November 21–27, 2022
Caelan Ernest is a nonbinary poet, writer and performer. They are the author of two forthcoming collections: night mode (2023) and ICONOCLAST (2024), both being published by Everybody Press. Most recently, their work has appeared in them, Blush Lit, Channel Void, WUSSY, Hayden’s Ferry Review, baest: a journal of queer forms & affects, We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics and elsewhere. They hold an MFA in writing from Pratt Institute and work as director of publicity at Nightboat Books. They live with their cat named Salad in Brooklyn.
put ur phone down for a secomg hey bxtch u look good sis have u had somethingto drink cum in cum in u’ve got gloss on ur lipsa compliment for ur black jacket toss it toss itur lipstick so chic chic how long did it take to get readyyea u look sooo good do u think we’ll be on the listlike we were promised by the promoter i think he’snew to the city but he turns it turns it so i wasthinking if we take a car to the party we’ll haveenough time for a couple more drinks or should we takethe train i get nervous taking the train wheni look like this i mean i mean i like to look like thisbut i don’t always like being looked at like this u knowwhat i mean anyway did u see that tweet i sent u earliersomeone tweeted ‘god is trans’ like it was a statementi guess but wouldn’t god have to have been bornto be assigned gender to begin with christ’s pronouns weregucci gucci dripping in swarovski lol omg waitremember last weekend when we went out for a smokebreak after the drag show that drunk girl told us that storyabout the angel that fell without gender & no one’s surewhere it might have landed i wonder if the girl was the one who came up with itor who else might’ve wrote it put ur phone down for a secthe story reminded me of when i posted on my storythat i wanted everyone to use gender neutral pronouns for me no one reallydid it’s okay i get it i get itit’s hard to believe how much can happen between one party& the next anyway another drink another drinku really do look so good like where did u get ur earringsusually i’d find that shape tacky but in this caseit’s so campy which reminds me can we talk about whenthe metropolitan museum chose camp as the themefor the met gala like hello the metcommodified camp everyone ate that shit up everyonegagged over it because of idol worshiplike hello the met is co-opting queer thought & the looksweren’t even that good but i guess anyone with that muchwealth could never really understand camp to begin withanyway have u been reading any theory lately i just revisited‘a cyborg manifesto’ the way donna haraway points ustowards the chimera reminds me of that story theangel that fell without gender which mademe remember the time i had a professor say queer theory isdead said she went to the funeral but the whole timei was wondering what she was wearing as she weptnext to the casket versacé versacé versacéversacé versacé versacé versacé versacé versacé versacé versacéversacé queer theory is not dead queertheory not dead queer theory my body my bodyin this dress on the dance floor getting my shit rocked themuseum in the corner of the room with the bear taking notesanyway i guess what i’m saying is i’m tired ofreckoning with all of my selves depending on the space i’min cum on cum near me if there’s going tobe multiple versions of me don’t u think i should startreferring to myself as plural (as singular) like i didthat one time on my story they they theyit could be worth bringing up again but it’s easier to put onmakeup tutorials taught me how to do a cat eyeomg wait it’s that late let me get u another drink i thinku need another drink u’ve got gloss on ur lips glossy glossylip lip put ur phone down for a sec or do u needto get that oh u should reply he’s sexy sexyhe tried to hook up with me at the summer party on therooftop the one with the jacuzzi as we got out from thetub he was drying himself off & i couldn’t stop thinkingabout how his body looked like the same kind ofinstitutions i’m indebted to & i wonderedwhat makes a cis man a cis man what makes masculinityhow does a man know he’s achieved it anyway sorrythe vibe is just sooo good right now i’m just rocking with itnights out are fun me love it glitzy glitzy getting down at theparty i just wish i knew how to show everyoneat the function i’m a scholar with my body i want themto know how much i’ve sacrificed that this was all worthsomething since my body is theory nothingis prescribed cum on cum near me i wannalet u in on a secret i think i might be the angelthat fell without gender & upon landing i became a cyborgto keep up with the times the only trace of me will beshowing face at the party wearing this gucci guccidripping in swarovski or maybe this poem will be myonly record after some curator daddy locates my bodyhangs me up in a big glass display with my wings separatedfrom my back for whoever pays to see it it’ll be the kindof party so exclusive there’s not even a list u kno what imean put ur phone down for a sec put ur phone downoh oh ur calling the car oh let me get my thingsgive me a second to collect my things
—Originally published in Blush Lit, April 2022. Audio track produced by Amon Ito for Everybody Press; used with permission.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I love this poem, and I love performing it, but it was painful to write. I wrote the first draft of “put ur phone down for a sec” in 2018 while struggling with my gender identity, and the only way I knew how to document what I was moving through was to approach it in a conversational tone, as if the speaker is talking to a friend during a pregame before going out to the club. The movement in the convo darts across talking about outfits and drinks and social media, and also gender and identity and theory. At the time, life felt like one big blur—one big bender—which, I think, is reflected in this poem.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on two poetry manuscripts: night mode and ICONOCLAST, both of which will be published by Everybody Press, in 2023 and 2024, respectively. night mode is a book-length serial poem in its final round of edits, and available now for pre-order. “put ur phone down for a sec” is one of the five poetic sequences in night mode. ICONOCLAST is still very much in the research and writing stage, which is, for me, the fun part.
What’s a good day for you?
When I wake up next to my cat, Salad, that’s the perfect start to the morning. She’s learned when my alarm goes off, and she’ll start meowing and licking my face whenever I press snooze, which is too adorable to be bothersome. And at least she waits for the alarm before she makes her move!
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn from Rhode Island in 2017 to begin grad school at Pratt Institute’s MFA in writing. Many of my friends were already living here, and every time I hopped on the train to come to the city and visit one of their apartments for a weekend, it felt like a home.
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?
Since moving here over five years ago, I’ve lived on the same street in Bed-Stuy, but in two separate apartments a block away from each other. I grew up in a tiny neighborhood, which has a pond surrounding it that connects to some of the beaches in Rhode Island. In the fall and winter seasons, the neighborhood was eerily quiet and still. It’s been refreshing to be here, in Brooklyn, surrounded by the thrum of life all of the time.
When I moved into my current apartment, there was an old church next door that’s since been torn down. Now they’re building a modern apartment in its place. The apartment across from my bedroom was recently renovated, and the owners illegally cut down part of the tree on the property of my apartment building because its branches were hanging over their deck. A neighbor of mine yelled, “You don’t cut down trees in Brooklyn!”—something I’ve been thinking about since.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I first moved here, I loved going out to local bars and clubs with my friends, and the first spot I began to frequent was the Rosemont. It felt much more intimate in 2017 than it does now. I’d go almost every weekend, and I’d sometimes stay until close, watching drag performances, asking for cigarettes from strangers on the patio, and waiting what felt like an hour in line for the bathroom. I still like to pop by every now and then to say hi to old friends, but I don’t know most of the current crowd.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m finding my poetry community every day. My first experience with a real cohort of poets and writers was during my time at Pratt. Now, through my poetry, my work as the director of publicity at the publisher Nightboat Books, and social media, I’m making new connections constantly.
Most of my core group of friends are not poets, but other kinds of artists working in different mediums, which is nice because we approach artistic conversations from different vantage points.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Some poetry friends and inspirations: Andrea Abi-Karam, Wo Chan, Chia-Lun Chang, Kay Gabriel, Gia Gonzales, Marwa Helal, Ricardo Hernandez, Kyle Carrero Lopez, Emily Lee Luan, danilo machado, Alisha Mascarenhas, imogen xtian smith, Lix Z and many, many more.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In undergrad at the University of Rhode Island, the poet Peter Covino was my professor, and in many ways a mentor. He tried to convince me to switch my major to English (I studied writing and rhetoric, and gender and women’s studies) when I took one of the poetry courses he taught. He took notice of how performative my work is, and encouraged me to practice reading my poems out loud because I was incredibly shy about my work at the time. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have adopted performance as part of my practice.
Jody Lisberger, a former professor in the gender and women’s studies program, was also very much a mentor to me. Although I mostly studied creative nonfiction with her, her teachings and techniques have stayed with me.
In my MFA program, Laura Elrick was my mentor, and she really helped me expand my writing practice. By the time I entered the program, I’d grown frustrated with my poetry, particularly the themes I was exploring. Laura supported me as I experimented and played with form and sound, and I owe a lot of the making of night mode to her.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ever since reading it, I’ve been thinking about frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss constantly. I didn’t come into poetry through craft or formalism, so to read a memoir-in-sonnets blew my mind. There’s one poem that I read to my friends as a sort of nightcap, sometimes at 5 or 6 AM, that begins with the line, “Parties among strangers, punks, leather caps and straps, pressing,” and I just love the movement and imagery in it. I often find myself reciting lines from this poem to myself without realizing I’m doing it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There’s probably at least a hundred books I’ve been meaning to read that I haven’t gotten to, honestly. Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene has been on my list for a while, and it just won the National Book Award for Poetry, so I think it’s finally time to read it!
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?
My reading habits really depend on the book(s). If I’m reading something like Nevada by Imogen Binnie, I’ll read it in one go. But there are other books that take me much more time to get through, like the short story collection After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, which took me weeks to finish because of its visceral, surreal and graphic imagery and language. Or I’ll read and reread as I’m moving through the book, which happened when I first encountered proxy by r. erica doyle. I needed to savor every word.
My favorite kind of read is a book you just happen upon, whether through shopping at an indie bookstore or reading a review online.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
In the last couple of years, I’ve begun to appreciate the nuances of certain forms, like sonnets. I love how writing them feels so intricate yet intimate, like solving a mathematical equation or learning another language. I’m interested in (re-)appropriation, so writing a cento would be fun for me, I’m sure.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The train! I get motion sickness while traveling by car, but not on the subway. When I visit family in Rhode Island and I take the Amtrak, it’s a three-hour ride—the perfect amount of time to read and write, or edit.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The park I live closest to is Herbert Von King, and I love walking through it. I also love Prospect Park, which is right by my partner’s apartment. I’m truthfully a bit of a homebody, so some of my favorite Brooklyn nights are spent either at my place or in my friends’ apartments.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate fluidity’s promise to never stagnate,
And what I share in common with you is as ever-changing as the ocean’s tide,
For every drop of salt water in me as good and cold as the Atlantic, I recognize in you.
Brooklyn is alive, and rich with its history—even as it changes. As it becomes changed.