March 23–29, 2020
Devon Walker-Figueroa is the author of the chapbook So Lame (Berfrois, 2019). She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and coedits Horsethief Books. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Nation, POETRY, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, the Harvard Advocate, the New England Review, which named her the winner of its 2018 Award for Emerging Writers, and Best New Poets 2019.
My Madness Is My Love Toward Mankind
People are mistakes and I
do not want to commit any. Opinions
are in me. God is in me. More
than anything, immobility is
an invented thing. I have two ends
and they are both on fire. Because I am alive,
I do not like the bygone centuries.
Because I am alive, swallows flee
at the sight of me. Exaggeration
is not in me, nor the will to kill tsars,
nor to live in the streets, nor to live
in men. (The war never stops
to think of me.) In order
to earn money, I will die
soon. I kiss my hands. I do not want
a scene, nor the death of senses,
nor any policy of wanting. I
eat meat, long for a streetwalker, and beg
the people, after I am killed, to start a war
in which I am the only casualty.
Cats scratch my soul and the stars
do not say good evening to me.
I shout Death! and stand
on my head so the public understands me.
They like to be astonished, ruin the Stock
Exchange and my nervous system.
I do not like their God. He loves me
only after I provide Him with the means
of existence. All over
the world, I flew an airplane and cried in it.
I smelled out the poor and pretended to be mad.
—Originally published in ZYZZYVA, April 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“My Madness Is My Love Toward Mankind” emerged out of a rereading of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, a text I’ve kept close to me as others might keep a religious text. For context, I was a professional ballet dancer when I was younger and, in my way, still understand the profession / calling to be a form of madness—the attendant obsession with shaping negative space and therefore one’s lines, the futile attempt to maintain complete control over the body, the drive to hold the sublime a kind of captive—to keep it always at hand. In any case, Nijinsky understood these things and much more, perhaps especially as his mental state deteriorated and his obsessions became less centered around ballet and more centered around the suppression of appetite and the augmentation of some kind of divinity within. The diction and syntax of the poem are beholden to Nijinsky—his relentless use of “I,” of the proclamatory mode, etc. The feeling in the poem is beholden to ballet, the art form he and I were both beguiled and reinvented by.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on some poems in a hybrid form I came up with based off of Nikola Tesla’s writings and patents. I’m also a bit obsessed with just letting movement direct me—dance, travel, a general restlessness: these are informing another longer poem I’m currently working on. Aside from that, I’m working on some short stories—and, of course, smuggling poetry into those whenever I can.
What’s a good day for you?
Either a day at home with my books and husband and chinchillas or a day spent wandering around an unfamiliar place, remembering what it was like to be struck constantly by newness and hardly at all by familiarity.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Pomp and circumstance. No. Just circumstance.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I live in Bushwick and feel lucky to be here. We have Roberta’s for pizza and Sey for coffee. We have a bookstore called Human Relations just a few blocks away. The graffiti alone is a good reason to visit, if not to write an ekphrastic poem. The ratio of latte artists to metallurgists here also just seems right.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
For sure attending a poetry reading in an industrial building that inspired awe and also fear, as in, every time the floor creaked, I hoped I wouldn’t fall through it and wake up in conversation with Virgil. The poetry, of course, was topnotch.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community. Hmm. The closest I’ve come to really having that has been, of all things, during such relatively ephemeral experiences as writing residencies and conferences. The knowledge at a residency that the shared experience has an expiration date imbues every interaction with a sense of urgency and interest. I love that. I haven’t yet found my community in Brooklyn, but I hope to.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Oh, there are so many! Michael Dumanis, Brandon Kreitler, Mai Schwartz, Rob Ostrom, Julia Guez, Jeremy Michael Clark, and—of course—my husband, Justin Boening.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Michael Dumanis, for one. He taught me the miracle of enjambment, the necessity of remaining strange to oneself, and how to tune out the noise and stay focused on each line as it arrives and morphs. I owe him so much. Mark Wunderlich, Jane Mead, Shane McCrae, James Galvin and Elizabeth Willis are other major poetry forces of nature in my life. They have all nurtured in me the sense that poetry is up for any challenge. You can hardly break it with any ambition or failure.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
It’s not a recent read exactly, but “The Rooster King” by Jay Hopler in The Abridged History of Rainfall really captured my imagination. As someone who was very much drawn to elegy after my mother passed away, I favor elegies that rebel against reverence for reverence’s sake and, instead, have the gumption to raise some clamorous music to fill up—if only for a few moments—some of that empty space the deceased left behind. “The Rooster King” makes the most wonderful music—full of sorrow and strut and joy.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Inger Christensen’s alphabet. I just ordered it from Powell’s, though, so hope to remedy this deficit soon! I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read all of Faust or the Aeneid either. Likewise, I hope to deal with those lacunae in my reading experience soon!
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 write very embarrassing marginalia. If the text sounds proper, the notes will sound proper. I’m like a child in that way when I read. What I’m given is what I give. If it’s Tennessee Williams, you’ll see words like “narcotize” and “etiolate” pop up in my notes, for instance. If it’s Irvine Welsh, though, my marginalia will be rife with “cock” and “skag.”
I prefer print, hands down. But I also have a back injury and sometimes have to resort to an e-reader because I’m such a moody reader that I cannot leave the house with just one book in my bag. I need at least two books of poetry and a book of stories or a novel on my person basically at all times. Plus, two notebooks with some empty pages left in them. My bedside table is actually deformed a bit from the weight of all the books stacked on it, my indecisiveness and restlessness dogging me perhaps most of all in the hours right before I fall asleep.
As for reading cover to cover, I read a lot of books cover to cover, but only if they challenge me. Life is too short to spend time chugging along, miserable, bored, etc. A book has to present a more worthwhile experience to me than walking down the street aimlessly would. I’m surprised sometimes by how many books don’t live up to that challenge. Then again, I’m also overwhelmed by how many books do live up to that challenge and thereby give me permission to stay inside for days on end.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Oh, so many things! I want to incorporate full poems into a novel or novella. I’d like those poems, in their way, to serve as a kind of armature, to appear perhaps in the moments where narrative runs out of things to say or the ability to say them. For poetry, I’d like—conversely, perhaps—to write a novel in verse. So far, I’ve only written a novella in verse.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I write on the subway. I write standing in line. I love the surface distraction on offer at coffee shops like Sey, and I love the sacred quiet of the library. I also love writing in airports, on planes, and especially on trains. Something about watching the world race by as framed by those windows, like everything is just a reel of film racing past, motivates me to put pen to paper. Also, any time that I’m tasked with waiting, I’ll get out either a book or a pen and paper. I’ve been known to draft on my phone or even my forearm if I’m lacking paper, though.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Sey Coffee, which I’ve already mentioned. Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. Spoonbill Books. Human Relations Books, which I’ve also already mentioned. Kávé Coffee Bar, too. The McNally Jackson off the Bedford Ave stop on the L (in which I once saw Owen Wilson browsing the photography section). Also, this sort of communal living room in my apartment building that has these stellar red armchairs (perfect for sinking into with a book).
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate sleep,
And what I forget you forget,
For every absence inscribing itself in me as good inscribes itself in you.
Because it has a human pace and killer food and creative people and it still has old-school New York goodness left in its veins. At least I think so!