November 11–17, 2019
Chanice Hughes-Greenberg is a poet, Capricorn and playlist enthusiast hailing from upstate New York by way of Long Island. Her work has appeared in Caketrain, Horse Less Review, Big Lucks, Studio Magazine, No, Dear and the Recluse. She has participated in readings with the Poetry Project, Cave Canem, Poets & Writers and the Freya Project. She is also the creator of Who Is She, a newsletter that celebrates creative women. Hughes-Greenberg received a BFA in writing from Pratt Institute and was a finalist for the Poetry Project’s 2018–19 Emerge-Surface-Be Fellowship. This past summer, she received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship to attend the seventh annual Hamptons Retreat in Amagansett. She resides in Bed-Stuy with her cat Huxley and drinks martinis with a twist.
After the house burns down
I take a photo of my grandmother at the kitchen sink:
it’s Thanksgiving, her floor length cape & gold jewelry immaculate
After the house burns down my grandparents visit my dorm room
& I play Diana Ross,
my grandfather keeping the beat with his good foot
After the house burns down my family falls apart
during a summer spent with my grandparents I win a basket of cheer at the block party—
I am too young to know this is alcohol
we watch them dismantle Shea Stadium
& I begin taking records home before I have a player
I look at my mother’s yearbook: her short afro, white cowl neck sweater
After the house burns down I move to Crown Heights south of Eastern Parkway
my grandfather emails me a picture of Ebbets Field
which in another memory sat around the corner
After the house burns down I get sick the following spring
my grandfather pays my hospital bill & again the second time
my license turns up in the mail, we don’t discuss this
I am the guest at Sunday service,
the congregation smiles & I forget names but know faces
we rip up the carpet while he’s in the hospital
After the house burns down I read the poem about my grandparents in the Rose Garden
I don’t know if they understand but they tell me how proud they are
the snow globe from Easter stops working, my grandmother begins repeating questions
Baby love, my baby love. Tell me what did I do wrong, to make you stay away so long.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
In 2013, I decided to write a series of poems focusing on my grandparents. My grandfather passed away that fall, and then my Nana in 2016, and that was my way of processing my grief. “After the house burns down” comes from that series. In this poem, I’m dealing with personal history and events that happened to my family. My family lost our new home in 2006 to a fire, the day before I began classes at Pratt Institute. After that event, my family dynamic changed. I’d been close to my grandparents growing up, and after the fire I took comfort in their home. I saw it as living memory of my childhood, which was also a sign that they were getting older and things weren’t being maintained. This poem weaves between looking at and longing for the past, but with the knowledge that can only be gained from getting older. My nostalgia stopped me from seeing the things I didn’t want to acknowledge. The poem was longer, but I made edits to help it tell a sharper narrative that still holds emotional weight.
What are you working on right now?
The series about my grandparents has evolved into a collection that touches on memory, family, legacy and identity. My grandparents were two of the proudest black people I knew, and in the past few years I’ve been thinking about my own blackness and identity. I’m writing poems about black culture (music, art, literature, movies) that shaped me, while also writing poems about my family that place us within the black experience. I saw Mastry, the Kerry James Marshall exhibition that was up at the Met Breuer in 2016, three times, and afterwards I decided I wanted to create my own depictions of black life, and to do that through a poetry collection. It’s been really exciting to write with a project in mind and to see what inspires me.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is one when I get the things I need to do done, or I end up doing something unexpected that brings me joy. If I fall asleep at the end of the night feeling content, that was a good day—even if I did nothing. If I solve a problem or release a feeling that wasn’t serving its purpose, that’s also a good day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn in August 2006 to attend Pratt Institute. The plan wasn’t to go to art school but that’s where I ended up and it was a great fit. As it came time to graduate, I really couldn’t see myself living anywhere else, so I made sure I had a job lined up so I could stay. I still don’t see myself living anywhere else, which is why I’m still here.
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 live in the Stuyvesant Heights section of Bed-Stuy. I’ve lived in my apartment for three years, Bed-Stuy in general for six. I love Bed-Stuy. It’s a community first and foremost. I know everyone in my building, I say hi to my neighbors and to people I see on the street. Bed-Stuy is so black and I celebrate that. I feel lucky to live there. I love walking to the grocery store or getting a glass of wine and walking past the amazing brownstones. We have trees and parks and community gardens—it’s a beautiful thing. So many neighborhoods have lost or are in the process of losing what made them a neighborhood, but Bed-Stuy is still going strong. Gentrification is changing the neighborhood and people are losing their homes and that hurts. I lived in Crown Heights after graduating from Pratt, and ended up leaving because my building was sold to a management company that hiked up everyone’s rent in our rent-stabilized building. It was a disgusting move that displaced families, people who had made that building their home. I’m making Bed-Stuy my home in hopes that I can give back to the community. I grew up in the Catskills, which was beautiful but wasn’t diverse and it was so rural I felt distanced from everything. Bed-Stuy is the neighborhood I wanted to live in as a kid, with kids playing on stoops and summer block parties. I could write about how much I love Bed-Stuy for days.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Two moments come to mind: the first was when Obama won the 2008 election and people poured out into the streets to celebrate. I lived in a dorm on Willoughby Ave and my friends and I ran outside to join the crowd. Myrtle Ave was packed—people were crying, celebrating, singing the national anthem. A laundromat played his acceptance speech and we stood outside watching. It was such a rush. We made history that night.
My other defining Brooklyn experience was Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. I was living in Crown Heights (pre–terrible management company) and while we never lost power, we knew things were worse in other neighborhoods. Trying to commute to Manhattan the next week was rough because there weren’t any trains running, but buses were running from Downtown Brooklyn into Manhattan. Everyone had this we’re-in-it-together mentality, and people packed into buses and called out stops and helped people exit and enter the bus. I took a bus from Jay St up to Midtown and it was the longest commute ever but I made it to work.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, a poetry community means people whom you trust with your work, whether they are fellow poets that you meet in a workshop, at a reading, or writing friends and classmates from other chapters of your life. It means places that help you generate poems, places where you feel inspired or challenged to create. I feel I’ve found a community in organizations like Brooklyn Poets and Cave Canem, which help connect people in varying stages of their writing, and with poets I’ve met through these places who have become friends. I felt welcome at both organizations the first time I attended events and that’s important. I’ve been in poetry spaces where I didn’t feel welcomed or like my voice mattered, and that doesn’t make you want to create.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
My first Cave Canem workshop was with Simone White, and it was a great way to remind myself why I write. I really appreciated her candor and approach to writing. I discovered Angel Nafis through her poetry salon held at Greenlight Bookstore. I had a workshop with her this summer at the Brooklyn Poets Hamptons Retreat and she instilled some great editing practices that have given my work a new edge. I know he’s not technically a Brooklyn poet but I want to give a shout-out to my guy Frank O’Hara. He was one of the first poets I read at Pratt. The poem was “The Day Lady Died” and before reading it I knew it was about Billie Holiday, and I loved how he moved us through the poem, through his day and its moments to the ending.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently finished If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar and was really moved by the book. I’m starting to think about the work poems do in a collection, so I loved reading these poems as both making their own statements and the work they did to advance the themes of the collection. Form is another thing I’m thinking about and the collection made use of many forms and showed the range of Fatimah’s voice.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I don’t think I’ve ever read all of “Howl,” so maybe I’ll do that one day. I keep taking A Coney Island of the Mind out of the library and not reading it, so that’s also on the to-do list. I also have a copy of Cane by Jean Toomer that I need to read.
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 love to read, always have. I dip in and out of about two to three books at a time. I have an ongoing reading list that I continue to add to as new titles appear or I discover a book that I want to read. I love physical books. I tried reading on a digital device and it doesn’t give me the same feeling. I’ve been supporting my indie bookstores and putting my library card to good use. I’m about to reread Their Eyes Were Watching God as part of the collection I’m working on, since it meant a lot to me in high school, and I’m close to finishing Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, which is so well written and a good critique of our current culture. I’m really into short stories, poetry collections and essays at the moment. I’ll write down the page number if a line made an impact or if a poem speaks to me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to read on the subway. It’s the perfect time to zone out and get into a book. I’ve been reading on the train more as a way to stop looking at my phone so often. I’ll also bring a book with me if I go to a bar in my neighborhood or have a solo dinner. The beach is great for reading and writing. Pratt’s library was my number one place to read and write when I was in school, especially the top floor in the stacks. Over the summer I started reading and writing out on my stoop, which technically is part of my home but one that’s public.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Tip Top, officially known as Tip Top Bar & Grill, is the best bar in Brooklyn. It’s a gem, family owned and a Bed-Stuy institution. I finally made it out to the Weeksville Heritage Center this fall. It’s an incredible piece of history that continues to exist. I also have a lot of love for Turtles (full name: Turtles All the Way Down) on Malcolm X Blvd. It’s my Cheers, and Stevie Wonder is on the jukebox and the drinks are cheap. Zaca Café is also in my neighborhood—it’s my go-to when I don’t want to cook. The owner worked at Choice Market, which I loved when I went to Pratt. Saraghina is also in my rotation, along with Eugene & Co, both perfect for day or night eats and drinks. Alameda in Greenpoint is my favorite place to get a burger and a martini and sit at the bar. The Commodore makes the best frozen drinks and everything on the menu is good but the nachos are life changing. I love seeing movies at BAM and buying books at Greenlight Bookstore and Books Are Magic.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the hour lost to sunset,
& what I gain you collect,
For every minute remakes me as good, a memory blank of you.
Everything I need is here. This is where I fit best, where I feel myself best. “It’s my house and I live here,” to quote Diana Ross.