Poet Of The Week

Annie Virginia

     December 17–23, 2018

Annie Virginia earned her BA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She transitioned out of her role as a high school English and creative writing teacher in order to pursue her MFA. Currently, she is working as a community educator, teaching relationship-abuse prevention to middle schoolers. Virginia’s work may be found in the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, the Legendary, the Literary Bohemian, Cactus Heart and decomP, as well as in the anthologies The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) and A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017). Her work has been nominated by Broad! for a Pushcart Prize, and in 2018 she won the Rita Dove Poetry Prize from the Center for Women Writers and was a semifinalist in both the Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize and the Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize. She also received a fellowship from Writers in Paradise and this past fall was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Natalie Eilbert’s MFA Application Bootcamp. “Prescription for Reentrance” was a finalist for our 2018 Yawp Poem of the Year.

Prescription for Reentrance

Enter the South by wrapping molasses around your feet and taffy your tongue. Wear white gloves so the rope won’t burn. The leaves chatter gossip. There is unfinished business, stakes resting in woodsheds. The high school football team just won. Something’s being lit. Have a dark liquid in your cup at the bonfire when folks come around to talk to you. Don’t lean boy; lean into one. Don’t watch the hunting knife move natural against denim and make sure your own blade is so well concealed it looks like giving. Don’t burn the grits. The deer in the constellations worries on the weekends, the bear holds a Dixie flag between stuffed paws, leaks spoilt honey, is resewn up the back and positioned so that only God above the dark sky can see the damage, forgives it. Eat the baptist soup of forest meats set in front of you by someone who holds you down by making sure you weigh enough, never believes you do, is sure your fat won’t keep you warm enough. The two biggest churches in town grow their steeples a few more inches each year, competing for closeness to God in His watch on the black bear, and now the tips are needle-points to see which can get deepest under His skin; they baby-babble over the privilege of a lightning strike, proof He sees them. You are safer at the soda fountain, where the same people have worked for their entire lives, where grease is the innermost layer of the wall, and all you have to answer is “how’s your mama ’n ’em?” Say prayers slow as a backyard creek and the people will believe you.

—Originally published in Crab Creek Review, October 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Every April, I do a 30/30 for National Poetry Month. I happened to be at my childhood home in North Carolina during April of 2017, and when I used to go home, the South would saturate me with itself. It hurts, and I have enough distance to observe it, to distill from it the moonshine, magnolia and old pain. As a liberal, androgynous lesbian, I never fit in in the South, and this poem is a way of acknowledging that. Most of what’s in the poem is entirely true; the Baptist church and the Presbyterian church literally add inches to their steeples all the time in competition, and the line about the soda fountain refers to Pat’s Snack Bar, this old-school restaurant where literally not a thing has changed for longer than my entire life; everyone who works there is related and will just write your meal down on your tab, and the accents run thick when you walk in and they ask about your mama ’n ’em. I wanted the poem to have an ominous ring to it, a bit of a warning, since it’s never been too kind to me, but there is also some charm and strong roots.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished what was essentially a year-long process of MFA applications, and I’m really working on balancing my humanity between hope and despair until I start hearing back. In terms of my writing, I took a Brooklyn Poets workshop with Marwa Helal last November, Imagining a Vernacular Future, and one of the prompts was to write about a miscommunication due to vernacular from someone else’s perspective. I wrote from the point of view of this man at a feed-and-seed store in my rural hometown in North Carolina, who, elbow deep in a broken soda machine, said: “Jes lak a woh-man. Takes n it don’t give nuthin bek.” Because of this prompt, I realized this man (“The Brier-Switch Man”) was not the antithesis of poetry as I had originally thought, but rather a necessary poetry, and a project was born of that. The collection is a community of voices of the South. The poems are to be conversations between people observing and interacting with one another. They are conceived from a line or a story I’ve heard in the South and written in that speaker’s voice as a way of examining the deeply rooted racism and misogyny there. As a gay, intersectional, loving, white, Southern woman, this project is my way of exposing the South for what it truly still is while creating a space for empathy, inquiry and possibility for those who may otherwise be detached, misunderstood or dangerously dismissed. These poems are meant to observe and reveal in order to repurpose the cultural richness of the South. I’m also writing some love poems recently because I’m wildly in love and can do that these days.

What’s a good day for you?

There have been a few moments in my life when I’ve felt entirely grounded and I’ve literally said to myself, “You’re exactly where you need to be in this moment.” My gratitude in those moments is full, and I’m certain. Those are perfect days when that happens. A good day is when I get to do something right for the world and a lot right for myself and I get to be around the royalty who love me.

What brought you to New York?

At the time, I had no idea. I thought maybe teaching high-school English. Now that I’ve met my chosen family, I know absolutely I came here to find them and let them find me.

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’ve lived in Central Harlem for the last two and a half years. I love it because everyone talks to you, and it’s similar to the South in that way. A lot of people’s families are still in the South or originally from there. Everyone knows each other. There’s an ancient man with the bluest eyes who lives two doors down from me who all day every day in the summer sits in his doorway and talks to people, and we talk a little every day. I’m not sure if he knows who I am every time or ever, but he’s a staple of my experience of living here, and I worry when I don’t see him too many days in a row. I’ve recently gotten to know my building neighbors better because our apartment is falling apart (we think they’re trying to get us all out of here and knock the building down). Last night when my radiator flooded my apartment and caved in the ceiling of my downstairs neighbor, we all just came together to talk about the damage and what a shit show it is living here. They were all really kind to me, making sure I’d be okay for the night, and it just kind of felt like a party having everyone suddenly in my water-logged bedroom. On the flip side of that, management is trying to screw everyone out of the apartment and knock it down and put up a new one with even higher rent, and that’s pretty common around here. You see new luxury apartment buildings up every other day, and we all know that’s going to continue to change the population and spirit of Harlem. Also, I’m pretty sure Eduardo C. Corral lives in this neighborhood because I see him around a lot and I get really giddy and text my friends about it.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I have a lot of family in Brooklyn, and I go there to see them far more often than they’ll trek to Harlem to see me. It always rains when I go to Brooklyn for our Lesbian Supper Club nights. I’m also that white girl who goes to Brooklyn to see folk shows where they play banjoes and there are approximately twenty people in the audience. I go by myself, of course. Last time I went to a show, I passed a few guys with pythons and a pig in a basket. Actual animals. My general impression of Brooklyn is that I don’t know enough about it, but I always feel like there’s this whole art world there that I need to be in on and am not yet.

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

A poetry community means people who are excited to see you and support your work and tell you about theirs, even if it’s not often. In the spring, I took this free workshop with Aracelis Girmay at Stuyvesant Mansion and that really became a community. Everyone there was so deeply grateful to be there and invested in working together. Tara Jayakar of Raptor Editing worked with Aracelis to create a chapbook of our pieces from the workshop called The Great Good News of Your Own Voice that’s out now, and when we launched it, the reading was drenched in light. Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes and I are always texting and emailing about poetry now, and she immediately emails back every time I have a question about my own work. My best friend, Xavier Vazquez, who took the workshop with me, absolutely holds me down as a writer by constantly talking to me about writing and art, sharing his work, and giving feedback for mine. I have people all over the city and in Maine who never fail to support me in my work, and I’m so, so grateful.

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

Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Aracelis Girmay are not only two of my favorite poets, but two of my favorite people in the world, women made of light and crystallized darkness. Marwa Helal’s vernacular workshop provided me with some of the best prompts I’ve ever had and introduced me to a quieter version of my work. Natalie Eilbert, because of the Brooklyn Poets MFA Application Bootcamp, helped me get my applications where I wanted them and told me that reading my work is like making bourbon pecan pie—“it’s got the sharpness of the bourbon and the grit of the sugar.”

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

Tina Chang, also a Brooklyn poet (or, like, the Brooklyn poet) is undoubtedly the hardest on me about my work of anyone in my life. She has backed me from day one, and doesn’t mince words in telling me when my work is a mess. One minute she’s like, “You’re going to be amazing and be so successful as a writer” and the next she’s saying, “These line breaks are random and make no sense. Fix this.” Suzanne Gardinier essentially started me as a poet and introduced me to some of the best poetry I’ve ever read. Rachel Eliza Griffiths once told her class, “The moon will not let you go, poets.” She is everything rich and purposeful. Aracelis Girmay’s insistence on not perpetuating violence when writing of it has for years caused me to ask of my own work how it conveys brutality, the worth and worry of it.

I’m also incredibly influenced by the work of Dorothy Allison, Ross Gay, Rachel McKibbens, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Charif Shanahan, Tarfia Faizullah, Vievee Francis, Maurice Manning and Richard Siken, and the music of Gregory Alan Isakov.

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

I read William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind last Christmas (because I like light holiday reading like that), and I’ve wanted to reread it cover to cover every day since then. The way I describe it is that reading his work is like watching someone do surgery on your broken home to try to show you where the rot started; it’s a window into a world of pain, burnt grass and spoons, and the body’s communion with the mind’s torment. I avoided Tyree Daye’s River Hymns for a long time because the title was too close to home, so gorgeous, and I worried about that. I heard him at last year’s SLC Poetry Festival and he was the exact Southern poet I needed, his work rich with maternal bonds and river water. I also just finished reading the novel Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, and it really fucked me up. It leans towards magical realism, and more than any other book I’ve ever read, each and every line was surprising.

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

My friends really want me to read the last couple of Harry Potter books. I felt like Rowling sold out around the fifth and stopped reading, but I get pretty condemned for that. There’s a lot of “classic” poetry I haven’t read that I want to read, like Emily Dickinson. So many books, really.

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 usually read one book of poetry at a time and often read a novel at the same time too. If it’s a collection of one poet’s work, I try to actually sit down at home and read it from start to end, though more recently I’ll read over time on the train. If it’s an anthology or literary review, I always read it in transit. I always have a pen with me and just bracket lines that strike me. And then I love the feeling of writing those lines down in ink, and so my bathroom is wallpapered in Post-its of poems I’ve written down. I sort of discover what I’m going to read next randomly by seeing another poet I admire reading the book on Instagram, or going to a reading and hearing the poet or hearing about them. I always end up loving poets I discover at festivals, especially the Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival every April, which is a yearly treasure.

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

I’d love to try writing in form more often. And I want to write short stories! But I don’t know how to carry through a narrative.

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

I used to live in Maine, and as often as possible I visit because it’s a magic place, my safest space, and my home. There, I write on the beach, on docks I trespass on, in breweries. Here in New York, I like to write with friends wherever we are.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

My friends’ apartments because my dyke gang knows how to host a party.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate in the face of violence,
And what I still carry of the breaking, you invite to dinner,
For every shard of me as good company to 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.

Haha, I am so not thrilled about these results, but I’d always encourage my students to do something like this, so here it is.

I stop talking when you bring up Biggie.
I am that white woman who only listens to banjoes, songs about sin.
I left the South when the Avett Brothers sang Brooklyn,
Brooklyn, take me in
, wanted to show up ragged like that. I rob
the highway of its father,
keep loneliness to myself, my pen.
I am a queen who silenced the king, the jack.
You say I swing for the fences, Dodger
running through the night towards the bridge, and love.

Why Brooklyn?

I watched the 2005 film Stay when I was too young to be watching movies about suicide and it became my favorite movie. The main character, Henry, wants to kill himself on the Brooklyn Bridge, and his therapist, Sam, in attempting to stop him, starts to become him. Sam’s partner, an old patient of his who had tried to kill herself, sends advice to Henry: “There’s too much beauty to quit.” In the penultimate scene, Henry’s grip on reality has long slipped, he holds a gun on the Brooklyn Bridge, the strands of reality coursing through the air, and Sam tells him, “If this a dream, the whole world is inside it.” The film is just really beautiful and had me leaning toward Brooklyn ever since I first watched it. When I think of Brooklyn, I think: “There’s too much beauty to quit.”