Poet Of The Week

Robert M. Whitehead

     January 29–February 4, 2018

Robert M. Whitehead is a poet and literary translator. He received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and has been a fellow at the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, Ashbery Home School, the Rensing Center and Vermont Studio Center. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Assaracus, Gulf Coast, Vinyl, LIES/ISLES, Verse Daily, JERRY, Denver Quarterly and elsewhere. He is currently the creative manager for Rebekah Erev Studio and lives in Philadelphia, where he is attempting a queer translation of the Bible. “Kate Bush’s House in Danger of Falling into the Sea” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.

Kate Bush’s House in Danger of Falling into the Sea

So it goes there is sadness first.
It is daily, like furniture.
There is a polish for it, she buys it,
she polishes the sadness in close, bright circles
with a filthy t-shirt. She sits near it,
tells the people who call
that she is sitting quietly near her sadness,
watching it tick. The living room
is perched on stilts, hounded into a cliff face.
Stupid birds squire the air, which is rolling
in a pattern complementary to the sea, rolling.
The bolts in her sadness are probably coming loose.
The ones who eat the fish
closest to the surface of the sea, those birds,
those stupid white birds,
calling out for everything to be named.
The house could be sown into the sea factory
where what is made is not usually
the pulp of a house of a star.
A house swimming with a whale.
A house for the reef to eat.
The lights go off which means drama,
as dark as a theater is. Her sadness was so much
that she couldn’t keep it from happening,
the bracket legs sliding, holding
only loosely to the cliff face, then
not at all, the inching downward, splinter
by splinter, which is how house-big things
appear to move, slowly, like glaciers,
like sadness moving into a room
and saying, this is everything
it can be gone so easily
And inside the house, the chairs
are slipping across the floors.
The view outside the windows
is not the same as when she moved in.
This could be a consequence of the sadness,
muting the air with its humid breath.
She doesn’t want her house to slip.
But if sadness is not held up like a fish throat
and cut into, it will keep swimming,
will evade the birds and their menaced tongues,
filling the sea with its demolished houses.
And the roughage left over will cling to the rocks above.

—Originally published in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

In 2014, I came across an article about the state of Kate Bush’s house in Devon, in the south of England. It legitimately is on a cliff and in danger of falling into the sea.

What are you working on right now?

I’m translating the Bible because I got it in my head that I should. And once that idea is in there it’s a difficult demon to exorcise.

I’m also translating the work of Mexican poet Enriqueta Ochoa, who writes with impeccable abandon about god.

Also I want to write a musical about how Karen Carpenter is an alien.

What’s a good day for you?

The day after all the laundry is done and folded and put away.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn because I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Then I moved away and now I can’t imagine ever returning.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I lived in Park Slope for a year, then Crown Heights for two. I liked that there was always the one bodega that sold cigarettes really cheap. Now I think Crown Heights is a second Park Slope, where there are more strollers than people.

In New York City, you can request your apartment’s rent history from the Office of Rent Administration. When I did that in Crown Heights, I saw that one family had lived in my small apartment for nearly thirty years prior to my tenancy, and that they had paid—at one point—$98 for the apartment. By the time I got there, we were paying around $2,700. Those papers told me a story of greed, gentrification and dislocation, which is the shameful legacy of all our cities.

When I visit Brooklyn now, I see those pressures intensifying as more and more areas of the borough are being staked out by developers. And the truth is I haven’t escaped that cycle by escaping New York. It happens in Philadelphia, too.

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

Did you ever watch the show Touched by an Angel? It starred Della Reese and Roma Downey as two angels who insinuate themselves slowly into the lives of rapidly deteriorating people and then eventually lift them up as they hit rock bottom.

I had this one woman who lived on my street in Crown Heights and I was convinced she was my Touched-by-an-Angel person. Like I was hating the city so much and then I started seeing this person everywhere. On the train, on my street, in the bodega, at the grocery store.

I told myself she was the person who would help me get out of New York. And maybe she was? I left maybe four months after I started seeing her.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

A poetry community is the people you see at the readings. They are the people who taught you and from whom you ask recommendations. They are the people you send your manuscript to, the people who do workshops with you, the people you talk to on the phone about a book you just read.

I found that in Brooklyn, I am finding that in Philadelphia. And I love continually finding it.

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

Rickey Laurentiis and Niel Rosenthalis are my good judies. Saretta Morgan is very important to me. Marni Ludwig is very important to me. Once I was an intern working at the same place as Ana Božičević, whose work I read then and showed me a new light in poetry. Once I took an Uber ride with Eileen Myles and then emailed her an episode of Black Mirror. I’ve seen Tommy Pico read in Philly, which is a lovely crossover.

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

Taije Silverman taught me how to love poetry. Mary Jo Bang taught me how to be fearless with poetry. Carl Phillips taught me to reckon with the unease of poetry.

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

Aditi Machado’s translation of Prosopopoeia by Farid Tali is probably the shortest book I’ve ever read that includes every emotion from the human register. I cannot adequately account for the magic of this book except with this earnest plea to you to please read it. I’ve never been assured of anything so much as the beauty of that book.

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

The Changing Light at Sandover is just so big though.

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 am always reading many books at once. I am never wedded to finishing a book. I often read poetry books backwards. I like used bookstores for the discovery. Physical books rule. I do like to underline.

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

I’d like to make a joke.

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

Waiting for the trolley, riding the trolley. In the cemetery.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Coney Island in the winter. Get a hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts and a hot dog from Nathan’s and just wait for things to get weird.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate stores,
And what I buy you made,
For every Marshalls beckoning to me as good tortures 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.

If I ever again live in Brooklyn
by Jove I’ll be sick as a sin
with a handful of Jack
in my jacket and a pen
full of weed now and then.
If I ever am fathered by Brooklyn
by a dodger who robbed all my cash,
it’s no biggie I tell you, I love it.
Now let’s take this chair from the trash.

Why Brooklyn?

My friends, with whom I eat all the cheeses.