Poet Of The Week

Celina Su

     February 26–March 4, 2018

Celina Su was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and lives in Brooklyn. Her first book of poetry, Landia, was published by Belladonna* in 2018. Her writing includes two poetry chapbooks, three books on the politics of social policy and civil society, and pieces in journals such as n+1, Harper’s and Boston Review. Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies and an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York.

Tax Season

I am cultivating the fine art of pressed-for-time
dawdling. Twirling red tape around one’s pinkie,
daydreaming of brackish water
and the moment before
myth makes a home in yours—

Did someone give you a cloak that infested the others?
Or have they lined your drawers for years?
Poised to flutter about,
dentists and banks and life savings—
a conversion of saving half-lives,
this financial purgatory so oddly American.
Teeth gleaming from these stiff uppers.
To wake up with the smell of enamel burning,
the grinding of whose toil insures these incisors, home salty home—

A social contract between state
& subject clenches a thousand-year-old alkalined egg,
translucent green artifice of what we thought
was pure, a tautological beginning.
To savor this urge and bury it—
an aporia of the no way in.

To ground myself, my otherwise dangling feet
rest on a hard, old-style rectangular suitcase,
with two clasps with large lock keyholes on the sides,
a worn, black leather handle in the middle. I store my old taxes inside.
I try to sit taller, upright.
Engineers of my beloved spreadsheet
creating new weapons of planned obsolescence
like ad men walking down Madison:

Incontrovertible morality so easily convertible.
Pull the top down, wash my mouth with some bubbling detergent,
cleanse my oxymoron. My people forever a task
of the imminent. At your service.

—From Landia, Belladonna*, 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote the first draft of this poem sometime around 2008 or 2009, towards the beginning of the Great Recession and this latest, prolonged financial crisis. I was berating myself for not being as productive as I would like to be (as usual) … Perhaps because of my heightened stress back then, it was a time when I was engaging in self-sabotaging behavior, like regularly showing up late to meetings and appointments. The first two lines are my observations of what I’m actually doing as a manifestation of all those concerns. During one of those moments, I also misheard someone speaking on the radio—I think they were talking about moths nesting in one’s closets, but I misheard “moths” as “myths” and ran with it. The rest of the poem is a sort of wandering meditation on the mythos of American meritocracy and social mobility, when it feels like almost everyone I know is struggling quite a bit, especially in these times of stagnant wages and austerity economics.

What are you working on right now?

I’m very excited about my new and first book of poems, Landia. I put my academic work on participatory democracy on the back burner a bit to work on Landia, so I’m turning back to that book, on participatory budgeting—specifically the need for both these sorts of democratic experiments and continued protest/mobilization for social change. I’m hoping to get a bit of sewing in in the next few months as well. I’m also thinking of what my next set of poems will look like …

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me includes a nice balance of solitude and social time. I must admit that I’m very much affected by the weather, so a bright day—either a sunny day, or a snowy day with light reflecting off the snow—makes a huge difference in rendering a day officially good to me. A day with walks, meals with friends, time for myself and some sense of adventure within the city—a time for keen observation and heightened emotion and conversation/exchange or sensorial experience, whether by attending an event, or exploring a new neighborhood—is perfect. I have to admit that I especially love long summer days in New York, because every scene feels filmic to me then, and there is a palpable sense of unpredictability and possibility I’d love to hold onto all year long.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I lived in the East Village, Lower East Side and Manhattan’s Chinatown for years, and eventually had to find new housing—so I did so in Brooklyn. I lived in Fort Greene at first, then went abroad for a fellowship, and ended up in Park Slope. So I guess my answer is similar to some others’—life circumstances, getting priced out/gentrification, getting lucky in finding a decent deal. I was surprised to do so in Park Slope.

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 Park Slope since spring 2013. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t super enthusiastic about it at first—the class dynamics can occasionally feel intense to me. It hurts my heart to occasionally see kids be mean to their nannies. That is not a dynamic I saw while living in Manhattan’s Chinatown. But the quality of life here—being a fifteen-minute walk away from ten subway lines at Atlantic-Pacific (especially with the state of the MTA system as it is), being near Prospect Park, being near so many grocery stores and the food coop, with all of its ups and downs—definitely won us over. Compared to other neighborhoods I’ve lived in, the blocks near me are so green. I am excited that soon, in April, they’ll be filled with dogwood flowers. I do see some mom-and-pop shops being replaced with corporate ones, new luxury condos popping up, and some families—particularly immigrant families—moving away. I hope that the diversity that does exist here gets to remain here.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I love summer nights in New York, when so many of us are out late and it’s balmy out, still humid but not quite as muggy as summer days. One personally resonant Brooklyn experience is the first time I hung out with the person who became my partner and husband. It was mid-summer. We ended up walking and talking through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, a bit of Crown Heights, downtown Brooklyn, back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, DUMBO, back to Fort Greene. These meanderings, and the lovely, well-paced series of characters and interactions we stumbled upon along the way, define Brooklyn to me. At maybe two in the morning, a middle-aged-to-elderly lady asked for directions. At one point, we tried to go into the movie studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for fun, but the security guard apologized that he couldn’t let us in, suggesting a nice spot in Brooklyn Bridge Park to hang out at instead. Then, at maybe four o’clock or so, as we hung out in a small playground in Fort Greene, we realized that there was someone night-swimming in the adjacent city pool. The next day, a few hours later, I went to look at the pool again, and the gates were completely locked. Perhaps the swimmer was a city worker, taking a break to exercise a few hours before dawn?

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

I feel like I have found a poetry community here, one largely composed of specific people and networks/organizations that encourage me to play with language(s), and that work to abide by fierce ethical and political commitments, with inclusivity, passion and compassion. For instance, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop has provided me and so many others with pivotal spaces for community-building. I have been lucky enough to meet amazing people through various residencies (especially the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation, both based in New York State), work at CUNY, and literary magazines and presses, who I feel like get my work and its interdisciplinary approaches, are incredibly supportive, and have helped me to strive to improve my writing and hone my poetic practice. They are also quite mindful of the political context in which we operate, and of the material conditions and pressures of cultural production. Especially as I have not formally studied poetry via an MFA program, I am humbled and incredibly grateful for these amazing, generous people and social-cultural institutions.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Certainly, several of the Brooklyn poets I have met through the making of Landia with Belladonna* have become, in a fairly short period of time, important to me: Jen Firestone, Rachel Levitsky, Ana Paula Simões, Krystal Languell (who has moved away, alas) and others. This is because feminist, anti-racist, community-making work is one with poetry for these folks, and because I have gotten to see and benefit from so many different aspects of their skills and work at play—reading their poetry, benefiting from their editorial prowess, collaborating with or participating in their investigations into the feminist avant-garde in conversations with others. Other contemporary poets—too many to name here! so I can’t imagine trying—have also become important to me in part for how they critically explore ways of knowing through poetry. Of course, also Moore, Whitman, so many others.

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

Among the poets and poems who have mentored me over the years, three I would like to pay tribute to here are from my undergrad days at Wesleyan: Kate Rushin, Dorothy Wang and Suzanna Tamminen. I learned so much about form and musicality from Kate Rushin; she also challenged me to think about language without getting too gimmicky, without sacrificing attention to pathos. I am proud to count Dorothy Wang as a friend as well as a mentor now; many of the questions that preoccupy me regarding subjectivities and uses of language, as well as questions of power, gender, race, class and context in experimentation, come from my study with her. I also feel kinship with Dorothy because she also worked in public policy at one point. Suzanna Tamminen was my boss at Wesleyan University Press. Working at Wes Press exposed me to a range of authors, especially experimental ones, who did not appear on my class syllabi, and showed me how editorial and production processes help to shape selected manuscripts into books. Suzanna also took me seriously as a reader, so that by the end of my time there, I helped to make some editorial decisions or recommendations. I am so grateful for these incredible mentors. I learned so much about poetry and poetics, writing and critical analysis, positionalities and subjectivities, generosity, rigor and humility from them.

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

A couple of books that stood out to me recently are Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson and Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric Robinson. Neither of these books is new, and I’d read excerpts of them before—but I finally read them (or, in the case of Black Marxism, read most but not all of it) recently. For the latter, what stands out to me is how my interpretations of Marxist thinking and American history are so tweaked and deepened each time I reread a passage. I felt an urgent need to spend some real time with this book after Trump’s election, when my students kept asking me about how to talk about American racialized class oppression, about my thoughts on steps forward. Glass, Irony and God has stayed with me in terms of the range and breadth of forms, how multiple characters and narratives and heartaches are sustained so movingly in each of the book’s pieces. “The Gender of Sound” was also striking to me as an essay that builds upon Carson’s expertise in the classics and makes a critical argument, but has enough of an askance sensibility so that I could only imagine it in this collection, and not in a typical academic journal. And as with Black Marxism, I feel like I find new undulations and patterns with each reading.

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

I read Ulysses and swooned over it while I was a resident at Millay. I knew that I needed to reread it as soon as possible in order to better appreciate the language, as well as better catch all of the allusions that went over my head the first time. It’s been seven years since then, and I’m still hoping to get around to that second reading soon. There are so many books, especially classics, that I had been meaning to read for years—Middlemarch is one that I’m very much looking forward to.

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 process is urgency- and place-dependent. If I am on a vacation, I might get to read a book from cover to cover, but that has not happened in years. My job involves a lot of journal articles and research, and I try to read theoretical or other academic books only when I have access to a desk and can focus, read slowly and take notes. Once I’m at a desk, the book can be in digital form, even if annotating PDFs or e-books doesn’t feel as satisfying as marking up hard copies. I love the feel of physical books, but I recently received a Kindle as a gift, and that has made reading on the subway much easier—I love being able to switch between novels, mainstream or literary nonfiction, and academic pieces really easily, and to choose the reading most appropriate for that moment. I have tried to read books of poetry on my Kindle, but I have not enjoyed that at all—visual architectures, page layouts, and the materiality and tactility of the page is so important to me in poetry, and I feel like much of that gets lost in digital formats.

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

I would love to play more with the form of the medium—on the page as in Brazilian concrete poetry, or playing with permutations and non-linear narratives in a Jacob’s Ladder book, or playing with interactivity in web-based forms. This piece, by Mendi Lewis Obadike, for instance, is fantastic. I love its seemingly simple, incredibly moving and evocative conceit of hidden transcripts/ephemerality.

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

I’m no good at reading and writing in offices—there are too many distractions. I like going to cafés and not asking for the wifi password, libraries (especially the Brooklyn Central Library) and sometimes, random lobbies. I basically wrote my PhD dissertation in the Wertheim Study of the 42nd St New York Public Library; that’s such an amazing resource! Unlike the main reading rooms in that building, the Wertheim Study gives you a shelf where you can keep your books. And even without an NYU ID, you can still access the NYU Bobst Library by asking to visit the Tamiment collection there; it’s open to the public—so if I’m in that area, I sometimes go to read and write there, overlooking Washington Square Park.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

In addition to the sorts of spaces where I read and write, I love the Botanic Garden, tiny and hidden community gardens with wildly different sensibilities, and other gathering places and food purveyors—the pupusa trucks by the Red Hook soccer fields, the grassy knoll with fantastic views in Sunset Park, all of the stores with amazing smoked fish and dried fruits in Brighton Beach.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate with a sharp rise in my diaphragm,
And what I inhale you have woven into song,
For every breath of yours sounds to me as good as the beats that
     can belong, only, to

Why Brooklyn?

This is where I teach and learn.