July 29–August 4, 2019
A native of Laurinburg, NC, Rangi McNeil earned a BA in history from Rice University and his MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts. He is the author of Occasional Poems (The Song Cave, 2015) and The Missing (Sheep Meadow Press, 2003). McNeil’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bennington Review, the Paris Review, Poetry Daily, Smartish Pace and Western Humanities Review as well as in several anthologies including Between and The Queer South. He has led creative writing workshops at Bank Street College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Columbia University and Eötvös Collegium in Budapest, Hungary, and has received fellowships and/or funding from the Academy of American Poets, Columbia University School of the Arts, the Community-Word Project, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Mayer Foundation, PEN America, the Poetry Project at St Mark’s and the Vermont Studio Center. He currently facilitates a writing workshop at Vandalia Senior Center in East New York.
These Corrosives Do Their Magic, Slowly
According to Emma G. Fitzsimmons, a New York Times
Metro Desk reporter, the MTA’s shorthand for subway-related
suicide (the quick-and-dirty & the less-quick-and-therefore-dirtier)
is police investigation. A veil draped over the world’s
true workings. Bureaucratic subterfuge. Similarly, when, in an obituary,
the longstanding liberal newspaper of record uses pioneering
to describe recently departed persons of color,
(often, but not always, members of the celebrity or
criminal class) I have come to feel that its true sentiment approaches
my sense of singular. As in one of these isn’t like
the others. A sacrilege of red or tan, umber, or ebony on a
Last night, I ate three dusty sweet potato fries left over
from takeout from the night before that had fallen
to the floor without my noticing. After, I flossed
& changed the underwear I (laundromat-averse) had worn
right-side-out, then inside-out, and right-side-out, again,
before folding myself like a jackknife against Brian’s white
sparsely freckled back as he snored atop fresh
sheets just a shade shy of our resounding defeat.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “These Corrosives” (almost) in one sitting during the gap between my finally finishing Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and rereading the titular story of Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I was at my desk in the living room of an apartment in Park Slope where I lived poorly (in terms of temperament, not price point) with a now-ex-boyfriend whom I loved; WNYC was streaming from my laptop and I heard Emma G. Fitzsimmons say almost exactly what the speaker of the poem attributes to her. The day before, I had twice been delayed, on two separate trains, by police investigations. I thought about all the things that get mis-said, misinterpreted, silenced. I thought about lies and double-speak and code-switching. The first section, which is yet to be fully realized, took me about five hours to write. The second section took less than two minutes and hasn’t changed from the first draft.
What are you working on right now?
I am not actively working on anything. Though I have a gaggle of poems that have been written since the release of The Missing in 2003 that would benefit from the ministrations of an editor and publisher.
What’s a good day for you?
Big picture: a good day is one in which everyone I love who went to bed the night before wakes up. Less big picture: a good day follows a night during which none of the other men assigned to my room at the homeless shelter stayed up late watching TV or porn on their phones without using headphones and no one calls me a faggot. If a long walk followed by perching in a park in view of an active dog run is possible, I count that as gravy.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
More than ten years ago, I was priced out of Manhattan and a dear friend had purchased an apartment in Ditmas Park, but then had fallen in love with a man, now his husband, who lived in Midtown. Circumstances were such that my friend rarely found himself overnighting in Ditmas Park and that was beginning to adversely affect his relationship with his cat, Pumpkin. My friend offered his place in exchange for Pumpkin care. It may well have been the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.
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 Bushwick in a shelter for homeless employed men on DeKalb. Oddly enough, when last securely housed, I lived almost exactly five blocks away on Putnam. The neighborhood hasn’t much changed in the intervening months, but the transition from being securely housed to homeless has opened a crater within and around me. Everything feels like an extension of my state, my stake. And therefore feels frangible.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Since moving to Brooklyn, for reasons that escape me, I have often been asked, always by a white woman, seemingly from an upper-middle-class tax bracket or higher, who is traveling with a baby/toddler, to hold said baby/toddler while she rummages through a voluminous diaper bag, takes her medicine, returns a phone call or text message, snaps a photograph, adjusts her foundation garments, cries. I used to keep a running tally of the number of times this phenomenon had occurred but stopped at thirty-seven.
Also birthday picnics in Prospect Park.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Despite my abiding fondness for poets and poetry, I have never had much success joining or cultivating much of a poetry community despite the efforts of Elizabeth Devlin and Alan Felsenthal and a host of others. But I would like for that no longer to be true.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Lucie Brock-Broido and Richard Howard helped me learn how to be responsible (and responsive) to and for my work. To be dedicated and diligent in the face of calamity and its even more pernicious bedfellow fear.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
My poetry bucket list includes pages of beautiful poems written in traditional forms.
Where are some places you like to read and write?
I can and do read anywhere. But I can only write at home, a luxury for which homelessness doesn’t allow.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate haphazardly,
And what I offer to you fluctuates in significance
For every version of me as good is a mystery to you.
Because life in Brooklyn continues to be constructed on a human scale.