July 17–23, 2017
Sheila Maldonado is the author of the poetry collection one-bedroom solo (Fly by Night Press, 2011). Her second publication, that’s what you get, is forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press. She is a CantoMundo Fellow and a Creative Capital awardee as part of desveladas, a visual writing collective. She grew up in Coney Island and lives in uptown Manhattan, where she is working on an ongoing project about a lifelong obsession with the ancient Maya. “Poet in a Shade of Jade” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.
Poet in a Shade of Jade
I am so jealous of how poor you are
of how you are poor
your particular stilo pobre
The way you put no cash and
no money together is uncanny
lack of change combined
with lack of dollars
is very difficult to duplicate
and I hate you for that
I was gonna go hear you read
from your new collection of
just the other day
but you get readings
all the time
you have your pick
of not being paid
or being unpaid
You get to ride
the subway back and forth
on your own dime
and you pay for
your performance alcohol
I’ll make it one of these days
give you dirty looks
as you read and rake in
your air bucks
What I look forward to most
is not tolerating
how you hoard your poverty
tell no one your secret
you must have some malefactor
who further mystifies
the acquisition of wealth
and points you in the direction
of the dead end
—Originally published in Hyperallergic, June 2014.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was at an end-of-the-year party for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, an org made of many teaching writers. I think I was hearing someone else read or talking to someone about how we couldn’t make each other’s readings, how busy we were, how beat down. I was also feeling like we were doing comparison things. I often get a feeling from another writer, I often get the feeling from myself that someone else is doing better than me, that we aren’t all in the same struggling-ass boat. Just had another day of feeling that way, that rejection and feeling like you are in some kind of career that is not working. I don’t really believe this is a career, I know this writing is a life but there are so many moments of looking at someone else’s path and thinking, “Damn, what am I doing wrong?” I was thinking how ridiculous we are to be jealous of each other’s poverty, each other’s individuality, and not see what a tough, particular road we’re all on. I know there are great successes, we’ve all seen them but it can be so much difficulty so many ways and I am always glad to mock my own woe. Here I am glad to mock our mutual woe.
Also, rereading it, I see a lot of the mockery I love to read and teach like Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” especially, how Juan, Milagros, Miguel and them die hating each other and don’t see how a system makes them do that, don’t see the larger picture, just a picture on a TV screen. Sometimes poetry is the poetry-industrial complex to me, a system like the US in “PR Obit,” a system that makes us fight for scraps and imagine the worst of each other. Let’s not do that. I am telling myself that as much as I am telling you.
What are you working on right now?
I’m trying to wrap up a second book of poems. It is “forthcoming” from Brooklyn Arts Press. I’m about to work on some photo stories/poems for a collaborative graphic narrative with desveladas, a visual writing collective. On the back burner is a poetry/prose/image book about a narrator’s obsession with the ancient Maya.
What’s a good day for you?
A day like the ones we’ve been having lately, a warm day in the 80s.
If I’m home uptown I sleep late till about 11, try not to check the phone too much but always do, try to remember my dreams, take the bike out to get a croissant from this bakery on 181st and a Starbucks iced coffee. I bike to Fort Tryon and write on a bench there in my journal for about twenty minutes or I bike the West Side greenway along the Hudson to Fairway around 130th St, read and eat there.
If I’m home in Coney, I sleep late, roll downstairs to the beach by 1 or 2, lie in the sun and read and write in my journal, splash around in the water, air dry, read some more, go home, get a ham and American cheese hero from the bodega, stay in my swimsuit while I eat it, watch TV, take bathroom selfies in my beach hair, shower, go back to the boardwalk for dusk, watch the boats, write again, take more phone pics of the sunset, a ship on the water, the neon lights of the rides.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My parents who gave birth to me there. They got to BK in the early ’70s from Honduras. This month is forty-five years since my mother first arrived in the US and Brooklyn. My father came the year before. I was born a few years after in Kings County Hospital. We first lived in East New York and moved to Coney Island when I was two. There were other Hondurans they knew in East New York, they had to be some of the first Hondurans to get to NYC. I wonder if they went to East New York first cuz it’s so close to JFK.
Tell us about your Brooklyn neighborhood. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived or where you’re living now?
Coney Island. People live there. Was there from age two to seventeen. I came back after college for a year and a half. Have gone there pretty much every week ever since I left and moved to Washington Heights twenty-some years ago. My mama’s family moved up there and she would visit almost every week then too. I loved the old apartments of the Heights. It had so much energy in comparison to Coney which is very sleepy and forgotten when it is not summer.
When I go back, I visit the place too because it itself is my family, my real true homeland. A few summers ago when things were tight I stayed at the family apartment most of the summer and sublet my place uptown. My father passed away almost ten years ago in Coney Island Hospital. My niece is being raised there now by my brother and mother, another generation of my family in Coney.
Growing up there was magical and tough, the seaside ghetto, ocean breezes and seagulls through projects. Where we lived was a pretty new set of buildings at the time, not really projects in the way people might think. Lots of young families and tons of kids. A great mix of people, Black and Puerto Rican mostly in the neighborhood. A lot of us went to school closer to the border of Coney and Brighton Beach, so there it was also Italian and Irish and Russian and Jewish, some Asian and Arab. It was the whole world way south in Brooklyn.
We played hard in the summer. We had all the means of play, a labyrinth-like set of buildings, the beach across the street, the rides a few blocks away. Everything was a ride. It was sand and salt and water and life. The sweetest people: Tasheba, Wally, Tanisha, Robi (short for Nairobi), Afie (short for Africa), girls who taught me double dutch, who listened to Menudo and Michael Jackson, who walked to elementary and middle school with me. My brother and his friends were early Prince and A Tribe Called Quest fans and big on classic rock too, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Beatles. There were quite a few generally excellent weirdos. Guys who went to school dressed like Prince or karate masters in gis and shit. That was cuz of the Saturday afternoon karate movies on TV, the same ones that Wu-Tang watched. I think of them as other boondock ghetto cousins.
It was tough cuz we were all from hard working-class families. There were all the things you associate with rough ’hoods but not as much as there is now I believe. I was sheltered as a girl, protected a lot. Stayed in the house as much as my parents required. I got into a few fights when I was little, mostly with boys, and my father made me take karate cuz of it, the Saturday afternoon movies got to him too. I took it for three years in Midwood with a rabbi sensei named Alex Sternberg. I hated it but now really appreciate what it gave me, the ability to avoid a fight, to know I could handle one but not engage unless absolutely necessary. I did it from age ten to thirteen. I made it to purple belt and then tore up my left knee doing a flying front kick and never went back. What Brooklyn taught me best: when and when not to fight, how to make people believe you should not be fucked with.
I am very nostalgic and go on about this because of the rising rents and the constant instability that my family and so many in New York but especially Brooklyn natives are dealing with. I have escaped some of that in the Heights, which is the largest block of rent-stabilized apartments in the city, it turns out, and people up there have been doing a good job of fighting the development that threatens all of us, but it feels like a matter of time for everyone. It is an endless feeling of drowning. Sandy was nothing compared to this. I visit Coney now loving it extra hard cuz I don’t know how long my family will be there. The gentrification machine seems to have found our block. It drills and pounds, scaffolding and barriers everywhere. There is a new building being built across the way from us and a new high-end restaurant there too that really isn’t for the locals or even the visitors who like a grimier Coney. I am the one in the family that goes to the beach the most even though they live there. They take it for granted. If I could be a beach hobo there, I would be. Maybe I will be.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
See answer directly above for many instances but also, I was a teenager on the F or Q pulling into the Stillwell Avenue station and I saw my father on the train looking like a psycho about to cut you, wild-eyed and disheveled. I went up to him scared like, “¿Papi?” And he snapped out of it when he saw me and was all, “Uno se tiene que hacer el loco,” “One has to play the crazy.”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I prefer communities. I need them in multiples, a rotation of poets and artists and friends. Poetry can be so many schools and cliques and that drives me a little nuts. I try to merge them at least within me. I’m glad to be part of many groups. My crew from City College, my people from CantoMundo who are here in the city. All the writers from T&W I mentioned before. Writers from A Gathering of the Tribes and the Unbearables. We all talk shit, commiserate about teaching and all the other jobs we have to do to get by, are on the social media way too much some of us, workshop or email each other poems, do 30/30s, eat wine and cheese at readings, have some tacos after readings. We gossip about ourselves, tell way too much or evade questions with beer. Generally destroy ourselves together, rebuild in the poems.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
My mother and Biggie. My father was an orator and declamador (reciter of poetry) in high school in Honduras; he didn’t go to college, and he introduced me to Latin American poetry. But my mama did not go to school barely at all and her language has always crackled with aware, hilarious vulgarity. Central American Spanish is a great fit in Brooklyn. The meeting of two brutal cursing worlds. I told her I would expose her and I have in a poem about her use of “culo,” but that exposure is a life’s work really.
Biggie was almost my college thesis. He would have been the end of it, it would have been mostly about Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the ’70s and ’90s and ended with him somehow. Jay Z is tremendous, yes, and of course he is who he is cuz Biggie was. Biggie was all I recited senior year of college into my return to New York. I point you to “Unbelievable” which will be played at my wake:
My favorite is the second verse, the end of it especially:
My forte causes Caucasians to say
He sounds demented, car weed scented
If I said it, I meant it
Bite my tongue for no one
Call me evil or unbelievable.
This shit is like hieroglyphics to me, sound so crisp you can see it, want to identify with it. Take a pose with it. Synesthetic. Also I love how aware of his artifice he is. He knows he is creating himself in those words, before the listener.
This naming of Brooklyn poets is tough cuz it’s not like the hip-hop you clearly agree is Brooklyn, people aren’t shouting “Brooklyn” in their poetry all the time. Maybe they should, but then it will be turf war like LA and NY or Queensbridge and the South Bronx and we will lose great writers over smoke and mirrors and marketing, all manner of imaginary shit. Don’t believe I am down for that.
But of those who currently live in BK, I am partial to Stella Padnos-Shea, another native daughter, Bakar Wilson, who came here from Tennessee, and Diana Marie Delgado from California. Great writers and dear hearts.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I don’t think I have had mentors as much as peers and encouragers and teachers. They are also not just poets, but writers and artists who have been good friends. So many people: Nelly Rosario, a fiction writer mostly, Christopher Myers, a visual artist and children’s book writer, Ndlela Nkobi, a filmmaker, photographer and co-conspirator. Macarena Hernández, a journalist and photographer who along with Nelly is part of desveladas, the visual writing collective I work with. Hakhi Alakhun and David Aglow, my musical people, singers, songwriters, producers. My artist/writer friend people are my real inspiration and coming from other angles I think illuminates whatever work we’re doing.
To be strictly poetry, I loved my grad school teachers at City College: Elaine Equi, Marilyn Hacker and Wayne Koestenbaum. They all took me in directions I didn’t know I liked, play and formalism and risk. I knew I liked humor and Paul Beatty was a great encourager in that direction, in many directions. Steve Cannon of A Gathering of the Tribes heckled and harangued and pushed me into the world with my first book. Joe and Wendy Pan harass me further.
My crew from City College is my debauched heart: David Pemberton, Stella and Bakar who I mentioned before. Other kindred word-players I met in readings downtown like Erika Jo Brown and Lydia Cortés. WILL, an org of women writers Angie Cruz co-started, was super encouraging early on and lives in Aster(ix). I’m happy to have found a newer group of women poet peers through CantoMundo: Yesenia Montilla, Diana whom I mentioned before, Peggy Robles-Alvarado, Christina Olivares, Carina del Valle Schorske and Denice Frohman. Also Rosebud Ben-Oni and Urayoán Noel who first talked up CantoMundo to me. All of these people are such role models of generosity besides being great poets.
Teachers & Writers was filled with master teacher/poet/playwright/fiction people who are forever influential for me: Joanna Fuhrman, Melanie Goodreaux, Alba Hernández, Jane LeCroy, Liza Jessie Peterson, Janice Lowe, Sandra María Esteves, Sarah Dohrmann, Matthew Burgess, Susan Karwoska. I know we all have this sense of language as fresh and energetic and magical from teaching the kids of this city who are all of those things. Those kids are probably my real mentors, my true influences, but I don’t tell them that cuz I don’t want to gas them.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Good Stock Strange Blood by Dawn Lundy Martin is filled with lines that gripped me in the middle of these landscapes that disoriented me. I’m in the middle of Rosa Alcalá’s new book MyOTHER TONGUE that is so comfortable bending form, my eye is as thrilled as my head. I really love Elisabet Velasquez’s “New Brooklyn” poem that is here on your site. It says and sings many of the things that need to be said and sung about BK.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I don’t think I have actually read A Coney Island of the Mind by Ferlinghetti. Not enough Diane di Prima. All Octavia Butler. More Ursula K. Le Guin. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Moby-Dick, I stay halfway through that. Will never get out. Also didn’t get out of the fourth book of 2666 by Bolaño. I am stuck in Juarez with everyone else. Hella stuff in Spanish. Need to get lost in Latin America already and relearn everything. More Chileans. Need more Carmen Giménez Smith. Also Alurista. All the poets of Fresno.
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 usually dip in and out of multiple books, especially during the school year. During the summer I actually get to finish a book. I pretty much read at random. I always forget what I need to read and just read what appears. I do actually like Kindle but love physical books unless they’re too heavy, literally. I underline sometimes, but not really notes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would like to write a movie that is a poem and a poem that is a movie. Also a poem that is a TV show. I think I actually have tried, but not enough. Also want to commit more to the great Japanese forms: haibun, zuihitsu. All the kinds of haiku. I am on my way. Some Spanish forms I’ve never tried, décimas for instance. Some day I will deal with more sonnets and the like. I am scared of them but should do them. Should just do all the forms from the poetry handbook Ron Padgett put together for Teachers & Writers. Also am trying to figure out how to write with Maya glyphs or deal with glyphs. Or just look at glyphs and live with them and have them write me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On a bench in Fort Tryon, on a bench on the Coney boardwalk, at downtime on a job taking notes, on the train.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
My part of the boardwalk past the Parachute Jump. Will have to kill you if I reveal more.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate wandering
and what I seek you will seek
for every direction that evades me as good evades 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.
Coney Island Hospital claimed my father
he was an every other day work dodger
I called in sick for him ripped the line from the jack
so the job couldn’t call back used to rob
my college bookstore for all my texts figured it couldn’t be a sin
could never resist picking a supply closet clean of its good pens
I did it for the love of writing the love of hiding the love
of being an outsider took my place in displaced Brooklyn
pitched a thesis on Biggie
didn’t turn it in stole from the best of them
S-H-E I-L-A aka S-H-E Get it Sheila
And now a little mix cuz the women and other BK lyricists must be remembered, the greats are great but there are many greats:
“Quiet Storm,” Mobb Deep and Lil’ Kim—the hardest she has ever come, BK queen with Queens, R.I.P. Prodigy.
“Lyte as a Rock,” MC Lyte—the beginning for women MCs, first female rapper to put out a full album, from BK of course.
“Crooklyn Dodgers,” Special Ed, Masta Ace, Buckshot—from Spike Lee movie soundtrack, used to love this one.
“Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers,” Chubb Rock, O.C., Jeru the Damaja—another killer.
“Supa Star,” Group Home—one of them was from BK, just been thinking a lot about this song lately.
“Bucktown,” Smif-N-Wessun—grimy BK at its best, also here for Jamaica in the sound that no one ever gives enough credit to.
“Shove It,” Santigold—where sample of “Brooklyn Go Hard” came from.
Where the fuck else really …