Poet Of The Week

Amber Atiya

     July 28–August 3, 2014

Amber Atiya is the author of the chapbook the fierce bums of doo-wop (Argos Books, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlas Review, Boston Review, Apogee Journal, Anti-, Muzzle Magazine and elsewhere. She received a 2013 Pushcart Prize nomination, a fellowship from Poets House in 2012 and is a proud member of a women’s writing group celebrating 12 years and counting.

Nightmare #10

Somali grrl/spread eagle/surrounded by black faces
hips that have made room for heads/breasts
accustomed to the heat of men’s palms/the moist want
of babies’ tongues/one day their eyes will be hers
plague dreams like the face of the elder/unfolding
tools crude/saw-toothed/elder hovering
like each breath the grrl takes/before clitoral
amputation/labia clipped/scalloped perimeter
embossed in the dirt road she walks to grandmother’s/or
where she was headed before the ambush/filled
with a child’s thoughts/random happy thoughts
that did not leave her/hemorrhaging roadside/the women
do not apologize for the dirty knife/the women
do not explain why the men praise her fragrant
howling/drink to the scent of her blood/blade trimmed
with dried skin of grrls whose bodies had skipped
across that earth/bearing foods or messages/for family
the women restraining her/the elder/ones
who have ambushed and been ambushed/dehydrated
as old woman stitched their vulvas with catgut/or thorns
bound their legs for chastity/tradition/dowry/her opening
size of a sparrow’s head/hemmed in time for autumn harvest
debutante ball for grrls who’ve resisted death’s swagger
who come to their husbands anemic/newly wed
to romantic infection/and what of the dying grrls
a few years out of the womb/freshly cut
to some man’s specification/what of these
made-to-order bodies/robbed of breasts/menses
motherhood/one can know only what ails the living
unripe black of adolescence/the divine disfigurement
of a grrl/ill at ease/everywhere
           a farmer needs a wife/requires a strong back
for hauling/can afford her family’s asking price/higher
after circumcision
brilliantly the word lies/political career set
grrl-bride virtuous/prettied/obedient
her body will struggle against sex/will be taken
as the clitoris was taken/her tightness will excite
the farmer/the conquered black/black eyes/of the ambushed
women also wanting to occupy her/waiting their turn

–Originally published in Drunken Boat, 2011.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

The plan was to write a three-part performance piece based on the Three Feminine Sorrows:

1- The pain of “circumcision.”
2- The pain of coitus.
3- The pain of childbirth.

There was a five-page outline, a desktop folder full of articles, and Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, a collaborative book written by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar that I found at the Strand.

And then I lost everything on my computer when it crashed. And then I lost my flash drive. And then I misplaced the book and still haven’t found it. Maybe this three-part performance piece didn’t want to be written, or maybe it didn’t want to be written by me, by my American hand.

But this poem survived.

What are you working on right now?

Well, Argos Books is putting the finishing touches on my chapbook, the fierce bums of doo-wop, due out this fall. (Yay!)

Mostly, I’m focused on my full-length manuscript—writing new poems, exploring the visual possibilities/functionality of poetry. I’d like to include a bona fide order of protection in the book, something that can be torn along the perforated lines and used if necessary.

What’s a good day for you?

One that begins with a cup of Sanka (two sugars and milk, WHOLE milk, please, thank you) and ends with a few screwdrivers.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I live in South Jamaica, but I’m from Flatbush. (I miss Brooklyn so much, you don’t understand.) I’ve also lived in East Flatbush, Ocean Hill, Bedstuy, Downtown Brooklyn, and what’s now being referred to as Lefferts Gardens. Back in the day, it was Flatbush or Crown Heights depending on who you asked.

I miss being within walking distance of Prospect Park, the Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum. I miss Mike’s Diner, which made some hella good eskovitch fish and the best beef roti in town. I miss the Labor Day Parade, Mas Camp set up on Flatbush and Lefferts Avenue. Le sigh.

Queens is a whole other world where folks actually line up to get on the bus. I’ve been told by people from Queens that the troublemakers who refuse to follow protocol are almost always from Brooklyn. How they could possibly know this is beyond me.

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

“Yo, this goes out to my cats in Coney Isle/Friday night out in front the Himalaya goin wild.” Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def said that, and he ain’t never lied. Friday or Saturday at Coney Island was LIVE after 10pm. The Himalaya was everything, the DJ was everything, it was an outdoor party. Add an order of Nathan’s fried frog legs and a water bottle filled with vodka/Sprite to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a perfect night in Brooklyn.

Also, on Easter of ’88, my friend’s aunts took a crew of us to see School Daze, which is nuts because we were mostly seven and eight years old. Plus, there was a baby in a stroller. I remember my hair being straightened and white patent leather shoes that click-clacked on concrete with every step. I remember ruffled socks and a frilly pink dress. I remember all of our faces being quite greasy from Vaseline, you understand. A fight broke out near Newkirk train station. Next thing I know, gunshots go off and a bunch of people are running in our direction. I remember being scared shitless, all of us turning to run. I remember one of the aunts tripped and the stroller flipped over and landed in a dirt patch, and I don’t remember the baby crying (though it must’ve been crying), but I do remember, vividly, the rear stroller wheels spinning, their silver spokes spinning.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

I’m partial to activist poets/poets whose work is socially and politically relevant to the times. That being said, I love Martín Espada and Cathy Linh Che.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

I haven’t bought a book in Brooklyn since … well, damn, I think the last time I bought a book in Brooklyn was almost a decade ago, on the street near the Brooklyn Museum.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

The Botanic Garden.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Same as above … any seedy dive holding on by a thread, though they’re almost impossible to find.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

I’m a huge fan of Split by my friend Cathy Linh Che, Blood by Shane McCrae, and Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby. And I absolutely cannot stay away from Lynda Hull’s Collected Poems. I’m particularly fond of “Lost Fugue for Chet” and “Suite for Emily.”

As for individual poems, I recommend the following:

“At a Bus Stop in El Barrio” – Rodrigo Toscano (Poetry, May 2014)

“To the Man Who Shouted ‘I like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street” – Franny Choi (Poetry, March 2014)

“We Should Make a Documentary About Spades” – Terrance Hayes (Vinyl Poetry, Volume 7)

“Ars Poetica”John Murillo (Kweli Journal, June 2011): One of my favorite contemporary poets!

“The House” – Warsan Shire (The Wide Shore): If she ever does a reading in New York, man, I am so there.

“Dear White America” – Danez Smith (Heart Journal Online, March 2014): Very much looking forward to his book.

“It Do What It Do” – Krista Franklin

Good grief, I could go on and on, but I’ma stop right here.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate EBT,
And what I fry and bake and braise with my own hands
     you should feast upon,
For every meal that strengthens me as good will strengthen 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.

(FYI: I ain’t been a Jay Z fan since “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and I want the world to know. Also, I wrote the poem, but, to paraphrase Dave Chapelle, if it sucks, just remember: you asked for it.)


homeless senorita sings sin, sin
without, without what—pen-
is? clitoris? yes, yes i could jack
you for yours but what i lack makes me love-
ly, neither he/she, mother/father
leashless i jump the fence, brooklyn
rub my stomach, fetch body, good body, call it runt, rob
ruby, a rappin badass like pac       like biggie

Why Brooklyn?

Chile, please. Don’t get me started.