April 17–23, 2017
Yun Wei received her MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College and a bachelor’s in international relations from Georgetown University. Her writing awards include the Geneva Literary Prize in both fiction and poetry and the Himan Brown Poetry Fellowship. Her writing has appeared in decomP Magazine, Roanoke Review, apt, Word Riot, the Brooklyn Review and other journals. For the last few years, she worked on global health in Switzerland, where she consistently failed at mountain sports. Currently in Brooklyn, she is working on her first novel. “Unpublished Diaries of the Philae” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology this spring.
Unpublished Diaries of the Philae
Comet Lander, November 2014
four billion miles later I thirst
for a pinch a hurt a cough
pin drop on floorboards anything
to break this flameless lickless
nothing streak across
dust water ice will do nicely
for a ten-year crave
brought nothing but tampons
and passports for a comet chase
a tensile density they told me
in crystal-cut multiplications
I should have stayed where
up down were severed siblings
where silence lived within its means
but no one would let me laugh
the way I do here tongue out loose bones
flattened to match the dark-glazed scenery
how the cartilage of things glow here
boundaries can be traced filled
with all the geometry I can remember
except for the shape of arrows and exit
yes dust water ice feels good
between the toes
–Originally published in Maudlin House, 2015.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
When I read about the Philae lander that traveled for almost eleven years and four billion miles to land on comet 67P with no return ticket, I found myself heartbroken for a robot. I started imagining the undiluted loneliness of the journey, the excitement and nobility of the sacrifice, what the scientists would have told me before launch. I wondered what I’d bring with me besides tampons. And finally the landing: one chance to arrive at a piece of rock/ice I’d never leave. Would it feel like home?
What are you working on right now?
My first novel. In college, I wrote a first draft while eating garlic fries at 3 AM every night for a semester, and nearly failed my microeconomics class. Ten years later, I’m still obsessed with the same themes of collective memory, the encoding and erasure of memory—particularly in the context of the immigrant experience and American towns going through an identity crisis.
What’s a good day for you?
Avocado breakfast with coffee. Hours of writing in a quiet place full of light. Not hating everything I just wrote. Be a concrete slab of resistance against current wrongs. Soup dumplings and stir-fried pea shoots with garlic. Read something that makes me breathless. Wine and Netflix.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
A mix of geographic practicalities and some vague notion that Brooklyn might fit my soul. In 2010, my lease in Manhattan was up. I was working in finance in midtown and working on my poetry MFA at Brooklyn College. Fort Greene had a buffet of subways and gave me dreams of taking off my shoes and eating unwashed strawberries on the hill in the park.
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’m one of those people who’s never quite sure whom to root for at the Olympics. All I have are fragments of where I’m from, a perpetual departure every few years. Brooklyn is the first place I’ve returned to. Not just visited but returned to with my life in suitcases.
Chronologically: three years in Clinton Hill, four years in Switzerland working on HIV/AIDS and malaria programs. On November 8th, 2016 I flew back from Geneva to the US. Like all of us, I somehow managed to start functioning in the Upside Down, and two months later, my fiancé and I found an apartment two blocks away from our old one in Clinton Hill.
Maybe I have back-to-the-neighborhood glasses on, but other than the rise in rent, I’ve been excited about the changes. There’s wifi in the subway now?! And I love the G train. There’s even a song about the G train by Thirdstory that captures all my conflicted feelings about it. That’s what’s exciting, the way Brooklyn (or New York in general) stacks all of these extraordinary people on top of each other, and suddenly you don’t feel so small, so untalented. Your aspirations aren’t in the stars: they’re sitting right next to you on the G train.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
The most vivid one I can think of is the Yawp last month when there was a blizzard warning. Earlier that day, I was washing the dishes and got flashes of the Alps, skiing, hopping on a plane to Spain, everything I had left behind. I wanted to cry into the sponge. Then I went to the Yawp.
If there was a silence in the city waiting for snow to descend, the upstairs room at 61 Local was filled with the scratching of pens, the sound of escaped thoughts, scarves wrapped tighter and ideas stretched to the wooden-beam ceiling. To my left was a guy who works at a bank, to my right a college senior. There was no judgment, just appreciation. There were no pretensions or name-dropping. Everyone was vivid and distinctive and all pouring themselves into this love affair with poetry.
I didn’t need mountains or airplanes that night. I was already in the clouds.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I don’t know if I’ve ever wholly belonged to one. When I was doing the MFA, I was still working in finance, and because of a scarcity of time and focus, probably missed out on the full experience. I was surprised to find that Geneva has an incredibly committed and active writers’ association, but once again, my time and focus were divided. I remember a few times taking an overnight flight back from malaria-endemic regions in Ethiopia and coming to a Saturday-morning workshop in Geneva. At the same time, I’m happy about the work I’ve done outside of poetry and I feel like I have a grain of understanding of people who don’t give two shits about poetry and what they do give a shit about.
By definition a community has borders, a shape to it, and we need multiple communities to cover all of our fragments. I love the closeness of being part of a community, but have felt that I should be doing more to build it. That’s something for me to work on.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Vanessa Gabb has been my poet-sister since the first day at Brooklyn College. Vanessa was the one who introduced me to Brooklyn Poets. Then the first weekend I moved back from Geneva, it was right after the election, I came to the launch of her book Images for Radical Politics. Just listening to her peeling back the truths of our ideologies, our political lives, our economic complicity—and talking to the brilliant, compassionate people who came to support her, I came away floating with hope.
Ginsberg, the one and always. I saw a Walt Whitman rest stop in Jersey, so do we claim him as a Brooklynite, too? Lately, I’ve been blown away by Tina Chang, Ana Božičević and Ocean Vuong.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Lou Asekoff turned a small room at Brooklyn College into the most borderless place I’d ever been, because as he says, “We’re wired for distance.” I took his book with me to Iceland and felt more vastness in his words.
Julie Agoos showed me how precision and the open line and rage and kindness could coexist undiluted.
Marjorie Welish taught me how to write poems about politics, finance, the CIA—all those muddy subjects without compromising intellectual rigor and analysis.
Sharon Mesmer always made sure to let me know when Allen Ginsberg’s ghost was with us, and dismantled every last preconception about poetry that I didn’t know I had.
I met Adrienne Rich for about ten minutes when she came to read at Georgetown, and I’ve been having imaginary conversations with her ever since. I like to have imaginary coffee with Stephen Dunn and Jorge Luis Borges too.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The Old Philosopher by Vi Khi Nao published by Nightboat Books has been a fever book I keep picking back up just to feel something in my body. I recently finished Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, and what can I say, it’s Philip Roth. I wish I could be his brain for five minutes.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There are way too many. I watch too much TV and drink too much wine when really I should be reading. I think the Internet has shrunk my attention span too. As a kid I used to read eight books a day—finished Gone with the Wind in one night. Now I’m constantly failing at reading enough. For now, the ones I’ve told myself it’s read or die are: The Adventures of Augie March, Les Misérables and some Mario Vargas Llosa.
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 have a juggling act of one novel, a couple of poetry books and one nonfiction book. My ebook has given me so many satisfying, much-needed flings on trains and airplanes. But the real books are the ones I’ll marry.
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 write poems on napkins or Metrocards or plastic bags, any kind of trash, and start littering. Maybe they’ll even rhyme.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The Pratt Library. I love the glass floors stacked on top of each other, held up by the bookshelves, where I’m always scared of dropping my phone through the cracks. Keeps my fingers nervous and strong. And whenever I need to satiate a visual thirst I just browse through and pick up a book on Frank Gehry or 19th-century textile weaving.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I’m still getting acquainted with all the new ones that have sprouted when I was away. What I would really love to find is a perfect neighborhood bar, like in How I Met Your Mother. Still auditioning.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate dismantling,
And what I break you grind to sand,
For every grain made me as good as made 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.
First pilgrim to land in Brooklyn
wanted to find something to rob,
a juicy dream to sweat, to sin.
No one said to count, to love.
But they did to quarter rolls and Biggie,
asked the streets what makes a Dodger.
All you need, they said, is to swing your pen.
One poet in the hand is worth two in the bush.