Poet Of The Week

Libby Burton

     April 9–15, 2018

Libby Burton is a senior editor at Henry Holt. She earned a BA as part of the Area Program in Poetry Writing from the University of Virginia and an MFA from Columbia University. Her debut collection, Soft Volcano, was selected by Ross Gay as the winner of the 2017 Saturnalia Prize. She has also been a recipient of the Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers. Burton’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Atlas Review, Denver Quarterly, Field, Guernica, Juked, Meridian, North American Poetry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and Tin House, among others. She was born in Pennsylvania, raised in Virginia, and lives in Brooklyn.

Author photo by Alexandra Levin

American Cosmology

My mother pressed eight plum-sized lungs
into this unforgiving world
but she failed each one. Or they did. Or she did.
Then she hefted the wet want of me
into a place that would never be new again.
Now an economy of nostalgia
for what never was makes some ghosts rich.
I own immense educational debt and too many
hypotheticals stacked like steak dinners,
warm and waiting with richness.
So how is it I can move these ocean limbs
to leave this bed each day.
And how did I even learn the shape
of tenderness, but in the two sweet hoods
over mud-wanting eyes. If I were
the first. Or the second. Or never.

—From Soft Volcano, Saturnalia, 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Recently my mother asked me whether this poem was about the several miscarriages she had, and I said: yep. My parents tried for many years and jumped through many medical hoops in order to have children. They eventually succeeded, obviously. This poem is a slight gesture toward the arbitrary fact that we exist at all, that we are who we are. My mother used to joke that if the fertility treatments didn’t work out, “I” would have been adopted. Again, obviously, that’s a false comparison, but what of me has its origin in my circumstances? Likely more than I can even imagine.

What are you working on right now?

When Soft Volcano, my first book, was picked up by Saturnalia, I took a long break from writing. Partly, it had to do with the fact that I was tired and this opportunity gave me an excuse not to write, but another part of it was, ironically, I felt like I no longer had much to contribute to the conversation happening in poetry today. Much of the best work coming out now grapples unapologetically with identity, privilege, oppression, and how technology is shaping our identities—and thank god! Poetry has never felt more vital to our political conversation, at least in my lifetime. So at the end of the day, I thought, what’s a privileged white girl have to contribute? And I still think that’s true, to a certain extent, but I also couldn’t stay away. Soon lines and longer pieces came back, and they seemed concerned with being a female body in the world that both resents that fact and exploits it for gain, which is pretty much what I have always been obsessed with. I was also struck particularly hard by the death of Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s inconceivable to me that we will not have access to more work by her, but that has prompted me to go back and examine her genius again. She was a gift to us.

What’s a good day for you?

I love to pack as much into an ideal day as possible. That can mean a little reading and writing (poetry first, and then turning to manuscripts for work; have to keep the consumption of poetry a bit free and pure). I wake up ridiculously early, even on the weekends, because that’s when my mind is sharpest. I’m also helped along with dangerously strong coffee. I don’t smoke or drink as much as I once did, but I will never give up gut-burning coffee. After doing some (mental) work, I’ll work out, doing yoga or CrossFit (if you are another poet who does CrossFit, I would love to meet you). Then errands and ending up at a movie where I am the only person under 65 (IFC Center and Quad Cinema are good for these). Somewhere in there, I love a long walk—miles—across different neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Ten years on in this city and that still hasn’t gotten old.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Moving from Virginia, my best friend and I had heard of a cool neighborhood called “Williamsburg,” and she secured a room off Craigslist with a suitcase and her checkbook. Eight years later, I still live within eight blocks of that first miraculous under-market apartment with a washer and dryer (beginner’s luck, indeed). This neighborhood remains as weird as ever but always exciting.

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 am gentrification, as in, if I’m living there, it’s too late. That fact aside, as I see it, my pocket of southeast Williamsburg has not yet utterly transformed, as so much of this neighborhood has, in the years I have lived here. The real locals may see it differently. We have a new coffee shop, a new gym, some uglier condos, but similarly daily rhythms and a lack of construction when other parts of the neighborhood are buried under it. The same guys hang out by the bodega every day; the same couples walk their two dachshunds; we all try to be kind to each other as these endless winter days drag on.

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

I used to be a long distance runner and would run over the Williamsburg Bridge nearly every morning, at around 6 AM. The people you meet on a bridge at sunrise are the best people, and the day I encountered a Hasidic Jewish man in a rush, a mother and daughter speed-walking and speaking Spanish, and a young hipster couple high out of their minds and (I think) newly in love was a really great day.

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

I found a life-changing community through the 92nd Street Y, specifically a class I took with Cornelius Eady, who is one of the most talented poets writing today and one of the best teachers of poetry I have ever encountered. From an immensely personal class wherein Cornelius would open up his home and offer snacks (!) while we discussed entire manuscripts, I met some of my closest friends, who happen to be startlingly talented writers and have become a mini–poetry community for me: Wil Lobko, Maud Poole and Ricardo Maldonado.

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

Hart Crane wrote with a lot of beautiful pain. These days, I’m excited by Morgan Parker and Tommy Pico.

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

Lisa Russ Spaar, a professor at the University of Virginia who invented and runs the undergraduate Area Program in Poetry Writing, is a magical angel from poetry heaven, and I wish every artist (and every human) could encounter a teacher and mentor so generous and so emotionally intelligent. She gave me permission to pursue an art that is generally divorced from market capitalism and the tools to ensure that I wouldn’t starve while doing it. She understands how the world works and yet writes and reads with such intellect and vulnerability. The world is desperate for more teachers like Lisa. I owe her everything.

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

Morgan Parker does it better than most in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé; that book is not for me, and I love it for that fact. Camonghne Felix’s “Willing in the Orisha” and Emily Skillings’s “Matron of No” are two poems that get at female identity in ways that are really exciting to me.

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

I have yet to read Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, but I will. Soon.

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 two novels, three books of poetry, a few nonfiction books and innumerable unpublished manuscripts going at any given moment. My life is ordered in many ways, but not my reading. Though I do like to finish things I have started unless they are god-awful. After years of digital reading (except not poetry, never poetry), and three pairs of glasses, I’m firmly print these days. It’s the only thing that will save my eyes, and it’s just so much more intimate.

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 be funnier in poems. We live in weird hilarious times, and I think that should be reflected in the art we make.

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

My office in the Flatiron building, but late, when everyone has left for the day. Mountain Province is the best coffee shop in East Williamsburg; no pretense, no weirdos, just kindness and Filipino baked goods.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The Leonard branch of the Brooklyn Public Library: their selection is fantastic, and it’s warm and cozy in there. Nitehawk Cinema: I couldn’t design a more perfect movie theater. The view of the East River from Peter Luger Steakhouse always gets me emotional.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:

I celebrate the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas
     high school
And what I admire about you is your strength and smarts.
For every complacent me as good and world-changing you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

A little sin on the pen,

                                        old eggs gone wrong

in love. Your dodger mouth explodes on me.

                                        Jack in my big dreams.

You robbed yourself a father.

Why Brooklyn?

The East Village was too expensive and the Upper West Side was too lame.