Poet Of The Week

Monica Wendel

     September 25–October 1, 2017

Monica Wendel’s first book, No Apocalypse, was selected by Bob Hicok as the winner of the Georgetown Review Press poetry manuscript contest. She is also the author of three chapbooks, most recently English Kills (Autumn House Press, 2016), which won the Coal Hill Review chapbook contest. She holds an MFA from New York University, where she was awarded Goldwater and Starworks teaching fellowships, and she is now an assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College. “Courthouse” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.

Courthouse

 
At the rally for the woman who was raped
by that cop, Reverend Billy started in on
corporations, eventually winding his way down
to her body. The booing stopped, then. In Bushwick,
near Varet Street, one wheatpasted sign reads
you can’t have capitalism without racism and another
says occupy my penis. Audre Lorde said the master’s tools
will never dismantle the master’s house
which I hated
when I first heard it—of course plantation tools
could kick holes in walls, of course fire burns both
fields and hearths, until I realized what she meant.
Or maybe I still don’t. Maybe the sign should have read
you can’t have capitalism without misogyny or plain old fuck cops
after the trial was over, a jury member said, of course
the cop did it, we just didn’t have enough to convict. It was
he said she said. Here’s all I can say: the cops formed
a wall outside the courthouse, hands behind their
backs, chests forward. Like they were the ones under
attack. Like it’s not violence if someone gets off.

 
—Originally published in Rattle #42, Winter 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I’m interested in the way a body can become a public statement, a method of speech—like in Occupy Wall Street, or, as in the poem, the lining up of bodies outside the courthouse. I’m also interested in how that method of speech intersects with the ways in which women’s bodies are seen—and commented on—in public and in private. And, as a writer, I’m always interested in language itself. I want the language in a poem to be surprising, playful and illuminating. (I assume these thoughts were behind the making of this poem, since I don’t remember writing it.)

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a YA story that takes place on Fire Island. So far there’s murder in it, and foxes.

What’s a good day for you?

There are so many different kinds of good days! A good day probably involves two or more of the following elements: writing down my dreams; a long walk or run, preferably over a bridge, preferably with a friend; something work-related, like students dropping by the office to talk books or poems or boyfriends or even homework; something non-work-related, like slow afternoons at the beach.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Graduate school.

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?

In Bushwick, I lived in the huge third floor of a warehouse, with a room for parties and art shows, bedrooms and studio spaces honeycombed throughout. The loft was the best part about living in Bushwick, which was (is?) industrial and expensive all at once.

I don’t know what to say about changing Brooklyn, especially the areas off of the L train, because other people have said it so much better. But I do want to share a discovery, which is that after a couple of years of living in Bushwick, I learned that my great-grandmother, an Italian immigrant, was married at the church around the block. Possibly she was baptized there, too. I liked thinking of myself as walking in her footsteps, literally. Did she know someone who worked at the brewery? Did she walk down Bushwick Ave. and admire the mansions? Did she go to the corner store for milk and bread? When it was hot out, did she sit out on a roof or fire escape and feel a moment of peace? What did she see around her?

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

I was at Still Waters in a Storm, where I volunteered as a writing mentor, and we were playing a game where I pretended I was an ocean, or a subway train, or a roller coaster, and the kids took turns climbing up on me and being spun around and put back down. We were on the sidewalk, it was summer, and we were all dreaming of the same thing: Coney Island. And one of the girls said to me, “I was happy when I was born. I’m still happy.”

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

A poetry community is a group of people who will call you on your bullshit, let you vent about dumb fellowship application questions, read your poems, go to poetry readings with you, let you borrow books, and go for walks / to museums / on hikes / etc. And you do the same for them. Over the years the definition has changed, but I’ve had a poetry community here for years—they’re an insanely talented crew.

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

Walt Whitman—although I think of him as a mall poet, not a Brooklyn poet, because I spent much of my Long Island adolescence meandering through the Walt Whitman Mall, just around the block from his birthplace. (Seriously, they used to have lines from Leaves of Grass on the wall outside of Macy’s.) Some living poets: Jacqueline Woodson, Elsbeth Pancrazi, Diana Delgado. I love how they write about dreams.

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

My undergraduate professor, Dave Kelly, who wrote Instructions for Viewing a Solar Eclipse. He tried to teach me to get rid of commas.

Since then, the poetry community has been more of an influence than any one specific mentor.

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

Earlier this summer, I picked the book Silver People by Margarita Engle out of the YA section of the local library. Why this book? Well, I misread the author’s name, and thought it was by Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. My mistake was also my gain; I was impressed with how the author wove together historical research on the workers who built the Panama Canal into the form of poetry for a YA audience. One of the questions I’ve been asking myself recently is why YA novels-in-verse find a wide audience, while adult novels-in-verse or books of poetry, unfortunately, struggle to find that wider acceptance.

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

Proust. Goethe’s Faust. Umm, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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?

Over the summer I read one book at a time, cover to cover. During the schoolyear I’m juggling at least three different books that I’m teaching from, plus (hopefully) reading a book for fun. I prefer physical books, but I like the note-taking apparatus of the Kindle, with its highlighting and notes you can create, then hide. I also prefer the ease of using my Kindle to check out library books. Next read is almost always random.

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

I’d really like to write a YA novel in verse. I’ve never tried writing poetry for children or young adults before.

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

My parents’ backyard on Long Island. My husband’s art studio in Ridgewood.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Still Waters in a Storm is probably my favorite; it’s an educational sanctuary in Bushwick, where you can find kids translating Don Quixote, and some pretty incredible guests, like Zadie Smith and Leslie Jamison. In the summer, between learning Latin and reading, we draw on the sidewalk with chalk, kick a soccer ball, and play pretend. In the winter, I like how the sun slants through the windows, which are full of books and artwork. And I like the cozy feeling.

Right next door is SARDINE art gallery, which is a tiny, friendly space; you can pop in and see both.

But pretty much any space is made important by the people there.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate loss,
And what I harbored within, you placed there,
For every creature within me as good was once of you.

Why Brooklyn?

It keeps pulling me back in.