July 19–25, 2021
Cynthia Roman Cabrera is a loudmouth Dominican and Puerto Rican native of Brooklyn who grew up in the Bronx. She is a storyteller and poet exploring culture and identity, cityscape, “familismo” and the healing of her inner child. It is important for her to write in Spanglish as a way to challenge the ways in which the writing field traditionally labels writers, draws boundaries around what is considered worthy work, and contributes to the erasure of marginalized and targeted storytellers. Her experiences as a scholar, broke girl, comelona, reader, advocate and queer person in love help shape and transform her work. She has been published in changing womxn collective, HerStry, Breadcrumbs, Spanglish Voces and the Bronx Magazine. This past spring, Cynthia was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Ariel Francisco’s Portals into Language workshop on poetry in translation.
Author photo by Karla Gil
I carried home in a bag
the bright fluorescent light,
casts the room white,
pales the bobbing heads
of my siblings violent in sleep.
the shelter swallows us,
dónde está mami?
october snow covers
our black bags
across the slushy pavement,
noise amplifies the sleep-deaf ears.
heavy in sleep and ice.
the cheese bus finally pulls up,
bitter fall air gnaws
raw with detail
sparks of splintering shit.
as we shuffle our heavy bags,
disguised as strangers’ belongings,
landing our asses on green plastic seats
poking at our resistance
the yellow street lamp offers veil service
to the black bags seemingly light in
yellow bus blinding
we step into a harlem shelter,
the city different when home
pounds the toes cold.
the doors are projects brown,
bodies picked and sorted
into rooms, as we climb the stairs
onto a third-floor brick winter.
one by one we crawl onto cold
blankets—stale dust, cigarettes, yellow
streetlamp tucks us to slumber.
my sister at the bottom, me on the top bunk,
my brother already gone y la chiquita
plays tag with her sleep.
coat and boots laced up, tight.
mami is nowhere.
lullabies shiver with sleep
into the longest shortest night,
black bags rest, unhook after a long day
thunder in hurry
am so cold,
they pound on doors.
homelessness is never tardy.
black bags slung over droopy shoulders,
eye bags run away the stiff cold.
we board the bus towards
fluorescent lights and tired mothers
light so bright
closed eyes see yolky yellow,
blinking light away
only to find the light swells
your eyeballs into hazy circles,
broken looking glass.
i am afraid.
responsible for the four of us.
my shivers are a reminder that I am here
so, I follow the shadow of sleep to
the cold tiled floors, find a body
awaken the light.
and ask the moon
why she sleeps,
as the dust settles
the grinding gears of my jaw.
i scratch at the cold,
and moan for release
Tell us about the making of this poem.
When I was twelve, my parents decided to move us from New York City to Orlando, Florida, after the first and only time we took a family trip together. We lived in dusty-ass Florida for one year and ran our asses back to the Bronx. In that running back, we left my dad behind who wanted to buy a house and own up to why we even left the Bronx. But we returned to nothing in New York. My dad has been a super of a residential building for my entire life. So, without my dad providing, my mom had to get creative. This is the story of the first day we walked into the shelter system. It is the visceral memories of absolute fear and confusion in this foreign space I was inhabiting and of the incredible loneliness of being thirteen years old, watching out for my siblings while simultaneously trying to hold it together. I began writing this poem when I was twenty-two, but it continues to be a piece that feels incomplete. I needed to write this poem because I felt like I was choking, my nightmares would take me to those fluorescent lights and hold me hostage in the fear of my childhood self.
What are you working on right now?
I am pulling together my first chapbook, a collection of poems around one unifying theme! I am working my way up to writing a full-length fictional story.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is usually a Sunday because I give myself permission to let my day guide me, which is dramatic for me because I love to control my days. It involves a full breakfast—always savory—followed by a walk outside to write by some trees or people-watch for inspiration. I love to cook, so I would have some bomb lunch mostly guided by a greasy craving. Maybe I would see a friend to feel my Virgo rising mellow out because that bitch just needs to relax. Light up a blunt, listen to Kali Uchis and feel empowered to start the new week ahead with my ever-growing list of shit to do.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I am originally from Brooklyn but after my mom had my sister, we moved to the Bronx, then Washington Heights. My family eventually settled in the Bronx, though.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I left Brooklyn when I was really young, so I connect a lot with the Bronx. It is where I developed my strength and resilience. I experienced some traumatic moments in the Bronx and people around me showed me that there was no space to dwell, which we see in Brooklyn too. People create magic even in the face of poverty, violence and instability. The Bronx has changed so much since I left ten years ago for college. I remember the first time I saw a white person on my block, I thought I saw a fucking ghost. It is too much change. Over the past five years, apartment prices in my neighborhood have increased and there is a lot of shifting. You can see it with the Chinese food prices—they go up when white people move in. Where are we supposed to go and have our community? The New York we know today is because of us Bronx and Brooklyn heads creating art with nothing. When I travel and return home, I know it because I hear salsa music, I can breathe better, believe it or not (hahaha), because I feel more free. There is nothing like being home in the Bronx.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
My poetry community is mostly in the States. However, as a Dominican and Boricua poet currently living outside the States, I gravitate towards storytellers who are outsiders, who grew up with a lot of culture and now try to make home wherever culture lives. My poetry community is informed by my identity as a first-generation hija, so spaces that are multilingual allow me to practice Spanglish in my writing. When I return to the States I will return to this community because the slam poetry community in Europe feels performative, like someone mimicking Def Poetry Jam robotically. Performing in Barcelona, while it has been a huge privilege to do so, has felt tokenizing because I believe I write from a place of strife, pain and trauma that many folks here have not experienced. So, many times the writing community just feels alienating as fuck.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I don’t have any real life sit-down-let’s-talk-about-your-poetry mentors. I am still grappling with where I want my work to fit into the writing landscape, so if you know someone willing to provide guidance, hit me up! My mentors really are my writing friends. My community guides and challenges me to go beyond my own understanding of language. Poets like Elizabeth Acevedo, Elisabet Velasquez, Lorraine Avila, Danez Smith and Alan Pelaez Lopez serve as everyday examples and community guides in my writing because they take vulnerability, worldmaking and words to create true art. I am honored to be experiencing their work as I develop mine.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I love books or poems that make me feel a strong emotion. I devour books because I know being a good reader makes me a good writer. That being said, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous were everything. I love me some erotic nontraditional voices such as Diamond Forde’s “fat girl Climaxes While Working Out at the Gym” or cityscape poems like Cintia Santana’s “Los Ángeles” or petty writers like Myriam Gurba in Mean.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I have a huge list of books on my Goodreads account, so any of those books tbh. I want to make my way through all Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde and Edwidge Danticat books.
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 like to always be on the lookout for good books. I actually have a list of transformative texts, which inform my interest in reading about liberation within targeted communities. And I have my “fun” list, where poetry books and fiction are my go-to. I like to read one book at a time, but with digital books that gets difficult to manage because there are so many options! I prefer to read physical books because the screen hurts my eyeballs after working remotely for eight hours. But, until I return Stateside, digital it will be! I do not take notes, but I love folding the page in places that feel significant so I can readily reread.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I have been interested in adding music to a few pieces! I have always loved the idea of performing to music, almost like Boricua bomba dancers dance with the main drum. Preferably, I would like to work with musician friends since I love music and want to give my work more life! This is definitely inspired by having grown up to salsa greats Willie Colón and Rubén Blades telling important stories with a big-ass orchestra as a tool to convey messages to bigger audiences.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I want to attend a writers retreat digitally, write naked in a cabin surrounded by big-ass trees anywhere in the world!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate with pride, and sing the city crash and tide
And what I gain in slight you take with frail flight,
For every yerrr walking the streets with me is as good a dismissal of the weak pale among you.
Brooklyn is where you come to be amongst the greatest! Don’t ever forget to honor the legacies they have created so we can be our fullest selves.