May 9–15, 2016
Shamar Hill, who is Jewish, Barbadian and Cherokee, graduated from the MFA program at New York University. He is the recipient of numerous awards including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. He has been published in the American Reader and has work forthcoming in the Rumpus, Tinderbox and Southern Humanities Review. He is working on his first poetry collection, Photographs of an Imagined Childhood, and a memoir, In Defiance of All True Things. He was awarded a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for the Winter-Spring 2016 season.
How My Father Tells Time
after Terrance Hayes
The sound of a drawer closing
was always dangerous to me.
My father dismantled sun
from a June day with a lighter and spoon.
He never had to say stay the fuck out.
Time, your ceaseless swagger,
your vacant face transfigures without mercy.
Primordial hydrogen, cataclysmic neutrons,
words to capture our beginning,
which means, to capture your beginning, Time.
Who doesn’t, at times, wish to be a dung beetle,
the scarabaeus satyrus,
pushing its home under the light of galaxies,
finding life in shit,
frozen in time as an amulet on the neck
of a mummified Egyptian princess?
On the road to apocalypse,
I’ll find my father
jiving a deal with the devil.
My dreams have become ecclesiastical.
Please don’t ask me to look for signs for God,
I have a horrible sense of direction, I’ll miss the exit.
When my father wore his fedora
I knew he was taking me to Burger King.
I ordered a double cheese with onion rings,
he’d get me extra napkins, ketchup, the grey paper
crown I’d put on my head and straws
that would find their way into his drawer.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Terrance Hayes is one of my biggest influences. In his poem “Three Measures of Time” from Lighthead, Part II is titled “How My Father Tells Time.” Thinking about this idea of time, my father the man, my father the myth, and how I could bring them together in one poem was my intent for my poem “How My Father Tells Time.” In the first few drafts, I riffed on the idea of time in ways that distracted from the poem; so I cut much of that. Also, the structure was very different. It was tercets, then couplets. Neither felt right for the poem. It felt disjointed. Then, after my boy Darren suggested breaking it into sections, the poem took on a more fluid shape and I was able to write the final stanza.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a series of poems about the lynchings in New York City during the Civil War Draft Riots called “Bus Shelters Are Graveyards.” I am layering the poems with quotes from newspaper articles. I am hoping to give life to the idea that our present-day New York is imbibed with the men, women and children who were killed and forgotten. That their spirits matter, that I must remember them, their bodies, their suffering, their joy, the ways the city and the country wanted to forget, the ways I am trying to remember, trying to say their names with honor and respect and dignity.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day starts with coffee and music, some eggs, toast, cardio, ball. I love to shoot like two hundred free throws after cardio and then hit the steam room. Shooting free throws helps me clear my head, which I need to write. Then, I go to a café, read, listen to music and write.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My Ma. I was born in Harlem, but moved to Brooklyn when I was five.
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 grew up in Kensington, with lots of refugees from Russia and Ukraine. Ocean Parkway stretches from the beach until Prospect Park. Older men would play chess and dominoes on the benches that face the road. I moved to the city when I did my MFA, so I lived in Kensington for 23 years. I loved being able to kick it on the benches with friends late at night and look at all the trees. It was calming, even all the cars zipping to the highway had a certain lull to it for me. I moved to Ditmas Park after grad school, and it went through this crazy gentrification. I remember the ’80s Brooklyn and it seems when I walk the streets, take the train, go to other places like Bushwick or Fort Greene, as if the ’80s never happened. Some changes have been good. I hated taking the trains as a kid. I had so many nightmares about the trains and Freddy Kruger growing up. Maybe I conflated the two because the stations of my dreams would become this big maze and Freddy was always chasing me. Some changes are giving Brooklyn a corporate feel. I remember the butcher as a kid, how he always gave me a piece of bologna when I went shopping with my Ma. Butchers don’t really exist anymore. Really, Brooklyn has less grit, but also is less personal, less of a community, there’s less togetherness. Ditmas Park is so different than most of Brooklyn. Girls used my neighbor’s house and half my block as a set for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In so many ways I like how different it is. The air is cleaner, the streets are quiet, the pace is slower. But I feel the segregation hard. I hate how segregated New York is, especially because it is so diverse, which for me says there is a real opportunity to connect.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I was in college. My friend had a party at her apartment in Bushwick; this was pre-hip Bushwick. This guy rolls up on the party and brings beer, weed and cocaine. He’s cracking jokes, acting like he’s one of our people. Then he tells us he’s waiting for someone to pay him. I remember how tense it got. How I acted like it didn’t faze me that I knew he had a gun. How we all kept cracking jokes. Cars sped by blasting Biggie, and we rapped along with him. Somehow, I was able to get the guy to leave without things getting out of control. And my friend left her front door open as if it was all good. Brooklyn was like that. We were always sizing up and being sized up, we were always posing like nothing could hurt us.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
At first, I didn’t have a poetry community. In fact, I was in this workshop with other poets, all of whom had been published, and I was a newbie at the time. And while at first they seemed supportive, they really weren’t. I’ll never forget, I had turned in this poem with God in it and this writer said Let’s talk about God and how we should never use the word God in a poem. If you didn’t notice, I still use God in my poems. I knew that was a ridiculous comment. I learned a lot from those writers; most importantly, what I don’t want in a poetry community. Now, I have a group of writers who really show me love. We are true friends who are working together to bring out not only the best in our work, but the best for the conversation we are all having together. And when I say all, I mean all writers dead and living. I think we are always talking to one another. I find myself talking to Agha Shahid Ali, Robert Hayden and Bei Dao all the time. In my poetry community, I love how we are struggling together, that we can go catch a movie, have a drink, take a walk together. That all of it is building towards the work, towards our obsessions, and that we do it with love.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Sharon Mesmer is a close friend of mine. She taught me when I was an undergrad at the New School. She introduced me to Rimbaud, cut-ups, absinthe and Alice Notley. Just the other day, we agreed to see more concerts. I love how Sharon and I talk not only about poetry but music. I have been so blessed to work with Natalie Eilbert. She has been great to me. The way she is so honest about the anxiety that goes into writing a poem, the way she has talked about the bodies we all inhabit and how we can think about that in our own work has really given me the courage to talk about my own body more openly. Ed Hirsch is amazing. He really has a way of talking about the work of a poet over the course of a whole life that is so instructive. It’s a reminder of our life-long work, and that it will change and grow and take unexpected shifts. It’s a reminder to embrace poetry as a life-long work and struggle.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Sharon Mesmer was my first mentor. She has always been supportive and given me the belief that I can write poetry. Roger Reeves gave me the strength to talk about the history of my people, Jewish, Cherokee, Barbadian, to connect my history with the collective history, to embrace my obsessions on the page instead of being scared of them.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I really love The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay. Check this. In the poem “Third Estrangement, In Memory of Jonathan Ferrell”: “I turn my face & try to rid my head of knowledges. / Instead I long for the shape of the cypress, / but a consequence is thinning me. / I am farness now & the moon’s black maria.” The way Aracelis brings together language, history, enjambment to create this layered emotional song is so tight! So beautiful. Her work walks with me.
Check out the poem “Los Angeles, Manila, Đà Nẵng” by Cathy Linh Che. It is riveting. I think I am drawn to poets/poems that layer history, personal and collective, into their work. Cathy is just a wonder. “You want to know what survivorhood looks like? / It’s not romantic. The corn drying huskless.” The image of the corn gives so much power and emotion to the idea of being a survivor, what it takes, what is left behind, how the survivor is changed. In two lines Cathy has given the reader so much. I love the way she works so much in her lines with such precision.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Homage to Lame Wolf by Vasko Popa; Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky; The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony by Ladan Osman.
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 read a book in like three days and then pick up another book. I don’t plan my reading in advance but sometimes, based on my own work, I seek out books like Blood by Shane McCrae. I never stop reading. I take notes in my journal. I don’t like notes in my books because I want each time when I read a book to not be informed by any notes on the page. Also, I like to lend my books to people and I don’t want any notes to influence their reading of the text. I prefer physical books. I just don’t take in the work the same on my iPad. I don’t connect with it as intimately.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I work at Lark a lot. It’s a great neighborhood café. I also work at Blue Bottle. I love great coffee and great spaces, so I need both to get in a creative space.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love the Botanic Garden because it is an oasis in the middle of Brooklyn craziness. I love Greenlight because I love bookstores and I love Berl’s because it’s a bookstore and it’s all poetry. Now, if they had some great coffee, that’d be a Brooklyn heaven.
I also love Stone Park Café, Al Di La, Bogota, Blue Ribbon, because they all have great food.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my thirst with stones in my throat,
And what I spill you build into a shed,
For every reminder me as good cities in memoriam to you.
‘Cause of its muscle, its music, and its pizza.