Poet Of The Week

Daniella Toosie-Watson

     February 28–March 6, 2022

Daniella Toosie-Watson (they/them) is a poet, visual artist and educator from New York. They have received fellowships and awards from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, VONA, the InsideOut Detroit Literary Arts Project and the University of Michigan Hopwood Program. A winner of the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest in 2020, Daniella has been published in Callaloo, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Paris Review, Poet Lore, the Cincinnati Review and elsewhere. They are currently the profile writer for the Kennedy Center’s Next 50 initiative. Daniella received their MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. On Thursday, March 3, they will read online as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.

Cedar Waxwing

 

I’m sitting on the front stoop of my apartment

when a flock of birds interrupts my sadness

and guzzles up the berries on the tree next to me.

My neighbor walks by and I show her the birds

and she throws her arms in the air

as if she has just won something or her team

scored the goal or made the shot at the buzzer

and exclaims, I KNOW THOSE BIRDS,

and I ask, Then please, tell me, and she tells me:

Cedar Waxwing, a group of which is called an “earful” or “museum,” ironic because you must be thinking,

by now, what an earful to be hearing all about these birds

but at least I’m not telling you why I was sitting on the stoop

and why I didn’t want to go back into my apartment

that has become a museum of my sadness

and it doesn’t take much to assume

why a flock of these birds would be called an “earful”

with their high-pitched trill but in all my searching

I can’t find or figure out why museum. But did you know

that cedar waxwings can get drunk from

berries that have begun to ferment and then smash

themselves into windows? Perhaps all birds are drunk,

drunk, drunk, clumsily cutting through the air on a bar crawl

from tree to fermented berry tree then smashing

into the glass and one by one swirling to the ground

but imagine the force of an entire flock breaking

through the window and it’s a mad, drunken

party of birds in my living room and they find me, too,

drunk on the floor and they swoop me up in their social whirl

and their trill is now the song that we dance to

and no one can tell us that it is not a song

and this time I don’t take the broken glass

and I don’t cut myself with it and I don’t

wake up in the morning regretting the pour and

the cut and the inevitable scar

and I go outside and sit on the stoop and say thank you

to the birds for being there.

 

⁠—Originally published in A Long House, September 2020.

Brooklyn Poets · Daniella Toosie-Watson, "Cedar Waxwing"

Tell us about the making of this poem

I wrote “Cedar Waxwing” thinking about one of my favorite poems, Ross Gay’s “Opera Singer.” It was my third year, my fellowship year, of my MFA. Grad school was a very lonely time for me, and so, naturally, I was sitting on the front stoop of my apartment building being lonely and brooding. But the tree next to me was filled with these birds that I hadn’t seen before and it absolutely delighted me, so much so that I had to share the news with my very kind neighbor who happened to be walking by. My neighbor mirrored my excitement and shouted “I know those birds!” and told me all about cedar waxwings and how they lived near their parents’ house. Later I told another friend about the birds and she told me that a group of cedar waxwings is called an “earful” or “museum” and I just couldn’t not write a poem about them and how they helped me that day.

The next day I sat and wrote out the poem, with the emotional trajectory of “Opera Singer” guiding the release of information of “Cedar Waxwing.” Starting with the grief, followed by the moment that an external, lovely thing leads the speaker out of their interiority and into the world of the symbol—in my case, the birds. And then, of course, ending with gratitude. Please read “Opera Singer,” by the way.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a memoir, potentially in verse, titled What We Do with God. Since childhood I’ve seen visions and heard voices. My mother always encouraged me to lean into those experiences with gratitude, naming them as gifts from my Puerto Rican matriarchal lineage. She sees apparitions and has visions, and tells me that my great-grandmother did as well. These encounters provide insight and guidance for both the present and future. Psychiatrists, however, say that my visions and voices are symptoms of either a psychological or neurological disorder. The memoir does not try to determine causalities of illness, spiritual gifting, or both, but instead uses elements of horror, surrealism and magical realism to engage questions of how, where and why ancestral mysticism and Western pathology intersect and/or diverge. By reflecting on my experiences as a Puerto Rican woman and engaging with questions of diaspora and the dispersion of traditions, I’m able to write into the intersection of spirituality and mental health in a cross-cultural context. The book will largely be scaffolded with stories about my mother’s work as a dog trainer. I’ve been writing essays having to do with how her work as a trainer relates to mental health for both of us, so I’m excited to see how this scaffolding takes form on a larger scale.

What’s a good day for you?

On a good day, I’ve most likely danced salsa in my room with my dog and cat walking around my feet. Perhaps I’ve read a poem I really loved and sent it to a friend. Maybe I wrote a poem about a love interest and sent it to them if our relationship was in a place where I could share it. A good day for me is intimacy where I feel safe after and we indulge in a yummy snack like chocolate chip cookies while watching The Good Place. On that good day I definitely drank water and Facetimed with my dear friend, Sammy. I live with mental illness and CPTSD so, mostly, a good day for me is when my brain is clear, focused and present.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Home life is difficult and I needed a place to go where I had an established community of chosen family. I have good friends here. When I saw the ad for a queer-friendly apartment, I reached out and it ended up working out.

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

I was introduced to my first writing community at the 2015 Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. In order to write what was most urgent to me, I had to unpack harmful notions I held about my ethnic identity. I’m Puerto Rican, Iranian and Russian. I arrived to Callaloo with shame, feeling that I had no singular, collective narrative to write into. Vievee Francis talked to us about how we are not obligated to write into a common narrative; that although the collective is vitally important, there is no collective without individual stories, and those stories have the power to shift and create new dimensions within our literary and cultural landscapes. I was not alone in thinking, falsely, that my personal story wasn’t important enough to be told. As a cohort, we held and lifted one another and strived for a new autonomy. Learning that our stories held power opened up new possibilities for growth and for personal and literary agency. That’s what my poet-friends do for me. They hold me while I look at myself, to help me when I see things that I’m afraid of or just don’t like. They let me know that it’s okay to see myself.

I’ve only been in Brooklyn a week, but I know that I have community here because a good number of my Callaloo family lives here. I’m excited for whom else I’ll be able to connect with.
 
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Jayson P. Smith is my heart. We met at the 2016 Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. We felt connected to one another just about immediately. I remember when a bunch of the fellows were gathered at a food spot, I made an avocado joke (I don’t remember the joke but I assure you there was no avocado slander), hoping it landed with Jayson in particular, because I wanted to be their friend and I wanted them to think I was funny, and Jayson laughed! I was proud of myself, ha! We spent most days of the two-week residency together in their very cute and writerly-feeling apartment, whatever that means. Jayson has been witness to my growth as a writer and, you know, human, and it means the most to me to be fully seen and still loved. I’m grateful for their friendship.

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

Vievee Francis. Vievee taught me about the importance of using my full voice. She taught me about being brave. She taught me about kindness. She taught me how not to take shit from people in academia and in the field. She’s the one who suggested I apply to the University of Michigan’s MFA program, and when I got in, I was lucky that she was the first visiting writer. At dinner, she told me always to stand my ground, no matter who the person is, to stand my ground. That things would whirlwind around me because the people I had to stand up to weren’t used to being stood up to, but just to hold on and eventually the chaos would settle. Those words held me when I had to defend myself in academic spaces. When my “allies” left me to defend myself, Vievee’s words helped sustain me. Now, she is my friend. It’s not hyperbole when I say that my friend changed my world.

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

I was at a romantic partner’s apartment recently. We were meeting for the first time in their plant-filled, lights-strung-across-exposed-pipe, book-piled apartment. We were talking about God and performance poetry. When I was more of a God-following person (not that I’m not, but that’s for another interview) I used to always say before a performance that I was speaking to “an audience of one,” that is, my God, and it calmed me. In this new lover’s apartment, in the middle of this conversation about poetry and God, I looked at a stack of books and the book at the top was An Audience of One by Gerald Barrax. I pointed it out to my partner and he read me a favorite poem of his. My god. Achingly beautiful.

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

Oh, I’ve been wanting to read Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. I’ve started and stopped since grad school but because of my ADHD it’s quite difficult for me to get through novels.

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 want to answer this without also talking about my history with reading. Reading is actually quite hard for me. When I was an English major in undergrad, I think I finished one book I was supposed to read for class. Not because I didn’t want to, but ADHD and several health issues makes reading difficult. I did essays mostly by listening to the lectures and what classmates said during class discussion and came to my own conclusions from there. When I got to grad school, I realized quickly that that wasn’t going to work. My first year at the University of Michigan, I spent hours very painfully trying to read through my assignments. I cried so much. It took me close to an hour to read ten pages of the 400-page books we had to read each week, along with supplementary articles. With the help of medication for my anxiety and depression, which helped with my focus, I was able gradually to teach myself how to read through texts, and by my second year I was able to get through a hundred pages with far more ease. I didn’t need my friends to read to me anymore. Being able finally to read opened up a world of possibilities for my poetry.

Now I’m out of practice, so reading has gotten harder, but not as bad as it initially was. I’ve needed to find techniques to help me sit and focus. I find that digital books are far easier for me to sit and focus with because I don’t see the pages ahead of me. I can take them one page at a time. If I’m reading a physical book, I have a pen and paper next to me to give my brain comfort that I might do something else besides just reading. I might write something, too.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
 
I don’t work much in traditional form. I find formal constraint to be helpful to my writing practice, though, so I’d like to explore more of what that can do for my writing.

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

I love writing with friends at their homes. I get sad when I frequent a place too often, including my bedroom. Eventually, my bedroom always becomes a sad place. That’s why I’m always decorating and redecorating and moving things around. I need to make it new. Anyway, I love coworking, and I love my friends, so I love working in my friends’ spaces. New spaces, new poems.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate dancing salsa alone,

And what I gave to you, I give to myself,

For every sweating song, taut against me, proclaims me as good. Look: my body, further (further) away from you.