Poet Of The Week

C. Quintana

     January 17–23, 2022

C. Quintana, or CQ, is a queer writer with Cuban and Louisiana roots currently based on Canarsie and Munsee Lenape land in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. She is the author of the full-length play Scissoring (Dramatists Play Service) and The Heart Wants, a chapbook of poetry (Finishing Line Press). CQ is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Tin House, Paragraph (finalist for Jane Hoppen Residency), MacDowell (Ernest and Red Heller Fellow), QUEER | ART, Van Lier New Voices at the Lark, Lambda Literary and elsewhere. Most recently, her play Azul had its West Coast premiere at Diversionary Theatre in San Diego, California. Her writing is featured or forthcoming in Third Coast Press, Foglifter, BOMB and great weather for MEDIA, among others. You can find her on social media @cquintanatown.

Author photo by Antonio De Lucci

Intensive Care

 

I remember in mass when

they would pray for the sick,

only I didn’t have any sick then, so I didn’t know,

I didn’t understand, not really.

And I would bow my head with respect

because that’s what good Catholic girls do.

My mother tells me

I never wanted to wear a dress,

as far back as she can remember,

and how she probably always knew,

and I know that 5 years ago we fought

out loud at the Piccadilly

because you didn’t understand me,

but today you said,

I’m so glad you’re marrying her,

and for the longest time

that’s all I ever wanted to hear.

But I never imagined I would hear it

in short gasps I would have to lean in for;

so quiet among the whir of hospital machines.

CNN blathers from the waiting room

while New York waits and hopes and prays

that it will go some other way, but

Mom says we’ve already got our miracle for the year

and when she goes, she wants a priest.

Because I guess we all revert back to what we were,

even though the Catholics said “no” in Jamaica

and it was a Methodist family who took them in.

But she got to 161st and Fort Wash, anyway,

where she watched from her window,

that cute Cuban boy who walked

down the sidewalk and through time

to become her husband, to share her life for 50 years,

to hold her hand in the ICU.

 

—Originally published in the Dream of the River anthology (Jacar Press, 2021).

Brooklyn Poets · C. Quintana, "Intensive Care"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

For me, poems always stem from deeply emotional, personal, intuitive places. I wrote this poem—now five years ago—as my father lay on his deathbed in the ICU at Memorial Hermann in the Woodlands, Texas. That town, especially then, was a foreign place in many ways—a place where my parents moved long after I’d left home and therefore had never been home to me. The poem is very stream-of-consciousness, and in the vein of some of my work—no doubt my playwriting brain turned on—the sound of it is very important. It’s a poem that wants to be read out loud as much as on the page.

What are you working on right now?

For better or worse, as a freelancer I’m often working on about a thousand things. I’m a multi-genre writer and writing consultant, so I’ve got playwriting, podcast, prose and TV/film projects all in various stages. To name a few: I’m working on a musical adaptation of Elizabeth Acevedo’s chapbook of poetry Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths with composer Janelle Lawrence for Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences—premiering in April 2022, fingers crossed. I have two book (total passion) projects that I’m trying to find some foothold for and push forward: my full-length hybrid collection of poetry Jesus-Colored Skin and my speculative novel The Twisted Fate of La Media Luna.

What’s a good day for you?

A day when I’m out of my head and into the world—or: a day of good, solid writing!

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I first moved to Brooklyn via a gift from the universe. I look/ed the part, so even though I lived in Inwood, just north of Washington Heights, for the first two years of my New York life, everyone imagined me a Brooklynite. And to be honest, I loved the various parts of the borough I’d gotten to know through various romances. My roommate at the time moved in with her boyfriend, I faced a devastating heartbreak, and I needed a new place. I discovered a spot in Park Slope (near 5th Ave and 8th St) via Craigslist that seemed unreal. I honestly knew very little about the neighborhood, and originally intended to find a spot in Crown Heights if I could afford it, but it seemed the fates had other ideas. I totally fell in love with the place—a wonderful albeit dilapidated studio at the top of a brownstone owned by a delightful nonagenarian named Anthony Bottiglieri, the mayor of 8th Street.

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?

My wife and I moved to Cypress Hills, Brooklyn (on the traditional lands of the Canarsie and Munsee Lenape), a year ago, and I’m obsessed with our neighborhood. My birthday gift this year was even a baseball cap that sports the neighborhood name on the front. Ours is a little-known corner of the borough nestled below Highland Park (+ Ridgewood Reservoir) and Ridgewood, Queens, with Bushwick to the west, East New York to the south, and Woodhaven to the east.

I grew up in New Orleans, and—as much as I love New York—I honestly never thought I’d have the same level of pride for my hometown again, but I feel a similar deep love for this area. This is a neighborhood where second- and first-gen folks have been able to purchase homes for generations. When we sanded, primed and painted our wrought-iron railings, our neighbors stopped to cheer us on or just to chat.

We’re a quick walk to Ridgewood Reservoir, which feels like an upstate wonderland, and simultaneously a couple of blocks from the J train—to me, it’s the best of both worlds. We’ve got a taste of the residential quiet plus the bumping bachata in the summertime with easy access to public transit, C-Town, and best of all, the Arlington branch of Brooklyn Public Library. Prior to moving here, we lived in a many-unit, prewar building at the edge of the George Washington Bridge in Washington Heights—so this neighborhood is dramatically different!

Cypress Hills has been through its ups and downs, as cited by multiple residents in passing conversation, and clearly there’s gentrification happening, but there’s a real care here that I hope never disappears. People love to talk about “angry New Yorkers,” but Brooklyn (and NYC in general) has a big heart—much bigger than most give it credit for! I look forward to learning more about the neighborhood—and I’m even hoping for a deep dive at the Brooklyn Historical Society soon …
 
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I once flew over my bike’s handlebars outside of a bar on Bushwick Ave. I’d gotten more confident (too confident) with city riding and made that rookie mistake of braking too hard and too fast. I totally got the wind knocked out of me, not to mention jacked up my knee pretty badly. One of the things I remember most about the experience is a waitress who brought me a bag of ice, a first-aid kit and an enormous stack of paper towels from her empty restaurant across the way. This was sometime in 2013, and I don’t remember the name of the waitress, or even the name of the restaurant, but I do remember the genuine care and concern this person had for me—a total stranger—as I lay there bloodied up with a busted knee on the side of the road.

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

I’m forever grateful for my experiences with Emotive Fruition, now Poetry Well. Through this organization, I found a kindred spirit in its director, Thomas Dooley, who shares my dual theatrical and poetic bent. When my poems were first accepted into an Emotive Fruition show, I felt seen as a poet for the first time and had the opportunity to meet so many Brooklyn and greater NYC–based poets. Especially during COVID times, I really cherish those past events and shared words, which now continue in virtual form and hopefully will return in person soon!

In the last few years, my experiences cocurating the Bespoke Reading Series, an all-queer, all-genre reading series based at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, and online during the COVID era, has further expanded my queer poetry community—and truly, my writing community more generally. This experience has been invaluable and opened me up as a writer in wonderful ways. Great writing begets great writing!

It’s also important to mention that my wife and the love of my life—Sarah M. Sala—is an incredible poet. She runs the Office Hours Poetry Workshop and is the truest of poets. In other words, she thinks in poetry when I often think in narrative and dialogue. We are each other’s first readers—which is unfair on my part since I often write scripts and lengthier prose—but most notably, when I felt uncertain about my place among poets, she assured me otherwise. We both had Mary Oliver poems tacked to our separate fridges when we met—which felt like a sign. Poetry was our earliest connection, and poetry continues to be a love language between us.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
 
I name many important folks throughout this interview, but here are a few more! Javier Zamora (rocked me when I first heard him read at the Poetry Center and made me a forever fan), JP Howard (super community-builder and healer with words), Jason Schneiderman (I want everyone to know his work—the variety, the craft, the heart), Jerome Ellison Murphy (he splits his time between Brooklyn and Manhattan, but I think still counts; we were cocurators of Bespoke in its inaugural form and I’m excited his visceral, dynamic work is getting out there more).

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

Dana Levin taught a twentieth-century American poetry course at the College of Santa Fe which legitimately changed my life. She introduced me to the queer behemoths, Adrienne Rich and Gertrude Stein, for one. In her class I fell in love with poetry for the first time and learned that you truly can be a great writer and a great teacher.

It may sound funny, but in graduate school as a playwriting student at Columbia I got a work-study job at the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, and in many ways the PC itself became one of my greatest mentors. Not only did I get to know the gifted wordsmith, spirit guide and now managing director Ricardo Alberto Maldonado (another Brooklyn-based wonderpoet), but I had the opportunity to experience the work of so many brilliant poets and writers. My favorite event of the year—the Discovery Poetry Contest—introduced me to some of the greatest emerging poets and many of my now-favorite poets: Eduardo Corral, Solmaz Sharif, Ansel Elkins, Jenny George, Julia Guez, Omotara James—to name but a few!

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

I’m going to stick to poetry here because I could go on forever …

I know this is old news, but I’m still reeling over Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. It’s rare that I pick up a collection and every single poem reaches into my chest and holds my heart the way that book did. Everything about the collection felt necessary—no excess. I strive for the same in my own work.

This fall while working on a play of mine which references the lesbian slur “tortillera” among two of the characters in a Castro-bound Cuba, I stumbled upon Caridad Moro’s new collection of the same name. Uncovering the book felt like a beautiful moment in conversation with a writer I don’t know—connected by our queerness and Cubanidad, of course.

I’ll also say that the November 2021 issue of Poetry destroyed me in the best way. My therapist—who I’ve been seeing now for over a decade—and I often talk about poetry, and she recommended the issue. I particularly loved the epistolary exchange “So We Must Meet Apart” between Gabrielle Bates and Jennifer S. Cheng. Then again, I’m a sucker for all things epistolary.

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

I took pause because at first I thought of plain books I’ve been meaning to read—and then I saw the key for years part of the question.

So many! I always wish I had more time to read—don’t we all? I’ve been meaning to read Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro for forever (at least since it emerged in 2019, and after loving her other two poetry collections) and Obit by Victoria Chang and Nature Poem by Tommy Pico. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Pico read from a paper chapbook of his at a QUEER | ART event off Union Square. What wonderful performance to his poetry—then and now.
 
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?
 
Since I have slight ADHD, I like to luxuriate in one book at a time, cover-to-cover when I can. Of course, that’s not always possible—especially if I’m researching for a project, or more than one project.

I’d say a combo—I use my Goodreads (please don’t follow me there!) as my own personal tracking system for what I’ve read and what I want to read. As a real woo-woo person, I believe books come to me at the time I’m meant to receive them. Sometimes I’ll start a book and it won’t feel like the right time, and then I return to it later and devour it.

I’m a total old man and I will always prefer a physical book to a digital text. There’s nothing like a hard copy! Sorry, Earth.

Yes, I’m a note-taker! Even if sometimes I have trouble translating my own notes if I don’t demarcate them or track them well …

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

Most of my poetry is very open verse, prosey, or hybrid in form, so I think it could be an exciting experiment to work with set structure a little more. Maybe it’s time for a ghazal or a sonnet!

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

There’s nothing like reading or writing on a train. MTA, Metro North, Amtrak—they all work for me. Though it’s not necessary, I honestly love writing among people, too, so a coffeeshop setup is always great for me (COVID-depending, of course), and I love writing outside when the weather allows.
 
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The 5th Avenue Diner (Park Slope). So many great memories at this place! It’s the quintessential New York diner, and it used to be right across from where I lived. Great coffee, better Brooklyn accents. Rest in Peace, Rachel’s (formerly the best nachos in the whole city).

Ginger’s (Park Slope). It’s legendary—and it’s even more legendary that it keeps surviving as (I believe) the only lesbian bar in Brooklyn! Plus that backyard space is to die for—not to mention the pool table in the back room.

Jack (Clinton Hill). A black box that features the best in performance art, plus walls lined with aluminum foil? What’s not to love?

The Brooklyn Museum (Prospect Heights). Call me basic, but I love this place. It feels like a museum for the people. I heard Michelle Buteau do stand-up and saw Mickalene Thomas’s work for the first time at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a special place (#FirstSaturdaysForever).

Highland Park (Cypress Hills). The trees are epic, the people-watching glorious. Walking through sometimes feels like stepping into another time—and it’s only a few blocks away.
 
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate potatoes,

And what I yam you plant,

For every scrap and spud given me as good as any tuber I give you.

Why Brooklyn?

There’s soul here.