Poet Of The Week

Constantine Jones

     August 19–25, 2019

Constantine Jones is a queer Greek-American thingmaker raised in Tennessee and currently housed in Brooklyn. They teach creative writing at the City College of New York, where they earned an MFA. Their work has found homes in the PEN Poetry Series, Blood Tree, Stone Pacific, Hematopoiesis and Fugue, and has been displayed or performed at various venues across the city. Jones’s poem “Screening” was selected by Mark Doty as runner-up in the 23+ age bracket of our Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest.

Screening

 
When I heard the news I just walked back to the house.

Ate a Fruit Roll-Up cause I had to have something on my stomach.

Smoked a cigarette on the walk to the train smoked another one didn’t look anyone in the eye spent a very long 3 minutes just deciding what to listen to before going under ( decided on Cher’s Believe ).

My ma she got that Believe album right when it came out in ’98 we’d listen to it every single day in the car back to front to this day I think it’s the perfect pop album I always thought a Cher as another mother.

I remember being the new kid at my middle school one a the get-to-know-you questions was about what music you like I said I mostly only listen to Cher all the other kids literally laughed about that all year.

Anyway I took the train to 14th St. went to meet S. at our usual spot.

Ordered 2 eggs over easy fries toast coffee ham more coffee we talked about everything else about everything we usually talk about everything we usually do I went to the bathroom asked where is it even though I knew.

Afterward I signed my cross in front a the icon a the Παναγία by the register I smoked another cigarette on the walk noticed that particular blue on the flaking rusted fence smoked another walked a long way with S. to the High Line we sat on the wooden benches & watched the air making waves on the fresh scaffolding nets a big new construction job we took turns trying to come up with a word for it.

S. she asked me do I think this will all still be here in a hundred years.

I said who knows & we kept walking looking into other people’s windows.

I didn’t call my mother back.

Didn’t call T. either it was bout to be her birthday that week.

That weekend I was waiting for D. to come over to the house.

He was busy at work on a drawing so I packed a little bag took a car to see him cause a the rain we ordered Mexican food fajitas & small plates from the good spot down on Fulton they’re always late he says we should of just walked it.

We ended up walking anyway to the place on Bedford for an avocado some beer Greek yogurt he bought me a ginger ale.

On the way back we talked about ghosts & “The Body.”

Somehow the phrase Don’t talk to L. about HIV was said she doesn’t think it’s real anyway I’m not gonna go around fucking just anybody cause I’m terrified was said.

After we finished our food we sat on his bed in that little room his clothes spilling out the hamper Life Saver mints & fortune cookies napkins & the occasional condom on his dresser sheets a materials that maybe he could use for a project some day all his drawings taped up against the white walls everything smudged.

I am brushing pencil shavings off the duvet when I tell him the news how some body / some boy ( not sure who ) flooded my guts with this strain.

He is quiet he takes my hand I fumble with his fingernails we say to each other I love you but I know it already I knew it years ago at the foot a his driveway I know it now in the way he opens me a beer in the way he turns my favorite Gaga song on the one with the line you got to earn your leather in this part of town.

I know it in the way he asks me what do I think about that shadow just before he finishes his drawing of a mattress wrapped in black film taped together.

He calls it nothing is precious but we both know.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

It’s strange for me to even think of this as a poem by itself. I’m by nature a project person—it’s very hard for me to write “one-offs” or standalone pieces of anything. I used to think that was some kind of detriment in me as someone who labors with language, like I’d never be able to just distill a feeling into ten or twelve lines. But now I’m realizing how important it is for me to have room to let things unspool and collide at their own pace. I’ve really leaned into it as a defining part of my practice. This poem is actually the final movement of my manuscript The Gut, which itself is a very strange hybrid poetry-memoir concerning, among other things, growing up queer in Tennessee, being raised Greek-American by the children of immigrants, losing my grandmothers to dementia and being diagnosed HIV+. When I first read the call for the Whitman Bicentennial I thought, well, if any slice of this book can sit beside that question—“What is it then between us?”—this must be the one. I’m incredibly grateful that Mark Doty seemed to think so too. His work has really been a rock for me.

What are you working on right now?

So much. I don’t know how not to. For the past year or so I’ve been working on a multimodal poetry project called [ Ruins.In.Progress. ]—essentially an ongoing document of the disorientation I feel carrying around all these colliding identities. What does it mean to be young and HIV+ in a “post-epidemic” America? What does specifically Greek-American culture look like in a country which considers Greece a dead civilization, an ancient culture? What is this strange kinship I feel to structures in various states of disrepair, and how do these sites reflect our relationship with the planet more largely? It’s a lot, I know.

Poetry is the backbone, sure, but I’m also incorporating elements of photography, sound art, visuals and performance. So there’s a lot less pressure getting this “book-ready,” if that makes sense. I imagine it much more spatially, more physically in the world. Ideally I’d love to install or exhibit it somewhere in the future. I guess I’m just very drawn to that collision of language and everything else. It’s important to me on a fundamental level. I don’t work on it every day, but it’s always there. It’s comforting to always have one project on my mind. I’m your textbook gig-culture millennial working four jobs at any given time. So there’s very little room for my mind to wander. But when it does, I take comfort in knowing that it’s wandering the same terrain.

What’s a good day for you?

Waking up to a big question mark of a day, when I can’t see the whole thing already in front of me. Sitting on the floor with the folks I care for, doing absolutely nothing, but together.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

A total fluke, but a lucky one. Here I am.

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 been in Crown Heights for a few years now. Same place—one room in a little two-level house. I love it for so many reasons. I know my neighbors, see the same folks on the streets every day. Everything there right now is still very family-owned, very much a neighborhood. There’s a unity there that reminds me of places I’ve lived in Tennessee which are much smaller, much more kept to themselves. But of course it’s changing.

There’s a building across the street from me I’ve been documenting since I moved in. Three years ago it was just a gutted house—you could see right through the windows to the inner brick walls, no ceiling or anything. Then eventually it got bought up. Then the folks next door moved out and that got bought up too. Sure enough, after a while some company decided to swoop in, stack two extra stories onto it, turn it into one of these keycard type apartments that I guess is supposed to look hip or modern or sleek or whatever. Pass it off as a “renovation.” But you can feel the whole block just waiting to see who moves in.

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

The waiting room at my local clinic is simply the most diverse place I have ever been, and I’m there at least three times a month for various checkups. So many different folks living such wildly different experiences, but for a few hours a day we’re stuck together. One day a woman struck up a conversation with another woman beside her, who was seated on a mobility aid. Turns out she was a singer, forty-some years old, three kids. She started playing music from her YouTube channel on her phone. Talking about how she’s not about to let her disability get in the way of her pursuing her passion. At one point someone else in the waiting room hollered at the front desk to turn the TV down so we could all hear her sing. It was really just a gorgeous moment of togetherness.

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

Speaking of togetherness, the question of community is always a tricky one for me. On one hand it’s so comforting to be surrounded by kindred folks—whether that kinship is because of culture, queerness, craft, etc.—but on the other I always worry that the thing we have in common will become the only thing we have in common. Blessedly, I haven’t found that to be the case here. I mean specifically here, at Brooklyn Poets. The folks I’ve met through Yawps, workshops, readings, etc. are just so wonderful. So in the world in so many different ways. And the thing is, it doesn’t feel like the poetry is separate from that at all—why should it be? We all move through the world and live our lives and the poetry is always just overhead, like a warm cloud. It can come down any time.

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

God, there are so many. I don’t know where I’d be without Cynthia Cruz, Joanna Valente or Robert Balun in my life. They are just absolute lights and such caring friends. Also big love to Joe Nasta for bringing me to my first Yawp and publishing some of my [ Ruins.In.Progress ] over at Stone Pacific.

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

I didn’t have a formal poetry education until I moved here. Every literature class I ever took, from high school on, maybe we’d have one or two days devoted to poetry. Dante, Homer, maybe some William Carlos Williams if we were lucky. But it was always taught so matter-of-fact, like there was an answer to the poem that none of us could see.

In a sense, that put poetry too far away, like some ancient forest I had no business wandering through. So my first real poetry ancestors were (and still are) musicians—Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Diamanda Galás, Lucinda Williams. And all their musical references led me even further outwards—into the blues, into country and folk music, into performance art. Now I feel a similarly deep appreciation for poets with that same sort of approach to language. Poets who write with where they come from on their teeth. It took a long time, but music is really what gave me permission to write as me, in my own voice, instead of trying to fake this capital “P” Poet I thought I had to be.

Still, it’d be wrong of me not to acknowledge David Groff, Michelle Valladares and Cynthia Cruz—they were the first people I felt actually saw me, heard my voice, said yes, you absolutely belong here, and you have work to do. I’m so grateful for them, as both trusted mentors and cherished friends.

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

Lord, I have had the most tremendous poetry crush on Joshua Jennifer Espinoza for years. I was rereading There Should Be Flowers again not long ago just open-jawed the whole time. I think I’ll always cite “The Moon is Trans” as one of my favorite poems ever. I hear her book I’m Alive. It Hurts. I Love It. is in a second printing via Big Lucks too, which is really exciting.

A while back I saw Eileen Myles and Tiana Clark read together, which sent me back to Inferno and I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood—both golden. I can’t even do words to that night, I admire them both so much. I mean Inferno totally turned my brain around—especially after reading Eileen’s response to an interview question where they said, “A novel gets to explore as many positions as it wants. That variety would kill a poem unless it was a long one. My novel is my long poem, too.”

Two of Tiana’s recent long poems, “Broken Ode for the Epigraph” and “I Masturbate Then Pray to God” honestly sent me. Her work has also given me so much permission to let my poems sprawl out, take up space, wander around as much as they need to till they get somewhere worth resting a while. I have to stop or else I’ll be singing praises all day (then again, maybe we need more of that).

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

Not poetry, but I’m just now getting around to reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy on the recommendation of a dear friend. I’m stunned. Sci-fi and fantasy were my first loves—really the genres that opened me up to reading in the first place. And there’s so much to love about this series already (I’m only halfway through the first book) but the way ecological concern is dramatized really resonates with me. I was also excited about Nightboat’s fortieth-anniversary reprint of Larry Mitchell and Ned Asta’s The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. It’s been in and out of my bag since it came out. I’ve had my roommate’s copy of Moby-Dick by my bed for almost a year now, too. It’s actually the perfect book to dip in and out of over time, and so damn strange (which is the highest compliment I could pay a book).

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 don’t know how people just do one at a time. I feel unmoored when I don’t have lots of things to read. Like, what if I finish this book on the way to work? What am I gonna read on the way back? That thought actually stresses me out. I think also it’s nice to have mental and emotional pathways handy. Because books are worlds too. Working life can get real routine real quick, so it’s comforting I think—carrying around a few different portals with me every day.

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

To stop starting sentences with “I.” There’s only so many directions a thought can go when you set it up with “I.”

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

Parks, riverbanks, beaches, anywhere outside. First time I read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves was years ago on a beach in Crete, when we went to visit family, and that was a holy experience in every sense.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Walking Eastern Parkway out to Prospect Park. You can really get lost in there, I mean really wander, lose your sense of direction. I grew up an hour’s drive from the Smoky Mountains and I think that’s what I miss the most about home—the freedom to up and leave for the woods whenever you want. So I definitely seek out spots in Brooklyn with that similar energy.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the missed call, the voicemails from Ma, the ramshackle camera phone photos: this made me think of you

And what I don’t know how to tell myself you say tell me instead

For every blue version there is one of me as good—a color I named after you.

Why Brooklyn?

Why any place or any place else?