August 31–September 6, 2020
Anthony Thomas Lombardi is a poet, educator and former music journalist. He is a Tin House Writers Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a scholarship from the Shipman Agency, and he was longlisted for Palette Poetry’s 2020 Emerging Poet Prize. He served as assistant director for Polyphony Lit’s Summer Scholars Program and is currently a poetry reader and contributor for the Adroit Journal. His work has been published or will soon appear in wildness, North American Review, Third Coast, Colorado Review, Gigantic Sequins, RHINO, Iron Horse Literary Review, Cherry Tree, Tahoma Literary Review, DIALOGIST and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his cat Dilla. This past spring, Lombardi was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jay Deshpande’s workshop The Harvest.
Author photo by Danya Abdelsattar
self-portrait as murmuration
imagine, for instance, a wounded bird—
the only reflection that greets you.
this is not a fun-
house. my bathroom is aggressively plain,
houses all of my everyday essentials: Q-tips,
anti-frizz curl crème, little pink pills
that assure me they’re non-habit
forming. I don’t know what to do
with my tenderness.
suppose, then, a low-end bass rattle
that weakens a pair of solid,
brawny legs. acclimation becomes
a necessary refrain. even Lady Day,
gardenias adorning her crown, found ways
to summon evil after begging the moon
for clemency. how she sang hunger
& meant penance, coaxed fear out of a sidewinder
with a few coiled moans. this, too,
is the meeting between predator
& prey: the crackle of a voice & the swell
of violence in a swill
of vodka. this season’s starlings will still
take flight, arch & stretch their width
to fill a drinkable winter night. every feather knows
what the sky knows—wings beating
like arrhythmia. I have a strange affection
for those creatures who crave mercy
but wind up instead with something like love:
a tangle of thin, threaded spiders’ nests
doted on while we sweep out ashes from the fire
-place. the best of us end here, with limbs so knotted
you can’t tell whose wrist
you’re pulling from the blue-tipped blaze. in the bathroom mirror,
cheekbones sharp & eyes like aimless weeds, I meet
your face with the composure
of a middle-distance runner. the birds bend
the wind to their will & somewhere
in this bloom, Lady sings
—Originally published in wildness, May 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Like any good poet, I’m obsessed with birds, and especially collectives of birds. The book I’m working on uses them as a way to explore Collectivism, especially in vulnerable communities and in the communities of folx in recovery. I was watching YouTube videos of murmurations—the name for a collective of starlings—and was mesmerized by their movements, their grace. In one video, for a split second, you can see a starling get snatched by a hawk—you have to look real close to see it—and it reminded me of the sharpened sense of intuition I’ve gained in sobriety: how one false move in a ballet of survival, even some shit you’ll miss if you blink, and you’re dead.
I come from a background as a music journalist, and I’m a diehard jazz fan; I often use figures in jazz as prominent motifs and narrative vehicles to examine addiction and mental illness. Before wildness graciously accepted this poem, another journal was interested in it, but suggested that I remove the bits about Billie Holiday. Aside from its narrative structure, this idea of removing Billie just negated so much of what’s crucial to the poem’s message. This poem couldn’t have just been about me. It’s critical to recognize the state’s history—and by influence and extension, society’s history—of marginalizing folx who suffer from addiction and mental illness, who suffer from stigmatization and the criminalization of their disease, from its repression in earlier generations to the normalization of our responses today. I’m thinking particularly of women and POC and the systems that critically undervalue their needs.
There are addicts out there who feel totally isolated from their communities—through lack of health care, structural biases, cultural ostracizing, familial admonishment, etc.—who are told every day, “We don’t want you, you’re not one of us.” A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about them, or about Billie’s pain and the lack of true support beyond her capacity financially to benefit infrastructure catering to racial capitalism—and all capitalism is racial capitalism—and systems that monetize marginalized people’s pain. This poem couldn’t have existed without her or without others we’ve lost too young, who have been unjustly dehumanized in America’s war on the poor and the vulnerable.
It made sense to me to contrast the death of error and the death of subjugation, to try and toe the blurred boundaries between predator and prey. How can we subvert those roles? It’s something I think about a lot.
What are you working on right now?
I’m running a fundraiser to benefit organizations active on the ground for prison abolition; that uplift and protect LGBTQ+ POC; and that provide aid to Palestinian resistance, Yemen relief efforts and Beirut relief efforts. I’ve just finished serving as assistant director for Polyphony Lit’s Summer Scholars Program, and was so inspired and heartened by my students. I’ve never been more certain that I want to be actively involved in not only teaching our young folx, but learning from them, as well. I’m shopping around a chapbook manuscript while applying for residencies and fellowships that would help me expand the project into a full-length book. Trying to write poems between panic attacks and existential despair. Reading revolutionary literature constantly.
What’s a good day for you?
Every day closer to the fall of capitalism is a good day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
As I mentioned earlier, I started off in the literary world as a music journalist, and covering events was just more practical in New York, where there are more fertile creative scenes to follow. I’ve been coming here all my life, though—I was born and raised in the housing projects of a poor, deindustrialized city called Waterbury, about thirty minutes outside of New Haven. It’s nicknamed “Dirty Waterz” informally and “the Brass City” formally, the latter due to the brass factories that were responsible for its early prosperity, which took an economic plunge after World War II. I’d hop on the Metro-North and come check out some of my homies who lived here pretty regularly, just staking it out. I was so anxious to ingratiate myself to this community, this city, that I moved here freshly twenty-one, with nothing but a few hundred dollars, a seventh-grade education, a stack of books and a futon. More than a decade later, it’s the only home I’ve ever known.
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 Gravesend for about five years now. It’s mad close to Coney Island, which my analyst refers to as my “happy place.” Before the pandemic, I used to roll down there all the time, just walking, listening to music on my headphones, gazing out at the ocean. I’d watch the waves for hours. I’m conflicted, though—there are whole-ass blocks with Tr*mp banners waving proud, but I pay less for my own crib than what most folx pay for a room further north. The solitude is important to me; as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, it allows me to recoup the energy I need to be more present and involved in my community. Feeling the distance when I travel around Brooklyn gives me opportunities to absorb my surroundings and reflect on my reactions to them. I have a lot of time to people-watch on the train. I have a lot of time and space to think.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
You ever heard about sewer rats crawling up through toilet drains? That shit ain’t a myth. It happened to me recently. Rat infestation is particularly rampant in New York right now—less restaurants operating due to COVID means less food sources for them to scavenge, and storms from Hurricane Isaias are pushing water levels up, exacerbating the situation. Thankfully, the rat caught the scent of my cat and crawled back whence it came. I think that’s a pretty gritty, poetically New York moment right there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I don’t think poetry exists without community. June Jordan’s essay “Waking Up in the Middle of Some American Dreams”—which centers the idea of Collectivism over Individualism—has become a map for me, informing almost every decision I make. If you’re not engaging with your community, if you’re not in conversation with other writers and artists, you’re doing yourself, your work and everyone around you a disservice. Our social and political landscapes cannot be separated from our work. Everything we do is political. To be honest, I struggle with it—because I have noticed a clique mentality in the poetry community. There’s a “cool kids” table, and if you ain’t sitting at it, it can be really discouraging. That ties into what I’m saying about politics—the tenets of exceptionalism and identity politics exist everywhere. It’s all of our jobs to dismantle those systems.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The folx I’ve met at readings, in bookstores and in workshops, who continue to inspire me and fill me with light and gratitude.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Kaveh Akbar and Hala Alyan have proved enormously influential and supportive. I consider them my poetry parents. They showed me new, self-investigative, wide-ranging ways to write about addiction and recovery, where I’m able to approach the page with a sense of compassion while still holding myself accountable. I wouldn’t be where I am now without their guiding lights. Hanif Abdurraqib comes from a similar writing background as me—he isn’t entrenched in academic institutions, doesn’t hold creative writing MFAs, and along with his work in music and cultural criticism, has almost created a template of sorts for me. Hanif is also a very sweet guy who has gone above and beyond in terms of supporting me. He prioritizes community and still-emerging writers who may have less access to resources—he’s very hands-on, always hits me back via email within a day or two—which has been helping to shape my approach to poetry lately. The whole reason I started writing poetry in the first place, though—for better or for worse—is Arthur Rimbaud. If you want someone to blame for my sad poems, blame him.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
My favorite books of 2020 so far are Good Boys by Megan Fernandes and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo. Murillo’s poem “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds” from that book, which was also available and anthologized prior to its release, has been a constant, almost looming source of inspiration for me. Every poem I’ve written since I read it has chased that poem. “self-portrait as murmuration” was actually my first attempt to mimic it. I have a poem forthcoming in the Colorado Review that goes so hard after it, I included an “after” credit. Diannely Antigua’s Ugly Music was so viscerally affecting for me, I kept putting it down so it wouldn’t end. It’s been a minute since a book has touched me so wholly. I’ve been returning to Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah a lot. Leila Chatti’s Deluge is amazing. The new Nate Marshall—Finna—was so worth the wait. I’m always returning to June Jordan, more these days than usual, as well as Yusef Komunyakaa. My man Tariq Thompson just won the Adroit Journal’s 2020 Prize for Poetry, and those poems have stuck with me hard. All the entries were so dope, though.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
If I’m interested in a book or a poet, I generally tend to seek them out straightaway. The need for instant gratification that comes with an addictive personality makes it almost a necessity or compulsion. I will say, although I have a baseline familiarity with their works and adore what I know, I haven’t delved as deeply into Hart Crane or Mahmoud Darwish as I would like to. I just find the breadth of some writers’ canons to be so daunting.
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?
Always cover to cover. For the longest time, I could only read one book at a time, but that’s changed during the age of ’Rona. Nowadays, I generally have a long-form book going—a novel, or more frequently, a book of nonfiction or essays—and then I’ll be dipping in and out of the collected works of a poet or an anthology, while trying to read a more traditional book of poetry every day or two. I have stacks swallowing my apartment—my partner jokes that she thinks the floor is going to cave in any day now—and I generally tend to grab from the curated stack next to my bed, but if something is calling my name, I don’t question it; I pick it up. At the moment, everything I read is sort of orbiting around Baldwin’s catalog, which I’m combing back through book by book—something that I do regularly.
I am stubbornly loyal to physical books. Their weight in my hands is transformative. You can’t get that from a screen. Support your local independents. Death to Amazon.
I’m a compulsive note-taker. I have journals and notes on my phone filled with word banks and phrases. Of course, none of them are organized, but there’s a method to my madness. I’d say about 90% of my poems come from those notes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
For a good while, writing a ghazal was the goal I was really passionate about. I spent six months on what ultimately materialized. I’d like to write a villanelle, but my experience with the ghazal—though I’m pretty happy with what came of it—probably means I won’t be tackling that task anytime soon. A crown of sonnets would be dope. I love the modern sonnet. Something about that economy of language and form is freeing and empowering.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Aside from jotting down notes, fragments of lines, phrases, I need to be at home, at my desk, to write-write. I can’t write in the presence of other people, not meaningfully, anyway—I’m too susceptible to their energy. But I’m also of the opinion that the physical, generative act of putting pen to page—or fingertips to keyboard—is only one small part of the writing process. Hala Alyan taught me this: reading is writing, sleeping is writing, dreaming is writing, cooking is writing. Everything is writing.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Coney Island is my happy place. I can’t fully explain it. I’ll spend my whole life trying to put it in a poem.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the flock in the feather,
And what I learn from my sister you learn from your brother,
For every half-filled me as good as a half-filled 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.
instead of a father
I got myself a draft dodger,
learned to hook my tongue, that jack
shit, beg, & borrow are synonymous with rob.
even a sewer rat will find its way home through sin
or hunger, whichever comes first. animals in a pen,
rhapsody in decay: in marrow, there is music: there is love.
from above the bay, teeth shadow box the Brooklyn
sky, where stars drop the jewels slung from my brother Big.
Why not Brooklyn?