Poet Of The Week

Drew Pisarra

     March 4–10, 2019

As one half (with Molly Gross) of the ongoing poetry activation project Saint Flashlight, Drew Pisarra has been finding playful ways to get poems into public places everywhere from New York City to Charleston to Miami. Infinity Standing Up, a collection of his gay love sonnets, came out via Capturing Fire Press in early 2019. His short story collection Publick Spanking was published by Future Tense eons ago.

Sonnet 1-800

In 1989, my friend Mary
worked for the sex line 1-800-DUCK
where she more often took calls from scary
coke addicts than horn-dogs lacking the pluck
to approach girls in nightclubs. Back then
I smirked at the dialed-up idiocy
of convos billing jerks by the second
for not-so-hot hotline intimacy.
Yet where are we now? With our lovelorn apps
(Grindr, Tinder, Tingle, Scruff, and Diskreet)
that spell out longing via finger taps,
our hammered-out virtual meet-and-greets.
Goodbye, chatterbox—so lonely, so high.
Hey, emoticon heart … r u nearby?

Sonnet X=X

I’m going to pretend he was twenty
nine and not twenty eight since he told me
he was ringing in his birthday when he
came over to my place at three yes three
in the morning. That’s frankly the middle
of the night. I heard when his LYFT car stopped
outside my building then watched him fiddle
the front door’s one lock with a key I’d dropped
from way up high. From my peephole, I saw
him leave the elevator then look my
way. (I’m at the end of the hall.) I pawed
at his lithe body without caring. I
knew all along he wasn’t you, dear ex,
but he was there for me and sex is sex.

—From Infinity Standing Up, Capturing Fire Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of these poems.

“Sonnet 1-800” was actually the idea of an editor who’d read some of the other, earlier poems in Infinity Standing Up and thought it might be a fun title, although once she saw that I’d written about a sex line she was suddenly less enthused. As for “Sonnet X=X,” it’s really about how you can feel like you’re triumphantly cheating on someone despite the fact that you’re no longer going out.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just started a sonnet series about every man I’ve ever slept with and how each one aligns with an element from the periodic table. At the moment, I’m up to Neon. To be honest, I’m doubtful if I’ve had enough sexual partners to complete this cycle, which means I’ll either associate some men with multiple elements or engage in additional research.

What’s a good day for you?

Today was a good day. My friend Anthony and I watched the entirety of V: The Original Miniseries and V: The Final Battle back-to-back. I somehow missed these sci-fi specials when they came out in the ’80s. The opening credits for the first episode include the following dedication: “To the heroism of the Resistance Fighters—past, present and future—this work is respectfully dedicated.” I am definitely the target audience for such a message.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

A more appropriate question might be “who.” The answer to that would be the late, great jazz musician Andrew Hill. One sunny afternoon, we were hanging out at a bus stop not because we were headed anywhere but simply because there was a bench available. During our conversation, he mentioned that he’d decided to move back to NYC. “Portland is easy,” he said. “But I don’t know that I want to look back at my life and say, ‘Well, that was easy.’” And with that, he moved to New York. I followed shortly thereafter.

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?

I sometimes feel as though my Windsor Terrace tenement building is an entire neighborhood all in itself. You get a lot of stories when you’ve got six floors with nine apartments each. There’s a woman who runs a local coffee shop, a guy who composes music for documentaries, a third-generation NYC tour guide, a woman who takes photos for the Met, a cat-owning history professor at Pace … I know we have an elected official in our building too, but I can’t remember what office she holds. One former resident was the drummer for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. I snagged two of his discarded cowboy shirts when he moved to Australia last year.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

In 2017, my longtime friend and sometime collaborator Molly Gross and I pitched Nitehawk Cinema to see if we could take over the old Pavilion Theater’s then-decrepit marquee with movie haiku. Despite our public art resumé being fairly scant at the time, we got the green light, thereby launching Saint Flashlight, a poetry-based initiative that has now activated projects in Miami, Charleston, the District of Columbia and NYC. The long shot feels shorter in Brooklyn and yet you still get that “Made in NYC” seal of approval if it hits.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I sometimes consider the poem as a variation on the monologue, so is it okay if I cite a scriptwriting community? If so, I’d like to give a shout-out to the Drawing Board NYC, a not-for-profit that hosts a monthly reading series focused on stage plays and screenplays. I’ve met some terrific writers—and actors—through this group. There’s not an organization in town that’s been as continually supportive to me as a writer of late.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

When I had my tonsils removed in my thirties, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Leaves of Grass which proved to be an incredibly engrossing read that distracted me from the constant pain and let me get off the Oxycontin ASAP. Walt Whitman is one hell of a painkiller. As for contemporary Brooklyn poets, Diane Mehta sets the bar high for the rest of us with her recent collection Forest with Castanets.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

From the realm of the dead, I’d nominate Anne Sexton who turned me into a lifelong lover of verse. She showed me poetry could pulse with immediacy. From the realm of the living, I’d nominate Mare Davis who wrote the intro to Infinity Standing Up. She showed me I could make a chapbook and cut out the middleman.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

One book I read fairly recently that still haunts me is The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright—a brief but intense correspondence between two formidable writers that ended with Wright’s death from tongue cancer in 1980. Their exchange felt personal but polite, so you felt privy to the privacy without prying.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I really need to read Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel, since I’ve read the three other novels in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy and can’t imagine being disappointed with his final book.

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 periodically pick up books that I find on the street, so to some degree my reading is guided by what catches my eyes amidst the neighborhood’s refuse. How else would I have discovered the plays of Nathalie Sarraute or the stories of Lydia Millet, I wonder. My romance with Kindle was brief. I read The Collected Works of Frances Hodgson Burnett, then the device broke down and I never replaced it.

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 create a poem (about office work) in an Excel chart that allows you to reorder the various columns to form equally valid poems.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I tend to feel incredibly self-conscious whenever I try to write in public. The one exception is when I go to a movie theater alone, especially if the movie is awful and the theater’s more or less empty. I like writing down ideas in the dark while terrible dialogue is being spoken by beautiful people who don’t really need to be watched. Admittedly, my handwriting can prove hard to read afterwards, but there’s inspiration to be found in misinterpretations, too.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I’ve got a soft spot for BAM Harvey, not only because of unforgettable productions such as Calixto Bieito’s Life Is a Dream, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone and Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet (starring Adrian Lester), but also because I was lucky enough to perform there as a supernumerary in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2017 production of King Lear. For the record, I played “Tree #3.”

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the outcast and the wrongly forbidden,
And what I find or unearth you shall unwrap then redress,
For every vision of me as good alone is anathema to you.

Why Brooklyn?

In the words of Brooklyn rapper Lil’ Kim: “I love being the underdog sometimes.”