February 4–10, 2013
Terence Degnan is the author of The Small Plot Beside the Ventriloquist’s Grave, published by Brooklyn’s own Sock Monkey Press. His work has been published in various literary magazines, including the Other Herald, Front Weekly and OWS Poetry Anthology. His two spoken word albums, 2008′s BC & 2010’s Calling Shotgun, were produced in Pittsburgh, PA and Raleigh, NC, respectively. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
ribs for walls
you were sitting in your father’s
hand me down company
in the mirror
smiled out a frown
you’ve stepped into the stairwell he built
and now there was
you could feel the air
you could feel his shadow blush
this is your
it doesn’t look like the photograph
these are the whale’s walls
it’s funny, you
you picked out the paper
when you looked at your newborn
it doesn’t feel like you
it feels like a leap year
it feels like how the pressure builds
when it doesn’t snow
it looks like a stadium
in your father’s car
empty of people
it looks like a strip mall
the day after sale
all the innocence
your child stole
there wasn’t enough
for you to share
and you gave it
like a baseball card
you want it back
but not in a bad way
for just an hour
for a reminder
and the radio
and the radio
plays a song you swore to never like
reminds you of him
and you’re not sure
–From The Small Plot Beside the Ventriloquist’s Grave, Sock Monkey Press, 2012.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem has a life of its own. It was cut from the book. My MS was done, and the woman (Kate Hill Cantrill) who hosted the book launch stated she wanted to read it at the launch, and I broke the news to her that it was gone. She told me to put it back. “No ‘Ribs for Walls,’ no book launch” is how she put it. Poems are funny like that; books, actually, in general. I had to wrack my brain as to what about this poem, in particular, spoke to her. Afterwards, Scott Adkins, the Director and head editor at Sock Monkey Press, read it at the “bookstore launch” of the book, and lo and behold, even though I’ve dispatched two separate poems for use in this interview, Brooklyn Poets chooses it. The answer to this question is a ghost that shouldn’t know how to haunt.
It’s about fathers who become their fathers. It’s about the plans we make, and the plans (others make) that make us. The wallpaper line is about how we (my wife and I) painted our second bedroom grey before we started planning for kids, and how our kid came two months early so it never got a new hue. It’s about seeing the innocence in a baby, and knowing you once had that, and how your dad must’ve looked upon you once and ached for his own (innocence). It’s about how song lyrics written by our elders start to make more sense as we age. It’s about how the second you start to fill your dad’s shoes, and the second you begin to form the words ”thank you,” he’s old. Now you’re busy making sure your dad’s nurses are competent, and the conversations are about how he wants to gracefully fold up the four corners of the farm. Really, the baseball card line does it for me, and why it most likely made its return (the poem that is). You have a rookie baseball card of Bo Jackson, and he doesn’t even have a career. No “Bo Knows” commercials; he hasn’t even proven himself on the Diamond AND the Gridiron. You’re holding this cardboard piece of gold, and for whatever reason you think to your kid-self, “Keep this one, so one day you can give it your kid.” Then you do, but the temperature has changed, the context has faded like any sports great. The thing you realize is that what you’re giving your kid is the chance to have a great childhood, because one day she’ll be you. Meantimes, she’ll have her own Bo Jacksons.
The title is about living your life out in a whale.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on three chapters, 60 poems.
There is a chapter called “Letters From Purgatory,” a chapter titled “Rome,” and “Unicorn.” Unicorn is my favorite thing (I’ve ever done), but just recently I’ve realized it’s driven more from need and less from want. I’ll just write a quick summary for each so as not to complicate this question.
“Rome” is a loose comparison of the Roman Empire to the US. In a land of drone strikes, failing crops, taxes being designated mainly for warplanes and TARP, the Kardashians, etc, etc; I feel as if there is a nice groove carved in some deep fault-line in Ohio for the country to steer itself into. I’m not naturally a pessimist, so the poems have been difficult to write, and I second guess myself, but I’m dog-tired from our scripted American dialogue.
“Letters From Purgatory” is essentially written in the voice I’ve written from since poetry began in 1995 or 4 or … The voice has grown up some, but people who know me will recognize these poems. I’m a “lifer” Sophomore. I don’t understand society. I don’t understand the shirt I am wearing, or Lil Wayne, or predestination, or chlorophyll. This chapter is working out being a human. It’s a funny thing to be human. It’s nice we don’t have to be human for very long. These poems are from this human’s decade. Or however long it takes to write this chapter.
“Unicorn” is a chapter of impossible poems. They are written to my daughter, for each stage of life she’ll live, so that she’ll never have to fully grow up. Unicorn is a testament to the impossible. If you were to ask Unicorn “Science, or Magic?” the chapter would answer, “Of course, Bunnylaser,” and in an honest tone, it’d be right(er). Unicorn states that my daughter knows more than me, and one day I will grow into her. Unicorn has cured my chaos with a kinder chaos. One day I’ll thank my daughter for these poems.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
Since 2007. First Bushwick, now Park Slope. But, you know, the Gowanus side of that idea.
What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
Park Slope. The problem with Park Slope is that the rest of the city won’t let it breathe. You can’t throw a rock at an exposed brick brownstone in this neighborhood without hitting an opinion. Even this is an opinion. The Brooklyn Poet Laureate has a poem stenciled on a garden wall on 5th and Carroll. That’s nice. This neighborhood is white. I don’t really put too much stock in “isms” in New York, because there’s just another thing to fight for, standing right behind the thing you’re fighting for now. But, this neighborhood is white. I’d live in Fort Greene if it wasn’t for the park. Prospect Park is one of my favorite things on the planet.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore?
BookCourt. If you walk into B&N, you walk into a meat freezer. If you walk into BookCourt, even the shelves have ideas of what you should be reading. They know you, specifically.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I write at the Brooklyn Writers Space on Garfield and 5th Ave. If I were honest, I’d say that I edit there, and sometimes, because editing is like going to the dentist, I write to exasperate the editing process. Scott Adkins, the architect of the Brooklyn Writers Space idea, says that poets write in the garden. I’ve been working on breaking down constructs, so I’m not sure if a “poet” actually exists, or if they write in the garden. He asked me once where most of my writing was done, and I said on the R train, and he replied, “The R train is your garden.” I read on trains, too.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
By far, without a doubt, hands-down: Mission Dolores. It’s a bar for beer. Meaning, beer could just live there without drinkers, and be fine. The beer at Mission Dolores puts up a good argument for God, or whomever all those beer-swilling monks worship.
And Prospect Park.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Jean-Michel Basquiat is my favorite Brooklyn Poet. I know most people know him for prolific paint on canvas, but before that he was SAMO. He painted words on walls all over NYC. These lines were more beautiful than the buildings defaced by them. PAY FOR SOUP / BUILD A FORT / SET THAT ON FIRE was once on a wall. I wish my eyes saw it. I think that poems should live in whichever way they can, like seamonkeys, or clouds. I’ve always looked up to Basquiat.
There’s a group of subversive poets (christened the “bard electr/c”) in NYC putting poems on cellphones through QR codes. I think that Basquiat would be happy to know that these poets exist. I got to read a bard electr/c poem stamped on a brooklyn to-go coffee cup that read:
ye huddled masses!
expect the rat /n your trash:
accept the p/geon
That was a favorite moment in Brooklyn poetry. I’d like to think that the above poem, which was on a throwaway cup, answers Alexandra Petri’s “Is poetry dead?” conundrum.
I read Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” on the bridge the other day. That cracked open my skull. I’m helping Nicole Hefner Callihan put together her book of poems for Sock Monkey Press. These poems have taken me completely off guard. My brother Sean is one of my favorite poets. His poems have only been whistled by dogs.
Last awesome book(s) you read?
I’m working through broken land, which is an anthology of Brooklyn poets. I shit-you-not, this answer isn’t for the Brooklyn Poets interview, it’s just the truth. My favorite poem in there so far is William Hobart Royce’s
It Happened on the Fourth Avenue Local, Brooklyn,
On My 77th Birthday, March 20, 1955
“Wake up!” the subway guard exclaimed
In no uncertain voice,
“For this is Seventy-seven’ Street,
And you are Mister Royce.”
“Thanks for your solicitude,”
I said, “but if I’m still alive,
I will remain upon the train
‘Til I reach Ninety-five.”
Lauren Belski (The Crumpled Press) and Kate Hill Cantrill (Press 53) are both Brooklyn writers who released stunning works of fiction in 2012. I got to read their two books over the holidays, and was dumbfounded by the reach of talent our borough possesses. I know and love them both, so I won’t be too gushy, but I will say that when I read their books I was clobbered by the beauty they had both injected into humanity with their two pens.
I also read Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment every chance I get, but that book isn’t fair. He’s a reptilian, or some other enlightened being.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate ether,
And what I nothing you should nothing with myself,
For every thought you have rendered me as good has
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.
and Frank White’s jugulars can be seen a’Throb
they’re posing to start a sin
one that hopes to Open
a pine box in Brooklyn,
you’re best to divert the wagons Christopher, father, Biggie
When people in college were going to Spring Break in Cancun, I was buying a train ticket to New York. I don’t say that to be romantic. Brooklyn is where a poet, or whatever that is, is cared for. My friend Erin has asked me twice to read the Unicorn poems. I don’t have a final draft of any of those things, but she’s asked to read ‘em. I lived in other cities, and I loved them too, but the artists I love take care of that side of me well in BK, and hopefully I, them.