste the coffee from the man selling beans and sometimes I buy a cup because I feel guilty always tasting. My son loves the chickpeas in curry sauce and I’m now friends with the lady who sells them. I buy organic veggies from the handsome German (maybe Swiss?) guy who runs the farm upstate. They are very good vegetables and he is very handsome. I get hot cider if it’s cold. Sometimes I buy flowers.

Across the street is Bagel World. This business will go on forever. I believe even if climate change makes the Gowanus overflow and we have to walk around in boots that become radioactive, Bagel World will continue to do good business. For one thing, the dogs insist you go there. They have a dog window and give out treats liberally. Sonny stands on his legs and his head reaches right into the window. They have good bagels and actually good smoothies too, along with a huge menu of omelets and sandwiches which I never buy. And they are all completely dedicated to the business. The son (I thinks he’s the son) is a wiry guy who looks like a runner and he runs it with enormous efficiency and politeness. His mom is often there giving the dogs many extra treats and providing a sense of history. Their coffee is not as good as at Café Martin, but it’s a lot cheaper. Essentially, they give me a feeling that I’ll never go hungry. They are there to feed me; they want to feed me. And, in fact, the times I’ve gone in there and been low on cash, they’ve waved me away: “Don’t worry about it, you’ll give it to us next time.”

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

I don’t think I’d still be writing if I hadn’t found a community of poets here in Brooklyn. I started writing five years ago out of an overload of intense feeling after the end of a relationship. But it would have played itself out, I think, if I had not found motivation to keep at it through the encouragement of poets at the Yawp and later the Sweet Action Poetry Collective. I was also inspired by listening to these poets. In my experience, poets support each other in finding their individual voices. Writing doesn’t elicit the comparisons to other people that come up in other activities. Maybe it would in other circumstances, but at this point in my life, the community feels supportive rather than competitive. The connection I find between the inside of me and the inside of other people is the main reason I keep doing it. That and the fact that I like attention, and when I read a poem I feel people paying attention to me. I like to feel that. As the same Julie Hart I’ve mentioned before frequently documents in her poetry, a woman getting older becomes progressively more invisible. Reading my poetry out loud makes me visible. The people I’m reading to are the Brooklyn poetry community.

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

Emily Blair, Julie Hart, Arthur Russell, Dell Lemmon, Julia Knobloch and Jason Koo come to mind as people I heard early on at the Yawp. I loved their poems and they encouraged me. My recent class with Jason helped me open up to new possibilities regarding form and how to generate a poem. All the members of Sweet Action have given me a very safe and supportive place to try out new material and opportunities to read/perform poetry. Many people allowed me to send them poems for comment. I have often taken advantage of Arthur, Julie and Emily in this regard. I’ve encountered a great deal of generosity from people willing to take the time to think about my work.

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

I began writing from a state of depression. I was familiar with Plath’s Ariel already, but rereading it at that time was powerful for me. I’m still a bit tortured by the fact that putting her craft to work on that enormously painful material so successfully was not enough to stabilize and save her. But I admire what she created. Its raw, uninhibited power speaks to me. It affirms that intense, dark emotion and despair are good material for poetry. “Tulips” is one of my favorite poems.

I happened on Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap in a bookstore at an opportune moment. It seemed like fate, if I believed in fate. Having her take me through her course of mourning and analyzing her lost relationship in poetry served some of the same purpose for me as I imagine it did for her. It honored the weight of the experience but it also gave me distance and perspective. Having access to the richness of her inner life helped me think about the way our situations were similar and different. The enormous amount of thought she had to put into this relationship in order to work it through was something I related to, as well as the fact that it gave her so much good material to spur her writing. Some of her lines seemed to capture my own private moments. Sharon sucked the juice out of sadness, loss and depression in a way that led her to greater strength. She offered some of that to me.

Jason’s class Fast Break: Capturing the Motion of the Mind was an important experience for me. I began writing five years ago out of an extreme emotional state; I knew I wanted to break out of that pattern. This class pushed me to try various forms and practice free writing. It allowed me to see what comes out when I’m not compelled to write out of emotional need. This was a new step for me. I found my typical concerns follow me around but they don’t have to dominate. It helped me see that writing can be a practice that keeps me noticing my thought process more of the time. If I write consistently, then I’m not just focusing my thoughts when I need to climb out of stress. I’m allowing more of what comes into my consciousness to be of interest to me.

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

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar. I encountered Akbar in Jason’s class. His poem was the model for an assignment to write a poem without punctuation. I found his writing so satisfying. He writes without moralizing about his extreme experiences. The paradoxical nature of life is everywhere. If you find writing powerful when it captures the complexity of experience, Akbar is right there with you. But it flows with imagery. It doesn’t feel too cerebral. The images and events in the poem can be only loosely connected but it comes together somehow. I feel he doesn’t make me work too hard (I don’t want to work too hard) but he doesn’t spoon-feed or sugarcoat. I’m not doing him justice. Enough to say I read the entire book and I keep carrying it around because I want to read it again.

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 have a few books going at a time. I read lots of news articles each day and I do some professional reading. Poetry takes more focus, and I read a little each day. I’ll buy a book and have it on my nightstand. I’ll grab it and put it in my bag to read a bit on the train. I’ll read a couple of poems before bed or in the bath. I often have a new and old book going at the same time.

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

I’d like to write about climate change in a poem. I want to write about it in a natural personal voice and express both the feelings and my defense against those feelings. I feel like there is a way into this material for me that is not obvious or direct and I’d like to find it.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Prospect Park at off-leash time. It is usually as close as I come to the natural world. Because I am required to hang out and give Sonny a chance to run around I am forced to slow down and look around me. The dogs bring me out of my own mental loop the way my children used to. They have their dog world and it draws you in. You can also go explore the park which has so many different environments that you feel you have been on a real journey. I also love biking in the park and getting air, sunlight and speed to interrupt that loop.

I like walking down 5th Ave because I do so several times a day and it’s etched in my mind with familiarity. I love the turf and the farmers market for reasons I’ve described earlier. I also love the subway. I don’t love waiting for it but once I’m on it I feel very relaxed. It’s a comfortable place for me to read and write. I like sitting on my bed. That’s where I do most of my writing.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s a little late to ask that question! I’ve lived here for twenty-eight years. My parents were born and raised here, as were all my uncles and aunts. I came to NYC to be a dancer and like nearly everyone else who started in Manhattan, I left for a less expensive borough. I love Brooklyn but maybe I’d love Queens just as much. Brooklyn is soaked through with my history at this point: young adulthood, family life, middle age and late middle age. I may not be here for old age. I can imagine being on a warm island near the ocean and having a quiet life with lots of swimming, stretching and writing. But if I leave, I’ll probably write about Brooklyn.