May 2–8, 2016
zakia henderson-brown is of starshine and clay lineage. She is a 2016 Poets House Emerging Poets fellow and has received additional fellowships and scholarships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Callaloo Journal and the Cave Canem Foundation. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, No, Dear, North American Review, Vinyl and others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2013 and has completed residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Louis Armstrong House Museum. zakia currently serves as Associate Editor and Outreach Coordinator at The New Press and on the board of the Brooklyn Movement Center. She lives in her native Brooklyn with furball Onyx.
A Man Walks Into a Bar
suspending the instinct to fold a life into a palm
then have it disappear some animals
practice small-scale mercy: a hiss or spray as warning;
a nuzzle before drawn jaws. i lived awhile
just beneath the knife of him
until the cold metal became a porch light turning on.
did i indebt myself to fire? he claimed my pussy
scrambled his wires suggesting i was electric
if not already braindead body moving in mime
until essential functions stopped— his was a slow hiss
one i itched to drift towards melodic
but unmasked soon enough as just a slurred word
behind a strong whiskey a finger on my lips then
the smashed glass.
–Originally published in North American Review, Winter 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wanted to capture some of the tension and eeriness of intimate relationships gone awry. I was interested in the specific moment when it becomes clear that a close relationship has become a dangerous one, and of course it’s that much more dangerous because of how intimately you know one another, but also the danger is that much harder to recognize because of the intimacy. I wanted to explore that kind of doubling and cyclical logic, which feels endless, and can leave you wondering what in the world or thereabouts. Also inspired by a relationship I was in several years back—fodder for much creativity. Thanks, dangerous past lover!
What are you working on right now?
Poems that engage ghosts, the environment, grief, sex and the future. Currently looking forward to chapbooking. Publishing in the public interest at my day job. I spend a fair amount of time conjuring up ways for women and queer people to reclaim safety while building community in central Brooklyn with No Disrespect at the Brooklyn Movement Center. But honestly, now that the weather’s turned, I’m mainly working on biking around like my life depends on it.
What’s a good day for you?
According to Ice Cube’s canonical hit, a good day involves no one you know dying or being harassed by cops, your longstanding crush warming to you, some athletic activity, a little bit of parlaying and a little bit of partying. I’m paraphrasing here but I think that’s a solid standard for “good.” I’d add to that: waking feeling fully rested to unseasonably warm temperatures, writing or revising for at least a half hour, getting a seat on the train to work so I can read comfortably, not having back-to-back meetings at the office, figuring out the right moment to leave work to ensure that I catch the sunset on Kingston Avenue and getting to see friends for dinner later.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Initially, the circumstance of my birth! And what preceded it: my parents finding each other in the seventies, settling together in Bed-Stuy, having my brother, then deciding he’d need someone to grow up with. After undergrad in small town CT, I moved back home for my first job.
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’ve lived in North Crown Heights, or what I like to call “the Bed-Stuy side of Crown Heights,” for about ten years. I grew up in Bed-Stuy on a quaint block where my parents still live, so I’ve been living about a mile away from my childhood home for most of my adulthood. It’s been pretty amazing rediscovering the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn as an adult, especially during this very strange period of planned economic transformation. Watching new businesses pop up and newcomers indifferent to existing ecosystems has been equally fascinating. Some people truly believe everything is theirs, and for some reason this notion continues to surprise me. Mostly, it’s refreshing to be able to run into people from different points in my life, from people who knew my parents before I was born, to people I went to elementary or high school with, folks I know through activism or partying, old colleagues, childhood friends and everyone in between. It instills a healthy dose of nostalgia into most days.
I have to say I like living in Crown Heights more than Bed-Stuy, though I tend to hang out in the Stuy much more often—partially because it’s easier to support black-owned businesses there, which is incredibly important to me as a native. I’ve found the rents to be more reasonable for more space in Crown Heights, however, and I like being a ten-minute bike ride away from the Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park. I live across the street from Brower Park, where they do music festivals throughout the summer, and the Parks department seems to plant new species of pretty things every new spring. The Brower branch of the Brooklyn Public Library—which is basically a one-room operation—boasts an incredible poetry section. The Crown Heights Mediation Center is running a pretty incredible grassroots anti-violence campaign. NoBar closed, which is corny, because I intended to start a campaign to become BFFs with co-owner Anthony Mackie, but otherwise I love my neighborhood.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Last summer a friend walked me home after a night out drinking and we sat on my gated-in stoop talking until sunrise, over maybe a two- or three-hour timespan. There weren’t many people out then, in the black of night, just the occasional person appearing to be on their way home. One of the corner stores on my block is open 24 hours, and some young men had gathered there, ordering their various snacks through the bulletproof revolving window contraption. A few moments later, two young women walked by and one of the guys says something offensive to one of them. This leads, very quickly, to an altercation in which he grabs her, and she strikes him in apparent self-defense. That leads, also fairly quickly, to the activation of what appears to be a very strict protocol about street fighting, governed by a local gang. The guy is upset because he’s not “allowed” to fight a woman; instead, he must call his gang-women counterparts to fight on his behalf. The woman who has initially struck him is now on the phone with someone asking to be picked up, perhaps aware that a small group of women are being called in to fight her. Everyone is in the middle of the street. Well, two gang-women indeed appear and begin to beat this girl up—only briefly, as several other male gang members have appeared and say suffice. The beat-up young woman has reunited with her traveling companion, who had apparently left to get help, and promises that their male friends are currently en route to pick them up, or perhaps to fight on their behalf. There is some concern that if the two women leave, they will be followed for more fighting. There is much expletive-laced shouting. A lot of shit-talking. At this point, my friend and I begin to worry guns or the police or both will soon make an appearance, so we start to think through an exit plan (we had been a bit immobilized and didn’t want to call unnecessary attention to ourselves when things escalated). Several minutes pass and somehow word has spread among the various gang members that the police have likely been called, and they disperse as immediately as they all appeared, like a hackneyed magic trick. We got the sense that unseen neighbors heard the commotion and called 911, and that another part of gang protocol involves not being around when police are around. As the sun really starts to rise, the police appear, and take statements from the two young women, who gesture, but can’t seem to say for sure where all the people who had accosted them have disappeared to. After another few minutes, the police drive off, and there is no evidence whatsoever of what has just transpired. Many church bells ring at once. A white woman jogs past. Store-owners begin to open their shops. A white guy with a Bluetooth setup walks his dog. My friend and I briefly exchange some more marvel and astonishment, then he feels comfortable enough to walk the few blocks home. That’s Brooklyn, 2015.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Lucky for us, poetry community is boundless, bolstered and capable now and forever by the Internet. I probably read quadruple more poems than I would normally thanks to people’s constant uplifting of each other’s work on Facebook, specifically. It’s really something of a miracle to have such immediate access to so many poems and critical essays, and all under the innocent umbrella of “sharing.” Sharing is this reaching out, then drawing in of community. But I also like that so many great poets have settled in Brooklyn, because I never know when I’m going to physically run into one. For instance, I run into Kyla Marshell in my kitchen (we’re roommates), and sometimes I run into Morgan Parker at my favorite bar or brunch place (we’re neighbors). I think I know where to go when I want to be in the physical presence of poets—one of the many great reading series that has popped up, at Greenlight or the Atlas Review’s at 61 Local, for instance. But I think the poetry community I’ve carved out for myself defies a single geographical location or mode of communication. My most valuable poetic exchanges over the years have been with dear friends Igwe J. Williams of Harlem, Ama Codjoe of the Bronx and Steven Leyva of Baltimore—over Skype, snail mail and whiskey.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Aracelis Girmay was one of my first teachers, whom I met at a short writers’ program being run out of Medgar Evers College. She’s hands down one of the most genuine and warm people I’ve ever come across. I revisit her first collection Teeth often, as an example of what language can do if you push it and engage it with love. Poetry ran an excerpt of some work from her new book The Black Maria last month, and I can’t wait to luxuriate in it. Tyehimba Jess is doing some of the most important and exciting writing engaging history, and beautifully. The works of Tina Chang and Nicole Sealey have this quiet pulsing quality, like fireflies revving at dusk.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been very fortunate these last few years as far as mentorship goes; so many writers have helped to nurture my work! Mostly, my professors in grad school: Kimiko Hahn, Nicole Cooley and Roger Sedarat—working closely with them, with their sharp and gracious eyes, boundless generosity and genuine investment in my work’s development, affected my fundamental approach to craft and practice. I was accepted as a Cave Canem fellow in 2012 and have learned that it’s possible for an entire network of poets to serve as a single, many-armed mentor. The Cave Canem fellows and faculty are spread out across the country, but their deep knowledge of poetry, deftness of skill across styles, willingness to engage other fellows—always loyal and interested in actual fellowshipping—and vast tenderness feels so very intimate, truly like poetic family. I’m equally and eternally grateful for the Queens College MFA and Cave Canem massive.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Whenever I think of the sheer volume of excellent literature that exists in the world, I go back and forth between ecstatic and despaired. Because how wonderful! But also how will I read it all?! Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House really struck me. It’s essentially a book-length twinned love letter to Detroit and the black family. Similarly, Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country is a series of brief love notes to the Filipino diaspora worldwide. Literature that makes clear the author’s love, however difficult, for their subject matter has a gravitational pull for me. In that same vein, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus—my god what beauty and precision. There’s a poem in the first section, “The Wilde Woman of Aiken,” that ends with the lines “You / cannot / prevent me.” It was transcendent.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” Cathy Park Hong’s Translating Mo’Um. Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which my brother gifted me about four years ago and is potentially irrelevant now. Manna: For the Mandelstams for the Mandelas by Hélène Cixous. Mulebone, the comedic play co-written by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Hoping someone will lend me anything of Fred Moten’s soon.
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?
Polyreader here! I like to be reading one book in each genre simultaneously, making an exception for poetry collections, because I can shift between many volumes. It gives me the option of reading whatever I’m in the mood for at a particular time, while progressing in many directions at once, which to me feels like true leisure. I have a single shelf in my apartment filled only with unread books that I replenish regularly, so I do try to keep things constantly queued up. I prefer the heft of a physical book and the pleasure associated with turning a page and seeing your progress in pages, but if I’m traveling out of the country, or reading a particularly large volume that will make my shoulder bag too heavy, I switch to Kindle. I get through an insane amount of articles via the Pocket app on my phone.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I mostly write at home, at my desk—is that lame? The composing process is constant, however. I’ll read almost anywhere: trains, buses, parks (Brower, Prospect, Fort Greene), beaches (Rockaway, Riis), nail and hair salons, and if I happen to be in the presence of friends, I’ll be peer-pressuring everyone to read aloud.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Café Rue Dix for its delicious Senegalese delights and top-notch happy hour; the Brooklyn Movement Center for its community building sensibility and loving focus on black-led organizing; I love each Bed-Vyne establishment in a unique way!; MoCADA for lending visibility to some of the most dynamic and innovative artists around; Barbara’s Flower Shop on Bergen and Nostrand, where I bought my first peace lily plant that lived for 5+ years (!)
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate, I spark, I kindle,
And what I burn you breathe,
For every hairy green nugget belonging to me as good belongs
Maybe it’s a cliché for me to say this as a native, but it’s possible that Brooklyn is the effective center of the known universe with regards to creative energy and general flavor. Runner up: Oakland.