April 17–23, 2023
dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm— winner of the Idaho Prize in Poetry, Cornell’s Freund Prize, and a Shelf Unbound Notable Book of the Year. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere. Lyric essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review and Western Humanities Review. She is the recipient of the Corson Bishop Prize, Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Prize, a Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea. She has also won the Scowcroft Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, three Utah Arts Council Writing Awards and four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes. lonsinger holds a BA in studio art and English as well as an MA in literature from Bucknell University, an MFA in poetry from Cornell University and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. She is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at Muhlenberg College, where she was recently awarded the Paul C. Empie ’29 Memorial Award for Excellence in Teaching.
[ taming ]
in a city dawn piles
limes and porn in windows
unfurls roses of cash
in pockets and registers
the garden is gathered
around us in cha-ching & boom
so much juice already squeezed
from rinds by machines
at the ready so many intricately
sewn garments to make us
shameless and/or beautiful
fish gathered by the netful
from the terrible dark ocean
trucked invisibly indoors
their thin translucent spines
censored and silvery
skin laid out like lures before
us on baptismal fonts of ice
business men in sharp blue
suits slide by in well-engineered
cars water is dripping through
countless full-bodied roasts
in every borough and even
at the earliest hour
breasts of chicken are being
sleeved in an almost irresistible
batter the abundance is
unfathomable and so we walk
casually through the unfathomable
go in and out of establishments
in search of something while
unseen stars roll around pulsars
in the black bonfire of space
and factories here on earth
clamor plastic around
the consequences (of some)
of our dreams while traffic lights
jewel the pigeons’ wings
and javelins of overhead light
tunnel through that ampler republic
of sunlight to break over
our hairy heads and pierce
us full of arrows that miraculously
do not lead us to a field
& do not kill us
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’ve been working on a book of poems, tentatively called The Long and Terrible Taming, in which I consider taming in all its manifestations: of animals, of ourselves, of countries, of women, of desire, of landscape, etc. I’m interested in the many ways that—to my mind—the interchange of wildness and domestication permeates, sorts and converts the world. I examine our relationship to wildness, how we sometimes exile it and sometimes bring it near, but in an altered state—as the cultivated, the “broken in,” the subdued. The entire history of civilization (and global capitalism today), including wide-scale violence, one could argue, is a part of this taming, an attempt to abject or erase alterity. Roiling just beneath the surface of the everyday are cultural and cosmic harmonies and disharmonies, the fox and the drone. In “[ taming ]”, I turn my attention to the city as evidence of how wildness has been grafted over and transposed, and the fallout. In writing it, I started also to contemplate the strange beauty that arises out of our fears and greed, the absurd—yet somehow inadequate—abundance, turning us all into enduring St. Sebastiens, irredeemable and yet ongoing, pleasured and plagued.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a series of poems entitled “The Problem of the Father,” which I’m envisioning as the centerpiece to the Taming book. I’m exploring how the “father figure” figures into our sense of reverence and debasement, violence and love, foundation and finality, and authority and doubt. For me the father is a particularly potent site of interest, in part, because we live in a patriarchal society and thus the role is one infused with and always in contestation or agreement with all the barbs, ideologies and ramifications of dominance and cultivation. I’m interested in the founding fathers, fathers within religion, canonized fathers, etc. … a world that convulses with the reverberations of fatherhood and its watermarks. I’ve also been working on a speculative novel for many years now, about a future in which a drug the US’s Bioengineering Weaponry Division is developing gets leaked and used on the streets and the world is upended. At the heart of the story are Syria, a 16-year-old girl, and Grand Central, an iconoclast with a vision. I’ve been teaching the courses “The Literature and Film of Monstrosity” and “Apocalyptic Literature and Film” for nearly a decade, and that’s where this idea really began to germinate. It’s inspired by and in conversation with many works that challenge our tenuous notions about humanity vs. animality, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Junot Díaz’s short story “Monstro,” and other works by Bradbury, Le Guin, Mieville and Orwell.
What’s a good day for you?
2–4 hours writing, a few hours under the sun, a few hours reading wherein something cracks open my mind, real time or FaceTime with my adorable niece & nephew, some Bill Withers, some fruit (never not the perfect package from the graces of this wild universe) & ramen & burrata & lattes, vintage and/or book store meandering, lots of walking & seeing, a Negroni or smoky mezcal cocktail, and some time with the people I love. I’m a whore for good conversation, would trade most anything for it.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Perhaps not the most original story, but I came for love. Moving in with it, testing its might against dirty dishes & day-to-day & salty skin. And I had a great community of writers and the most beautiful apartment in Philly I left behind, so it was legit. Also, there has always been a part of me that wondered how I hadn’t ended up in NYC before. I moved in July into a fifth-floor walkup and our AC was not yet working and it was a true peppery Brooklyn welcome.
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?
I’ve been in Greenpoint for two years. Before that South Williamsburg for three years. Greenpoint is so lovely, fittingly quite green, a charming mix of Polish old world and newness, and feels less inundated with sightseers than Williamsburg. My neighbors have end-of-winter crawfish boil parties, the views of gleaming Midtown at sunset never get old, there’s no overhead subway lines so it’s quieter, and there’s robust activist and philanthropic work being done. My apartment miraculously has seven chandeliers and I like to think that fact says something about the kind of dreaming that laid ground here. I also have a finch who taps on my kitchen window—no matter what I do to try and prevent it—every morning, attempting to protect his territory from himself, and I like to think this equally says as much about this place.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Once I saw a woman running and screaming down Manhattan Avenue, another woman seemingly in pursuit, everyone just watching from a distance, but as they approached, we all realized they were both running after a tiny dog that had slipped off its leash and was on the run. Nearly everyone on the block suddenly mobilized and was trying to grab this little runaway before she dashed out into traffic or was adopted by rats. A lanky thirty-something guy with blue glasses snagged the scamp. The women were hysterical and out of breath, and a man across the street started yelling, “Yes, that right there, someone give that guy a medal. He’s a hero. He’s a hero, hero of the week, hero of the year!” and, as if on cue, the whole street started clapping.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
It’s being able to share in the electrifying joy and rupturing potential of language used well, cheering each other on (because writing itself is so solitary), reminding us that it’s normal to doubt and wade, but also how to get through those dark nights of the soul, to keep in mind what Charles Baxter put so beautifully: “no soul, no dark nights.” My favorite thing about this city is that it is teeming with creative people as well as people who—even if not creators themselves—deeply value the arts and what it affords the soul. That said, I think that fact has made it harder to find a cohort of close writer friends as I had in Philly. I also think money (and clout) gets in the way of everything in this city, not least of which is real communion and relationality, the grit of it, of being human makers together. Painters, for example, used to hang out with writers and intellectuals, and now they hang out with rich people (#don’tshootthemessenger). Also, visual artists can be like, “Hey, can I come by for a studio visit?” and the ice is broken, but “Hey, can I come over and see where/how you write?” isn’t really acceptable behavior. I am, however, very grateful for Jason Koo and Brooklyn Poets, through which I’ve met wonderful people, not least of which are my very talented students.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I’m pretty omnivorous with my reading and aesthetic sensibilities. But the poets of Brooklyn who I’d say I’ve learned the most from are W.H. Auden, Federico García Lorca, Philip Levine, Aracelis Girmay, Tina Chang, Ariana Reines, Eugenia Leigh, Morgan Parker, Hala Alyan and, dare I say, novelists Colm Tóibín, Ben Lerner, Edwidge Danticat and Raven Leilani, who undeniably write poetically.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been lucky to be mentored directly by a lot of brilliant poets—Linda Gregg, Karl Patten, Cynthia Hogue, Nicole Cooley, Tess Gallagher, Larissa Szporluk, Alice Fulton, Paisley Rekdal, Jacqueline Osherow and Kate Coles, and their influences are all unique. They gave me permission to follow the filament of language itself into meaning and not feel like language was only a vessel for what was already known or experienced. And Jackie, I remember, gave me this great advice: “so much of life and art is about knowing when to be hard on yourself and when to give yourself compassion.” This seems, to me, very important advice for any artist. Though the nitty-gritty poetic mentoring that has been the deepest for me has been from the living ghosts—Sappho, Christina Rossetti, W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sara Teasdale, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Paul Celan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Larry Levis, Seamus Heaney, Jay Wright—as well as so many contemporary poets, Anne Carson and Terrance Hayes, to name two.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I know I’m not alone, given that she won the Pulitzer, but I was truly blown away by Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets. I can’t get over how simultaneously smart and textured, linguistically surprising and inventive, and emotionally gutting and honest it is. I adore Eugenia Leigh’s devastatingly penetrating new book, Bianca, which is so powerfully honest about trauma and its many wakes, and so gorgeously rendered. I have also been loving José Olivarez’s Promises of Gold, which I’m halfway through, for its range of tenors, humor, and colloquial-lyric combinatory prowess. There’s also a prose poem Richard Siken (whose books I’ve greatly admired) published in 2020 called “Real Estate” that I can’t stop thinking about because it’s such a slow burn and the ending is just so damn good. Finally, I also haven’t read anything about the pandemic as clear-eyed and moving as Rick Barot’s chapbook During the Pandemic.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There are so many novels for which this is true. The Brothers Karamazov. Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet of novels. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In poetry, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet … and the last few Jorie Graham books, whose work I’ve always loved, but haven’t had the chance to 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 sometimes read a book cover to cover, but more often than not I’m reading multiple books at a time—books I’m teaching, books I want to read, books I’ve been recommended, books of my brilliant friends, books I suspect will help me with what I’m working on, books I stumbled upon in a bookstore. I’m a profoundly slow reader as I’m always reading as a reader, writer and teacher. And I’m an incurable note-taker, truly irredeemable. As evidence, I can’t even read a fashion magazine without a pen in hand. All of my books are written in, marked up, underlined, notes in the back, notes in the margins, full of what would appear to be illegible hieroglyphics to anyone else, but which make tremendous sense to me. I tried to use a Kindle and I just couldn’t do it, which is a shame, because it would make reading when traveling much easier.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve written many sonnets, but haven’t tried a crown of sonnets, so I’d like to do that. I also was so moved by both Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets and Jericho Brown’s invention of the Duplex in The Tradition that I’d love to work more at toying with and inventing forms. I also have a fantasy of creating an entire long erasure poem from the transcript of all seasons of The Bachelor and Bachelorette.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Transmitter Park with its spectacular Manhattan views and excellent people & dog watching, Bryant Park with its dramatic London Plane trees and the most immaculate public restroom anywhere in the city, and Muhlenberg College’s main quad with one of those giant red brutalist metal sculptures, which is somewhat redeemed by the name the students have given it: Victor’s Lament. I don’t know the story behind that, but I like to imagine it’s for Victor Frankenstein.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love questions about space and about love. Maison Premiere for its immaculate 1920s ambiance & absinthe cocktails, Rocka Rolla for the cheap chalices of beer & bourbon-coffee slushies, Devocíon café for its Barcelona-esque simplicity & greenery, the William Vale’s Westlight and DUMBO’s Celestine for their breathtaking views of Manhattan, Word and Books Are Magic, House of Yes for sultry fun, Beacon’s Closet for affordable vintage, Northside Pharmacy because it’s old school, Nami Nori for stellar sushi, the Farschou collection for bringing killer art to Greenpoint, Nathan’s Farm grocer for having the freshest selection of herbs and these melon ice cream pops I’ve only ever had in Korea, my stoop, which I sit on most mornings, drinking coffee, reading, saying hi to Stan, and negotiating with whatever sun the minor deities of weather have afforded us.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:
I celebrate the lush expulsions & messy stitching of desire,
And what I velvet you decipher,
For every darkness seducing me as good deduces you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I slide engine-first off the BQE into Brooklyn
and it’s hard to say what fathers
what. Wet mango in plastic bags in hands at intersections at dusk
as the guttural judder of the J/M/Z pens
grievances to a sky of bridges. And bars & bedrooms purr with the subtlety of sin
while—from the rolled-down confessional of a Coup deVille—Biggie
blooms & brightens the dimming buildings with chutzpah, helps passersby dodge
the deeper darknesses inside us like malware. The air is thick with love
brokering sorrow into dye-drunk carnations outside bodegas & into smoky throats
singing about not getting jack
out of life. The street where I park smells of rot & the lemon honeysuckle of lindens,
and my body wants to rob
& get robbed, become a bit of scaffolding in the night.
Because between an ocean and the iconic, there needs to be the real. Because we built bridges, and then crossed them, devotees of elsewhere and here.