July 8–14, 2013
Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Boneshepherds (Persea, 2011), recognized as a 2012 notable book both by the National Book Critics Circle and the Academy of American Poets; My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award and the 2006 Book Award in Poetry from the Association of Asian American Studies; and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), winner of the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. His poetry and prose have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including ESPN’s Grantland, Tin House, American Poetry Review and Harvard Review. A former Fulbright Fellow, he is currently on the faculty of Rutgers University – Camden’s MFA program and lives in Bed-Stuy.
On the First Meeting of Your Father and Your Mother on a Train in Australia
Lucy, I know
we just met on Monday
but I woke up this morning
thinking of your father on a train.
1976 or so,
and he’s staring at that newspaper he’s borrowed
from the pretty stranger
who is going to be his wife one day.
I was thinking
about the moment your father finally
confessed to your mother
he couldn’t read
a word of English, how he asked
to borrow the tabloid
as a ploy
to avoid out loud
the stammer of light he must have felt
all along his skin and in his gut
the first three times
she didn’t bother to look at him.
Your mother probably hadn’t even tasted yet
the salt he’d carried all the way
from Saigon and I don’t know
a whole lot of things for sure
every man has a book of mistakes
written in the language of every place
he’s left behind, and I’ve often wondered,
when that vagabond sadness meets
its proper twin, can such a meeting
charm two strangers into laughter?
Out in the world, on a train
nudging some coast–say
Melbourne or Dover or Hoboken–
there is someone losing his mind
because history has placed him
next to a beautiful woman
and–get this–there are 11 languages
he speaks badly. Half of them
are English. One day, if he’s lucky,
he’ll go back to his book of mistakes
in the same way he goes back
to sleep. I mean,
he’ll dream himself into it,
surrendering every worldly fiction, except one–
a single exquisite lie that has sound
but no sense, a kind of magic
that bedevils into speech
all the impossible air held in his lungs.
this morning I woke imagining
that minor fraud of a man
who is your father, in exile,
and shamelessly loved.
–From Boneshepherds, Persea Books, 2011.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I met a woman from Australia who was half-Vietnamese, a writer and a critic. And she told me this exact story of how her parents met on the train. And I just loved the idea of pretending to know how to read, especially a language that you don’t hardly speak. There are a lot of reasons to fake it, but to woo a stranger on a train is as excellent a cause as any. So anyway, I wrote the first draft of the poem the next day or so and I was at the beginning of writing the poems that would end up in Boneshepherds. So it was also an opportunity to test out moving between narrative/reflection/discourse, something that I do more in that book than in the previous ones.
What are you working on right now?
Several things. I’m co-editing a book of essays with Ross Gay on the work of Robert Hayden. I’m writing poems and prose, more the latter lately. And I’m doing a bunch of sound and music–playing guitar and deepening my sound design and beatmaking chops.
What’s a good day for you?
There are many versions of a good day. I’m thankful for as many good days as I have at this point in my life. The cruelties I have to deal with, in the grand scheme, are mundane. I do love spending time alone, working things out in my head or with a book or with my guitar. I get phone calls from my niece and nephew a lot, too. I spend time with friends, help them move a truckload of stuff or sit around talking junk to one another. A good laugh. Any or all of those things could be a good day, I guess.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I’ve lived in Brooklyn on and off (mostly on) since about 2008, I think. I live in Bed-Stuy now, but I’ve lived in Clinton Hill and Williamsburg/Bushwick. I have a deep connection to the borough. My parents met in Chicago but after going their separate ways decided to reunite here in Brooklyn in 1968 (my dad moved here from Indiana in ’64). They moved out of their Park Ave. apartment (just over the Manhattan Bridge from the city) on New Year’s Day, 1969. I was born not two weeks later. More than being nearly born here, Brooklyn is a pivot point in that very complicated story of my parents–a story I’m trying to uncover in some of my writing right now. It’s an unusual immigrants’ story because of the 60s’ particular complications around morality and sex and faith and race.
Really, I love thinking about what used to be here. My own apartment used to be the home of a Union Captain and Prussian émigré. He was also an accomplished visual artist (both the Museum of the City of New York and the Met have his work in their holdings). He lived here during Whitman’s time then. Also, just within walking distance there’s so much history. Pancho Villa, the first Filipino boxing champion, one of the greatest of all time, fought at the Nostrand Athletic Club, which was just blocks from Ebbets Field. And then when you overlay the story of my own family onto the borough’s geography, those intersections have the potential for surprise; I mean, they can make my own questions about language, time, narrative, power more meaningful. I’m not a historian, but I love the lyrical associations that history can provide. Brooklyn has an infinite number of opportunities for that.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I can share something very recent. With my dad living in Nevada now, I just spent Father’s Day walking around the streets where he used to work. He was still a priest and used to say mass at two churches in Brooklyn; the first one was in Williamsburg. I’m not sure how to express or detail it yet, but it was a moving experience to wander through there with fragments of the story in my head. I realized that very, very few people who were strolling around Berry and South 2nd lived there, let alone were alive at all, when my father arrived in New York in 1964. The peculiarities and lack of official record regarding my parents’ relationship (also its clandestine nature) make it a compelling story to me. But the turnover and gentrification of the neighborhoods are forces that further obscure a story that was difficult–and maybe even risky–to tell. I imagine many people move to Brooklyn, and more generally New York City, to put some distance between themselves and the burdens of their past. I ended up here because I crossed a river (I’ll always be a Jersey kid) and happened not to leave yet. I ended up here so I could be closer to the difficulty and questions of my past.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Not sure if he’s my “favorite,” but of course I think of Walt Whitman. I had always felt a strong affinity with “Song of Myself,” and then I spent an afternoon recording it aloud for a project at UT Austin and then the poem, just from that one exhausting performance, was in my blood. Reading a poem aloud had never spent me so completely. My relationship to it was no longer strictly literary or academic; it was bodily. I’ve come to have a more complicated relationship, too, with Whitman’s life and his politics after reading a little more about him. I think of Whitman often since I teach in Camden. I visit his grave once a semester at least.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Unnameable Books on Vanderbilt was the first bookstore I would pop into and then Greenlight opened up and that’s pretty much my go-to bookstore now. It’s two stops on the C but I usually walk straight up Fulton. When I’m in the area, I still like to drop into Unnameable, though. I feel like I’m likely to catch the fever there for some reason. You know–that I-ain’t-got-enough-dough-for-this-book-but-will-buy-it-anyway fever.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I mostly do read and write at home. I have a little back patio which, in Brooklyn, as you know, is like owning a baseball field. But there are several cafés within real short walking distance where I like to go to work.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
I love every doubles shop within walking distance of Nostrand and Fulton. I like to sit out on the painted table and bench outside of A&A under a hard rain eating a double or fry bake. I also like the Indian grocery around the corner from me on Bedford. They have plastic sacks of spices whose names are handwritten on a sticker and sometimes there are five-foot-tall sugar cane leaning outside the door. And I don’t always love the subway, but just today there were these boys, one lanky and one pudgy, having a pull-up contest on the train, and girls, who probably went to the same school, were tsking them for acting up.
Last awesome book(s) you read?
If re-read books count, Song for Aninho is absolutely incredible. I also have been reading a book called Smoked Yankees which collects letters written by African-American soldiers during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. A lot of my reading these days is archival, and at the top of my list in that genre has to be Jose Rizal’s journal from when he lived in Spain. You can watch the text evolve from committee meeting minutes to medical notes to French and German language transcriptions to, finally, military journal. Fascinating.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate pink erasers,
And what I cross out you should be grateful you don’t have to
For every Ricky Henderson rookie card me as good Thundercats
Why Floyd Patterson, why Breland, why Tyson, Bowe, and Briggs, why Coney Island Velodrome, why Eastern Parkway Arena, why Nostrand Athletic Club, Ebbets Field, 42, Gleason’s, why John Davis, why Uncle Ernie, Tita Candi, and why Joy, why Central Booking, why Saints Peter and Paul, why Saint Catherine of Genoa, why Montrose, Clinton, Lafayette, why puny litanies, why Louie in the mint green guayabera, why his wife dead at 57, why so young, why six lost houses, why the landlord who took my dad to his first dice game, why USS Maine, why Navy Yard, why Whitman, why Crane, why Wright, why Kellman, why Kimani Gray, why 90-year-old Mary with the broken rib, why piraguas on Sundays in June, why plaid skirts with ripped zippers and clip-on plaid ties tore off, why soldiers on the corner, why sidelocks and stockings, why Bembe bang ‘til four in the morning, why they put a dagger in his eye …