May 10–16, 2021
Desiree C. Bailey is the author of What Noise Against the Cane (Yale University Press, 2021), winner of the 2020 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook In Dirt or Saltwater (O’clock Press, 2016) and has short stories and poems published in Best American Poetry, Best New Poets, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, the Academy of American Poets and elsewhere. Desiree is a recipient of awards from the New York State Council on the Arts/New York Foundation for the Arts and Poets & Writers. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Desiree grew up in Queens, New York, and is currently an English teacher in Brooklyn.
Author photo by Wilton Schereka
True: there is no homeland. Just my veined feet wandering the shore, marring paradise.
Regretful inconvenience I am, smudged in the eye of a tourist’s camera. Vagrant. Is what I learned to call the man with snarl of sky for a roof. And how now that word turns inward, taking root within the spleen. I am not lost or am I. Light a white candle, says a friend, his pupils storming within mine. Neighbor it to a glass of water. Flame and water to uncover a path, to greet the ones who walked moons before. Damn near atheist on so many days, but I touch the flame to the wick and my head is light light, it’s lifting. Diasporan daughter, raking the soil for a map, a glint of my mama’s gold, a bone to call my own.
See me: Saga gyal in kente pum pum shorts, thighs shea buttered, fulani hoops twisting a secret beside my face. I fix my mouth to say black girl. I twist my tongue to say magic. Yet when the day turns, I scorn this empty-bellied scavenging, the traditions fumbled then swirled to mud.
I want to say I am from nowhere and everywhere. But that feels coy like I am lifting my skirt for the empire’s gaze. Even if it is true. On my papers and certificates, there is a country and another country. I can reach beyond, trace the soils through a strand of hair or swab of cheek. But what after? Forever of lineage riven and ruptured. So I search only because I can and sometimes I exist more and more each day, a brown cotton doll stuffed and stitching the X
for her own inadequate eye.
—From What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2021 Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Guesswork” started as an ache, as an attempt to make sense of the diasporic loneliness I was feeling at the time. I was in Trinidad for a loved one’s funeral, and I was feeling out of place in the country of my birth. I was feeling out of place in the country where I lived as well. I was circling these questions of belonging, of what it means to make a home in the wake of (and in the moment of) colonial violence and migration, what it means to make a home in a profusely anti-Black world. The poem comes from a tender, searching place.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on slowing down, on liberating my value from productivity, on unlearning received notions of the immigrant work ethic. Ironically, this unlearning is extremely hard work.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is when sunlight spills everywhere. It’s warm. It feels like I can stretch the day, and I can read the work of a poet I love, and bake something delicious, and move my body to live music or a record.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Family initially, and later, my need for independence and a creative home.
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?
Flatbush. I’m constantly in awe of this place. I’m in awe of its Caribbeanness. That I can walk down a boulevard named after Toussaint Louverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines. I’m in awe of how we rally around the places we love, how we fight to keep them here.
Still, it’s difficult to walk around and see the ongoing impact of gentrification. The noise of construction seems endless. There’s a house that I love to walk by because of all the sunflowers in the yard. An older woman lives there and when it’s warm I often see her tending to her yard. I worry about that woman and those flowers now that there’s the construction of an enormous building right up against the windows of her house, casting shadows into her yard. I worry about the loss of sunlight, the loss of affordable housing and homes, the displacement of Black and brown cultures, of immigrant cultures.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Brooklyn is a place that’s always itself and so most of its moments are defining. Because I have to choose one, I choose my first Afropunk, when it was still fairly small and weird in the most fulfilling ways. The possibilities of self, the expansive Blackness, the punk and metal felt very Brooklyn to me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community holds you within and outside of your poems. A poetry community tells you: yes, the poems matter, but you, your wellbeing, matters more. Tells you: you matter with and without poems. Whether you’ve written or not. I’m grateful to have found that here.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
R. Erica Doyle, Aracelis Girmay, Ricardo Maldonado, Jayson P. Smith, Jeremy Michael Clark, Angel Nafis, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Marwa Helal, Rico Frederick, Diane Exavier … so many!
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
R. Erica Doyle is a mentor who’s brilliant and keeps it real. I love her ideas about language, dialect and the Black Atlantic. I love that she encouraged me to read Mahmoud Darwish. She’s both imaginative and practical. She helped me to understand the literal, tangible ways that I can live, work and survive as a poet. That’s incredibly important to me.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read “May 5, 1838,” a poem from Rajiv Mohabir’s forthcoming collection Cutlish. I’m stunned by the various routes mapped in this poem, its layering of languages and its recognition of the Indian indentured laborers who landed in the Caribbean, especially Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana in 1838. I’m still sitting with this poem and I appreciate its resistance of a neat and fixed notion of migration, a notion often so far from our lived realities.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
So many things but I really need to get my life together and read Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick. I’ve also been meaning to read Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger for a decade now.
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?
While I don’t always get to do this, I prefer to read one book at a time, to sink into it, to daydream with it, to take notes and journal if I need to. I find that I’m transported more easily into the book’s universe when I’m reading a physical book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I want to write a love poem. A good love poem. I feel lucky to be in love and yet romantic love never makes it to the page!
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’m most comfortable writing at home, but I love to read in Prospect Park or at the beach (Riis or Rockaway or Brighton) when I get the chance.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I despise malls in theory but I love Kings Plaza Mall because it reminds me of my teenage years at malls in Queens, of a particular kind of New York feeling that seems to be fading in many parts of the city.
Cumbe Center for African and Diaspora Dance because of how its classes hold me and call me back into my body. And because I’ve learned so much about Afro-diasporic histories and trajectories there, through dance.
Elsewhere because I saw Sister Nancy, Lee “Scratch” Perry and other excellent shows there.
C&C near Rogers and Ave D because when it’s nice out they put these huge speakers on the sidewalk and blast the best old-school soul and reggae. And they give you lots of tamarind sauce with your pholourie.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate _________,
And what I ________ you ___________,
For every ___________ me as good __________ you.
While I can read and critically engage Whitman, I can’t place my words and what I celebrate into his lines.
Because the entire world is in Brooklyn.