Poet Of The Week

Emily Skillings

     March 7–13, 2016

Emily Skillings is the author of two chapbooks: Backchannel (Poor Claudia) and Linnaeus: The 26 Sexual Practices of Plants (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press). Recent poems can be found/are forthcoming in Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, LitHub, Jubilat, Pleiades, Phantom Limb, Philadelphia Review of Books and Washington Square. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist poetry collective and event series. With poet Adam Fitzgerald, she co-curated the exhibit “John Ashbery Collects: Poet Among Things” at Loretta Howard Gallery. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University and runs the Earshot reading series with Allyson Paty.

Flower Chamber

Empty and half awake
I met my exchange cousin for the first time,
found her services to be almost reliable,
rode the repeating pause to the very top of feeling.

I came, waited and contemplated almost nothing,
was forced to leave after nobody showed up
to the mouth-to-mouth party.
It was almost an hour ago to the second.

It’s like those circulated myths about imperceptibly small
yet incredibly dense objects sinking through
an entire apartment complex, five or eight
consecutive living room floors,
to hover in the basement’s single bulb.

I’m coming to a curve in this logic.
The line flows itself into a chamber shape
only to swerve, douse my walking project
in ground stimulants, and dissolve.

I walked past the middle class nausea
of patchy, poorly-seeded lawns
walked into the depressed shopping mall
where each item gets its own store, price tag
and uniformed guardian, past the woman
who was hurled forever into public,
who dies each day in the same footprints.

I walked and imagined a dock into permission.

I walked up to a building
that advertised a Flower Chamber
of insurmountable beauty on its glass façade.
I looked between my feet and saw a cobblestone
and on that cobblestone was a small gold placard
and on that small gold placard was an engraving.

It read: Here, Right Here
Nowhere Else
Underneath and Above
This Building
Apartment Building Building
Building Avenue
Building Area, Still Building

–Originally published in The Philadelphia Review of Books, September 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I find myself most wanting to write when I’m listening to other poets read their work. I suppose this calls into question the degree to which I’m “listening,” but maybe it’s a different kind of listening. I remember very clearly being at the Poetry Project for a poet karaoke night in 2012 during which the wifi wasn’t working so there was really no karaoke at all (no youtube on which to pull up songs) and it defaulted to a reading. Does anyone remember this? I started to think about zip codes, possibly because a poet read a poem with a zip code in it, and then addresses, how they are this widening of location—beginning with person, building and apartment number, followed by borough, city and then this little numerical tag. I then tried to imagine an address that didn’t give any information about place while still signifying place’s essence, which prompted me to write the last seven lines. The rest of the poem moved into that feeling through a cataloguing of non-arrivals. I just revised the poem thinking about this, as I hadn’t looked at it in a few years. Thanks for that opportunity to revisit.

What are you working on right now?

I’m about to start teaching my first class, a six-week course on walking and writing at Columbia.

I’m also finishing up my MFA and assembling my first collection of poems. I just embarked on a very long poem about a giant pile of post-apocalyptic digital and physical trash/garbage/refuse/junk/scrap and a relationship it has with a bordering canal. Once in a while the canal sweeps a bit of trash from the pile out to sea, and the poem is the conversation between the two entities. I’m thinking of it as a libretto.

I’m also writing a long poem about “Mother of Pearl” by Roxy Music. It’s my favorite song!

What’s a good day for you?

Lately I’ve been having this very distinct pre-tantrum feeling. This usually occurs on the subway or when I’m getting ready to leave the house, which, since childhood, has always been my least-favorite time of day because it’s when your organizational deficits usually make themselves known. It’s not an anxiety attack but it feels incredibly uncomfortable and pressurized. My friend told me recently that there’s a name for this and that she’d check the DSM so I’m still waiting to hear back on that. I guess a day when I don’t feel that is a good day.

On a good day I have contact with friends that is not text-based and read something in a book and appreciate something natural and express gratitude.

I also love days where I feel a thing that can’t immediately or exactly be expressed because that’s a poem.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

People talking about Brooklyn.

The desire to keep my work and school life separate from where I live.

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’ve been living in the same apartment in Clinton Hill for seven years now and am about to sign a lease for my eighth. The building is named The Roberta, which I think is better than having a gym or a laundry room. The management company, in a stunning and unprecedented extension of humanity, did not raise the rent this year.

Clinton Hill felt for a long time like this lovely little pocket between much bigger neighborhoods. I’ve always loved that the majority of businesses within a five-block radius are POC-owned and operated, and that the neighborhood didn’t seem strangled by the super-rich. The Barclays Center changed that.

It’s my favorite place to take walks. Recently on the corner of Washington and Gates they added a row of lights to illuminate the top section of this gigantic and very old, elaborate apartment complex and it so dramatically altered that corner it felt like the street had been rearranged.

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

Once I came downstairs and my neighbor was clipping his toenails on our stoop and I sat down and chatted with him while he did this. He often opens the door for me when I have groceries and so I stopped to admire this very bold procedure take place, which merged public and private in a way that I found interesting. I love my neighbors.

The first time I went to Brooklyn I was living at a New School dormitory and took the C train to Bed-Stuy to meet my friends. It was before smartphones so I always remember going to stophop.com and writing down directions in a little notebook I wish I still had. I remember coming to Hoyt-Schermerhorn (where I was to transfer to the G) and marveling at the ghostly side of the track that hasn’t been used in years, carpeted in a thick layer of dust. I repeated the name to myself as it felt increasingly unpronounceable: Hoyt Schermerhorn, Hoyt Schermerhorn. Every train conductor pronounces it differently.

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

On a personal level: the simultaneous ability to be held and held accountable, to be supported and challenged.

I have definitely felt loved and cared for and supported in this city. I think of the New York City poetry community as composed of different but ultimately collaborative and porous microclimates.

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

Marianne Moore lived in Fort Greene:

it hovers forward ‘spider fashion
on its arms’ misleading like lace;
its ‘ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.’
The fir-trees, in ‘the magnitude of their root systems,’
rise aloof from these maneuvers ‘creepy to behold,’
austere specimens of our American royal families,
‘each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,’
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather …

Akilah Oliver lived in Fort Greene:

often now when i imagine life i think of what should
be finite, the guise of limitability, the desire for stop
are there greeters there [are you one] when we former ghosts arrive
is this sea deceptive, as if alive or an                    actor, the world masked
in my own way there was a time when i stumbled over a tense: says/said
now, bereft, in anticipation of how night collapses
into its own effluence i conjugate occasions, ask just for time, just a little
to get love right.

Who are your poetry mentors and how have they influenced you?

Marcella Durand was my mentor in college. She told me I was a poet and has been a motivating and nurturing factor in my life since 2008.

My poetry mentors are always shifting. I was encouraged and raised and endowed politics by feminist poets associated with Belladonna*, a collectively run press and event series that was started in 1999 (Rachel Levitsky, Jennifer Firestone, Krystal Languell, r. erica doyle, erica kaufman, Barbara Henning).

Timothy Donnelly and Dorothea Lasky have been incredibly generous teachers and have influenced my writing so much in the last two years.

My close circle of readers and trusted friends inspire me and help me along.

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

The first and only book that has made me cry this year (real tears on the subway) is Karen Weiser’s Or, The Ambiguities. She’s working with form and erasure in a way I’ve never experienced before and the first poems in the book gave me the sensation that I was being wrung out from the inside—a very palpable grief is achieved through form.

I’ve been trying to read ten pages of Wordsworth’s Prelude every night to learn about long poems and motion.

Margo Jefferson’s Negroland.

Samantha Zighelboim’s “Fat Sonnets.”

Alice Notley wrote this in an interview recently and it taught me to myself:

I do the same things every day. I went jogging in the Buttes-Chaumont this morning, and I had the thought as I was rounding the lake at a particular place that there was an exact sensation that corresponded to making the turn, that I always looked forward to turning at that exact formation of trees and water and rocks, and that I had cultivated this kind of sensation, which has to do with being in process, all of my life. I am looking forward to turning that curve again.

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

I’ve never read King Lear. A friend talked me into it recently and we’re going to read it together.

Two Serious Ladies is on my bookshelf TAUNTING ME as we speak.

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’m always reading multiple books at once. I rarely read books of poetry in sequence. I’m a big dipper.

I am trying to get better at caring about plot. When I read prose I am usually more traditionally attentive. I always read with a pen, but usually just to underline.

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

I take notes on my phone at poetry readings and sometimes worry it looks like I’m texting.

Otherwise I read/write on the subway and in bed. I take down notes on my phone throughout the day and sometimes record my voice while I’m walking to transcribe later, but there’s no composing happening unless I’m on the subway or in bed.

OK, that’s not completely true because on Tuesdays I sometimes write in Columbia’s ethnomusicology library. There’s a great view (complete with gargoyles) and absolute quiet and these huge tables. And when I’m traveling upstate to visit my partner I can write a little on the bus or in his apartment.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I’m going to mention Manhattan (gasp!). Everyone hates St. Marks and I guess I understand that it’s just vape stores now and has lost everything of its essence but I think the Papaya King on St. Marks is one of the most gorgeous façades in the city. Those colors just make me happy.

I also love Fort Greene Park for its hills and its gloomy monument. I just found out that it marks a huge crypt of American naval captives, or “prison ship martyrs” from the battle of Long Island.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate at odd hours and in rhizomatic forms.
And what I kill you tend to revive.
For every limp red bird in me is a pin in your stupid hat.

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.

I’ll give you the first stanza because the rest of it didn’t happen.

There was this male beauty, JACK
He was an ancient clarity-dodger
He helped out at our honey farm. No biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

Roughly one third of Brooklyn’s population is foreign-born. Half of all Brooklynites speak a language other than English at home. Underlying the official motto of Brooklyn (Eendraght Maeckt Maght: Dutch for ‘unity makes strength’) is the total displacement of the indigenous Lenape nation.

—Daria Faïn and Robert Kocik, from their brilliant project BROOKLYN REZOUND, a performance against gentrification

I don’t necessarily think Brooklyn is always going to be my answer. I’ve been feeling lately like I might like to move somewhere where I am not constantly asked to admire other people’s hyper-curated experiences. I grew up in Maine, where there was more opportunity for boredom. People who say “only boring people get bored” are so wrong! Cultivated boredom is such an important part of my writing; there needs to be a vacuum that produces an impulse, that first little twitch.

I want a little more room and a little more money in my pocket. They are building buildings I hate in my neighborhood and it’s very loud all morning. For a while I want to go to a place where buying isn’t conflated with experience. But then I’d miss all my friends and lose my network of support. It’s a mostly bad feeling. I’m renewing my lease.