July 23–29, 2018
Angel Nafis is a Cave Canem Fellow and the author of BlackGirl Mansion (Red Beard Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in the BreakBeat Poets Anthology, Buzzfeed Reader, the Rumpus, Poetry and more. She represented NYC at the National Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam. An Urban Word NYC mentor, and founder, curator and host of the Greenlight Poetry Salon, she is the recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and a 2017 NEA creative writing fellowship. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Warren Wilson College. With poet Morgan Parker she is the Other Black Girl Collective. On Sunday, July 29, Nafis will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at the NYC Poetry Festival with Ariel Francisco and Analicia Sotelo.
When I Realize I’m Wearing My Girlfriend’s Ex-Girlfriend’s Panties
Praise now the fabric, for protecting who it can.
Praise the purposeful silver needle, and the thread’s long arm.
Praise now, the path, and the ex-girlfriend, and
any mouth that has known my love’s impeccable salt.
Incredible, incredible gravity
you lead me here
every time—to the water,
to drink. You lead me here
to this open space. To two-step with
beloved ghosts, a past
that is too a garden.
Do not un-wish a single blade of grass.
For the house craves each brick.
The war, every bullet.
This is my gift.
This is the circumstance
of loving. To see another’s name
written so plainly, to see too
what my body will perform
in another woman’s panties—
my own curious blood,
a single jewel, a red eye
—From the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017; originally published in the Rattling Wall.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
You ever heard of 30/30? That wild/unreasonable challenge to write a poem a day for thirty days straight. This was birthed from I think day six of that challenge one year. The great part of the exercise is it forces a daily practice, and thus a daily consideration of the mundane, or the stuff you’d normally look over and not include in a poem. I was at work, about to go on my lunch break, and I went to the bathroom to pee and pulled down my underoos and for the first time noticed that it was not my name written on the tag, but the name of my girlfriend’s last girlfriend. Lollllllll. Sometimes the poem reveals itself to you and your only job is to get out of the way.
What are you working on right now?
Working on my second book, which (and I never say this) is a torture chamber rn. I’m not one of those people that hates writing or finds editing painful. But lol I guess I am cuz this second manuscript is taking me to task in a way I’ve never before experienced. So far, it’s a collection of poems that is asking a lot of questions about family, motherhood, motherlessness, homies (human/animal/inanimate), phantoms, belonging, anchors, kites, what brings us here to earth and what calls to us to stay. I’m heavy in my bag with this one. Tryna dip (if I can) into my Sade/Lucille Clifton/Frank O’Hara origins. “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” etc.
What’s a good day for you?
Depends on the season. Winter involves a lot of curling into comfy chairs with burdensome hardcovers, frozen squares of dark chocolate to nosh, a good ratty sweatshirt stolen from various ex-lovers or homies who played sports and had those monogrammed sweats in the plentiful. Any season with a temperature I can survive in involves lots of walking. Me and my girlfriend are big walkers. We get antsy and moody when we don’t get a good walk in. We sometimes go from one end of Brooklyn to the other just walking and talking and pointing at pretty/wild things. Also I could see a movie, properly in the theaters, every single day. And I like to rudely sneak in Thai food or a veggie burrito. Throw an oyster happy hour in there with a gaggle of homies and my spirit will really be right. Finally, returning home to a scalding lavender sea salt bath is also correct.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
College. I went to Hunter College for undergrad. But also, New York brought me to New York. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and came here for the first time my senior year of high school for a teen poetry festival (lol) and got turnt out for good. My dad is from here and my grandparents and my oldest brothers and sisters were raised here so it feels like a homecoming in many ways.
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 live in Flatbush, also known as Prospect Lefferts Gardens, right off the park. Lived in this neighborhood for about three and a half years of my nine in this city. I have respect for any neighborhood with unduplicatable street culture, where you can get roti that makes your eyes water. And my excellent barber, a mere two blocks from my crib, is the most beautiful man you’ll ever see. I’ll leave it to the native folk to talk about how any neighborhood/land is changing. But I’ll say this: no matter the chicken bones and coconut rinds collected on the street corners, no matter the dudes forever hollering, or the music steadily turned up to popping af on a Tuesday at 3 AM, I am grateful for the vibrancy, and the reminder that, as I heard the transcendent American writer Doreen St. Félix say once, “I/You don’t own the air.”
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I once described NYC as one big competition to pretend like the craziest shit isn’t happening. So with that in mind, there was the time there was a stomach sac and intestines on the street (animal? human!??) and everyone walked around it and pretended it wasn’t happening. There was a time two guys rolled up to me sobbing in the arms of a friend and tried to sell us two bunny rabbits from the shopping cart they were pushing down the street and everyone walked by pretended it wasn’t happening. There was the time I was at dinner seated outside and a man in like, I kid you not, six ponchos and two wool hats (in the middle of summer) was riding a bike and blasting jazz loudly on his radio and selling incense and one of the incense packets hit me on the forehead as he rode by and EVERYONE AT THE TABLE PRETENDED IT WASN’T HAPPENING. Why do I live here?
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
They keep me. They take stock of my ingredients. Homies is bread and butter and liberation.
Might I direct you to this heartfelt (albeit slightly inaccurate) tribute that captures some of my feelings, channeled through one Saint Beyoncé?
My friends, real friends, better than your friends
That’s how we keep poppin’ out that Benz, yeah
No foes, real friends, we ain’t even got to pretend, yeah
Get bands, get bands, spend it all on my friends
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Aracelis Girmay. Tommy Pico. April Ranger. Shira Erlichman. Mahogany L. Browne. Jeremy Michael Clark.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Jeff Kass, Patricia Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Patrick Rosal and Kevin Coval are my pillars and my North Stars and have miraculously been so since I was fifteen! I was in this rad, latchkey-ish literary arts program in my hometown (shouts to VOLUME, shouts to Neutral Zone) that was founded by Jeff and he took me under his goofy, brilliant wing and saved my reckless adolescent life. He casually brought in a slew of geniuses to come teach us poems in a sort of low-residency-style MFA for teens one week of every summer.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Terrance Hayes’s new-new and that really took me out. What a mathematic and soulful brain he has. Also always rereading Frank O’Hara’s collected works and it is not unlike taking supplements.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Allah forgive me for I am that bitch who has yet to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Also I have not read enough June Jordan and that’s so egregious I hesitate to even have that associated with my name out here on the Internet forever. But I want the children to learn from my mistakes. LEARN FROM ME, CHILDREN. Go to your local library or indie bookstore and come upon June Jordan with a fury. I will be thirty (read: old) this year and you don’t want to end up like me, bereft, hopeless.
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?
At first, I read the question as “Describe your writing process” so I’mma answer that instead: My process is deadlines, lol. Commissions, writing assignments, collaborations. Oh where oh where would the existence of my poems be without the undiluted, acute, dependable pressure of having said I would have some shit done by a certain date? I would like to return to the mystique of a beret and Moleskine on a Sunday morning but let’s be real.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m fixing to try my hand at my first ever ballad! Or as my teacher Connie Voisine called it, a “song/tribute for the underdog.” It may turn into a sequence of ballads but one step at a time, as they say.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My favorite activity is reading by myself at a bar. I love noise around me when I read. No. 7 in Fort Greene is a go-to, they are friendly but not OVERLY so, and they leave you alone and refill your drank. They also sell Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie. I also like to read at Risbo in my nay. But really, what beats Reading Outside with a Seltzer SZN? Especially in NYC. Those long wooden sun chairs on the Highline right near that bomb popsicle stand! Or those tremendous steps near the Ashland Place building! Or Washington Square Park’s crazy ass!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Me and my girlfriend were just/are always talking about this. On a citywide tip our list is mostly movie theaters, but if we’re being Brooklyn-specific it is more varied: BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), home of the best date night and the cleanest public bathrooms; Alamo Drafthouse, home of the quietest theaters and best milkshakes; Prospect Park in all of its sprawling democracy; Greenlight Bookstore, my first real home away from home in this city; Café Tibet, because the food is as good as the wait is long; DUMBO’s rocky shoreline is a dream.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:
I celebrate orchids loosening their hair and how the air holds
the door open.
And what I love is summer and how you are young forever in it.
For all the windows, or blankets, or oceans loving me as good
as you do.
Brooklyn keeps you a newborn.