Poet Of The Week

Darrel Alejandro Holnes

     October 29–November 4, 2018

Darrel Alejandro Holnes is a poet, professor and playwright from Panama City, Panama, and the former Panama Canal Zone. He is the coeditor of Happiness, The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry and the coauthor of PRIME: Poetry & Conversations, an Over the Rainbow List selection by the American Library Association, and On Poetics, Identity & Latinidad: CantoMundo Poets Speak Out. He is the recipient of scholarships or fellowships to Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, VCFA Postgraduate Writers Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He is the winner of the 2017 C.P. Cavafy Poetry Prize from Poetry International and was a finalist for the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, among other awards. His poems have appeared in English, Spanish and French, in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing and elsewhere. On Friday, November 16, Holnes will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 100 Bogart in Bushwick with Hadara Bar-Nadav and Pamela Sneed.

Amending Wall

                         after Robert Frost

If “crucified” means one has died
On the cross, then what is the word
In English for dying at the crossing
Between countries? What word describes
When a brown woman’s dreams of being
Something like a white man are killed
At the intersection between his dreamt-up borders
And his dream-come-true border patrol?
“White man” like dead men printed or
Minted on money more valuable
Than the pesos in her purse.
“White man” like gods on horseback come to
Conquer their India after reading a
Mistaken map. “White man” like the grace of
Misinterpreted omens turned
Into a chance for vicious attack.
“White man” like buying but outlawing
Cocaine to catch the “brown man” in the crossfire of
Its trade. “White man” like picket fences
In award-winning films about
The privilege of being “so over”
Privilege that He yearns
For something “real.”
Something there is that loves
A wall, that builds a boundary, that calls
The structure “love of country.”
Something there is that kills those who trespass.
Something there is that buries
Bodies at a border as foundation stones
For yet another wall. But something there is that doesn’t love
Fathers saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Something doesn’t love a man carving up
A continent and its people to make a new world
In the image of old words like the name of god
Instead of new words like the name of one’s own desires
To divide life into here and after by crossing an ocean
As if it were the pearly gates. O, Amerikkka,
If anywhere there are limits are beginnings and ends,
Then Heaven has to be a nothing
Loving a something loving its everything;
Then life, country, and their borders
Ain’t nothing but a thing.

—Originally published in HEArt Online, 2015.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I hear people sometimes talk about the US as some kind of experiment, as if bringing people together from vastly different cultures is something new. Sure, there are a lot of things that make this country’s history unique but sharing space with people of difference is something that has happened in many cities, city-states and countries that were important points of regional or global trade for millennia. My home country of Panama is an example of that. I started writing “Amending Wall” with a desire to explore the Frostian question “Do good fences make good neighbors?” The resulting poem took me through the story of my own migration to the US and made me reflect on the stories of many migrants from Mexico whom I learned about while living in Texas and visiting friends in border towns. I started thinking about their sacrifices and the sacrifices of Central American migrants who sometimes walk hundreds or thousands of miles to the US border for their American Dream of safety, housing, food, education and opportunity. The poem contemplates the borders of our land to be the limits of our imagination. National community is an imagined community, it’s an idea, and just like you can imagine that a small or specific group of people form a community you can imagine that community is a group that is more inclusive, compassionate and ever expanding. I think love knows no bounds and neither should our support for one another. These are some of the ideas I was contemplating when I wrote the poem. These and others about how national identity in this country, for some, is so deeply ingrained with straight white maleness that to be other is to be unAmerican and what Robert Frost’s poetry has to do with all of that as the poetry of a straight white male who’s lauded as a quintessentially American poet, whose poetry helps to define the American poetry of its time. And I think about whose sacrifices are portrayed by the media as altruistic and whose sacrifices are seen as selfish, foolish or desperate; a lot of that comes down to race and class in this country. I wrote this poem to honor the sacrifice that migrants make and to welcome them to be my neighbors; I welcome them to be part of what I imagine to be American community.

What are you working on right now?

I’m always writing poems and working on books but right now I’m finishing up my summer reading list which includes the incredible Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a novel I just can’t get enough of! And rereads Grace by Natashia Deón and We the Animals by Justin Torres. The latter two are rereads because I always enjoy rereading books I love and proposed them to my book club; thankfully both suggestions were accepted. I just saw the film adaptation of We the Animals and was really thrilled by the director’s interpretation and Raúl Castillo’s phenomenal performance.

What’s a good day for you?

One of my favorite cities is Barcelona. When I was in Panama this summer, I got to share that love in conversation with my tía (aunt) Yvonne who had just returned from Spain, and the conversation reminded me of why I love that city. It has a great beach, music, food, art and party scene. A great day for me involves enjoying all five with a core group of family and friends and then waking up the next day and writing about it. Joy really inspires me. And that’s why I travel, to find joy in new ways and places around the world.

What brought you to New York?

I came to New York because I fell in love with this city twice. The first time was when my parents brought my sister and I here in 2000. We saw Heather Headley and Adam Pascal in Aida on Broadway. I’ll never forget sitting front row mezzanine and wanting to leap onto the stage as a child because I was enthralled by everything I saw. I got to meet Headley after the show and it made my night. And then in 2008, I started to visit my friends Amie and Amy whom I had met while traveling in London and Nairobi, respectively. They both grew up in or near the city and they showed me NY through their local eyes. I really felt that I had found my tribe with these new friends and knew I had to move here to be closer to that family, the chosen kind. And we’ve never looked back. We’ve all been friends now for ten years, and it feels like we’ve been friends for a lifetime. I’m a New Yorker now, and it’s a thrilling feeling.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it?

I live on the Upper East Side. I’ve lived here for nearly five years. I love the new Second Ave subway. The Q is life. It’s a clean train that runs frequently. Despite the many problems the MTA has citywide, I’ve had good experiences on the train and happen to live and work off the same express train line which is a godsend in New York City. Some of my favorite spots in the neighborhood include Lady M bakery, Carl Schurz Park and my neighborhood bodega. Shout out to Mohammed and his incredible Midtown Subs!

How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

Well, New York, overall, has become more and more gentrified. The worst of it affects communities of color in Harlem, the Heights and parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. It’s less of a noticeable issue in my neighborhood but it’s something I think about daily. It’s crazy how many people move here for the entertainment and lifestyle created by artists of all sorts in NYC but raise the rents so that those people, the artists and service staff, have to move out.

Compared to other places I’ve lived, the UES has a lot more banks, hospitals, 24-hour pharmacies, grocery stores and wine stores. It’s also much quieter than the East Village or Gramercy, but admittedly not as cool as Bushwick or Bed-Stuy. Every neighborhood in the city has its own charm, though, that’s what makes this a great place to live. I’m happy here for now but open to returning to BK.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I come to Brooklyn almost daily to teach poetry and playwriting at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights in between teaching playwriting courses at NYU. I love Crown Heights because it has such a rich West Indian history and many great restaurants. I’m Afro-Panamanian of mostly West Indian descent, so for me the neighborhood feels, culturally, a bit like home. There are also a lot of Panamanian flags everywhere. There was a movement a while back to name a part of Franklin Ave “Panama Way” or something like that because of the amount of our businesses that dominated the area. I also love how the neighborhood is a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Library, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park and a nice walk from Barclays Center and BAM. It’s a pretty cool spot, and many of my awesome students live in the area.

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

I really enjoy how when I teach my spoken word poetry class, I can take students to literary events throughout the city, especially the ones at BAM. I recently took them to Word. Sound. Power. and Place and students were so riveted that it brought a new energy into the classroom. They even got to meet Saul Williams, a truly dynamic poet and artist! I think it’s really important to see poetry read and performed live because its root is in oral performance and music, especially when we talk about poetry in the Afro and LatinX communities. For me, poetry community is made of spaces and people who nurture tomorrow’s poets, and NYC is full of that; it’s great!

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

Saul Williams. He is from Newburgh, NY, but lived in Brooklyn and got his start here as a spoken word poet before eventually moving to Los Angeles. He’s important to me because he’s interdisciplinary, smart and successful from what I’d call the fringes of poetry. He’s not at the center of the literary industry but highly regarded as a performer and writer. As I mentioned above, we just saw his collaboration with director Patricia McGregor and composer Ted Hearne at BAM called Place. It was about gentrification, and is a phenomenal show. Most of my students had never seen poetry off the page, let alone presented with singers, a live orchestra and set design on a stage. It was quite an experience!

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

At the top of the list are poets like Rigoberto González, Khaled Mattawa, A. Van Jordan, but I want to take a moment and talk about the wonderful women poetry mentors that I’ve had including Linda Gregerson, Lorna Goodison, Laura Kasischke and Thylias Moss while I was earning my MFA in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Linda Gregerson taught me the art of precision, Lorna Goodison taught me to write with my intuition and whole heart, Laura Kasischke taught me how to see in the dark and Thylias Moss taught me to define poetry for myself and to create dangerously. I loved working with each of them and try to pass their lessons on to my students each time I teach or mentor.

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

I’m going to talk about Richard Siken’s Crush—I reread the book nearly every semester because I love teaching new poetry students his poem “Scheherazade.” It stands out to me because I know love and desire can be dangerous and hard, and this poem successfully explores and interrogates the shadows that we cast by shining the light of love and reveals the many things it blinds us to. It’s fascinating for me to see how every semester my students are at first really challenged and confused by the poem and then blown away by the power of poetry once we do our literary analysis and class discussions. The poems in this book are worth returning to and if you’re reading this and haven’t picked it up yet, you’re really missing out.

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

Ugh. So many, everything from The Essential Rumi to new books like Malcolm Friend’s Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple; I haven’t read Malcolm’s book yet but based on what I’ve read online I’m really looking forward to it. And then of course, Sam Sax’s new book bury it is on my list. I really enjoyed his previous work and look forward to the new thing. And If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar; I’ve heard great things and already ordered my copy!

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 usually prefer physical books or audio books and I don’t usually take notes when reading for pleasure because I take so many notes when reading for research or for study. I always make a summer reading list throughout the academic year that I dive into once the final school bell rings and I head to the beach. Sometimes I read for pleasure throughout the year, but that’s only when I participate in a book club with my boo who is also an avid reader or with friends, or if a friend has a new book drop. But summer is the best time for me to read because I can do it on my own time, one at a time, cover to cover.

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

I’d like to include more science in my poetry; I think it’d be fun to try. I’ve been reading Rosebud Ben-Oni’s essays up at the Kenyon Review, which have most recently discussed string theory and other theoretical science. I never had a passion to study science in school because the way it was taught to me was more about memorizing facts, and I was more interested in asking questions. I think poetry would allow me to finally ask those questions I’ve always had about Earth and everything beyond it. Some of my favorite conversation partners include friends who are scientists, like my friend Ethan who is an astrophysicist. He’s the Neil deGrasse Tyson of my life and about once a month we stare up at the stars and just wonder. It’d be nice to do that in some poems.

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

I love reading on trains while listening to a special playlist of music. The music can’t be so good that it distracts me, just enough to lull that part of your brain that is used to constant overstimulation. Sometimes I read with C-Span in the background, just any ambient noise, which is why reading at the beach works. I went to the Jersey Shore for the first time a few months ago, and loved how although it was a little chilly, sometimes too chilly to swim, the sound of the waves crashing was the perfect amount of white noise to help me finish reading one of the novels on my summer reading list.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

There are so many great hideaways in Brooklyn that I love including Boudoir, a late-night speakeasy in Brooklyn Heights, Papi Juice parties in Williamsburg that I used to attend, and the Brooklyn Public Library. It’s a magnificent building; a friend of mine owns an apartment across from it and I always think back to an afternoon on his balcony staring out at that magnificent building dreaming of all the books inside it that I couldn’t wait to read.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the perfume of rain,
And what I breathe you breathe,
For every cloud showers me as good as it showers you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because Brooklyn es vida.