August 26–September 1, 2019
Desirée Alvarez is a poet and painter whose second book, Raft of Flame (Omnidawn, 2020), was selected by Hoa Nguyen as the winner of the Lake Merritt Poetry Prize. Her first book, Devil’s Paintbrush, won the 2015 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her poetry has recently been anthologized in What Nature (MIT Press, 2018) and Other Musics: New Latina Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), and has appeared in journals including Boston Review, Fence, Poetry and the Iowa Review. She received the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, and fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, Yaddo, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Poets House. As a visual artist, she was awarded the Willard L. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She exhibits widely and teaches at CUNY and the Juilliard School. Alvarez’s poem “Primero Sueño, First Dream: On Crossing, A Whitmanesque” was selected by Mark Doty as third-prize winner in the 23+ age bracket of our Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest.
Author photo by Robert Herman
Primero Sueño, First Dream: On Crossing, A Whitmanesque
What is it then between us?
¿Qué es entonces entre nosotros?
My horse is afraid of you and both of us are thirsty.
Stone face, we crossed the seas from Spain,
I’ve been riding for days past pyramids in Mexico.
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.
My horse and I are tired of the blistering desert.
Who is your family, crowd of great heads in a field?
Who has conquered you and whom will I now conquer?
Big rock, your lips look like ancient waves.
Your mouth reminds me of my wife’s kisses goodbye.
I am lonely as the moon. Por favor, speak to me, face in the grass.
I remember the first time I put my fingers inside a woman
and the first time she put her fingers inside herself.
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
my body the body uncertain, my body mixed,
dreaming of being a Spanish conquistador,
dreaming of being an Olmec head, carved and mouth sealed
forever. Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.
We plant you permanently within us.
Being what—an across, a Zarathustra, a span
of scarf woven of seventeen colors from what roams,
what flies, what swims and what sings. Being a woman and a man,
stone-crafted and aqueous, being brown, being tree and flood-tide,
being free citizen of the body earth, electing in revolt
to expand and bring down whatever rises between us.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote a short version of this poem years ago as part of the manuscript for my second book, Raft of Flame. It was called “Sueño Olmec.” I was wondering how the conquistadors on horseback felt when they encountered the giant Olmec statues of heads. It must have been a dramatic moment. Like how I’ve always imagined riding in the Disney teacups must be. But I was never satisfied with the poem so I took it out of the manuscript. Then a couple years ago I was teaching Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to a class of eighth-graders at PS 140. For three years I was a teaching artist as poet-in-residence at Artists Space. The gallery has a partnership with a public school on the Lower East Side. We read the poem out loud in class, each student reading a line. Then I cut it up and put the words in a hat and they wrote their own poems with the words. Their poems were so wonderful I revisited mine through Whitman. There’s the spirit of the seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz hovering over the poem too.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on proofs for Raft of Flame, to be published by Omnidawn in April 2020. I’m thrilled that it won their Lake Merritt Poetry Prize. There are lots of poems like “Sueño Olmec” in it that look at conquest, colonialism, art and mixed-race identity.
What’s a good day for you?
A hike in the woods or a walk by the sea, going to the Met, writing a poem or making a small painting, having dinner with a friend.
What brought you to New York?
I was born here. I stayed because I couldn’t find a better place to be an artist. The paint and canvas were too expensive in Paris and at that time I was using lots of it.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in Hudson Square for a very long time, back before the area had a name or a supermarket. Now we have Trader Joe’s and I can buy as many crackers as I want. I like that I can walk to the Village and along the river. But home is also in the country because I’m a country girl at heart and I need to be near nature as much as possible.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I’ve been teaching design and color theory at CityTech, CUNY, for over fifteen years. I love the students. Often when the university library system doesn’t have a book, Brooklyn Public Library will have it. I love the local libraries that are all within walking distance of the college, the way punctuated by thrift shops. Being in the mermaid parade as a rollerblading Scottish mermaid with a very dysfunctional Loch Ness Monster float will always be a highlight of my Brooklyn experiences. I read at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop on August 21 and the same day also hung an installation of paintings based on my residency at Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the Humanities Gallery at LIU Brooklyn. The opening is September 4 and the show is up until December 13. It’s with a great group of artists and my piece is a floating poem about the history of interaction between magnolias and humans. I’ve been exhibiting in Brooklyn for decades and love showing work there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I have a lovely group that evolved from a Lucie Brock-Broido writing group. We read each other’s work and look at art together. I also keep in touch with poets and writers from residencies like Poets House. My poetry community is my family.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Mac Wellman has always been a great inspiration to me, and Hart Crane wrote one of my favorite poems.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I was lucky to work with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan University. She taught a tiny seminar verse-writing class. I think there were eight of us. Class was early in the morning and she’d arrive with a thermos of coffee and proceed to blow the roof off the building. She was radiant and incredibly passionate. The first day she told us she had wanted to be a painter but it felt like learning a new language so she became a writer. I think about that often. I feel like I’m still learning from it and from many other things she said. Then a thousand years later I took a master class at Poets House with Lucie Brock-Broido and she invited me to join an informal writing group in her apartment. I felt completely understood by her. I spent many extraordinary late nights in her fold. Otherwise my mentorship is from reading as much as possible. I’m a painter and over the years in my studio I would take breaks by reading poetry books. Poems have always been how I start my paintings.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m very taken with Elizabeth Zuba’s recent translation of Arnaldo Calveyra’s first book of poems, Letters So That Happiness. It’s such an original, delicate voice and of course there are the wonderful resonances with Zuba’s own poetry. I feel that if the world were more like this book we’d have fewer problems. I just finished The Dolphin in the Mirror by Diana Reiss and it’s fascinating. On a related topic, I’m reading Frans de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug. I also just read Richard Powers’s The Overstory which is a profoundly important tale about trees for our time. I’m very excited and honored to be reading at book launches for Jo Sarzotti’s new book of poems, Waiting for Achilles, and with Stefania Heim, whose Hour Book is recently out.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
War and Peace. It took me ten years to read Anna Karenina. I couldn’t get past the horse race section so I kept putting it down.
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 try to read three books a week so I’m usually reading them at the same time. I spend lots of time in libraries, especially the one at Poets House. Nothing is too random because it’s what I’m interested in, but I have eclectic interests. Also, I’ve been in the same glorious book group for thirty years (we just celebrated!) which is wonderful because the women in it recommend books to read that I may not know about and that stretch my interests. I’m also always reading for teaching. I read physical books, almost never digital unless it’s Poem-a-Day or I’m doing research for class. I just reread The Great Gatsby, which speaks to today in eerie ways and I took some inscrutable notes. So yes, I guess I’m a note-taker but not in any organized fashion—it all ends up in the soup of one active sketchbook.
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 write something like Gilgamesh or The Green Knight, full of inevitability and magick.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I mostly write in bed. I love the idea of writing in cafés and libraries, and the romance of a writing desk which should be very medieval looking, but the truth is I’m not comfortable sitting in chairs. Also I try to only write when I’m not paying attention to the act of writing, so while sleeping in bed is best.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Bargemusic. What’s better than floating on water hearing music? I also love the Botanic Garden where I just completed an artist residency. Going to friends’ homes. Clark’s Restaurant is where I meet up with my pal who inspires me. James Hallett is a great coach everyone should know about. Before my eighteen-year-old dog Bingo passed away, my favorite Brooklyn thing to do was to go to Prospect Park for off-leash hours early in the morning. Hundreds of dogs romping on green grass must be what heaven looks like.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate hummingbirds on the old porch,
And what I hear is what you say,
For every wing-whir around me as good as speaks 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.
What can I tell you about my father?
That he was a Dodger
of Father. That he was a Jack-
in-the-box. Popping up to rob
my forgetting every ten years was no sin,
and like him I turned to paint and pen.
In late teens I turned to love.
Now I tell my students in Brooklyn
forgiveness is a Biggie.
It has mermaids.