January 18–24, 2016
Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. A Pushcart Prize-nominated poet with an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School, she has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Hedgebrook and the Vermont Studio Center. She serves as East Coast Editor of the independent press Jamii Publishing and Founder and Curator of the reading series Soul Sister Revue. Her work has appeared in African American Review, Bone Bouquet, Callaloo, DMQ Review, Kweli Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Sou’wester, Pedestal Magazine, Passages North, St. Ann’s Review and elsewhere.
People come here to be dazzled.
To be swept into carefully labeled
history of high yellow and dark skin,
like the slow roll of hands steeped
in trumpets, ivory keys or the bramble
thorns of cotton. Loud speakers trail
all visitors— did you know this one
invented peanut butter? part of the
light bulb? oh and that lotion
that makes those old kinky strands
cut straight from the root.
Some exhibits are more popular
than others. Novelty items like
Aunt Jemima’s head scarf, yellowed
slave bills of sale, basketball jerseys,
mammy saltshakers, and Obama
bobbleheads are high volume areas.
On the second floor timed to lights
and a smoke machine, a trio of
animatronic colored girls sing
doo doo doo, doodododoo, with plastic
mulatto skin covering their nuts and
bolts. Bobbed hairstyles and silk
chiffon completes the Motown
look, but somehow they seem
solemn in the lights.
Then there’s me— here she is,
here is our last little darkie.
You see the pigmentation here?
We don’t let them get that dark
these days. If pain had a shape
it would be one giant muscle,
it would be the sound the human
mind makes when you realize
you don’t own a body anymore.
I’ve been here for years now.
I can’t remember the last time
I saw the sun or felt a taproot
next to my feet, or being in love,
picking juniper berries so thick it
stains my nails like blood coming
clean. I often ask what God wants
from my face and empty body.
When the crowds and tour groups
disperse, my bones ache to
slide side by side in the dark.
Like the bison, dinosaurs, and our
blood brothers the Indians, you’ll find
my carcass in this museum—
strings around my pelvis, and thin
clear wires making my fluted bones
dance, say hi, in the last great
African mammal display.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago. I was trying to decide what makes me really afraid. I mean, we all have regular fears like skydiving, Powerpoint presentations and things that make us anxious. But real fear of pain and for safety? It’s not something you put into words often. For me, that fear is erasure. America has a history of sweeping away things that are unpleasant. What’s the saying about history being written by the victors? You walk into museums and everything is clean and simplified. With the way the world is going, I sometimes feel like they’re trying to erase us like we’re an endangered species. And I’ve actually seen mammy saltshakers. Other parts of the poem are tongue-in-cheek. It interests me when some people talk about inventions created by a Black person, as if it’s a miracle that it happened. And that Lou Reed song, “Walk on the Wild Side”? I thought of that colored girls chorus taking over parts of the exhibit. I also wondered what the speaker of the poem had to do to make it into that exhibit. What had she seen?
What are you working on right now?
I have so many poems that I started (at residencies, Yawps, classes, writing groups) and never finished! So I’m working on my backlog so to speak. I have a folder of poems that need minor revisions and a folder of major revisions. I’m also thinking of things I would tell my daughter if I had one. So I’m writing a lot of poems on things that aren’t said or talked about, like “Aunt Jemima was a Daughter Once” or “Potato Salad Shopping List aka How to Keep a Man.” My first book is coming out in June, so I’m also getting ready for that.
What’s a good day for you?
Well, a good weekend is me sleeping in, eating waffles (the new Eggos Thick & Fluffy are amazing) or meeting a friend for brunch, and reading a cheesy romance novel. A good weekday is having a non-crisis day at work, writing a poem and going to a poetry event, movie or dance class.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My siblings and I were born at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and raised in Bed-Stuy.
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?
For the last nine years I’ve lived in Canarsie. It has its quiet and loud days, but it can be real peaceful which I really like. I grew up in Smurf Village, around Utica and Fulton Avenue, and it was constant drama. Now I’m a couple of blocks away from the Canarsie pier and I have a mixture of elder neighbors and working neighbors. It’s a multiracial neighborhood and a lot of people have had their homes for years. But the cost of living here is high and I was just told about a rent increase. I think that’s a New York thing.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I’m a huge music fan and I remember seeing George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic at Wingate when I was younger. The whole park, young and old, knew every song and danced all night. A similar experience happened this past summer when Chaka Khan rocked Prospect Park. I brought my mom and we stayed through the encores. There’s something about Brooklyn and music and possibly Ley lines that makes me crazy happy.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Writing poetry is a solitary act, but it doesn’t exist outside the page without the poetry community. I’ve been lucky to find mini-communities all over the place, through organizations like Cave Canem and Callaloo, and through writing groups over the years. And finding safe spaces to write and take risks is hard. That’s actually one of the reasons I created Soul Sister Revue, so established and emerging poets could celebrate being part of the same community. Brooklyn Poets is great at creating a space for all types of poetry. I’ve met friends there who are now poetry-n-crime partners. They’ll tell me if my poem isn’t working and why. You need those outside voices because I think most poets feel too much.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Lucille Clifton is and was amazing. I have her collected works and I’m still shocked she could say so much in those small poems. She’s really great at taking leaps in poems which I’ve tried to do in my own work. Nikky Finney is someone who refuses to leave the arenas to fools. Through her I’ve learned to honor the past and think about silence. Who has voice and why? Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Ada Limón taught me that poetry can also be about joy. C.D. Wright just passed away and I just realized how much she influenced me as well. I never took a class with her, but I remember during my MFA someone quoted her saying, “In this poem I don’t want deer, I want venison.” At the time it blew my mind and I went on to read anything she had written. I still strive for venison, aka details that make a poem stick in your teeth.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just read No Surrender by Ai, Why God Is A Woman by Nin Andrews, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón and The Pink Box by Yesenia Montilla. I love books that create a world I can dip into. Each of these writers married language to real and imagined experiences, so I was hooked from page one.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I just did a reading with Rickey Laurentiis, so I’ve got to read Boy with Thorn. Swarm of Bees in High Court by Tonya M. Foster and the chapbook kwansabas by Tara Betts. Even though I’ve had Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander for years, I still haven’t gotten to it. I also have a literary subscription sickness. I have lit mags in their plastic covers waiting to be 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’m a one book at a time person unless a better book from the library comes in from my hold list, then I’ll pause a book and go to the next. I also hate not finishing a book. So even if I dislike a book, I’ll finish it just in case it gets better. I prefer physical books because I like the way the pages feel. I’m also a compulsive word-taker. I always put a blank paper in the book that I’m reading and I’ll copy words I like. Then I’ll transfer it to a little notebook. I think I have four or five notebooks by now.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On this I may be a bad Brooklynite, I don’t have specific places in Brooklyn to read or write. When I’m not writing at a library or home, I’m writing on the L or 5 train. Sometimes I’ll splurge on the BM2 express bus and get a good amount of writing or reading done.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
My favorite place would have to be Grand Army Plaza Library. I remember the first time I went there as a kid, I was in awe. It’s a huge grey building but it has a bronze gateway stenciling of characters and items from science and art. There are also quotes stenciled on and in the building and every time I see them, I feel like reading is majestic. On the Flatbush Avenue wing it says: “I go into my library, and history rolls before me. I breathe the morning air of the world while the scent of Eden’s roses yet linger on it. I see the pyramids building. I hear the shouts of the armies of Alexander.”
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate little kingdoms in your name,
And what I see and fear you take like a dark Poseidon,
For every wave pushed through to me as good as rain is to you.
To quote Jay Z and my girl-crush Santigold: Brooklyn—We Go Hard. We love hard, party hard, protest hard, do Bodegas hard, Little Debbie Cakes hard, hate hard and dance hard. And shouldn’t life be like that? Doing things to the fullest while you can?