Poet Of The Week

Ama Codjoe

     December 12–18, 2022

Ama Codjoe is the author of Bluest Nude and Blood of the Air, winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. She has been awarded support from Cave Canem, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Saltonstall Foundation, as well as from Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Hawthornden, Hedgebrook, Yaddo and MacDowell. Her recent poems have appeared in the New Republic, the New York Review of Books, the Best American Poetry series and elsewhere. Among other honors, Codjoe has received fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council / New York Foundation of the Arts and the Jerome Foundation. On Wednesday, December 14, she will read at Brooklyn Poets in a launch event for her latest collection.

A Family Woven Like Night through Trees

 

The man asks, Do you have a family? My thinking

brushes the air between us like a wet mark

stains white paper. My mother’s mother, dead

twenty-two years. A stone house. The ants I’ve killed.

Robyne, who when someone hurls toward me

a small cruelty cries. Memphis in August.

My twin brother crunching ice. All the cousins

I’ve made. Walking amongst cedar trees.

New Yorkers on New Year’s Day or on the first day

of spring. Not children I’ve birthed, but dead

leaves raked into prickly hills, made messy

with our falling. Artists skinny dipping

in the ocean at night. It was family

that surged and fell away. But the ties

my grandfather wore on Sundays are kite tails

in my closet. The mums my mother planted

are tiny, decadent flames. Family returns

like a son, the way a wave is always and never

the same. For once, it is not about the body.

I listened as my friend’s urge to kill herself grew

clamorous as a field of bells. She stank of it.

Her voice reeked, streaked with ringing—and

as if she were wreathed in baby’s breath,

cloaked in a robe of dianthus, as if

she’d been washed by a river stripped

of silt and mud, I drew her close, inhaled

her musk, and brought her brow to mine.

I mean to say, her blood was mine.

 

—From Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Ama Codjoe. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.

Brooklyn Poets · Ama Codjoe, "A Family Woven Like Night through Trees"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

The poem began with a real-life interaction I had with a stranger or acquaintance, I’ve forgotten whom. I remember pausing when the person asked, “Do you have a family?” It was genuine hesitation: I didn’t know how to answer the question. Part of me understood that the word “family” was shorthand for “children”—in fact, I’m sure I’ve used the same shorthand before—but by writing the poem I hoped to thoroughly answer the question.

What are you working on right now?

One poem at a time.

What’s a good day for you?

Like Mary Ruefle, I love a day spent at home when I don’t touch the doorknob. Reading a poetry book from cover to cover or relishing a long, long novel as the light changes. Hot tea and delicious food.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I wanted to be closer to friends.

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?

Brooklyn is one of my homes. I’ve lived in Crown Heights and in Bed-Stuy. I love both neighborhoods and in particular the brownstones with their wooden shutters and beautiful staircases.

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

Going to the Bed-Stuy YMCA with a good friend and experiencing my first sauna. There’s nothing like the dry heat, woodsy smell and communion of a sauna during a New York winter.

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?

Community means everything to me. I’ve been fortunate enough to feel a part of various poetry communities and I remain tethered to the friends I made as a novice writer. I carry these relationships with me wherever I go.

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

Nicole Sealey, John Murillo, Aracelis Girmay, Zakia Henderson-Brown and Mahogany L. Browne.

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

I’ve had many mentors, among them Vievee Francis, Gregory Pardlo, Terrance Hayes and Sharon Olds. Their poems are guides, and I cherish the conversations we’ve had about poetry. I recall their advice and questions while I compose and revise.

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

Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy is a singular reading experience. It’s vast, incisive, insightful, sorrowful and star-bright. I was startled by its brilliance.

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

I bought War and Peace at the beginning of the pandemic and still haven’t read it.

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 only read physical books, no digital texts, though I have gotten into audiobooks as of late. I try to write down, longhand, at least one poem from the poetry books I read. I like reading poetry straight through if possible, but definitely dip in and out of multiple books and genres. If I am swept up by a book, I will stay with it solely until I’m finished. I always have a queue of books waiting for me.

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

I want to write an abecedarian as subtle and marvelous as Mary Szybist’s “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle” which I read many, many times before perceiving its form.

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

I like to read in the Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library and, of course, on the subway—and though it’s a hassle, it’s a testament to the book when I miss my stop.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The homes of my friends in Crown Heights and East Flatbush. New Yorkers often live so far away from one another that we find ourselves socializing in the middle ground of restaurants, bars and cafés. I love spending time in my friends’ homes and there are a few I consider second homes to me.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate love,

And what I sing you hold,

For every joy leaves me as good and becomes your gold.

Why Brooklyn?

Because: “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”