Poet Of The Week

D. Nurkse

     July 7–13, 2014

D. Nurkse is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently A Night in Brooklyn, The Border Kingdom, Burnt Island and The Fall, from Alfred Knopf. He served as Poet Laureate of Brooklyn from 1996 to 2001. A recipient of awards and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Poetry Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Nurkse has also written on human rights and was elected to the board of Amnesty International-USA for a 2007-2010 term. He has taught poetry at Rikers Island Correctional Facility as well as at MFA programs at Rutgers, Brooklyn College and Stonecoast. He currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

Twilight In Canarsie

In these long slant-lit streets, she says,
you will find factories that once made shoehorns,
waffle irons, or pearl cufflinks, and storefront churches
where voices adored the Living God while tambourines
clashed a little behind the beat, and Jiffy Lubes,
and beauty parlors where bored calico cats
licked their paws disdainfully, perhaps a movie house
with posters of Garbo and a marquee with detachable vowels,
a candy store selling egg cremes and roped red licorice,
a little bar with a jar of pig trotters and a lone fly
stumbling in and out of a shaft of daylight, a library
reeking of mucilage, a funeral home with bas-relief columns,
a shoe repairman listening to scores from Chicago,
the tenement where we made love and each thrust
carried us deeper into the past, as if we were an engine
careening back to childhood, then the shunting yard,
the park with its whirling jump rope, the red brick school
that manufactured absolutes, Sphere, Pyramid, Dodecahedron,
while children tried to carve their names clear through their desks,
the cemetery of lovers immobilized by marble wings—

why is it always twilight when we die, she asks,
and Canarsie where we are born again?

–From A Night in Brooklyn, Knopf, 2012.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I had fun with this poem. It’s unashamedly playing with Brooklyn mythos. Different nabes in Brooklyn are suspended in different historical periods, like stars in different galaxies—my Brooklyn is childhood Brooklyn, spaldeens and egg creams, not pinot noir and truffles.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m working on historical poems.

What’s a good day for you?

Mostly, a day without pain, or a day with children.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?

I’ve lived in Brooklyn since 1973. In Windsor Terrace and now in Kensington.

What do you like most about it?

I love the immigrant vigor of Kensington—the signs in Malayalam and Hausa, people speaking Ladino, a rabbi and a Polish trucker bumping fists and saying, “No pasarán.” It’s eccentric. And people let their kids play on the street—serious little kids on diminutive bicycles, not ironic kids playing Grand Theft Auto. In Windsor Terrace, I lived in an Italian neighborhood where neighbors brought me figs in a wicker basket in fig season.

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

In pre-spandex Brooklyn, I was one of the first joggers. Once a wide man in wrap-around shades and a white Impala shouted at me, “Kid, you’ll never get away from them like that. Twenty bucks and I put you in my trunk and take you to Bayonne.” I didn’t accept his offer.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

I’m going to take the risk of listing some poets I love, strictly in alphabetical order, current and recent Brooklynites: I love to see these names take shape on the page—some of these are poets of international stature—but I hate knowing I’ll be leaving out someone indispensable (I’m away from my books). Forgive me—I probably don’t know that you live in Brooklyn.

L.S. Asekoff, Paul Auster, Roger Bonair-Agard, Donna Brook, Tina Chang, Jan Clausen, Enid Dame, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Daniela Gioseffi, Jessica Greenbaum, Margot Farrington, Matthea Harvey, Robert Hershon, Gale Jackson, Patricia Spears Jones, Marc Kaminsky, Joan Larkin, Rika Lesser, Donald Lev, Philip Levine, Meghan O’Rourke, Luis Rodriguez, Jason Schneiderman, Harvey Shapiro, Vijay Seshadri and Mervyn Taylor.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

BookCourt, The Community Bookstore, Greenlight Books, Babbo’s Books.

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

The Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in good weather, the library of The Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Writers Space.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Sistas’ Place in Bed-Stuy for jazz; the Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival; Barbès in Park Slope for world music; a bluefish charter out of Sheepshead Bay at dawn; African American history at Weeksville in Bed-Stuy; Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue; the great Olmsted-Vaux parks (not just Prospect Park!) designed like walk-in dioramas, so every vista opens up when you emerge from an underpass or come to a clearing: like nature, and like taking a walk inside the mind of a genius.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

This is cheating, but Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. This is disciplined and compassionate writing that refrains from distancing the characters; Tóibín really hones and reins in the authorial voice.

Why Brooklyn?

Why Brooklyn? It’s the antipodes—the place of struggle and transition, forty years in the wilderness for some, Canaan for others. It has the allure of a threshold—I once read that a quarter of Americans passed through the borough. It’s the largest African American borough in the US, or was last time I looked. You could spend your life traveling the world here for the price of a bus fare.