Poet Of The Week

Connie Mae Oliver

     February 24–March 2, 2020

Connie Mae Concepción Oliver is a Venezuelan poet and artist who lives in New York. She is the founding editor of FEELINGS, an online journal of poetry and art. Her second book, science fiction fiction, is forthcoming this year from Spuyten Duyvil Press. Her first collection of poems, Cosmos A Personal Voyage By Carl Sagan Ann Druyan Steven Soter And Me, was published by the Operating System in 2017. Most recently, her poems have appeared in DREGINALD, the Brooklyn Rail and A Velvet Giant, while her visual art has been featured on the cover of Denver Quarterly as well as in various small gallery shows in Miami, Paris, Düsseldorf and New York.

Author photo by Marc Basch

Diligencias

 

From inside a round rack

of Laura Ashley blazers I ask

do we have to stay here

Quedate quieta

she says—quedense quietos so we remain still

my brother and I

pretend large objects

coasting from one end of Burdines

to the other are houses and we sell them

for infinity dollars

We say

do you think

aliens are real

we say

yes but:

we are the RESIDENT ALIENS.

The Neighbors section of the Herald says we’d be happy

if we were visited by aliens.

When we lived in Chile my brother saw aliens from his window

and nobody believed him

I heard voices and peeked over the fence

tried to whistle with my crooked front tooth

My brother saw a movie about runaways and

tried to run away by jumping

out of his window but fell and struck his right rib

on a lawn lamp. A tiny one like the 20th Century Fox

lights, among the Añañucas.

 

—From science fiction fiction, Spuyten Duyvil, 2020.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Diligencias” is a memory piece from a series of poems about growing up in Miami, and a composite rendering of what it means to hear yourself, early in life, referred to as an “alien.” I was young and didn’t have the wherewithal to feel any type of way about it. “Diligencias” draws attention to the different registers of cultural and linguistic displacement between my mother’s generation and my own. We pass through the physical vestiges of American culture, like public school and Hollywood movies and making friends with American kids, etc., while for our parents, who worked hard to enter the space in adulthood, these adjustments were an expediency of their lives.

What are you working on right now?

My current project is about sleep and sleep studies. Dedicated to my mother and grandmother, dormilona (both “nightgown” and “sleepy head” (fem.) in Venezuelan Spanish) will include sleep study data and clinical notes. The poems explore dream states, brain waves and the tepuis of Roraima—an ecologically ancient region of the Amazon that includes Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. The project is also invested in ancient ecology—the forest archetype / forest consciousness—and how it has structured my own patterns of sleeping and dreaming. Since beginning the project, I have had recurring dreams of home, of Venezuelan geography such as Playa Colorada, a beach with bright pink sand in a state called Sucre, and Araya, a historic salt-mining peninsula. I understand these dreams to be both the result of my research as well as contributing data.

What’s a good day for you?

I like mornings and making them nice. I water my plants and refill the humidifiers and like using Aesop products to make my home smell good. A good day is full of opportunities to read and write and draw. I usually wake up first, take vitamins, get ready for work, prepare a thermos of Bustelo, hug my sleepy husband and head out. I teach Syracuse University courses (comp, literature and creative writing) for high school juniors and seniors, and my students make me smile. A good day is actually most days. I sometimes look back at my life and realize I’d been happy when I didn’t know it, so I try my best to know it.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn to study poetry. I was in the Brooklyn College MFA program and studied alongside Gracie Leavitt and Ted Dodson and received meaningful help and mentorship from Anselm Berrigan. I really didn’t have expectations when I arrived. My first impression was that everywhere seemed to be opaque and glowing. After late-night workshops, I liked taking midwinter walks from campus to the Lower East Side. I walked north generally, saw Brooklyn Bridge from a distance, followed the lights, crossed the bridge and eventually arrived, mapless, at Allen and Delancey. The walk took about two hours each time, and felt like a sort of residency. I think repeatedly crossing Brooklyn was in its way a form of writing and revising.

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

The south side of Williamsburg was where I first lived in Brooklyn. I lived there for two years and moved abroad when I graduated. While I lived there, I derived comfort from the Latinx-owned shops and restaurants and loud music and kids playing outside—it reminded me of Venezuela. Sometimes if it smelled like a certain combination of bakery and gas station and bubblegum, that comfort was amplified. I’d moved to Brooklyn from California, and then from Brooklyn to a small city in Germany, so it was for a long time an island in my migratory memory. I had been so accustomed to moving as a child that it took some time in my adulthood to get comfortable with staying anywhere. I appreciate how completely different every part of Brooklyn is, and had I been still long enough to recognize it, I would have seen that it’s a perfect city for someone who likes to be many places at once.

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

I snooped around the Brooklyn College campus during my program so much I might’ve minored in its architectural history. I found abandoned classrooms, subterranean tunnels, an observatory in complete disrepair and an entry to the light and sound inlets in the ceiling of BC’s since-demolished Walt Whitman Auditorium, from which one could watch orchestra rehearsals. In Miami, buildings are mostly refrigerated midcentury modern sanctuaries against tropical weather. The notion of an attic, a basement or a circuitous stairway was fun and unusual to me. At various times, I wound up visiting the chair of the Brooklyn College physics department to ask if they’d reopen the observatory, finding color slides of a 1950s student picnic and reverse-processing them in the BC darkroom, and walking halfway through the tunnel connecting Boylan and Ingersoll Halls before getting weirded out and escaping back to sunlight.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

I began an online poetry and art journal called FEELINGS as a way of creating some of the community I wanted to see: more multilingualism, vulnerability, fluidity and humor. I feel that creative communities are at their best when they are generous and open and curious about invention. I had the opportunity to read bilingual poems from dormilona at Mil Mundos Books in Bushwick recently for the release of Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz’s Estoy Tristeza (Spanish edition) and that was a restorative experience. Having my creative work understood in my first language is exciting to me, and is increasingly available in Brooklyn. I thank younger poets and artists for continually reimagining things and making them better.

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

My friendship with Vanessa Jimenez Gabb is not contingent on what she produces as a writer, but it happens that her writing is brilliant, and I’ve been blessed to know her, to be in the glow of her work. To me, Vanessa’s poetic voice is unique in its ethereal treatment of the material world. Her most recent book of poems, Images for Radical Politics, is groundbreaking and has enjoyed much deserved critical success. Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz is another excellent poet and multidisciplinary artist. Her writing is so universal and intimate at the same time. I recently reviewed her book Estoy Tristeza and every time I thought I’d covered it all, I’d notice something new. My husband Justin Anthony Rivers is a musician, but an incredible poet as well, often invested in satirical formal invention. Neither of us is from Brooklyn, but we met while living in Crown Heights, where he produced a significant amount of creative work. His writing has influenced my own, and the title of my latest book was a concept he came up with.

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

Anselm Berrigan, more than anyone I’ve worked with academically, has held space for my inquiry-based practice. He’s always supportive, not just of my work but of everyone’s, and I really admire his generous spirit. I had three mentors in Düsseldorf: Gul Ramani, Andrea Isa and Friedrich Bonnmann, who sort of adopted me after I went to their co-op gallery on Birkenstraße and asked if they wanted to look at my watercolor drawings of dogs. They were Künstakademie cohorts / contemporaries of Tal R, and taught me to thoughtfully slow down as a writer and artist. Early in my studies, my lit theory professor Ana Luszczynska influenced me as a thinker and reader in ways that continue to appear in my writing. Christy Gast is an incredible artist I assist with grant writing, media and wall texts for Miami galleries and museums. Her support and guidance has enhanced my professional understanding of the art world.

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

I loved reading Katie Jean Shinkle’s chilling, dystopian novella Ruination; her frank language is always a contemporary moment for me. Jonterri Gadson’s Blues Triumphant has my favorite use of a sonnet crown, through which she portrays her childhood in all of its beautiful nuance, and comments on American legacies of racism, erasure and insularity. Gracie Leavitt’s Livingry is a lovely collection of anthropocene-adjacent, femme-world poems; I admire her thoughtful subversion of form, borne as it is from a delightful love affair with grammar.

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

Last year I borrowed Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks from a coworker and plan to finally read it this spring. I started Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall’s memoir, in 2018. I learned about him only a few years ago after watching his 1991 BBC2 docuseries Redemption Song on YouTube. There is a book called Food in England by English historian and illustrator Dorothy Hartley that I really want to read, but it’s hard to come by—I’ve searched everywhere. It’s a recipe book, sort of, but also a catalog of food history and appliances from antiquity, and intimate glimpses into the origins of domestic human practices in the region. Another similar book I’ve been searching for is Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes by Barbare Jorjadze, which was curatorial inspiration for the Tbilisi restaurant Barbarestan. I’ve also been meaning to read Casas Muertas, by Venezuelan author Miguel Otero Silva. I bought the novel after my mother told me about a striking funerary scene where young men dance over a dirt floor in their alpargatas.

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 am a note-taker. My sister Francis constantly influences my reading habits; she’s the reason I print long articles for reading on the train; right now they’re about flowers and perfumery. I also have a small tower of books next to the bed that I read intermittently. I love a good weird sentence. I think that with thoughtful-enough spacing, everything is poems.

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

I started attending Zen group meditations in 2018 and I’d like to explore the ways the practice influences my writing process. I am still working on dormilona, but my next project will be about faith philosophies and systems. I grew up in a culturally Catholic, Hispanic family, but we were fairly agnostic, or I was. My mom says “dios te bendiga” and I hear it as an oath of maternal power, to which I think any deity is an incidental ornament. I will probably start working with these concepts later this year.

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

My CUNY ID is ineligible (and illegible) at this point but I still use it to get into the Brooklyn College and Grad Center libraries. My mother is the reason I love libraries and being in them, and feel happy knowing that I’ll never be able to read everything there is; she framed that as abundance for us. I also learned how to provide myself with the solace of reading and thinking through texts and media during long summers at my grandparents’ house in Valencia. I played records and read Spanish comics and put curlers in my abuela’s hair while she watched Por Estas Calles.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the domed tropical pavilion in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It’s full of bromeliads and philodendrons and soursop and rainbow plants and humidity and sunlight and it renews me just to be there. I also love a late show at Nitehawk Cinema, Sunset Park, and botanicas where you can get agua floridita. I love shopping on Brooklyn streets and stoops. I love how unexpected the items always are; you can find old dresses, earrings welded from scrap metal, a Sega Genesis, a porcelain dog.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate and,

And what I what I you you,

For every every me as good as good you.

Why Brooklyn?

So we can go eat at the Islands with my friend Roy.