Poet Of The Week

Sue Nacey Miller

     October 15–21, 2018

Sue Nacey Miller holds an MFA from Hunter College, where she previously taught in the English department. Her poems have appeared in Poemeleon, Inertia, Salamander and other journals. “Brighton Beach: After Learning, at 31, that Grandfather Was a Schizophrenic” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.

Brighton Beach: After Learning, at 31, that Grandfather Was a Schizophrenic

Every flag is a wave.
Every wave rises blue to the blue sky.
Before breaking every blue wave is blue.
Inside every wave is another wave breaking.

From this perspective—
from down here on the ground—
the pigeons are the same height as the girls with green strings
wrapped around their necks.

Father, these are your daughters.
These are your daughters with green necks.
These are your daughters with their heads tied to their bodies.
Your daughters with no throats inside their green strings.

Suddenly, you make sense.
From one side, these pink houses with their gray dribbly faces.
This is our finishing school.
From the other side, only flags.
Frenzied flags
hungry flags
blue flags losing their blue
as they rise and descend over themselves overhead.

What difference does breaking make.
What difference to the sand in being covered—
by ocean or towel or bodies or closed in a small girl’s fist—

but what of that gray gull—
that red-eyed gull
that is neither pink nor blue nor green—
that call falling from its clam-splitting beak
as it stretches its neck
and looks around.

From something left in the open
it takes a bite.

—From the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017; originally published in RealPoetic.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem on Brighton Beach the summer after my grandfather died and left my mother his house and nearly everything in it, including his medical records, which showed he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic after he returned from WWII. He was an Army aerial photographer in the war, I think. This made no sense, given he was well into adulthood and went on to own his own successful printing and photography company. I remember marveling at the two old letterpress printers he kept in the basement and the metal types he would give us.

I was trying to capture this sense of a kaleidoscope—of reality shifting in front of you, and something about families and their secrets. This poem was the first time I was satisfied with my description of the ocean. And it was definitely helped by, of all things, the great Calypso musician Mighty Sparrow. I don’t remember when he was at the Prospect Park Bandshell. It was a hell of a show. People brought huge Caribbean flags. The way they moved in the air reminded me of the way waves move. I usually edit a lot but this poem is one of those special gifts that came out almost intact.

What are you working on right now?

Can I skip this one? No? Ok, about a year ago I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in which my immune system attacks my brain. Treatment is lots and lots of high-dose steroids. Writing has been hard. But I’m starting to feel better and gearing up to get back to a memoir I started after a Lyme disease diagnosis in 2007.

What’s a good day for you?

Minimal pain and cognition problems and energy to get off the couch and enjoy the beautiful park outside my door.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

The crappy economy in Rhode Island. As a recent college grad with a fine arts degree, working in the mortgage division of Fleet Bank was not exactly stimulating or related to anything I really cared about. My boyfriend at the time had several friends who had already made the leap and helped us get set up in Greenpoint. Sort of. That’s a longer story. Neither of us had jobs, and we had about $1,200 between us.

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

In the twenty years I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Greenpoint, Flatbush, Greenpoint again, Park Slope and Clinton Hill. I have fond memories of Greenpoint, Polish filling the air—and some not-so-fond memories of stepping around drunks passed out on the sidewalk on my way to work via the dreaded G train. There was a special energy there, and the sky was so big walking on Kent Ave to Williamsburg. I don’t miss the G.

Living in Flatbush was short-lived. One night a five-alarm fire burned down an entire block of Parkside Ave save the subway station on the corner. There were riots after the funeral of Patrick Dorismond (one of far too many unarmed black men killed by police). It only got worse from there.

I lived in Park Slope for three years. It was a mixed bag. I was living with strangers which was weird, but Prospect Park was outside my door. There was good food to be had, but I couldn’t really afford it. Only one train to work even if it took forty-five minutes to get there. I never minded the families and strollers everywhere. I was living in Park Slope when I was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease, so I have some bad memories of that time in quintessential brownstone Brooklyn. My body was falling apart while all around me was beauty.

Clinton Hill. I lived there almost as long as Greenpoint. I loved Clinton Hill. Within walking distance to so much: Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, BAM, not to mention the beautiful architecture of the old mansions on Clinton and Washington. The Pratt campus full of art and great landscaping.

I miss it now that I live in Long Island City. Yeah, we won an affordable housing lottery. Long Island City feels a little like North Brooklyn, except with way more diversity. It also feels a little like a place still trying to find itself. But from my view in Queens, Brooklyn spreads out before me to the horizon. And I can see the ferry dock at the end of my old street in Greenpoint. Finally. When I first moved to Greenpoint we drove around in circles for weeks following signs for an East River Ferry that hadn’t operated in years.

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

My husband and I were married at the Granite Prospect in Brooklyn Bridge Park on a very hot spring day. As the ceremony went on, more and more people stopped and watched. And stayed until the end. And clapped for these two total strangers whose wedding they randomly stumbled upon. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt a greater sense of belonging as I did at that moment.

And of course there are strangers in the background of many of our wedding pictures. Including this one middle-aged guy in a turquoise Izod. There he is, over and over again, grinning lavishly in the photos of a couple he’s never met. He looks so happy photobombing us again and again. I love that guy.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Why or why not?

A poetry community? I don’t know, maybe there are many poetry communities. The people I interacted with during those early NYC days working at Poets House felt completely disconnected from the poetry people of my MFA days. I’ve stopped going to readings, and like everything else in this town I feel more competition among poets here than say Provincetown. Provincetown in the summer is glorious. I met one of my best friends at a summer workshop there more years ago than I care to count.

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

Walt Whitman. His words are forged into fences, chiseled into stone in the park dedicated to him. What kind of Brooklyn poet wouldn’t feel a kinship to the container of multitudes, which is exactly what Brooklyn does.

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

My first job in NYC was at Poets House, and I was able to spend time briefly with Stanley Kunitz, who was quite old by then but still somewhat involved with the organization. I fell in love with his poetry as an undergrad and continued to study his poems and essays. Good lord that man knew how to end a poem.

I remember one particular day shortly after 9/11 when Lower Manhattan was reopened north of Canal Street—this was when Poets House was on Spring Street—and we could go back to work. SoHo smelled terrible (Ground Zero smoldered for months) and the whole staff was struggling. One day we closed early and Stanley came for a visit. This had never happened before. He told us childhood stories about his pet skunk behind the stove, of the baby owls in the woods he slowly befriended until they perched on his outstretched arms. He told stories from his adulthood and the widespread discrimination he faced.

Maybe he read a few poems? I can’t recall, but my coworker had this excerpt from “The Testing-Tree” taped to her computer for months as I remember:

In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.

Feels quite relevant to our current state of affairs, doesn’t it? Something shifted in me that day. I don’t know quite how he did it, but a sense of peace within me began to return.

I worked with Jan Heller Levi in grad school. She helped teach me to trust myself and embrace my own weirdness. Plus, she never let me get away with any bullshit. I also took a brief workshop with Nick Flynn, who probably should have been mentioned in the previous question. During a five-day workshop he had a big impact, and reminded me of how much power a piece of driftwood shaped like a meat cleaver can have.

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

I’m currently quite fond of Anaïs Duplan’s Take This Stallion. The book is bold, and the poems have an energy all their own. I’m drawn to how she uses shapes in the place of letters, and can make them mean something, and how an ordinary-seeming language shifts and melts into something more like heartbreak.

I’m also rereading Richard Siken’s first book, Crush. Just as powerful as when it first came out. These poems live in emotion so completely the speaker can’t find a larger picture. And the way it’s put together as a collection is amazing.

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

In all honesty my health has seriously affected my ability to read. Reading any kind of literature these days is an accomplishment. But if I can imagine the me before getting sick, I would have to admit to some Shakespeare holes. I’ve never read King Lear (though I’ve seen it performed) or any of the Henrys.

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?

With prose I’ve always read cover to cover, one book at a time. With poetry I dip in and out. And oddly, with magazines I seem to start at the end and flip forward. I’ve never been able to plan a reading list. I like to let one book lead to another organically.

Physical books!

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

Writing about my health struggles of the past twelve years. It seems too large to contain in a poem. Or a series of poems. But we’ll see. I’m not planning a traditional memoir.

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

The beach—or anywhere close enough to hear the ocean. Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. On a park bench overlooking the North Cove Marina in Tribeca. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, especially the Japanese Garden.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The top of Fort Greene Park, because there’s a real hill and you can see Manhattan from the top. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park, again for the views and also the sense of history. The Fulton Ferry Landing, where Walt Whitman used to embark to Manhattan. This list could get long. I’ll end with Brighton Beach and Coney Island and the skate tank at the entrance to the aquarium. Mesmerizing, otherworldly in the way they glide through the water and around one another. I don’t know if it still exists after Sandy flooded the aquarium.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:

I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you ______________,
For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.

I’m sorry, I just can’t. The original is already poetry perfection.

Why Brooklyn?

Why bright lights, big city of course—across the river so you can see it better.