November 20–26, 2017
Niina Pollari is the author of Dead Horse (Birds, LLC, 2015), which was a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her latest, with the writer merritt k, is a chapbook called Total Mood Killer (Tiger Bee Press, 2017). She is a native Finnish speaker and sometimes translator, and translated Tytti Heikkinen’s The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal (Action Books, 2013). Recent non-poetry writing can be found in Racked, Catapult, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. “Are You a Hand-Sculpted Animal” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this past spring.
Are You a Hand-Sculpted Animal
I’ve been training
I told my friend that I wanted to be strong
As we walked a long and cumbersome route to her reading
I meant that I wanted to be so hard that it makes me feel
Like I might not die
I like imagining myself with power
Pain from muscle effort is a memory of desire for power
Training means a part of me is always in pain
Women’s bodies are often bombed with pain
And women become flyover states of pain
Because this pain is regarded as unimportant
So OK, I’ll do it myself
I fling myself around the park
Heave myself onto the treadmill
Move various weights with enormous effort
Until my shirts are wet at the armholes
And sweat beads lattice my upper lip
After, I feel horsey and satisfied
As pain runs its large hands up the muscles of my legs
It’s pretty pure
To me the purest art is when you commit
Enough to admit you committed
Commitment to me is
That I’m telling you about it now
—Originally published in Powder Keg, Issue 9, September 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
In my adulthood I have come to glean a lot of happiness from working out, and specifically from weight training. This poem began as a poem about the results-oriented streak in me that wants proof of my own power. At the same time, though, weight training involves a necessary love of process. You have to be willing to fail sometimes, and to fail publicly. I am incredibly embarrassed by failure; lifting weights to failure has helped me be better about acknowledging my various failures. This is hard for artists—social media dictates that we are always happy and proud to announce one success or another, but often our failures are more private. Mine are many, and I don’t like them, but they are a part of my growth. The poem is sort of a companion piece to this essay.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve finally started writing poems after what felt like a long pause. I abandoned about sixty pages of material after the election because it suddenly felt twee and unimportant, like something someone wrote on the last beautiful day. But the new poems feel more of the present, so I’m hoping they will become something.
What’s a good day for you?
Rise early to a pot of coffee; watch the birds at the bird feeder; exercise; approach the afternoon with a great big chunk of free time for editing, writing and being dumb on the internet; cook a colorful dinner; go to bed before midnight.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Westchester County in pursuit of my MFA at Sarah Lawrence, and relocated to Brooklyn during the second year of the program. It was a three-bedroom apartment that held six people, a dog, a cat and a repulsive, brazen colony of German cockroaches. There was a hole in the bathroom floor that you could look into and pretty much see into the bathroom of the apartment below, and the landlord refused to provide outside trash cans for what felt like months. But everyone living there was an artist, and that’s a neat summary of what has kept me here. I’ve spent the subsequent eleven years slowly improving my living quarters and situation.
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 Williamsburg now, which feels strange to say because it felt unaffordable to me for so long. In New York, the question of where you live always boomerangs back to money, doesn’t it? I’ve lived in Bushwick, Ridgewood and Bed-Stuy, and in each of those places I was most certainly part of some early-ish wave of the gentrification process, before prices inevitably soared. In a testament to how dizzyingly fast it moves, my landlord of three years in Bed-Stuy once told me not to reveal my rent amount to the newcomers in the building because it was far less than what they were paying. I moved to Williamsburg a few years ago in order to move in with my husband. We live in the part of the neighborhood that has a lot of older Italian families, and although there are more and more condominiums rising up each year, it still feels linked to its past.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Recently I’ve been into the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s not a very beautiful bridge, its paint is sort of a faded pink and that uphill is murder on the quadriceps group if you’re biking. But it’s such a wonderful bridge to cross on the right day. On our wedding anniversary, my husband and I drank milkshakes and slowly strolled from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the air was sparkly and it was just beautiful.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m slow to make friends, especially poetry friends, because I’m very anxious (if you’ve met me and I’ve acted weird to you, hi, it’s my fault, I promise). But over time I’ve found what I think is a lovely community. Hosting events is a useful way to meet kindred people if you’re bad at making friends—during the seven years that I ran Popsickle, first with Douglas Piccinnini and then with JD Scott, I met hundreds of writers, all of whom said hello to me at least once. The next time it was easier to say hi, and then over time some of them became friends and collaborators.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Road trips are another great way to make friends, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend long hours in cars with several Brooklyn poets. You get to have experiences like eating in Guy Fieri–endorsed diners and driving through terrifying rainstorms and getting locked out in the parking lot of a Gabe’s in West Virginia where you bought matching red bellbottoms. Shoutout to any Brooklyn poet who’s been in a car with me for the better part of a day. And if you’re into road trips, get in touch.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I don’t think I developed that kind of relationship in graduate school, but the people who have most profoundly empowered me as a writer were the editors who first asked to see my work or solicited poems from me. If you are an editor and you ask emerging poets for work, please know that it’s incredibly meaningful.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Lately I really enjoyed Of Being Dispersed by Simone White, Some Beheadings by Aditi Machado and I Told You I Was Sick: A Romance by Elaine Kahn. Each author has a brutality and specificity with which they wield language and build up the world of their respective books. Also, I think often about this poem from my friend Chelsea Hodson’s poetry record Night Redacted.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
In 2018 I want to read more in translation.
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’m usually reading multiple books at a time. I like to read fiction on a Kindle because I read in transit a lot and travel is hard on books, and also because I don’t like for people to see what I’m reading. But I prefer physical books of poetry. For the past couple of years, I’ve been taking notes in a loosely-organized reading document for reference later.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
One weird trick that will make doctors hate me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to write at the West in Williamsburg. It’s a great café during the day and a chill bar in the evenings.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love?
Walking down Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint on a sunny day with a coffee and a Peter Pan donut.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I ________ you ________,
For every __________ me as good __________ you.
I celebrate privately.
Although it’s only been eleven years, Brooklyn is where I’ve grown up.