April 3–9, 2017
Denver Butson has published four books of poetry: triptych (The Commoner Press, 1999), Mechanical Birds (St. Andrews Press, 2001), illegible address (Luquer Street Press, 2004) and the sum of uncountable things (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015). His work has been featured in Poetry 180, former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s program for the Library of Congress and its corresponding anthology, as well as in the Autumn House Press anthology New America, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times and Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. Butson frequently collaborates with musicians, visual artists, filmmakers and actors (including his wife, the actress and activist Rhonda Keyser), and premiered some of that work in the show the sum of uncountable things, a month-long exhibition and performance series at Court Tree Collective during the launch of his latest book. Thrice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Butson is regularly featured on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac and has been published in the Yale Review, Exquisite Corpse, Brooklyn Rail and Quarterly West, among many other journals. He has work forthcoming in Poems in the Aftermath (Indolent Books) and Traveling the Blue Road: Poems of the Sea (Quarto/Seagrass Books). The poem “issues” will appear in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology this spring.
the man who climbed the Brooklyn Bridge
who walked the highest cables
and swung hand-over-hand from one side
to the other who eluded ten cops with harnesses
and ropes a helicopter a boat below
with emergency crews and a backboard
who asked for a cigarette and a beer who swung
upside down with his knees hooked
around a cable and took a cigarette
from one cop’s hand and smoked it laughing
and then flipped over and slid down fireman-style
one cable and upside down again around another
and skirted between the outstretched hands of two cops
and again and then again
who after two hours of this
with a crowd gathered on the pedestrian walkway
of the Manhattan Bridge and traffic stopped
in both directions on the Brooklyn Bridge
with all of us looking up from the Fulton Ferry landing
where Whitman wrote about us the generations hence
but probably couldn’t have imagined
the cell phones and laptops all the exposed skin
and his words themselves cut out of the metal railing
between the defunct ferry landing and East River
who finally gave up gave over
to the embrace of one big-shouldered cop
and hugged him hard for a long time
as we started our applause from down below
was not an acrobat or a bridge worker
or a thrill-seeker
as many of us with our feet on the ground believed
including one gnarled hardhat who said
if he ain’t one of ours let’s sign him up
but a “simple welder” the paper the next day said
who according to his mother did very well
at gymnastics in high school
whose bloody hands stained the cop’s shirt
said when asked why he did what he did
I have issues
while we with issues but perhaps not issues enough
to become suddenly the best show in town
however briefly clapped and clapped
as if we wanted our hands bloodied like his
as the helicopter whisked itself away
and the backboard went back into the ambulance
and the boat slid under the bridge and out of sight
we clapped and clapped and then stopped clapping
and returned to our morning
and our ever so many mornings hence.
–From illegible address, Luquer Street Press, 2004.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It was May of 2000. I remember the month and year because after writing that morning I was set to meet a visual artist who had read one of my books and wanted me to come see his work in his Carroll Gardens studio (a memorable day it turns out because that artist, Pietro Costa, and I went on from this initial meeting to collaborate on, among other things, a large organic garden, an NYFA-winning artist book, a show/book that traveled and exhibited in Italy, a small business and most recently an artist/scholar residency program in Southern Italy). My then-fiancée (now wife) and I were living in a rent-stabilized, top-floor walk-up at the north end of Brooklyn Heights (even then we called it DUMBO Heights because Brooklyn Heights seemed too stodgy). I had a tiny walk-through closet with one window where I wrote. That window faced northwest and had puzzle-piece views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (our kitchen was lit at night by the perfectly-framed Twin Towers and in the morning by the blinding light of the sunrise reflected off those buildings—so bright we joked that we needed sunglasses at breakfast). All that to say that I was just finishing up my morning writing and about to go out to meet Pietro for the first time, when I noticed how still the cars were on the Brooklyn Bridge, and then I noticed people gathered and looking up, and then I noticed a person high up on the cables, climbing, stopping, swinging and then climbing again. I watched for a few moments, heard sirens increasing in number, increasing in frequency, and finally left my studio to go watch. The Brooklyn Bridge was only a few blocks from our apartment, and I walked fast, hoping that what I thought I had seen—a man about to jump to his death—was not what I had seen. When I got there, there were a dozen or so bystanders, some construction workers, some restaurant workers with towels on their shoulders. I stood there with them and watched the whole thing from that point on to the dramatic/undramatic end. It all happened as it happens in the poem. And then I hurried to a pay phone (I did not have a cell phone yet) to tell Pietro I would be late. A few days later I saw, I believe in the Brooklyn Eagle or maybe the Daily News, an article about the miraculously still-alive climber with quotes from his mother about what a great gymnast he was in school and that he had “issues.” The poem pretty much wrote itself straight out from there. I think the original in my handwriting is pretty much what I ended up with.
What are you working on right now?
Besides answering these questions?
I just finished three manuscripts that I have been working on for the past couple years. I took a seven-year hiatus from writing business. No sending out, no trying to get readings, no attempts at publishing. I just wrote, and the poems stacked up, and I did not even edit them or put them in any kind of order. About three years after that, and I’m just digging myself out.
One of the manuscripts is about a hundred pages of poems “about” a scarecrow—I say “about” because I don’t know if they’re really about anything. And these hundred pages are only about one-fifth of what I’ve written on this scarecrow. That all started with one poem, or story really, about a scarecrow who sneaks off his stake at night to work on and prepare an old motorcycle that the farmer is letting rust in the barn—to finally ride out of “here.” After I wrote it, I thought it was a one-off and that I wouldn’t be seeing the scarecrow again. Six years later, I can’t shake him.
Another manuscript is made up of “telegrams” in a world that no longer sends telegrams.
And the third is called Ennio Morricone Is Dissolving and is about, or not about, Ennio Morricone dissolving.
I’m also working on short stories and a cookbook with no recipes with a friend who is chef/restaurant owner (see below).
What’s a good day for you?
Thursday, usually. Are we doing something?
What brought you to Brooklyn?
We were living in a 2,300-square-foot apartment in Richmond, Virginia. I had a huge organic vegetable garden in the back with 30–40 tomato plants, broccoli, spinach, arugula, eggplant and peppers, all the herbs you could want and a small garden in the front with sixty mammoth sunflowers, so much basil neighbors secretly stole grocery bags full of it to make pesto, and a front porch hidden from the street (by the sunflowers), when my then-girlfriend (now wife) told me that now that she had finished her MFA in acting and had acted professionally in Virginia for a few years, she wanted to move to New York. I thought of my “farming,” my long mornings writing, my cooking and our house (we always set an extra place at the table for whichever friend might drop by with a bottle of cheap wine or a six pack). Why would I want to leave that to go to New York City? I knew the city, and could not imagine myself living here. But I did not know Brooklyn. We visited some friends who were here living in pre-gentrified Greenpoint, and came to just-starting-to-gentrify Carroll Gardens to scout apartments. I fell in love. A few months later we started a long sublet in Windsor Terrace, found a rent-stabilized walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, and now we’ve been here almost twenty years.
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?
Every third male old-timer is named “Anthony,” pronounced “Ant-knee.” The women wear house smocks that they bought at Marietta’s, which is sadly gone. When I come home, one of the grandmothers across the street yells across that my wife left an hour ago and that my daughter isn’t home from school yet. On a good day, you can smell coffee from d’Amico’s and bread baking at Caputo or Mazzolla and when the breeze is right, the ocean. On a bad day, it’s the Gowanus or the cement factory. You can tell the Manhattan transplants because they don’t say hello, don’t make eye contact, park their strollers in the middle of the sidewalk and have babies that their West-Indian nannies see more than they do. We are transplants, too but have been here long enough now that it’s clear we are not “them.” We are not “us” either, but we’re not “them.”
We have been in this part of Brooklyn twenty years, specifically Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens. It’s a smaller town here than the truly small town I grew up in in Pennsylvania. And people are friendlier. At least the ones who are not “them” are. Every time I think about moving, I get really sad and wonder how long it would be until I came back.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Not long after my wife and I moved here, and before September 11 made us break down and buy cell phones, I stopped at Fish Tales on Court Street. It was crowded, as it usually is late in the day, and I got in line. I was standing there for a few minutes waiting, when Alex, the fishmonger who is still there today, shouted over the heads in line, “What are you doing here, Denver, go home. Rhonda came in earlier and got fish.” I thought at that moment that I would likely never leave.
Another one is more recent. When my daughter was nine or ten, she came over to comfort me after a particularly bad day. She sat on my lap and asked me, “If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” I almost instantly answered, “I just want a little stone path leading back to a shed where I write every day,” then I paused and finished, “and I want it to be near the Aegean Sea.” My daughter nodded but I noticed she was frowning. After clearly chewing on something for a moment, she said, “I understand the stone path and the writing shed, but we already live near the F train, why would you want to live near the A, G and C?”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I don’t know.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Whitman. García Lorca, though he wasn’t here long. Anne Carson, though she’s not here much. Lorraine Doran writes quiet poems of arresting loveliness.
But I think my favorite Brooklyn “poet” has maybe never written a poem. He’s my friend, the chef and restaurant owner Antonio Migliaccio. No matter how busy the restaurant is (and it’s always slammed), no matter how trying the details of his life itself, Toni sees the world with the pure eyes of a real poet. He has an ongoing movie he’s making in his head at all times, while driving his van to the market, while setting up the cooks in the kitchen. He remembers lines from Calvino, from Umberto Eco, from Elena Ferrante, from a plumber, from a fisherman, from Arthur Miller, and says them and closes his eyes and bows his head. When he brings you the most beautiful fish in the world that Vinny the Fisherman line-caught off Montauk and that Toni grilled so simply, he sets it down and stands back, and when you tell him it’s the best fish you’ve ever eaten, he closes his eyes and bows his head and says, “That’s good fish.”
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My earliest mentors were poetry classmates and friends in college—Chris Coates and Greg Hershey—who taught me how to read, obsessed over poets and poetry, called me on my bullshit, stayed up half the night talking with me about words and poems.
I’ve learned more about being an artist, continuing to be an artist, raging against not being able to just be an artist, etc., from long, ongoing, neverending, circular talks with my friend the photographer and camera-inventor Cedric N. Chatterley.
Patrick Ryan, the fiction writer, taught me (and I think I taught him) about discipline and bringing work to the table (literally a kitchen table in Richmond once a week for a couple years) and getting it out there, no matter what state it was in.
And the teachers and professors who lit fires and did not put out my own smoldering—Deanne Showers (in high school), Lisa Russ Spaar and Susan Facknitz (in college), Howard McCord and Michael Mott (in graduate school).
Theodore Enslin taught me about Stravinsky saying “never the fillet, always the whole fish,” and Beethoven’s concept of “using it up” from the Diabelli Variations. And Ted taught me that I cannot quit being a poet, that I have no choice. And how to work and really work. That poetry is an everyday practice every day.
My brother, Gary, is a painter and has been since we were kids. Our shared attic bedroom was also his painting studio. I learned almost everything I know about daily ritual and discipline from smelling his paints and seeing him work every day on his craft.
Every time I work with musicians—the amazing violist Mat Maneri, the sublime guitarist Marco Cappelli—or with my wife, the actress Rhonda Keyser, when we read my poems together—I learn more than I know.
Agha Shahid Ali told me that he loved my ghazals but I was doing them “all wrong.” He was a candle that went out but is still lighting the otherwise dark room.
Robert Eugene Meatyard
David “Honeyboy” Edwards
Godard, Truffaut, Scorsese, Coppola, Malick
Herzog, Wong Kar Wai, Varda, Forman
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
José Ángel Valente’s Landscape with Yellow Birds. It’s beautiful to look at and hold, and to dip into and be astounded by a simple line.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I wish I could be seventeen and read Henry Miller again for the first time. I wish I could read Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares again. I haven’t read enough books by contemporary poets.
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?
A few months ago, I decided to watch Antonioni’s The Passenger again. My wife was working on a project and so I started the movie alone—with my headphones on (we watch movies with headphones because our parlor-floor apartment is like a poor man’s loft and the TV would keep our daughter awake). About three minutes into it, my wife said she was finished for the night and we could watch something on Netflix. I turned off the movie and moved to Netflix. For the next several weeks, The Passenger was in our DVD player, which comes on automatically when we turn on the Blu-Ray to watch Netflix. I am usually the first one ready to settle in to watch something—for three to five minutes anyway—and so I watched the entire film The Passenger, which is already an excruciatingly, shall we say, patient movie, with lugubrious takes, over the course of three or four months. It was one of the greatest cinema experiences of my life—immersed in the desert with Jack Nicholson and Maria Shriver for a couple minutes every few nights for months. In fact, I’m calling the experience slow cinema and hoping to start a movement, akin to slow food. I’m trying to think what’s next on my queue. I think McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Badlands or Happy Together—for some reason the slower-paced the movie, the better I think it will work for slow cinema.
Unfortunately, I read very fast and love to plow through novels in as few sittings as possible. And, the most memorable books I’ve read have been those I’ve read straight through all at once—Edmund White’s The Married Man on a train from New York to Southern Pines, North Carolina, for instance, or Ondaatje’s The English Patient on a beach, emerging with skin only temporarily charred, but brain forever burned.
I’m not sure the last time I read a book of poetry from beginning to end at once. I read poetry more like slow cinema, but after Godard has taken scissors to it and to a thousand other poetry books at once.
But to answer your question—dip in and out of poetry, stay with one novel, no planning, physical books, take notes but lose them.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would like to stop worrying about the edges of the page, about margins, about whether things make sense. About the clock. One of the best things that happened with my poetry head is when I gave Joseph Quintela the manuscript for the sum of uncountable things and he gave me back proofs with what I thought were several individual poems running together, turned into one long poem because that’s what Joseph thought I had given him. It was freeing because I really am tired of the notion of a “poem,” a beginning, middle and end on one or two pages. So often they feel like little jokes or moments that get that “mmmm” sound from audience members. I am more interested in the “hmmmmm?” sound as the poems run together, butt up against each other, dissolve their own and each other’s margins. It’s un-workshop-able, cannot easily be explained or responded to, but that to me is more about poetry than something that wraps itself up in several lines (or doesn’t but wants to give the impression that it does).
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like cafés until the baristas or the café owners figure out that I’m writing poetry. I would like them to think that I am a detective novelist.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Too many to name. I have spots that are secret, except to my wife and daughter, who know where to find me if they can’t otherwise reach me.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate amnesia
And what I forget you forget for me too
For everything that remembers me as good remembers 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.
first line from “Wayfaring Stranger”
and all ending words from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard,”
as prompted by Brooklyn Poets
I’m going there to see my father
I who never wanted to be my father
he was sly, he was foolish, an artful dodger
he who reminisced about the sea, my father
and pretended to know everything but didn’t know jack
I never once saw him climb a tree, my father
who taught me how to lie? who taught me how to rob?
who never taught me how to be me? my father
how can you know grace if you don’t know sin?
if you substitute me for thee, my father?
to keep myself from stabbing, I clutch this pen
circle answers in the answer key, my father
despite the swagger and blunder, in the end it was love
only love that would finally free my father
and now at last I am an orphan in Brooklyn
took me this long, even if I wasn’t trying to flee my father
I’m dying now and you know it’s no biggie
take what you can Denver said he, my father
Mockingbirds, food, Coney Island, nylon-webbed lawn chairs on sidewalks and because I haven’t figured out how to be near the Aegean Sea.