July 27–August 2, 2020
Brionne Janae is a poet and educator living in Brooklyn. They are a Hedgebrook alum and the recipient of an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Boltoph Club Foundation as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, the Community of Writers, the Vermont Studio Center and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Their poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, the Sun, jubilat, Sixth Finch, Plume, Nashville Review and Waxwing, among other places. Brionne teaches poetry at Barnard College and GrubStreet. Their first full-length collection of poetry, After Jubilee, was published by Boaat Press.
Author photo by Amelia Golden
the mural for George Floyd is so colorful and full of stars
it reminds me of the pages girls slipped
into the covers of their binders in middle school
M&T 4ever in the center of a giant heart
sweet adolescent love spells to keep who you love close to you
it gets hard to watch the way Black folk cling to our dead
we are not being exterminated only whittled away slowly
sometimes though I think I can smell toxins wafting through the air
at the hardware store they’re selling Harris Bed Bug Killer
odorless now though the company’s been around since 1922
did they hire negros then? probably not
and if they did I don’t want to imagine
the fraction of some white man’s dollar that was offered
now the faces of Nina and Martin and Angela stare back at me
in black and white from the wall of the Black owned coffee shop across the street
I might rather be consumed than give Harris a single dime of my money—
thank god I don’t have bed bugs—
the coffee shop has a yellow fridge out front with pink lips
that say Free Food for All take what you need leave what you don’t
all the stores have signs in the windows saying Invest in Black Owned Businesses
I know capitalism won’t save us but still pay 7 dollars plus tip
for a lavender oat latte and call it good
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem is part of a series I’ve been playing with that uses this prompt of Matthew Zapruder’s I adopted. Every day I make a list of five things I see as I’m walking my dog and then write a poem where the items in the list appear in the order they were listed. It’s a fun little side project and I’ve been enjoying the way these poems move in less expected ways. This poem’s list was: mural to George Floyd, a sign reading “Harris Bed Bug Killer Odorless since 1922,” a mural with Nina Simone, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis on the wall of a Black-owned coffeeshop, a yellow fridge with “Free Food for All” painted on it, and signs saying “Invest in Black Owned Businesses.” I try to let the list happen organically. This one’s got a lot of signs and I remember thinking, “Lordt! What am I going to do with that bed bug killer?” I love where I live, and between Covid and the endless violence against Black people I wanted to be working on a project that invited me to pay attention to my community and how we are all navigating and surviving and grieving through this.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a blog of light craft essays that examine and celebrate poems I love, called “The Poems that Keep Me.” The project comes from a call some of the elders at Cave Canem made during my last year there, to be better stewards of each other’s work. There’s so much work to be done with the institutionalized oppression in the literary world and I don’t always know how to contribute to dismantling it. So I figured, well, I think I’ll just do what I can to elevate and center the work of people I care about and admire, and go from there.
What’s a good day for you?
Light poeming in the morning with some type of lavendery latte to sip, dog park in the afternoon, maybe some crafts later in the day. Perhaps a nap somewhere in there and a call to a friend.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I did my MFA in Boston and there was this spring where it seemed all the beautiful young poets who came to read were visiting from Brooklyn and I thought, well, if that’s where the party is, that’s where I’ll go. Typical coastal elitism, yes. But sometimes we can’t help but follow the crowd, can we? And they were all so beautiful.
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 Bed-Stuy for a year now. I’m moving at the end of this month to another apartment two blocks away from me. It’s the first time I’ve dug my heels in and refused to leave. I live near Tompkins Ave, near a ton of Black-owned businesses. People stop to tell me how pretty my dog is or to ask whether that coffeeshop over there is any better than the one they usually see me at. Even the plant shops are owned by Black women, and the barber I went to before Covid times. There was meditation in the park for Juneteenth, and at the outdoor movie nights last year they showed Black Panther and Fast Color, a movie about three generations of Black women.
I’m definitely still getting to know my neighborhood, but considering I used to live in a city where the only Black person I might interact with or sometimes even see in a day was myself, I feel really grateful for Black Brooklyn right now.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Well, my home was burgled in April with me in it. I was leaving my kitchen and found a man coming out of my bedroom. I screamed and ran out to the street, and he ran out through the basement. This story would be a total nightmare, except there was another man who came and chased the burglar down and got my laptop back. My upstairs neighbor also came running down to check on me when she heard me screaming. She said, “If you ever need anything, we’re here.” It was a terrifying experience, but I always hold on to the fact that people showed up to take care of me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
For me, poetry community is having folks to email drafts of poems to asking, “Are these even poems?”; folks who say, “Have you read (this poet) or (this poem)?”; and folks whose work challenges me to rethink my own. I’m starting to find poetry community here.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Kyla Marshell gave me an embroidery needle when I desperately wanted to learn to embroider but couldn’t get to Michaels because of Covid.
And I miss bumping into Rico Frederick near the 2/5 train and seeing his big friendly smile.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In undergrad, I took Poetry for the People (P4P) with Aya de León. She brought me into the tradition of writing the “hard” poem, the poem that told the truth as it needed to be told. I was a Student Teacher Poet for P4P, and Aya held space for us and taught us to hold space for others in really beautiful ways. She really shaped the way I teach and exist in community with other poets by emphasizing the importance of taking care of people and ensuring that we are actively working to keep our community spaces safe.
In grad school, I worked with Gail Mazur. She taught me the grace of the long line and how to put together a manuscript, and always left space for me to defend and make my own choices for my work. I feel like I started to get a sense of my voice from those moments when Gail would make a suggestion and I’d say no and have to figure out why I disagreed.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m finally reading Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I really love her voice, the confidence of it, the refusal to adjust for the white ear. It’s wonderful.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Vievee Francis’s Horse in the Dark. Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
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 am kind of the definition of “chaotic good,” so yes to all of this. I like digital texts, and the fact that you can download books from the library for free from the comfort of your home. I also hoard and collect physical books almost compulsively. I love searching through boxes of discarded books people put out around the neighborhood. I found a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness recently and I’m super excited about it.
Sometimes I listen to audiobooks. Sometimes I hyper-focus on one book and get absorbed. If it’s nonfiction, I frequently take notes. If it’s poetry, I sometimes get the urge to highlight a favorite line here and there. I abandon books. I leave books of poems around the house and read a poem or two from them here or there at odd moments. Sharon Olds’s Satan Says has been sitting on the couch with me for a while, and Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé has been traveling about the apartment. Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses goes on trips to the dog park.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve been writing a lot since quarantine, so if I’ve thought about trying something, I’ve tried it. The most interesting thing I’ve tried recently is playing with more concrete poems. It’s been fun.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I miss reading/writing in coffeeshops so much! All the ambient noise and overpriced treats. I used to love Greene Grape Annex, but I rode a bus past there recently and it looks like they’ve closed.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Herbert Von King Park’s dog run. Because Lili, my dog, needs to herd her imaginary sheep and it is fun to watch her run. And because there are starlings, mockingbirds and sometimes the occasional robin.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate what I can
and what I can’t you take
for every root of me as good as spawns in 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.
don’t use that paternalistic
father tone with me jack
I been a baddie a biggie
I move slick as sin love
gone head and pen me
that check don’t be a dodger
who you think you tryna rob
who you think you gone displace
I sing Brooklyn I won’t be erased
Because try as I might I’ll never be the weirdest person on the street.