Poet Of The Week

Kyndal Thomas

     October 14–20, 2019

Kyndal Thomas is a Texas-raised, Brooklyn-based poet. She graduated with honors from the creative writing program at Northwestern University, where she received a Faricy Award for Poetry. Her work explores multiraciality, privilege, lineage and intimacy as navigated within the everyday. She works in the literary nonprofit sphere and is passionate about inclusive and accessible creative spaces. In her spare time, you can find her listening to ghost podcasts and attempting to prove to her loved ones that she has, in fact, taught her cat how to play fetch. This past summer, she received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for study in Shira Erlichman’s The Fictive Poem workshop.

Trampoline

 

My mother bounced up and down

the night before I was born. Freckled

arms pumping, she prayed with each fall

that the confetti of us would rain down,

fly up, float for a moment, as I would—

a nest, awaited nine months and gone in a blink.

It would dissipate to settle around us

on the playful canvas still rippling,

straining under the weight of us.

We cry at the sight of one another, a part

of one another newly apart from one another.

All the while, woven strands strain.

The small spaces between are windows

we ignore until the woven strands fray,

give way, and all the small windows

become one, through which we fall.

We land years later on a lawn,

its green faded golden

and breath thick with morning

mosquitos and memories.

I, 24. She, 48.

Both of us dig through the roots

to those dry golden stalks, flimsy

and elusive. She looks for her lineage

before her, whose worried jawlines

look like hers, and I for the other half of

mine behind me, taut with absence.

My lineage stolen by ships, then

misunderstandings, miscommunications.

My fingers pierce precious places,

but my mother is milky

comfort, always confusing,

always forgiving,

my search for a blackness

to hide how different

she made me.

When, in all that mulched earth,

our frenzied fingers brush,

we lace them to butterfly and wiggle

their prints together into topsoil

growing sticky with effort and joy.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Once my mom called me and told me about this mother squirrel that was sitting on the stump of the tree my dad had chopped down in our front yard, chirping and searching for the nest and for her children who had all been crushed. I became obsessed with this idea of a mother returning and finding her children gone and then this idea of my own mother returning and finding me, in a way, gone. When I was young, in suburban Texas, growing up in a multiracial family, my identity was engulfed in the discourse of postraciality. I thought I wasn’t black and I wasn’t white, so maybe I was nothing at all and none of this applied to me anyway. Even as the world slowly proved to me that it absolutely did apply to me, I didn’t talk about it much.

Then I went to college and I found the space, the community and the language to begin talking about it. I came home the summer after my freshman year, I think as many of us do, invigorated and enraged about everything. I pushed my mom into uncomfortable conversations in the dollar section at Target, on car rides to Half Price Books, at the Sonic drive-thru. I wanted her to understand, to be invigorated and enraged with me. I was learning, exploring and asserting myself, for the first time, as black. I was coming to a place where being mixed didn’t mean being nothing, and it didn’t mean not being black. But it did mean “I’ll never be white,” I told her, as if she needed to hear it.

Loving my mother comes so naturally to me. Beyond instinctual, it’s a privilege to have my mother, to give love to and receive love from my mother. Loving my whiteness has never been so simple. I wasn’t crushed by a falling tree, but there is no way to go back to that hidden nest where my mother and I had lived so comfortably. Now, we’re left outside on that lawn, learning and working to build a new one.

I hope this poem serves as a thank you to my mother for working and building with me, and an apology for the mistakes I’ve made and will make along the way.

What are you working on right now?

In my senior year at Northwestern, through a thesis project that I extended into an independent study, I produced a draft of a book-length collection of poetry. Now that I’ve had some distance from the really intense and vulnerable space I was in when I wrote most of that work, I’ve found myself reworking and expanding a lot of the same themes and even individual poems from that project. As comfortable as I am sharing my work in workshop settings, I’ve always felt this irritating hesitancy about putting myself on large and accessible platforms, so I’m also working through those complex fears and pushing myself to seek more publication opportunities.

What’s a good day for you?

I wake up early enough to get ready leisurely, make an iced matcha, eat a hearty breakfast and maybe take a walk around my neighborhood. When I get back, my cat lies on my chest without swatting my face for attention for an entire episode of The Great British Baking Show. I run errands and get everything on sale. Later that evening, my boyfriend makes buffalo wings and we eat them on our patio with cold sour beers and a candle burning.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I distinctly remember borrowing the movie Newsies from a family friend when I was a kid and being infatuated with Brooklyn’s Spot Conlon. He had this snarky little badass vibe that I’d always wanted to have myself, but could never quite muster. From then on, I was obsessed with the idea of New York as this city of youth empowerment and revolution. In my last quarter at Northwestern, I was really struggling to line up a job post-grad. A good friend of mine secured a job in New York and I just said, “Fuck it. I’m going with him and I’ll figure the rest out once I get there.” In a stroke of dumb luck, I landed my first full-time job the day my first month’s rent was due and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since.

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?

My first apartment in Brooklyn was above a lively event space in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. There were middle-schoolers bumping and grinding to someone’s uncle’s ’90s R&B set directly below my bedroom several nights a week. On the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, where my boyfriend and I have lived for almost a year, things are much quieter. There are a lot of nice bars, restaurants and coffee shops within walking distance. I can do some writing in a café during the day and then meet friends for dinner, drinks and dancing in the evening—and stay within walking distance of my bed the whole time. To be fair, none of it is cheap and I may be eating off the McDonald’s dollar menu (RIP) for the rest of the week. There are some really cool black-owned spots near us (HealHaus, Sisters, Basquiat’s Bottle, etc.), which I really value in an area where so many people, disproportionately people of color, are being priced out.

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

One evening when I was living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, I was watching Chopped with my roommates and one of the contestants said they were the head chef at a southern-inspired brunch place called BeeHive Oven. As an apartment full of Texans, we looked it up immediately and it happened to be in Brooklyn. Of course, we made plans to go the next day. That was when I was introduced to my new understanding of brunch. It’s not between breakfast and lunch. (In fact, it’s usually after you would traditionally eat lunch.) You dress cute, you always wait for a table, you usually overpay, you memorialize the experience on Instagram and then you emerge tipsy into the late-afternoon sunshine. Unfortunately, Beehive Oven is closed now, so I won’t bother telling you how their peach jam tasted JUST like the peach cobbler from my favorite BBQ spot back home.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

For me, poetry community means a network of people who are invested in sharing opportunities, offering inspiration and fostering each other’s growth as writers. At Northwestern, I took a sequence of classes with the same small and very dedicated group of poets for two years. Coming out of that and moving to an entirely new city, I initially really struggled to find a similar sense of community and it really affected my motivation to write. Then, my lovely boyfriend got tired of me moaning about it and gifted me a class with Patricia Spears Jones through Brooklyn Poets last winter. Through showcases, Yawps and a class with Shira Erlichman that I was lucky enough to take through a Brookyn Poets fellowship, I’ve been making connections, feeling energized and building that sense of community for myself again.

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

Aracelis Girmay, Cathy Park Hong, Audre Lorde, Patricia Spears Jones and Shira Erlichman.

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

No one has invested as much time and energy into my work as the wonderful Averill Curdy. I worked with her in a variety of constellations for three years as an undergrad at Northwestern. I started out taking her experimental poetry class, and then she led my core poetry sequence, advised my thesis, and later advised my independent study when I decided to expand that thesis into a book-length manuscript. After my first class with Averill, she introduced me to Natasha Trethewey’s work and completely shattered any notion I’d had while growing up that poetry was some faraway dialect for old white men to talk about old-white-men shit. For the first time, I was exposed to a writer using poetry to discuss an experience that felt intimately familiar. From there, poetry became this beautiful language for me to adopt and wield as my own. Throughout my three years working with Averill, she learned way more about me than she bargained for, I’m sure. Along the way, she treated all of my work and all of my experiences with such respect and tenderness. She pushed me towards new forms, like the pastoral poem, and new writers, like Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s no coincidence that poetry was falling out of me so quickly that I could barely keep up with myself when I was working with her. She took me seriously as a poet and gave me permission to do the same.

I also have to mention Patricia Spears Jones, who pulled this poem out of me in my first Brooklyn Poets workshop. I was trying to preface what turned out to be a really intense and vulnerable freewrite, which I was feeling very self-conscious about having to read aloud to the group. I was overthinking, second-guessing and stumbling over what I wanted to say. Patricia just looked at me and said, “I can sense that you have a lot of great ideas, but you often stop yourself short. I urge you to share those ideas.” (Or something like that.) Some of the lines in this poem, amongst others, may never have made it to the page if she hadn’t said that to me.

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

Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood is a book that I read a few months ago and truly can’t stop thinking about, particularly her poem “The Rime of Nina Simone.” That attempt to understand your place in academia, in writing and in literature was so real and close to me—the constant questioning, “Am I here because I’m good enough or because my black pain is interesting and marketable?” Then reckoning with what it means that they want my black pain. It’s a poem that does the beautiful work that poetry can do of making me feel not so alone in even my most vulnerable, unspeakable thoughts.

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

A few things that have been staring at me from my bookshelf: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher; Our Men Do Not Belong to Us by Warsan Shire.

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’ve worked in literary nonprofit spaces for just over two years, meaning I’ve been able to snag way too many free books. My bookshelf is definitely backlogged, so I tend to grab pretty randomly from there when I finish a book. I listen to audiobooks every once in a while, but I definitely prefer physical texts to digital ones. I really like to live with a book before calling it finished and picking up a new one. (Hence the backlog.) I do a lot of underlining, circling and dog-earing. I tend to read individual poems a couple of times, really sinking into each piece before moving on to the next.

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

I really only fell into the world of poetry because I had to take Intro to Poetry before I could take Intro to Fiction when I was at Northwestern. At the time, I was sure I wanted to be a novelist, but I surprised myself and fell in love with the rules of meter and form that my first poetry professor enforced. They introduced this kind of logic puzzle play to writing for me. I continue to find that some of the most interesting things happen when I write against constraints. I would really like to return to that place and try some new poetic forms and/or metrical structures—pantoum, sestina, tanka, terza rima, etc.

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

There is definitely a special place on the corner of my couch where I love to read, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subway. I love being able to take that time really to sink into a book and somehow push away all of the external stimuli of a morning commute. When I worked in Fidi, I loved reading on my lunch breaks in Battery Park or on one of the little patios at Ground Central with one of their delicious lemon cookies.

I find that I really do my best writing at home, typically in the evening; however, I do a lot of writing in small spurts in other places first—in the notes app on my phone, in a notebook during a workshop, in a blank email draft during spare moments at work. Then, I’ll sit down on my couch and do my best to combine, synthesize and puzzle those bits together and write from there.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I think the first space in Brooklyn that really confirmed for me that I had chosen the right borough was the Brooklyn Museum. I grew up going to art museums in Dallas, Denver, Chicago and elsewhere, but I don’t know that I had ever felt so at home and inspired by a museum as I do every time I go to the Brooklyn Museum. It feels to me like a museum both frequented and curated by people like me. To be able to experience exhibits like Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving and Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall as well as pieces like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party so close to where I now call home has meant a lot to me. Not to mention that First Saturdays is an amazing and accessible way to visit the museum, with some of the most inspiring looks Brooklyn has to offer.

Another Brooklyn spot that has my heart is a soul-food place in Crown Heights called Black Nile. The staff is super warm and friendly, their hot honey chicken is fire, and there’s almost always early 2000s R&B playing on the TVs in the background. To top it all off, their waffles are littered with little crunchy morsels of brown sugar that remind me of the heaping spoonfuls I used to dump into my mouth instead of my Cream of Wheat when my dad wasn’t looking.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate you,

And what I see in you I hold in me,

For every fiber haunts me as good as familiar ghosts have you.

Why Brooklyn?

Maybe one day BeeHive Oven will reopen.