Poet Of The Week

Claire Donato

     January 25–31, 2016

Claire Donato is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia, Spring 2016). Recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fanzine, Encyclopedia L-Z, Ninth Letter, PEN America and PLINTH. With Jeff T. Johnson, she has collaborated on Special America, a site-specific multimedia intervention. She currently curates WordHack—a monthly series focused on digital language art—at Babycastles Gallery in Manhattan and is a visiting assistant professor in the Architecture Writing and BFA Writing Programs at Pratt Institute.

The Second Body Is a Shield

This poem was composed in 12-point sans serif font while the poet took
In the past, doomed to remember the world as it took place outside
The detritus of heavy metal music in her mind, orchestrating a school
Of second graders eating sushi on a sidewalk in Park
Slope, in the neighborhood in which she spent the
Summer in heat in a bed in a room overlooking the neighborhood
Drug rehabilitation institute. Unclothed, the first body
Came, touched her skin, and her mind grew
Diseased by its eroticism. Now she carries a dense
Second body in her brain, a second body not unlike
The first, whose material form encompasses every facet of
The world, yet is not the world, and her desire rises and falls, rises and
Pauses and thinks to possess a very fine mind, expertise with regard to
Sex, the fruit of geometric pliability and a knack for crafting dialogue
From everyday speech—should have been a playwright—but the best
Circumstances are never the best.
Literary influences include the former’s untamed aggregate, the reality
Of whose experience is formed by combining several disparate parts,
     then shouting
‘You don’t know where I’m at?! You don’t know where I’m at?!’
Within this faux-fucked 8 and ½ x 11”
Static electricity. To which the second body
Responds: ‘Imagine a pure gold ring. Divide it in half, then keep
Dividing and dividing and dividing.’

–From The Second Body, Poor Claudia, forthcoming in 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Although typeset in serif font, this poem was composed in 12-point sans serif font in the year I spent many days walking down the stretch of 7th Avenue between Berkeley Place and 9th Street in Park Slope. (As an aside, this stretch of Brooklyn is pretty deplorable—so many real estate offices.) A trio of children eating sushi on a sidewalk in front of a playground: in the physical world, this image struck me as absurd. It occurs to me that children in Park Slope are being groomed for the office. Park Slope businesschildren. Jungle gym business executives. I’m sure I was thinking of a particular drug rehabilitation institute, and that I was also thinking of my thesis advisor C.D. Wright’s Rising, Falling, Hovering vis-à-vis “rises and falls, rises and / Pauses and thinks.” I wasn’t consciously thinking about enjambment; rather, I was letting it think. Some would say ascribing agency to enjambment is as absurd as the aforementioned Park Slope businesschildren. I still liked “faux-fucked,” though I’m not sure about “heavy metal music.” My friend Tim Terhaar says that phrase sounds dated, and he’s probably right. In fact, I listen to black, doom, drone and sludge metal—but none of these metals contain the two syllables necessary for the sake of this line’s music, and I am always thinking about music. Anyway, the rest of the poem follows my mind following an unknown image, as is often the case. Eventually, I found this image in the shape of a pure gold ring. Like it, I divided the poem in half, then kept dividing and dividing and dividing.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, I’m working with Travis Meyer and the editors at Poor Claudia to make final edits on my second book and first full-length collection of poems, The Second Body, which will be released in early March. My friends Ian Hatcher and Danniel Schoonebeek also have books coming out with the press at the same time, which means we’ll travel and read together. In December, I completed a first draft of a poetry manuscript called Object Despair, which deals in desire, ambivalence surrounding trauma, black boxes, Mare Crisium, architectural theory, wine, cells and machines, and Ikea furnishings. I’m also at work on a novel called Noël. In fact, it’s most likely a novella, but I want to play with these distinctions. An excerpt was recently published in PLINTH.

Apart from writing, I’m working on curating WordHack, a monthly series at Babycastles Gallery focused on digital language art, computational poetry, audiovisual alphabets, the Internet and other electricities. My friend Todd Anderson founded it, and we’re both excited about bringing together communities that don’t normally come together (e.g., people from the small press world and people from the indie games community). Otherwise, I’m working on becoming a more patient cook. I prepare a lot of vegan and macrobiotic dishes while thinking about people I love, and also strangers. I regard this as a form of a metta—or Buddhist lovingkindness—meditation, though I have yet to think about a difficult person as I cook, which is something that happens in lovingkindness meditation: you focus on a difficult person and wish them happiness, health, safety, peace. I’ll work on cultivating that facet of my cooking practice, and in the meantime, I’ll continue working on documenting my cooking on Instagram, which helps me visualize my progress. My not-so-secret current pipe dream is to author a lyrical cookbook about circles.

What’s a good day for you?

On a good day, I sleep through the night. I wake up to a cat licking my face. I drink lukewarm lemon water. I eat avocado toast. I drink coffee. I go to yoga. For a window of time, I walk alone while listening to music that makes me feel a feeling that can’t be translated. I spend time at Pratt Institute, the art college where I teach. I see a cat on its campus. There are cherry blossoms and/or multicolored leaves. Maybe it rains. There’s one moment of productive confusion and one moment of lucidity. I listen to records. I cook a meal, and the cooking doesn’t confuse me; rather, the process feels synaesthetic. I hug someone using my body or text. No one I know dies. I sleep through the night.

(P.S. While answering this question, I can’t help but call to mind Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day”)

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I first started spending stretches of time in Brooklyn during my senior year of college, when I would travel here to stay with Jeff T. Johnson, who was living temporarily in Park Slope. I knew nothing about the borough but fell in love with it right away. During the 2008 recession, Jeff and I moved to Providence, RI, where I was a graduate student at Brown University. Long story short: the economy tanked, and he decided to go to graduate school in New York City. So to Brooklyn we moved.

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 currently live in a section of Bed-Stuy historically known as Stuyvesant Heights. I moved here in late March 2015 from Windsor Terrace due to an opportunistic evict-and-hike landlord routine. I’m learning the neighborhood and learning about the neighborhood, and appreciating the differences between it and Windsor Terrace.

In Bed-Stuy, I’m fortunate enough to live in a brownstone that’s been owned by one family for many years, so there’s a preternaturally lovely sense of community and respect for one another and the neighborhood’s history, which I can pretty confidently say I don’t imagine would be the case if I were renting an apartment in one of those architecturally ominous new luxury buildings. The respect the owners of the building in which I live have for Bed-Stuy and its history is contagious and was a draw for me.

In his interview with Brooklyn Poets, Matt Longabucco speaks eloquently about the politics of renting in Bed-Stuy: “It’s the first place I’ve lived where I’m manifestly a gentrifier, and I’m conscious of changing the space when I walk down the street,” he says. “I’m forced to confront that phenomenon every day. And it’s complicated, since the economic reality is such that everyone is being made to ask whether or not we can share Brooklyn. Part of me wants to believe it’s possible, but there are structural inequities, greedy developers and rapacious interests that work mightily against us.” I’m still thinking through what it means to be here, and the possibilities for participating in something other than gentrification.

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

Here’s a comic I drew in 2007 with Jeff T. Johnson. It’s about the time we accidentally wandered into the Park Slope Food Coop, unaware that we needed membership cards to shop there. Ironically, I became a member in 2011, and the Coop is now one of my favorite spaces in Brooklyn.

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

Community is only apparently a concrete noun. Really, it’s an action, a state, or something that occurs like a glimmer on stained glass, revealing itself via moments shared with others. Like everything, these instances are fleeting, so these moments—these flickers of community—are preserved in the mind in the form of a beach, a book, a bottle, a correspondence, a meal, a song, a park, a walk. Time moves. Community must always be made and remade, thought and rethought.

Some of the people who shape and reshape moments of community in my life are poets, and some aren’t. With those people who are poets, I often don’t find myself talking about poetry: our fellowship is entwined with something else. I can say, however, that most of the company I keep is concerned on some level with poetics, or how language exists in the world, not to mention imaginary worlds.

All of the above being said, I do feel like I’ve found an important community around WordHack, the series I curate at Babycastles Gallery, although I suppose it’s not a community entirely oriented around poetry, per se. The community is always in flux, but my time spent around it comprises some of the warmer glimmers around community I feel.

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

If Brooklyn has an all-time poet laureate, it’s Jay Z. Otherwise, many of my colleagues, friends and students are Brooklyn poets who are important to me. And some of my favorite Brooklyn poets are people who don’t identify as poets! Too many once-Brooklyn poets are now no longer here, but they’re still with me.

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

C.D. Wright, my thesis advisor at Brown University, was a model of the kind of person and teacher and writer in the world all of my selves aspired and aspire to be. There was no telling where her teaching self stopped and her personal self began, and she gave and gave and gave and shared and gave—from bath towels to books, music to facsimile letters. From C.D., I learned to be more good-humored about being in crisis in public (we’re all in crisis: the world is the case). And along the lines of craft, how to articulate her editorial eye and ear: a brilliant line edit here (one that would alter a poem’s entire landscape); a structural suggestion that radically shifted the architecture of a manuscript there (repetition as a form of change). Important mentors illuminate parts of you you didn’t know could be illuminated, and C.D. helped illuminate the parts of me that were alive and awake, something for which I am infinitely grateful.

I also think of John Cayley’s generosity and good humor every day. He was an independent study advisor of mine at Brown and remains one of my favorite people. As a teacher, I aspire to treat students with as much autonomy, collegiality and respect as John does.

Ross Gay—who taught my undergraduate Readings in Contemporary Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh—is one of the most beautiful, generous and warm human beings I’ve ever met. He attended our (literally sophomoric!) open mic readings and took us to Indian dinners. The last time I saw Ross was at the launch for his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and he brought everyone in the audience mango-chili lime popsicles, just one example of how he navigates the world in a good way, which happens to be a phrase from an email he once sent me that I repeat to myself every day. Navigate the world in a good way!

Sharon McDermott and Tony Petrosky were two of my first poetry mentors, both remarkable humans with whom I have memories of sharing coffee and meals and tears (always in tears, undergraduate Claire) and walks. Sharon was the first mentor to encourage me to publish my work—I had never thought of trying to reach an audience before she made the suggestion. Tony introduced me to brown rice, Robert Creeley and meditative practices. These days, I feel lucky to be able to exchange syllabi and small press recommendations with him.

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

Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees for being a thinking text with an ingenious narrative structure (a protagonist and his partner’s daughter wait for his partner to come home: will she?). Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl for this quote: “I knew then that I never want to contribute to the corrosiveness of wanting someone to stay hidden.” The last pages of Finnegan’s Wake for embodying a sonic wilderness wherein time passes in the shape of desire, “and it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad fear father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.” Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace for its treatment of the void. César Aira’s How I Became a Nun for its poisonous strawberry ice cream.

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

One day, I’ll finally read Tristam Shandy.

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 mostly read physical books but also download a lot of PDFs from Aaaaarg that I read on my iPad. Unless I’m reading on a plane, I tend to dip in and out and glean and am terrible at linear narratives: my mind wanders and gets stuck on punctuation marks and sonic lattices and suddenly I don’t know where I am. Often on the first day of classes I teach, I offer this phrase: read with a pen. Or listen with it. Or think.

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

Apart from the steel kitchen table at my home, I like to read and write on the train—with apologies! I know this sounds hackneyed!

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The Park Slope Food Coop is the only place where I buy groceries, and I am always visibly overly enthusiastic about working checkout there. For drinks and good lighting: Alice’s Arbor, Doris, Dynaco and Sisters. For fun after architecture reviews at Pratt Institute: Marietta and Brooklyn Public House. For mind, body and breath: The Shala Yoga House and Tangerine Hot Power Yoga. Unnameable Books and Greenlight Books, naturally. Captured Tracks and Rough Trade Records for vinyl. Furthermore, I really, really love visiting Red Hook, getting a coffee from Baked and walking to Fairway while also stopping to look at plants on the way.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate [redacted],
And what I [redacted] you [redacted],
For every [redacted] me as good [redacted] you.

Why Brooklyn?

This monologue via Lou Reed comes to mind, but substitute “New York” with “Brooklyn.”