June 29–July 5, 2020
Cai Rodrigues-Sherley (they/he) is a Black, queer, trans-masculine poet-songwriter originally from Boston, Massachusetts. They are also left-handed, a Sagittarius and a bullet journal enthusiast. During their senior year at Smith College, where they majored in Africana studies, Rodrigues-Sherley was a 2019 recipient of the Elizabeth Babcock Poetry Prize. As a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow, they studied poetry by Black youth published during the 1970s and coauthored a chapter with Professor Rachel Conrad entitled “Kali Grosvenor, Aurelia Davidson, and the Agency of Young Black Poets” as part of the anthology Literary Cultures and Twentieth-Century Childhoods (2020). Rodrigues-Sherley currently lives with their partner in Brooklyn and will be starting their first semester at New York University in the MFA program in creative writing this fall. You can kick it with them on Twitter @caifieri and Instagram @thatcaifrom96.
Author photo by Denisse Velasquez
Caillou Talks Back
I do not blame you for the dark.
I blame you for what split it open like a peach.
for the blue light when we were seven.
for the yellow light when I was twenty.
for those nights spent counting sheep,
and their dawns that reeked of mutton.
and I have not staged a coup.
I have left you on my diploma. my resume. my business card. my lease. my passport.
I have kept all your parts in mint condition.
I have not gouged you out from under my mother’s tongue.
I have shared, Chickadee. Honey bun. Pumpkin head.
Imani Monster. Imanalimalacka. Munzy-Tunzy. Manzabita.
and built you a safe house in the center of my right eye,
each brick a name my father gave you.
and I have seen the end of days.
I will be the hull, the bunker, and the space suit.
I will be the cryogenic freezer and the last plot of fertile soil.
I will be your mercy.
the last person to play in the quiet of your hair.
to let you take the high harmony.
to call you your mother’s daughter.
to say your name out loud.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was written in response to another piece I wrote called “Imani Speaks.” That poem came first, and offers a platform for a girlhood self to state her resentments, her inner turmoil, her love, when faced with a future, non-girl self. “Caillou Talks Back” answers the question, What would you say to your younger self? Transness often facilitates speaking to, soothing, forgiving, disowning, loving, hating, knowing past selves in the midst of also trying to articulate a transformed and/or affirming gender present and future. I am caught up in gender and time, and the way the body carries trauma. The mind can separate into befores and afters but they inevitably coexist within us. I wrote this poem thinking about what it might mean to speak to a past, pre-transition self who is also not past, who is in a mother’s mouth, with whom one sings a forced duet. The body is both harmony and dissonance, museum and sculpture.
I once took a class about the Black personal essay as a love practice, as a futile but necessary attempt to merge with a past self into a new world. This poem is my love practice about a love practice. It is not a love letter, it is a boi standing up for himself, with love.
What are you working on right now?
Very little poetry. I am working on life right now, and life looks like job hunting, moving, watching queer cartoons and trying to be present and alive and Black. My college advisor Kevin Quashie once said, “Even when you are not writing, you are working,” and I live by that. There are months where all I do is write down random words and phrases in my notes app, and there are weeks where all I do is write. I try not to think about it too much while I have the luxury not to (I start grad school in the fall). I just tell myself I am always a poet, even if I am not writing poetry. I think Danez Smith said that.
The only poetic practice actively in my life right now is @lemonmon_poetry, an Instagram account I run with my dear friend and fellow poet Greisy Genao. Lemonmon is a space for publishing poems and photographs written or taken at a distance. It has acted as a sweet, sour, bitter, ripe and simple archive of creativity under quarantine.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is a day with sunlight, walking, books, at most three other people in my company, and no Black death.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Work and my mother. The summer after I graduated from college I came to Brooklyn as a camp counselor with the Brooklyn Cultural Adventures Program. I had no long-term housing or employment set up beyond August. When I visited my parents in Boston in July and was musing about the possibility of coming back to Massachusetts, my mother said, “You cannot come back here. If you come back here, you will never have taken a risk in your entire life.” So I made it work, and I’m glad that I did.
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 have been living in Crown Heights for a little under a year now, but I’m about to move to Flatbush. I like walking in Crown Heights. I like the old woman who lives above me and the fact that my building has been owned by the same Black family for generations. I like the stoop. My apartment is also dangerously close to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, so prior to the pandemic I was in heaven.
I grew up in Jamaica Plain in Boston, which is the most segregated city in the US, and in the top five for most rapidly gentrifying. I am the child of gentrification. I have seen my whole neighborhood change in twenty years. So you can smell it in Crown Heights. My partner and I stayed with a woman briefly over the summer who lived in a two-million-dollar apartment, which was ten minutes away from our apartment where the toilet breaks once every two weeks.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
This past September, a rat crawled through a crack in our inherited AC unit and spent the longest ten seconds of my life deciding whether or not to jump onto the bedroom floor. We got lucky.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Community is a space to be imperfect with others, to be in conflict without fear of isolation, and in good faith, a place to grow. When I think about the poetry community, I think about my dear friend and poet Miles Collins-Sibley, and my roommate Greisy Genao. Miles and Greisy are my community in poetry and in life, but I have never been a part of a larger community of poets. I hope my MFA program will help change that.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Technically she was born in Harlem but she was raised in Brooklyn, so the answer is bisexual icon June Jordan. In addition to being a breathtaking poet, she was also a radical champion for Black people, especially Black youth. I spent my undergraduate career studying poetry by Black children written during the 1970s, and June Jordan coedited my favorite anthology of youth poets, The Voice of the Children, in 1970 with Terri Bush. It is breathtaking. June Jordan also pioneered the Poetry for the People program at the City College of San Francisco, a radical class that connected art and activism and introduced people from all walks of life to poetry as a tool of personal and collective expression and liberation. I am too cynical and pessimistic to look up to people generally, but if I were to look up to anyone it would be her.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My first poetry mentor was my sixth grade teacher Ms. Kline. She gave me my first poetry notebooks, taught me how to revise, gave me poetry anthologies and pushed me to submit my work to local writing contests. She was the first person to call me a poet, and I still have those old notebooks, full of affirmations and many spelling corrections. I have been meaning to write her a thank-you letter, but have yet to find the language to express the impact she had on me and the relief I felt as a child finally to be seen.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone is now my favorite book because it is some of the most beautiful intergenerational Black storytelling I have ever read. I would recommend people read Nikky Finney’s The Moon Is Round because it will break and strengthen your heart, and read Tommy Pico’s Junk to increase your gay chaos.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Danez Smith!
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 believe in reading one book at a time, which is always difficult if I am reading a particularly lengthy book or a book I don’t like (my current problem). I am also a defacer of books, because I like to highlight and put things in the margins to remember things. For poetry collections I tend to leave the pages unharmed, because I bullet journal and have been recreating all the covers of books I have read, followed by a rating and a reflection, which makes it easy to write down which poems were my favorites. Anything that is nonfiction is coated in highlighter and ink by the time I am done, however I am strongly against dog-earing pages. I keep a running queue of books to read, and I hate digital reading. Not because I am a snob, but because my history with reading is very tactile. I like how gross and touched library books are, and a physical book feels like a genuine possession.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I want to one day publish a collection of exquisite corpses about transformation written in collaboration with people from all over my life.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My favorite place to read is on the train, and I can barely write anywhere, but I write best in places that make me feel safe, which change all the time.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I think the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is my favorite place so far, because I love libraries and the staff picks are excellent. The camp counselor in me is also a huge fan of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Willie Mae Rock Camp and the Textile Arts Center.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate your missing tooth
And what I did to you to break it off
And what you’d do
to have me break it off again
I celebrate my reign of terror
Of backyard kick dust
Split earth bullpen
First second third base
Homerun molar under my foot
I celebrate the war
Peanut head vs. not even a girl
Knuckle vs. knuckle
Start vs. finish
Porch vs. screen door
And lemonade streetlamps
Like stadium lights
In the middle of July
Your whole mouth available to me
If I want it but
For every baby tooth I cradle
Out of your warm jaw
There is a new souvenir
To show a watching brown eyed girl
Who will never like me
as good as you.
I don’t know yet. Get back to me in two years. But yes.