October 4–10, 2021
Blake Z. Rong is the author of the poetry collection I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage (Atmosphere Press, 2021) and the nonfiction work Beautiful Machines (Gestalten, 2019). His short stories and poetry have appeared in Poetica Review, Vagabond City, SLANT and Isele Magazine. A former automotive journalist, he has driven across the country four times. He currently lives in Brooklyn with a cat named Moose.
Lament for the Accidental Killer of Camille Jenatzy
Camille Jenatzy, the first man to break the 100 km/h barrier in 1899…died in a hunting accident. He went behind a bush and made animal noises as a prank on his friends. Alfred Madoux fired, believing it was a wild animal. They rushed him to hospital by car; he bled to death en route, fulfilling his own prophecy he would die in a Mercedes.
How was I to know this was all
an elaborate joke, this weak and weary life,
grasping at morsels, grasping at anything
that called from the bushes, laid neatly
within my sights: this fortune from God,
this tantalizing hope? Bestow us this dream of
a reward. You: the great Diable Rouge, your
great grinning smile, framed by curls the color of fire
emerging from a rifle’s barrel, this burst of
animal electricity, faster, faster,
faster than anyone: you had found a way
to make a great farce of it all, to
end the century on your own terms.
You, who once felt the kiss of speed
aiming for the blue-inked horizon—
you peered at boilers and magnetos,
pistons and tillers and battery coils
and you asked if there was more to this, to this
great and painless world, carried by the
high-tension current of now. On that day in Achères
you hit your marks. You knew
that it would not last, this spectre
of history, spectacle of fame,
elegant sweat of genius: charging pulsing
restless yearning through the night,
the moon unbowing.
From the lodge at Habay la Neuve
we rushed you to the ambulance.
No time, no time. What was it
that you once said, friend? You would die
in a Mercedes, you had laughed, someday,
someday after the great victory. So we
followed a star on the nose, watching your
eyes unblinking, staring, realizing:
one minute, forty seconds. All it took
to stare down infinite universes
knowing that there was no realm
where you could be satisfied.
—From I Am Not Young And I Will Die With This Car In My Garage, Atmosphere Press, 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I like to dive into historical wormholes. I used to write about cars, and I would focus on the obscure, unsung figures in the world of motorsport that most people wouldn’t give a damn about. I mean, this guy was the first to go triple-digit speeds, in an electric car, that he built himself, with the wonderful name “Jamais Contente,” or Never Satisfied! All of this got to the weird, perverse part of my brain where I know that race car drivers in the early 20th century were all fatalistic, that they expected to die and would seek out a premonition as a source of comfort. Oh, I won’t die today, no, not like this. At the time, Jenatzy was a hero. And then the way he died, and the guilt it must have inspired in his friend—I found that stirring.
What are you working on right now?
Mostly entering writing contests and applying for retreats (one that I had been accepted for recently went virtual because of the Delta variant). During the pandemic I also finished a collection of short stories, and I’m trying to send them out, with some success in smaller journals. In 2019 I traveled across Asia, alighting in Shenzhen, Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong; I’m working on a novel project about that which I started in graduate school.
What’s a good day for you?
A day that isn’t too humid, where I can bundle up and walk to the waterfront, pop into various cafés and bars with a book in hand, and eventually meet up with a friend.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Clichéd as it might sound, I’d always wanted to live in New York—I had been visiting from Massachusetts since I was in middle school. I always loved walking around the city; I felt like I could look cool and wear vintage jackets, and every block felt like a surprise. I loved the idea of being part of something much bigger than myself. After I finished my MFA in writing and publishing in Vermont I went for it, moving at the end of 2019, a.k.a. the greatest time in human history to move to New York.
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?
So far I’ve only lived in three neighborhoods: Bushwick, Park Slope and Crown Heights. Bushwick was right in the height of the pandemic, and I did not live in the trendy warehouse loft/beloved pizzeria neighborhood of Bushwick: instead, I lived off Knickerbocker, and it was more of a working-class neighborhood, so the empty Manhattan streets never reached out this far. Even when I visited the city I had designs on ending up in Park Slope: to have a brownstone of my own, to look upon the old world within its red limestone façades, to host my most beloved friends and be surrounded with the publishing world who all crowded around here. But things change so much beyond your own abilities. I’m glad I left, though you can always go back—and that’s been true, in my mind, for Los Angeles and Austin and Vermont.
I just moved to Crown Heights as of early August. I wanted to be closer to my friends, and I’m still close to Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Museum, and the bar Gowanus Gardens where I hosted my book launch party, a small get-together on a Saturday night with friends who saw me posting on Instagram and came out to share a drink with me. There was no formal reading, but a Very Interesting Man took over emcee duties and forced my hand to read from my book before my friends.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
It would likely be last weekend, when a friend I met through cat enthusiasm—who is a food writer and editor—held a rooftop hang a few blocks from me. We shucked oysters, drank wine, and discovered why rich people pay way too much money for caviar, because it’s actually good. A lot of mutual friends were there, many whom I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, and many with whom I’d gotten close since it began, and some of them were just meeting each other for the first time: the idea that I’ve made many close friends in Brooklyn from just trading cat pictures underscores how strong the bonds can be in the writing community, and how a common thing can lead to so many human experiences and interactions. Also, all of our cats are cute as hell.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A writing community is one of the most special groups of creatives that I can think of. It’s why I went to grad school in the first place, to seek that kind of creativity. I was recently talking to a friend from that same program, which is now sadly defunct, who works at the publisher that is launching my first collection, and she said, to paraphrase: there will never be anything like this again, in Vermont … what we had was so special, so rare. I hadn’t thought of that at the time, but it’s absolutely true. A bunch of us holed up as far north as we could go with nothing to work on during those long winter days except what was inside ourselves, and to bounce ideas off each other, and form bonds and allies, and try to stave off the loneliness. Now the program’s ended and everyone is scattered to the wind and we barely even talk to each other anymore, and it was like that beautiful high-water mark that hits exactly where it should, and then shrinks away, forever.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Three people whom I’ve met via Brooklyn Poets include Jason Koo and two Joannas: Joanna C. Valente, with whom I’m honored to be friends, and Joanna Fuhrman, whose class I had the honor of taking. I’m also excited that both of them gave me the time of day to blurb my book.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
The two poets I remembered most in my MFA program were Matthew Dickman and Bianca Stone. The former introduced to me great writers like Ai, Kevin Young and Roland Barthes (in the form of Mourning Diary), while the latter came to Vermont on the cusp of her newest book and was kind enough to give me feedback on my early work, long before I thought I could ever be a poet.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I say this without any exaggeration: Kristen Radtke’s Seek You might be the most important book I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read my collection yet, here’s a spoiler: nearly all of my work has to do with loneliness, in some regard, the kind of loneliness where you feel like you’re an anthropologist, observing an alien species. On a basic level this told me, where so many had been so unhelpful before, that it’s not just you, everyone is lonely, but they just hide it better. Perhaps this just blew it all wide open. This and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City—which I first read when I moved to Brooklyn by myself, on a whim, after grad school—are like a megaphone shouting in my ear, telling me to keep going at it because I’m not the only one.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Gran Torino in Williamsburg, because it’s an outdoor space with a happy hour and fake plants and a pizza oven that is almost right against the bar. Around the corner is Spoonbill and Sugartown Books, which prominently displayed my first published work (a coffee-table book about vintage cars) and I remember telling the clerk as I was buying something else, “Hey, that’s me.” He was not impressed. Elsewhere, I have always found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park to look at Manhattan and feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself. I like the rooftop of the building I moved to, although once the humidity dies down, it will take me a few months to adjust to not constantly sweating through my shirt to truly appreciate it. And of course I have always jogged in Prospect Park, a space that felt so vast and foreign to me when I first moved here and took the train for a friend’s farewell party by the Picnic House. Just my luck that when I move here, so many people I know—again, from cats—happened to leave the city!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the land I’m in,
the one I inhabit for now,
because it is not a permanent land for me. And
what I find in you, New York, is that you are
no place for the lonely. Maybe I haven’t found my own.
And what I do for you, you’ll do for me too—
for every reason to me to stay here will be
as good as a reason to see you again, to show me
of the world
and all this life