Poet Of The Week

Justine el-Khazen

     April 2–8, 2018

Justine el-Khazen was a 2015 apexart International Fellow and a 2014 Emerging Poets Fellow at Poets House. Her work has appeared in Apogee, the Cortland Review, the Margins, Harriet and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others. She teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and is a graduate of the MA program in creative writing at UC Davis. “Re(ve)al” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.


                                               after Edward Snowden

                           The ladder
Of fleas
Climbing your ankle, inkblot
Of bruises inside your knee
Are real, belong to a state
You live in, weary
& overworked by the comparison
Of systole to star. Brighten
The versions you select, see yourself
Venned in wavy glass: it’s
Impossible to know how the room
Shifts with the length
                                        Of a shadow,
Your sense of yourself
In it. You confront strangers,
A boss, tell the police you cannot
Take my picture
. Your feelings
Are diaphanous, firelike, tinned &
Beaten into the old buildings,
Sometimes inconsequent. Blood frets
The tympanum in your ear.
                   Colors the West,
The appearance of stars, this world
Of sagging bricks, normal days
That leave you shocked
& fatigued at the rattling end
Of a commute. This afternoon
With the shades lowered belongs to it,
Every bag of bread you buy, ex
Whose number you delete, door
Eased gently back into its frame,
Sensuous peel of orange left curled
In a sink, fragment overheard,
Hour logged alone with the husks
Of sex left to you in memory
Belong to it too.
                              When you
Close your eyes &
Try to remember how it all
Began, there’s time to ask the police
Not to come in, why they won’t leave
You alone, to find the words
For who you really are, reveal
The pale ancient wing hung reflexively
In the arm you raise, give
Your injured body a myth, the rust
That belongs in its dreams.

—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Well, the germ of the idea came from a letter Edward Snowden wrote to Laura Poitras, which she reads in a voiceover in Citizenfour. I was struck by the lyricism of his writing, his use of anaphora: “ … for now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep … ” Not to geek out on the language and totally miss the point of what he’s saying, but he’s saying it beautifully, which I found interesting. Snowden’s eloquence is an important part of his activism, in my view. Poets take the importance of language as an article of faith, but I don’t think our attitude is commonly held. That’s why Snowden’s eloquence in that letter stuck with me. You could keep going indefinitely with the anaphora: every single thing you do, however banal or arbitrary or forgettable, is “in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.” His words, his peculiar eloquence, lodged in my mind, the germ of them eventually sprouting into this poem.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve actually strayed away from poetry into nonfiction. I’ll always be a poet; I’ll always put a special priority on language, but the fragmentary nature of poetry ultimately became a limitation for me. Over the past few years, I’ve moved slowly into prose until eventually it became clear to me that I need to learn to narrate in a truly nonfictional mode, which is what I’m doing now …

What’s a good day for you?

Hmmm … it’s sunny and warm out (not epically snowing, like today), and my crippled dog doesn’t drag me on too long of a walk, less than two and a half hours; she’s very headstrong. After that, I spend the rest of the day writing until bedtime with occasional breaks to make meals and read.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

My entire life I’d wanted to move to New York City, though before I moved, I’d never even visited. Back then, Brooklyn was where the cheap apartments were. I don’t know that I’d ever heard of it before I moved, other than in that Beastie Boys song “No Sleep till Brooklyn.” Immediately, though, I was glad I’d landed where I had. If I’d moved to Manhattan like I imagined instead of Brooklyn, I would’ve moved away in a few years.

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 live in Windsor Terrace and have for eighteen years, save for a brief stint in Oakland. I grew up in Washington, DC. The racial politics of Windsor Terrace and New York generally are very different from what I grew up around in DC. New York is so diverse, both economically and racially, while DC, at least in the ’90s, wasn’t. Growing up white there, I couldn’t help but be aware every day in a thousand different ways that I existed within and benefited from a really stark and brutal system of racial stratification. Whites were a demographic minority then, but they also had a lot of wealth and social power. I honestly didn’t know what to make of my situation as a kid, its uncomfortable contradictions. I felt ashamed and confused by my status, but I didn’t know what to do with those feelings because I didn’t have the historical awareness to contextualize my experiences. I was actually motivated to study history in college because I felt I needed to understand the system in which I’d grown up, within which I was both an insider and an outsider, as a white person and a Jew … There are no Windsor Terraces in DC. It’s a mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood with a solidly middle-class population, many of whom work for the city, or at least it used to be; the would-be Park Slope homebuyers who’ve been priced out have gentrified the area a lot recently. When I came to Windsor Terrace, I thought I’d moved to Sesame Street. People were so friendly! I’d never experienced that in a city before, a community that’s so cohesive, that isn’t riven by uncomfortable histories; it’s sad to see it go. In my first apartment, I lived across the street from the self-professed “mayor” of 17th St. Frank was really good to me, always ringing my bell when I forgot to move my car for street sweeping, little things like that. Willie, my longtime neighbor, would do little things too—like bring me tacos!—to check on me when my husband had to leave the country for several months due to visa problems. They’re all gone now, unfortunately. They sold their houses and moved farther out to places like Bay Ridge and the Rockaways or out of state to places like the Poconos.

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

True story. I learned on Ancestry.com that many members of my family are actually buried around me in Brooklyn, in Washington Cemetery and Mount Carmel Cemetery, so I’ve made a few visits to their graves, brought them flowers. I had no idea that when my great-grandparents immigrated to America they set down roots in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The house my grandmother grew up in is two miles away from Windsor Terrace, on Flatbush Ave, and one of the addresses her family used on a census form was on Prospect Ave, mere blocks away. My great-grandfather, who had like ten kids, rode his bike from the house on Flatbush every morning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he worked as a machinist. When he arrived in Brooklyn in the early 1910s, he initially opened a bike shop in Williamsburg. I guess he was the original Brooklyn hipster, just another pickle-eating, bike-loving fool, livin’ the dream till he had too many babies, ha. Another part of my family went hardcore Hasidic and left Manhattan for upstate when my grandmother was very young. I didn’t know any of that when I came here.

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

Emily Dickinson is hard to figure for me. I don’t know how anyone writes in total isolation; I couldn’t. Community = sanity, and yes, I have. Poets House and the Poetry Project and Bowery Poetry Club are such amazing cultural institutions. We’re so lucky to have them.

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

I read Dennis Nurkse’s The Border Kingdom obsessively when I was getting divorced. I have no idea why, and I’ve never really thought about it or told anyone that until right now … I only found out years later that he lived a few doors down from my first husband and me, in WT.

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

I like reading books by people who straddle poetry and some other genre, nonfiction, fiction. I was a little bit destroyed by the way Sebald reveals Austerlitz’s backstory in Austerlitz. A good childhood friend’s mother ended up in London after having taken the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia, so I knew what it was going into the book, but I still wasn’t prepared for the way his memories would come to him, the double meaning of his name … Someone said to me once of a poem I had written about Eric Garner that it was a real accomplishment because I’m white. That’s a very American thing to believe, I think. Still, how haunting that Sebald, whose father was a Nazi, should grasp the essential problem with Jewish memory—even pre-Holocaust, the radical dislocation caused by forced migration, the loss of connection to the past, to one’s self even—so profoundly. He understands it better than any Jewish writer I’ve ever read.

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

I’m on my way out to pick up Garments Against Women from my favorite bookstore in the whole wide world, Terrace Books.

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?

My choice of reading material is instinctive. I was sort of depressed by the endless dragging on of winter (it’s currently blizzarding, and it’s March 21st), so I reread The Goldfinch because I needed an escape, an immersive read that never ends. Though it’s snowing, I feel heartened enough by the idea of spring to return to reading that aligns more closely with my writing, so I’ve got W. G. Sebald plus a bunch of books on French history on my bedside table. I don’t take notes or anything like that. I hope the cadence of the language will just seep into mine; I allow whatever vistas are revealed to me by my reading to open up subconsciously.

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

Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to tell stories, in poems and out of them, mostly out.

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

Sadly, I only read and write at home and on the F train. It’s good to have work to do on the F because there’s always a delay these days, womp womp.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park. So much better than Central (there’s no comparison), and I like how if I walk the loop, I weave through all these other communities, big drum circles and barbecues and quinceañeras and bunnies gamboling and turtles laying their eggs. What’s not to love?

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate blue sky and buds, signs of life,
And what I can’t have, I hope you do,
For every thing I’ve left out, that’s left out of me as good that
     they’re in

Why Brooklyn?

I think it was fate.