Poet Of The Week

Meghan O’Rourke

     September 11–17, 2017

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the poetry collections Sun in Days, just out from W. W. Norton, Halflife and Once, as well as the memoir The Long Goodbye. An essayist and cultural critic, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute, and has won two Pushcart Prizes, among other awards. She lives in Brooklyn, where she grew up. “Sleep” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.

Sleep

 
Pawnbroker, scavenger, cheapskate,
come creeping from your pigeon-filled backrooms,
past guns and clocks and locks and cages,
past pockets emptied and coins picked from the floor;
come sweeping with the rainclouds down the river
through the brokenblack windows of factories
to avenues where movies whisk through basement projectors
and children peel up into the supplejack twilight—
there a black-eyed straight-backed drag queen
preens, fusses, fixes her hair in a shop window on Prince,
a young businessman jingles his change
and does his Travis Bickle for a long-faced friend,
there on the corner I laughed at a joke Jim made.
In the bedroom the moon is a dented spoon,
cold, getting colder, so hurry sleep,
come creep into bed, let’s get it over with;
lay me down and close my eyes
and tell me whip, tell me winnow
tell me sweet tell me skittish
tell me No tell me no such thing
tell me straw into gold tell me crept into fire
tell me lost all my money tell me hoarded, verboten,
but promise tomorrow I will be profligate,
stepping into the sun like a trophy.

 
—From Once, W. W. Norton, 2011 (originally published in Poetry).

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was a terrible insomniac when I wrote this poem. I was trying to seduce sleep into arriving—it’s a 3 AM love letter.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just finished a new book of poems, Sun in Days, which I was making changes to until just a few weeks ago; it comes out September 19th. Now I’m at work on a book of nonfiction about mysterious chronic illnesses (autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia) and the kinds of cultural narratives we construct around them. It’s aiming to be a kind of an Illness as Metaphor for autoimmunity, which, I think, is a kind of postmodern condition, coming and going, lacking clarity, culturally and personally contingent—all things that our data and test-obsessed medical system is bad at dealing with.

What’s a good day for you?

Hmm, it would have espresso, wine, poems, time to read and write, and playtime with my son. More specifically, on a real good day, my son sleeps until 6:30 AM instead of 5:45 AM; I make an extra-good espresso, and we have some fun searching for dogs in books. He is obsessed. Then I read and write in the morning while he’s with his babysitter, and get to take a walk and see a friend for an actual conversation over coffee (or wine!). I suppose a good day would mean I didn’t procrastinate on all the busywork that piles up. Or maybe a good day is actually the one where I ignore my emails and stay lost in the book I’m reading. Right now, a good day also includes some political action and contribution. I know it always should, but right now it feels especially crucial.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I grew up here. My parents moved from suburban New Jersey to Warren Street in Cobble Hill in the early 1970s when a group of artists were starting to settle there. The neighborhood was very diverse at the time. There were a lot of kids on our block, and after school in the spring we used to play on the street till sundown, rollerskating and bike riding in our PJs, scattering when cars came.

In summer, we played stickball in the abandoned lot down the block, or opened a fire hydrant to cool off. It wasn’t quite as much fun as it seemed it would be: I remember the water pressure was so intense it knocked me down the first time I ran through it. Then we’d go get twenty-five-cent ice pops at the bodega. Jonathan Lethem immortalized the neighborhood in the opening of Fortress of Solitude. (My parents were friendly with his father.) No helicopter parents in those days.

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 lived in Clinton Hill on and off since 2007—with some brief breaks to live in Cambridge, MA, and Carroll Gardens, where I lived from 2000 to 2007. When I first moved to Clinton Hill, it reminded me a bit of the Brooklyn I grew up in—it was pretty diverse, comparatively, and had a slightly renegade feel, a kind of complexity that I liked. Now it feels like a place for rich people to live; there are movie stars and lots of longterm Manhattanites who’ve newly discovered Brooklyn’s charms. It’s still lovely, but some complex spirit it once had is diminished. Also, it’s impossible to find a coffee shop that’s not horribly overcrowded.

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

See above with the fire hydrant … A present-day defining experience would be a little different. More like fighting for personal space on the F train. Of course, this has always been a problem in NYC; as kids, my brother and I used to call the trip to school “sardine time.”

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

Sort of to my surprise, I have found it. The word “community” always feels a little vague to me, since lots of communities have good and bad aspects. But I have found webs of necessary companionship within the broader group of poets, and it really sustained me when my mother died. I’d left my editorial job at Slate and begun writing from home. (I was working on The Long Goodbye.) It was a lonely time, and I made an effort to reach out to female poets I admired, who suddenly became a constellation of necessary friends, whose commitments, interests and compassion—thank god for that—sustained me.

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

Walt Whitman, that oldie but goodie—part crank, part sage, very Brooklyn. His presiding spirit seemed to be everywhere in Brooklyn when I grew up in it. You have to remember, in those days “Brooklyn” was said like it was kind of a dirty word. Cabs didn’t want to come here. (My father once dumped a garbage can on one that wouldn’t take us over the Brooklyn Bridge during a snowstorm when my brother and I were very young.) No one from Manhattan ever visited you. So Whitman kind of blessed the place, in my mind—he was our patron saint, a source of literary pride.

Today, many poets have made my daily life in Brooklyn livable at times when it might not have felt so otherwise—including but not limited to Matthea Harvey, Cathy Park Hong, Monica Ferrell, Robin Schaer, Brenda Shaughnessy. (Sadly, the last two have moved away.)

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

My real poetry mentors are the poems I keep being astonished / startled / troubled into joy by, just when I’ve started to wonder: Why poetry? Why continue? I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of brilliant teachers along the way, and being poetry coeditor with Charles Simic at the Paris Review was a wonderful education and pleasure. He tells a good story.

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

This isn’t exactly a new book or poem, but there was a really wonderful segment on the Brian Lehrer show recently with Kaveh Akbar and other poets reading Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty) and then reading their own responses. In light of everything happening under Trump, and the recent news about DACA, it was an energizing reminder that the language of poetry is a language we need right now—that its pressures and energies and incisiveness can push back against the language of false logic and alternative facts.

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

Ulysses is a big one. I somehow got through college without reading it. The list is really long. Aiming to finish the last volume of In Search Of Lost Time. And I’ve never read Paterson, which feels especially bad because William Carlos Williams is not only an influence, but was my father’s family’s doctor for decades. He delivered my grandmother in a difficult breech birth. I might not be here without him, both literally and aesthetically. My great-grandmother, who was a huge poetry fan, and really loved the Romantic poets, used to sigh and say, “Dr. Williams is not a very good poet, but he is an excellent doctor, so we’ll have to forgive him.”

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 read multiple books, chaotically and deliciously. I prefer physical books, especially for poetry. But I don’t mind reading fiction or nonfiction on my iPad; I just find that I retain more of a feel of the book if I read the physical copy. I’ll read in any form. Books, iPhones, napkins.

I do take notes, though I’ve lapsed since having a baby a year ago. My notes fill notebooks that mostly sit there unopened until I reread them, mining for startling artifacts of what interested me years ago.

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

This is such a good question I’m going to have to think about it for a few months. I’m between books, which means I have a drought of ideas.

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

I don’t have a favorite Brooklyn work spot, to my chagrin. I’m waiting for someone to open just the right Clinton Hill coffee shop. (Most are too crowded and get really dirty—and I’m not even germ-phobic.) The best place for working that I ever found was a small coffee shop in Florence called Ditta Artigianale which had open-air walls that pigeons flew in through all day long. Great food, excellent coffee—and then excellent Italian wine at the end of the day. I could spend twelve hours there reading and writing and dining happily. I wish they had fellowships.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the top of Fort Greene Park; you can see Manhattan from the steps, and on cloudy days low-hung fog drifts through the skyscrapers of downtown Brooklyn. I love a spot under the Brooklyn Bridge that’s now blocked off. We used to go party there in high school, driving kegs down and gathering in our coats to drink by the water—one of the great luxuries of city living in those days: waterfront real estate there for the teenage taking. I write about it in Sun In Days. Late at night the city would get dark and still and you could start to hear the East River flowing. You could see the blue and red lights of security systems of certain floors of the World Trade Center, too, and drunkenly we thought they were secret financial-district discos.

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

Sorry, that would be sacrilege. But how about:

I celebrate Whitman,
And what I write you write better, old poet,
For every word in me as good as belongs to you.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s my home and always has been, even when I’ve tried to leave it behind.