December 11–17, 2017
Ona Abelis is a poet, journalist and translator from Brooklyn. She has contributed to Brooklyn Magazine, Flavorwire, the WILD, Beautiful Savage and other publications on art, culture, theater and music. In 2015, she self-published a chapbook of thirty poems titled The Names of Things: Stories from New York, and also translated Rafał Olbiński’s Tales of Love and Other Curious Predicaments into English. By day, she works at a graphic design studio. By night, she’s working on a book of poetry that she hopes to publish in the near future. Abelis was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow this fall for study in JP Howard’s Poetry and Memoir workshop.
Where Are You From?
Sometimes I say that I grew up in northern New Jersey—
even though I wasn’t born there—so it sounds like I’m from
a white-collar, American family. I started doing this
in college, after I told the truth and my roommate
wrinkled her nose. “Oh, Greenpoint,” she said, expecting
someplace else. “Are you … Polish?” Northern New Jersey
is full of bankers and lawyers. Everyone knows they live
in McMansions with swimming pools. They have multiple
cars and take family vacations. Their daughters carry
Kate Spade bags and go to the mall in packs. You can’t join
them if you’re shopping at K-Mart. You can’t join them if
your parents speak broken English. You can’t join them
if you’re from Greenpoint in the first place. Sometimes I say
that my parents are business owners, investors, or
just retired—living in Arizona as hobby cactus enthusiasts.
Sometimes, I just change the subject. This weekend, my father
suddenly tells my boyfriend about his first work accident—
getting hit in the spine by a construction dumpster in 1987.
Six months unable to walk, he explains, and it is impossible for me
to intervene about northern New Jersey. The second accident
was in 1995, he continues, when we had to clear out a law office
in Midtown—desks, chairs, plants, tables, bookshelves …
everything had to go into the dumpster. I lifted a large box like this,
he demonstrates, and felt a thunderbolt in my spine.
I look at my father’s eyes across the table, the grey clouds
of memory swirling around each pupil. I remember my father
before this accident, lifting me up above the waves at Coney Island.
I remember my father lifting my mother to carry her
into our new apartment. I remember my father skipping
with my younger brother on his shoulders, to get him to sleep.
When my father could walk again, he’d point at the items
for me to lift and place into the grocery cart. He’d ask me
to lift stuff into the car. Strangers would glare at us at the airport
—me with all the luggage and him empty-handed.
How could they know that he’ll never be able to pick up
most things? That he’ll never be able to run again? That he
can’t even stand on his toes? Later, the State of New York
would declare him permanently partially disabled and I would
find the certificate while looking for Christmas presents.
Now, when my father raises his arms, I see the youth hanging
from his bones like laundry out to dry. I think about my boyfriend’s
parents, both doctors, and wonder if he’ll break up with me tonight.
I think about my father saying, I am doing this physical work,
so later you can get a job working with your mind. I think about
how I quit being a lawyer with the ease of shrugging off a jacket.
I observe my boyfriend shifting in his seat, elbows on the table,
leaning forward. I think about how we met seven years ago, at a bar.
I hear my boyfriend offering to send my father’s latest MRI scans
to his father, a neurosurgeon who specializes in spinal injuries.
“Don’t worry, sir,” my boyfriend says, “my father will look at the scans
and will help get a second opinion.” I see my father watching me
from the corner of his eye.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem started with a prompt from my poetry group and then grew over a period of two weeks into its current state. I had been trying to write more personal poems that explored my family’s history and my own memories of childhood, and so just let it all flow into these lines.
What are you working on right now?
Seeing the world differently.
What’s a good day for you?
Almost every day because of Champion Coffee.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
After college, I came back to New York for law school, but then found out that I didn’t really like working as a lawyer. When I quit my law firm job to be a writer, I moved to Greenpoint—my siblings and cousin already lived here, Polish food was available within arm’s reach, and I already knew the neighborhood from living here as a child. It was a familiar yet new place at the same time.
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?
This question is a little hard to answer since the Greenpoint of today feels so different to me from the one in my memories that it seems like two different places entirely. I like that Greenpoint still feels residential, however, and also all of the splendid cafés.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I think of Brooklyn, I think of playing in McGolrick Park as a child and the joy I felt whenever my mother gave me a dollar for a soft serve ice cream with rainbow sprinkles from the Mister Softee truck. Those were the best days.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community means support, encouragement and very valuable feedback. I’ve found that here through Brooklyn Poets and feel very grateful.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
That would have to be Cindy Tran, Emily Wilkinson and Laura Linthicum from my poetry group this past year, and then my wonderful teachers Jason Koo, Jessica Greenbaum and JP Howard.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I don’t have a poetry mentor, but I’m currently looking for one!
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently reread “The Tyger” by William Blake, and it occurred to me that this poem is a roadmap for how to see beauty.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.
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 five books at a time since it depends on my mood what I read each day. I read at random or take referrals from friends (and always read from physical books!).
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I am currently trying to write more reflective, personal works.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On public transportation and in public parks. For some reason, I can never read at the beach.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden because of its serenity; BAM because it always opens my mind; and Coney Island because the Cyclone fills me with terror while making me laugh.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my life and yours,
And what I see in you, you’ll see in me,
For every light in me as good as day shines in 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.
Jack the pen from father
to write about love on a paper towel.
Later father asks you to name the bridges
from the car: Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Manhattan,
you say. You miss Verrazano. Stealing anything
is a sin, explains mother, when she finds the pen
you robbed together with grandfather’s old wallet.
You took that from the box mother packed when he died—
all his odds and ends for his brother’s family in Poland. They
need it more than we do, she says. In the evenings that summer,
father watches the Yankees play on TV. We hate the Mets, the Dodgers,
and especially the Braves, who end up losing to us in the World Series.
How happy we were back then! I remember walking home from school
to cars parked, doors open, and Biggie’s voice pumping from the cassette
tapes—the lyrics floating right above our heads as we chewed Bubble Yum
gum and rhymed about red roses and blue violets.
Because it feels like home.