March 9–15, 2020
Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet from New York City. He is the author of the full-length poetry collection Fractures (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), selected by Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the 2019–20 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry; the chapbook Hijito (Platypus Press, 2019), selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize; and the memoir Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood (Penguin Random House, 2012). A winner of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, the Fischer Prize for Poetry, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, Gómez has been published in the New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, BuzzFeed Reader, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012) and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Author photo by Friends & Lovers Photography
Poem about Death
Ending with Reincarnation
after Matthew Olzmann & Tarfia Faizullah
Blood has its own democracy.
My father & I puncture steaks
& watch them ooze—deep maple
walls eavesdrop as steel teeth
scrape & claw the porcelain
we use to distract our manically
clenching jaws. I’m well-practiced
in this ritual: empty & fill, empty
& fill, until there’s nothing.
Our filets gone, we sit & stare
at the eggshell table spread,
abdomens swelling like silence—
They found a mass.
She’s having surgery next week.
I had always planned for him
to be first. Now the woman
fifteen years his junior, mother
to my twin baby siblings, is dying
or might be. I’ve been rehearsing
years for this talk, except it isn’t—
my father, held only by the dim
lighting that shrouds his silhouette,
reduced to heaving. I envision
the stepmom it took me eleven years
to embrace being lowered carefully
into the damp earth, an old man,
flanked by two teenagers, watching,
& I will be there too: an overcast
Tuesday that no one passing by
will remember, & as usual, I won’t
be able to get the dimple right
in my tie. For a second, although
we are nowhere near the mountains,
I will smell the crisp air she so
loved & remember the first time
we walked without the heaviness
of that first encounter both of us
carried for far too long. But on that
unremarkable day for most, a light
rain will interrupt the hike I am on
in my mind, a man will read overly-
rehearsed words from a book she
did not believe in, & we will stand
like guards, numb. We will watch over
the sacred earth she spent an entire
lifetime trying to protect, now her
home, flanked by roots cross-stitching
the rich soil, what becomes the promise
kept to those endless rows of buds
ready to push through & that twisted
symmetry just above, a dangled blade
from a mouth chewing in first light.
—From Hijito, Platypus Press, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I spent years wrestling with this poem, going through countless drafts, which was also a kind of reckoning with the central moment of this piece: my father sharing news that completely upended my anticipated chronology for the future, and how it might map out grief and loss in an entirely unanticipated way. I wanted the title and the progression of the poem to subvert the reader’s expectations, much like the poem’s speaker (me) experiences being forced to recalibrate and reframe his conception of the inevitable. I’ve often thought of death as a kind of ultimate finality. But is that really the end of any story? And whose death? And where and toward what is that assumed finality? I’m fascinated by poems that tell us what is going to happen or where the poem is going and then find a way to astonish and astound even after gesturing towards the roadmap of where we’ll end up.
In my later drafts, Matthew Olzmann’s “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” and Tarfia Faizullah’s “Poem Full of Worry Ending with My Birth” gave me some profound inspiration (and blueprints / craft ideas for my process) that helped unlock this poem, finally. This poem probably has the most sprawling and surprising trajectory of any piece in Hijito or, perhaps, that I’ve ever written.
What are you working on right now?
I’m going through final edits on my full-length debut poetry collection, Fractures, which was recently selected by Natasha Trethewey as the winner of the 2019–20 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and will be released by the University of Wisconsin Press this fall (2020). It’s thrilling to finally see my full-length debut making its way out into the world. I’m so incredibly proud of this book that’s been twenty-one years in the making. It’s exhilarating and, of course, terrifying.
I have another project that I’m ecstatic about … but I can’t announce it yet. I’m not sure I’ve been this electrified by a creative project in ten or fifteen years. All I can say right now: it’s a genre-transcending collaboration with a generational talent that will be released later this year (date to be announced soon). I’ll update my supporters on Twitter and Instagram as soon as I’m able to publicly announce this.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me includes a few pickup games of basketball, plenty of quality time with my two kids (where I get to read to both of them and braid my daughter’s hair before bed), tucking into a great novel and tinkering with some poems-in-progress, and, once the kids are in bed and the babysitter arrives, a great meal of Vietnamese or Lebanese food and drinks with my wife and some dear friends.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was returning to my birthplace of New York City after graduating from undergrad and my best friend and I wanted to live together and experience the city as adults for the first time. He’s an artist as well (musician), and, especially at that point in our lives, we couldn’t imagine a more vibrant community from which to live and create than Brooklyn. We were right. There’s just an electricity about Brooklyn, and the arts scene is unparalleled.
We lived in Bushwick, next to Maria Hernandez Park, in 2004. The pulse of Brooklyn is a perpetual poem-in-progress. I wrote so many pieces by just looking up, noticing, breathing and being present in those everyday moments.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in Brooklyn for five years, between Bushwick, Flatbush and, finally, Bed-Stuy (where I spent most of that time). In my neighborhood in Bushwick (in that era), I loved that it was a tight-knit Latinx community. At the barbershop and bodega, it was Spanish only. It was an old-school and insulated Brooklyn neighborhood in that way. In Flatbush, I loved walking out of my apartment and hearing soca, calypso and reggae, the gaggle of kids who would play in the entrance to the building and ask me to join them each time I got home. There were a lot of families around, kids everywhere, and it felt like a real community. Finally, in Bed-Stuy, I loved being close to Von King Park, being just a few blocks down from Marcy Projects where Jay Z and so many other legends grew up. There’s just so much history in that neighborhood, so much that you can feel walking around, particularly as an artist and wordsmith.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I was living (with my now wife) in Flatbush, we noticed the lightbulbs in our bedroom were oddly flickering and, even in spite of my very limited knowledge of electrical wiring, it seemed something was off. So I removed the covering from the overhead light and noticed that there were no fire guards on the lightbulbs, which had left charred marks all around the outlet. In short: some shoddy work on that overhead light had left us with a dangerous fire hazard, just above our heads while we slept.
So I called the super. I’d never, and to this day still haven’t, heard him say a word. After texting with him, he finally showed up at the front door in these massive, muddy boots. I asked him to take them off and motioned to the bedroom, where the light was just above our bed.
Without a word, he walked briskly—tracking muddy bootprints across our hallway—into our bedroom, stepped directly onto our brand-new comforter and squinted his eyes at the light.
As I tried to process him standing on our bed, now covered in boot-shaped stains of wet dirt, I had a series of wild thoughts (that I can’t write here) flutter quickly through my brain.
Thankfully, he abruptly jumped down and left, and then texted to say that an electrician would be coming that afternoon.
All things considered, he was actually probably a better super than most I’ve had—he, at least, responded to texts and addressed the issue.
Totally unrelated (directly, but definitely connected to the overall upkeep by the dreadful management company of that building): two weeks later, while I was napping, our entire cupboard fell off the wall, smashing every single dish and glass we’d ever bought. As I glanced down, surveying the wreckage, I noticed a single S-shaped outline on the back of the collapsed cupboard where the superglue had been.
Man, it’s always an adventure in BK.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
A poetry community to me means poets I love unconditionally—homies and beloveds and heroes at once—those folks who I know will challenge and support in equal measure, demand more and always be there, whose brilliant work will never be as important to me as their hearts and their kindness and their generosity. I have so many dear friends, who also happen to be genius writers, that reside in Brooklyn.
The Supa Dupa Fresh reading series at Ode to Babel is one of the best-kept secrets in Brooklyn. Literal legends step up to the mic, on any given night, and try out new work. It’s one of the dopest reading series I’ve seen in a while.
In Atlanta, where I recently relocated to, I have some friends who are poets but it’s nothing like Brooklyn. No place on the planet compares to Brooklyn. There are just so many otherworldly talents, across all artistic mediums, it’s just absurd. On any given night, at a salon or poetry reading, icons (in the plural) spontaneously get up on the open mic. You don’t find stuff like that anywhere else. I’ve watched friends, whom I first met years ago as students and burgeoning creatives, who now have Pulitzers and National Book Awards and bestselling books and transformative works that will be read for generations. It’s impossible for me to separate their trajectory as artists from the vibrant borough in which they live. It catalyzes the creative process, puts pressure and stakes on the work, makes you feel that risk of who is going to be listening. It forces you, as a writer, to be accountable to the sacredness of this art. I’m so grateful for that.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There are so many Brooklyn poets who have been important to me, it would be impossible to list all of them. A short list of the cherished mentors and dear friends (who come to mind, just at this moment) who will forever be important to me: Martín Espada (born in BK!), Patricia Smith, Ocean Vuong, Angel Nafis, Tyehimba Jess, Mahogany L. Browne, Jive Poetic, Caroline Rothstein, Aziza Barnes, Marty McConnell, Lynne Procope, Felice Belle, Tina Chang. I could go on and on. There are so many.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Martín Espada saw the poet in me, long before I did, and inspired me to be a writer when I was seventeen.
Patricia Smith has been my lighthouse for more than two decades (since I first saw her perform in 1999).
Willie Perdomo has remained a tremendous friend and example of literary citizenship.
Felice Belle reminds me that kindness and community remain vital ingredients to the life of a poet.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky had such a profound impact on me. It’s this sprawling and deeply moving epic poem that echoes our current political moment. You just need to read it and experience it.
Other books that stood out to me, all four recently released by Brooklyn legends:
Hybrida by Tina Chang
Odes to Lithium by Shira Erlichman
The Willies by Adam Falkner
It’s Not Magic by Jon Sands
All four of the above titles exemplify a mastery of craft, while remaining wholeheartedly engaged with the real world. The tools used in those four books serve a purpose greater than just making great poems.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
As a birthday gift a couple years back, I got a collection of James Baldwin’s early writings. His wisdom is so timeless and relevant. I’ve always wanted to go through his entire catalog, chronologically, from beginning to end.
This whole parenting-two-small-kids-and-balancing-that-with-a-career-and-touring has made me less consistent with my reading goals. Writing this now, though, is recommitting me to doing this, so thank you!
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 prefer physical books and, often but not always, annotate and take notes in the margins while I read (and dog-ear the pages).
I have a whole stack of books next to my bed and on my desk that pretty much plots out my reading list.
I generally read from beginning to end, when it’s a novel (and only commit to one at a time), but I’m always reading poetry collections simultaneously, and I’ll often bounce between poems without regard for the ordering.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d love to finish a heroic crown of sonnets (with a twist). Hopefully, I’ll reveal that twist when (if?) I ever finish what I’m working on.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On the subway. Or in a crowded coffeeshop, tucked into a corner somewhere, where I can people-watch or daydream when I need to recharge briefly or work through something in my head.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
My favorite spaces in Brooklyn, truthfully, are those I associate with people I love. There are so many landmarks in the borough that are iconic, interesting, etc. But for me my most cherished Brooklyn spaces are the spots where I’ve released my books (like Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene) or did my first table-read for a film at Spike Lee’s office (40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on South Elliot) or laughed, cried and read poems with friends (the Bed-Stuy apartment of my buddies Angel and Shira).
I love a great Brooklyn dive bar or brunch or block party, but it’s those moments with my amigxs, where we create space for the bullshit and the sacred and the silly and the transcendent, that forever make me swoon.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate now, inhale the glittering sidewalk,
And what I would give for you to be here too. A toast,
For every doubt in me as good and gold as that yearning for you.
Because it’s the Planet.