February 6–12, 2023
Dawn Lundy Martin is an American poet and essayist. She is the author of four books of poems: Good Stock Strange Blood, winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry; Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry; DISCIPLINE; and A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering. Her nonfiction can be found in n+1, the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Chicago Review and Best American Essays 2019 and 2021. Martin is the Toi Derricotte Endowed Chair in English at the University of Pittsburgh, Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. She is currently at work on a new book of poems, Instructions for the Lovers, forthcoming from Nightboat Books, and a memoir, When a Person Goes Missing, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. On Friday, February 10, Martin will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Brionne Janae and Joanna Fuhrman.
All of it
Turning more than once, by
its nature, unprecipitous—a bar
where I did not long, the stripped
dearth of the material world
naked. Elemental. Fire. A cathedral
where I did not belong
or in lewdness
as if my cunt was dragged on its
marble floors. To locate
oneself in place can be a horrible thing
depending on the place
and the self. In this case, a straddling
between worlds and, and
I am my own therapist, I said out
loud, drunk with demotion
I’d built with intention on a front
porch, my body
slathered in venom. A wild weed.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
A form of collection. Of collecting the moment, but also its contexts. That the poem arises out of an urgency to speak a sudden knowing, or a turning. That it arises in an attempt to describe what produced the possibility for that moment of turning. It moves fast, like life moves fast sometimes, and almost right away after the euphoria of the turning, one is cast into all that burns around us, and the speaker’s perception of their own abject, grotesque exposure. Some might call this condition: the Black body within university. I would. Or, I might.
What are you working on right now?
I’m in the middle of two book-length works—a book of poems titled Instructions for the Lovers, forthcoming from Nightboat Books, and an essayistic memoir titled When a Person Goes Missing, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. The poems I wait for; the memoir I tend to like an unwieldy sculpture made from hair.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is a day when it does not seem like my mother is dying. Or, I don’t have to worry that she’s sitting at home in a shit diaper because she has the necessary care. It’s a day when I wake up refreshed from sleep, and after feeding and taking out the dogs, I’m in my studio writing. The morning sun is shining through the window, warming, a cup of hot tea in my hands. In this good day, love is present in its multiple forms and Eros’s tautness vibrates inside my body. If all of this happens, it doesn’t really matter what else happens. There could be a dinner, or friends visiting, or karaoke or dancing.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Which time? The first time, Brooklyn called me from the opposite coast—California. The second time, I was temporarily escaping graduate school on an indefinite, and unofficial, leave of absence. The third time, Brooklyn rescued me from Trump’s Long Island. Call, escape, and rescue.
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 have lived in Park Slope, Prospect Heights and lastly Greenwood Heights, a block from the entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery. These experiences were so different from each other, I might have been living in different cities entirely. My first apartment in Park Slope was on 2nd St, a two-bedroom for $1,200 across from an elementary school of screaming morning children. It seemed exorbitant to me then that an apartment could cost $1,200. My second apartment was on Garfield Ave, a one-bedroom in a brownstone with a tiny kitchen and dark wood. I lived there with my girlfriend Alexis. Both of these apartments were a far-enough walk from the subway that on rainy or snowy days, I had to bring a change of clothes to work. Finally, I bought a car for $500 from someone on my street and drove to work across the crowded Manhattan Bridge each day as if I lived in the suburbs.
The quaintness of this neighborhood persists. I think the pizza joint I was fond of is still there. What’s changed and ruined everything is extreme wealth. It would be almost impossible for a person like I was then—a twenty-five-year-old Black lesbian with no job moving from the Bay Area to Brooklyn—to find an affordable apartment in Park Slope in 2023. Then, the broker found one in two days.
Greenwood, on the other hand, was the place Stephanie and I rented before the pandemic. We rented the whole house and subletted the second-floor apartment to Gala, which made it feel like beautiful queer-family space. The backyard was a mess when we moved in, but we installed a wooden fence with quick-dry cement and spent a week getting rid of mountains of debris with a very capable Russian helper from TaskRabbit. Our neighbors had an above-ground pool. The industrial bakery across the street meant that eventually rats bigger than any I’ve ever seen made a home in the planter in front of our house. Parking was the easiest I’ve ever experienced in any part of New York City. Often we found a space out front. This neighborhood, like the cemetery itself, is still a hidden gem.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I lived in Greenwood Heights I was splitting my time between there and Pittsburgh, PA. While living in Pittsburgh, I would forget sometimes about its limited offerings. Maybe these offerings are limited because the state is landlocked, I don’t know. Shortly after moving to Greenwood I walked down to a tiny coffeehouse on Fourth Ave to discover they offered seven kinds of nut milk. It wasn’t just soy and oat. Depressing. But SEVEN KINDS. It was there I discovered the deliciousness of the macadamia milk latte. 🙂
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?
I don’t know if I need a poetry community, per se, as much as I love to be surrounded by poets. I’m more interested in communities across genres, artistic disciplines and points of reference, and communities that attempt, in whatever way, some reimagining of the world as we know it, this world that often brings us to our knees with its brutality and violence. Thus, I am part of several communities not necessarily located in a single place. I’m new to upstate New York but am already part of a local art community in a way and suspect that will continue to define itself.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
One of the younger poets I love and am inspired by is Marwa Helal, whose second book Ante body is recently out from Nightboat. Marwa was born in Egypt but currently lives in Brooklyn. What I love about her work is its effect on the body of the reader. Her work exists in relation to regime, but not inside of it, managing miraculously to get free.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Marilyn Nelson was my very first poetry teacher and mentor when I was an undergraduate. I basically learned everything about the poem as poem from her. Myung Mi Kim was my second poetry teacher and mentor when I was a master’s student. She taught me the value of undoing knowing and creating new forms of unknowing.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Maroon Choreography by fahima ife. It inspires as possibility for what poetry might be, how it might bring forth homage and critical theory about Blackness in new forms and fresh ways of thought. It disassembles. I’m drawn to books of all sorts that unravel dominant discourses that plague our imaginations, and ife does that.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I mean, I don’t know. I don’t think I approach reading with that kind of regret, or looking-backward intention. I just read what I read, ya know? But. I have never read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its entirety. Maybe I never will.
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 read like I’m in perpetual motion even though I’m often still, which is to say, I read from book to book in a hypertext kind of fashion unless it’s a compelling novel I can’t put down. One thing brings me to another and then a return. I love to look at my library or the books on my desk or bedside table and pick one up at random. If someone sends me a book, I check it out immediately to see if it pulls me. I love that surprise gift in my mailbox.
I prefer physical books, but find myself ordering more digital texts because of space issues.
Sometimes I take notes. It really depends on the kind of book. If the book has lots of ideas that are new to me, I take notes. I don’t take notes when reading poetry or fiction, typically. But I will highlight or underline something or bend over a page if it’s a physical book. I’m not precious with books.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d love to write a long poem or sequence of poems that’s just one line or long sentence placed in the middle of the page that runs through an entire book with minor variations.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love to read and write by the ocean—Caribbean or thereabouts. Any big cliff looking out.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I used to love the dive bars, but I don’t drink like that anymore. There was one—I can’t remember the name—in Gowanus. Stephanie and I went there once when we were dog-sitting our friend Anna’s three-legged Poo-Chi and teaching him how to skateboard in the bar. I still love Ginger’s Bar as one of the last lesbian bars standing. Green-Wood Cemetery as a place for retreat is overflowing with surprises. It’s a magical place.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate even though,
And what I am becoming you are becoming,
For every savage me loathe in night, as good as nothing in you.