August 28–September 3, 2023
Edgar Kunz is the author of Fixer (Ecco, 2023) and Tap Out (Ecco, 2019). He has been an NEA Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. New poems appear in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Poetry, the American Poetry Review and the Oxford American. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College. On Thursday, August 31, Kunz will read at Brooklyn Poets for the launch of his latest collection.
Author photo by Ariana Mygatt
What now? You’d flown in
from a Midwest city named
for its rowdy summertime
abundance lying saying you
were coming to visit friends
in San Francisco and I had taken
the train from chilly Oakland
to meet you and we rode north
carefully not touching I took you
to the tiny one-room apartment
I had escaped to after the
divorce and fried us nervously
some potatoes in a cast-iron
pan a little rosemary which we
did not eat because you kissed
me hard and we went in a rush
to the mattress I bought off a guy
in a semi-famous band and had only
the day before gotten off
the floor and onto the pinewood
bed frame I’d found and hoisted
on my back and carried
down out of North Berkeley arms
wide weaving through the side
streets toeing the centerline to avoid
snagging the buckeyes leaning out
it was about suffering
in public it was dramatic
sure but the dramas of my life
those days were pitched
as high as I could stand higher
sometimes I said breathless I want
to taste you and you said please
yes and later out at the edge
of the lake huddled against
the damp wind hot grease
soaking through a paper bag
licking salt from each
other’s fingers obscenely a night
heron peered up at us from
the reeds small hunched dipping
its shining beak in the shallows not
particularly beautiful but a heron
nevertheless the same one
we were sure we saw perched
on the awning outside the theater
whose marquee shouted slogans
like WE LIVE IN A FAKE
DEMOCRACY and PREVENT UN-
WITH HAND COUNTED PAPER
BALLOTS and later the cabin
we rented with friends
in Calaveras snowmelt vaulting
the redwoods to magnificent
heights drinking rye and each
of us practicing our best
wolf howl at the waning
moon which was ridiculous yes
but once we started it became impossible
to stop waking up next morning
hoarse and happy and you moved west
and we lived together in a studio
overlooking the café dumpster
and then back east on a dream
of a house and a garden and then
my father died and at almost
the same age yours did and both
from drink and an unnameable
sadness I went back to Connecticut
alone three and a half days
my mother said before anyone
had found him in his apartment
on the far side of town and going
with my brother which we
should not have done and dragging
the mattress out and clearing
the maggots off the ceiling
with a shop vac and so on and later
you came and we walked through
the basement of my mother’s house
I wanted to show you where for
a while he lived and how and you
slung your arm around my waist
and we moved slowly together bare
fluorescent bulb shining
on the Budweiser ashtray
the carpentry tools I would
inherit the ratty couch he crashed
on for years you held up
an old calypso record he loved
and sang out softly Jump in the line
rock your body in time and I
sang back softly Okay I believe you
and after a while mom at the top
of the stairs shouting What
are you kids doing down there
and climbing the steps you pinch
my elbow and ask if I’m
okay and I hear myself
say yes which is not a lie though
I’m not listening I’m letting
myself feel how astonishing how
astonishing what our love can make
of a place like that
—From Fixer, Ecco, 2023.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This was one of the first poems I wrote after my first book, Tap Out. I wanted to switch up my style, try to be freer and write with less control, less of an idea about where I was heading. John Murillo’s “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” and Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Sleep” were two big influences on me at the time. And Larry Levis, especially The Widening Spell of the Leaves. And Merwin’s unpunctuated stuff, like The Shadow of Sirius. Maybe most importantly, I wanted the poem to be tonally various—funny and desperate and deadly serious and grateful. At the end of the day, it’s a love poem, the poem the whole book is building toward.
What are you working on right now?
I’m in that weird period between projects. I’m allegedly working on a novel—I have some pages but it’s too early to tell if it’s any good. I wrote an essay I’m proud of that just came out with Lit Hub about the limitations of hustle culture. I start out telling you about how I scammed my landlord in Oakland and I end up talking about what I think poetry is all about, and what it’s not about. I say some things I really believe in that one.
What’s a good day for you?
Today’s pretty good! Khruangbin on the speakers, burning some incense we got in Iceland, an afternoon coffee and a little yogurt smoothie on deck. Anticipating the book tour and relieved the book is finally out. Just did a radio interview this morning that was laid back and fun. I’m feeling alright.
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 live in Baltimore, “The Greatest City in America”! At least that’s what it says on our bus stop benches—we had a run of mayors that each tried to rebrand the city. “The City That Reads” was another good one. My sweetheart and I moved here four years ago from California, but I went to college here. It was a kind of homecoming for me. It’s good to be back on the East Coast. I’m closer to my family, for one thing. My mom and brothers.
People sleep on Baltimore, but it has a great arts scene, a vibrant and countercultural energy, and it’s still relatively cheap to live. And it’s an hour from DC, two hours from Philly, three hours from NYC on the train. We’re two writers and we have a house and a garden in a great neighborhood. Every time New York friends come to visit, we’re like, “This life could be yours!”
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I love Brooklyn. I’ve got friends all over—Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens—and now that I live in Baltimore, I take the train up often. I’ll be real, though: it’s hard to get around in Brooklyn on the train! You’re going back into the city a lot to catch a connecting train. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I’m having to take a lot of Ubers.
Seriously, though, I’m crazy about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, especially when I can sneak in on a friend’s membership! Doris and Dick & Jane’s for drinks. There’s this beautiful little coffee shop on Flatbush across from the park called Loud Baby. My friend’s sister just opened a restaurant in Fort Greene called Margot. It’s a special spot.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I’m still finding my community in Baltimore, but so far, so good! Lots of committed poets here making cool work. And it’s not just professors and grad students—there’s a vibrant spoken-word scene, a hilarious and cutting alt-lit scene. It keeps you on your toes. Nobody here seems to care that much about what you’ve accomplished or where you went to school or whatever—what’s most real is what you can make happen at the mic.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I love Tina Chang’s work, and John Murillo’s. Sam Ross is a wonderful poet—he and John are reading at my launch at Brooklyn Poets along with the brilliant homie Megan Fernandes. Hafizah Geter, Maggie Millner, Angel Nafis, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Shira Erlichman … I could go on and on. Brooklyn must have the greatest density of poetic talent on the planet. For every name I mention, there are a hundred more that would blow your mind.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve had the good luck to study under some truly generous and gifted writers. Eavan Boland, Louise Glück and Ken Fields at Stanford. Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles and Beth Bachmann at Vanderbilt. Elizabeth Spires and A. V. Christie at Goucher, where I went and where I now teach. And shout out to my very first poetry professor, Steve Straight, at my local community college. He changed my life.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’m reading Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had right now and it’s stunning. It’s my favorite kind of stuff: simple materials, complex thinking and feeling. She’s wrestling with class, work, consumption culture, the demands and costs of participating in our twenty-first-century brand of American capitalism. And without being the least bit sanctimonious or knowing. It’s a real exploration and it’s done on the human level: every essay centers on a conversation she has with another human being. So good.
I’m finally working my way through some of the great twentieth-century fiction writers: Magda Szabó, Natalia Ginzburg, W. G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro. I’m trying to read fewer Americans. It helps me get outside myself and my assumptions.
I know I didn’t mention any poets! I’m going through a prose phase, but a handful of recent poetry favorites (aside from the poets I name in the previous question): Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets, Natasha Rao’s Latitude, Ryann Stevenson’s Human Resources, Solmaz Sharif’s Customs.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I want to read more Mark Strand, more Gwendolyn Brooks, Wallace Stevens, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Langston Hughes. Every generation has its big poets, and some excellent poets somehow get a little lost—I’d like to dig into the writers who influenced the poets I love, especially folks who have been kind of overlooked.
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?
My reading life is a mess. I’m all over the place. I start a book, put it down, forget about it, come back a year later, read a little more, put it down, forget about it maybe forever. There’s so much to read! The books that are closest to my heart are the ones that gripped me right away and haven’t let go. They ring in my body like a bell. I’ll read the same book a hundred times if I like its resonance. Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires is a book like that for me. I’ll never get tired of it.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve never been an especially formal poet, meaning a writer of strict forms. Could be fun to write more in meter or write a series of ghazals or villanelles. These old forms are always waiting to be made new.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’ll shout out a few coffee shops in Baltimore I work at sometimes. Artifact Coffee is number one if you look at the stats, but I also love Good Neighbor and Vent, as well as Ceremony down in Mount Vernon. A coffee-shop atmosphere is good for me—I think it’s the white noise.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Besides the places I name above, I love wandering around Prospect Park with nothing to do, nowhere to be. People going about their days, jogging, sprawling out with friends, playing music, smoking weed, kicking a soccer ball around. It’s hard not to fall in love with a city when you’re in a place like that. It’s beautiful.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Brooklyn and Baltimore, the real twin cities.
And what I love about my dive you love about your dive.
For every bummed cig savored on the sidewalk outside
by me as good was savored by you.