January 7–13, 2019
Emily Wilkinson is a poet and psychologist as well as the president and cofounder of the Xia-Gibbs Society. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she has lived in London and Brooklyn and recently returned to her hometown in Australia. In college, she studied psychology, English literature and creative writing. Since 2016 she has regularly attended workshops through Brooklyn Poets and read at the Brooklyn Poets Yawp. She has had her work featured as Poem of the Day on the Bridge, and in 2018 she read at the New York City Poetry Festival with the Sweet Action Poetry Collective. Wilkinson is a co-winner of the 2018 Yawp Poem of the Year award from Brooklyn Poets for the poem below.
To My Daughter with Xia-Gibbs Syndrome, Aged Six
after Jayne Cortez
You know I wish I could rewrite
the story of your birth
You know to a story with breath
You know I wish you didn’t have to ride
the back of the bus
You know tied into your wheelchair
close to the ramp
You know I wish I could create a different world
You know away from administrators, hospitals and tubes
You know a world where no one says you catch more flies
You know a world where I tell those flies to fuck off
You know this ain’t no magical kingdom of fantasy bullshit
You know this ain’t no everyone should love
each other kinda crap
You know it’s a chance to breathe
You know to play with your cymbals
to bang on your drum
You know I wish I could be there for you when I’m gone
You know holding your hand, brushing your hair
You know I wish that wayward piece of DNA would tell us
You know the code for the stars, the code for the sky
You know I wish the world for you was water
You know water that holds you up so you can float
You know water that breaks into tiny symphonies when you
You know water that rests in your hands
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is such a personal poem for me. I had tried to write it several times before, but really struggled to hit the right notes. I wanted to tap into my feelings about how my daughter is often treated by the world, but without, as Jayne Cortez calls it, “the popular use of the word love.”
The idea for the poem was on my mind when I took an online workshop through Brooklyn Poets with Sheila Maldonado. Sheila circulated a packet of blues poems, including “You Know” by Jayne Cortez, about writing the blues. As I look back, reading her poem at that time feels like a gift. It addressed some of the things I had been thinking about and helped me find a form and a starting point for my poem. And now my “You Know” poem has a life of its own.
What are you working on right now?
A poem about departures, boxes and empty space.
What’s a good day for you?
It is a good day if my kids are happy and well and there are moments of connection and fun amid the chaos. It is an even better day if I also find time for something else important to me, which could be working on a poem, diving into another poet’s work, working on something for the Xia-Gibbs Society or having a good chat with someone important to me.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Bridges, bars and bookshops, people, parks and lakes, sidewalks, snow and stoops.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How is it changing? How did it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in Cobble Hill for three and a half years. I got to know my neighbors, the shopkeepers, the baristas at my favorite cafés and the local school community. I found friends there, I found Brooklyn Poets there.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I often heard stories about how much the neighborhood had changed. Even while I was there, rent increased, stores came and went and people I knew moved away. Yet it remained a place full of life and history.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I was trying to get home from Fort Greene after meeting some friends one February evening. I walked down the concrete steps to the subway, but the G train wasn’t running, so I walked back up into the street. It was a cold night and I was tired, so I decided to grab a taxi. I stepped out into the road and waved in an attempt to hail one. Four or five went past, and they all just kept driving, as though I wasn’t there.
I must have been there, though, because there was a group of kids on the other side of the road looking my way and laughing.
Next time a cab came towards me there was a whistling sound in the air; the type of whistle that can only be made using two fingers in your mouth. Then a cab pulled over RIGHT next to me. While I was still trying to figure out what had happened, I looked up and one of the kids was smiling. He yelled to me, “That’s how you hail a cab!”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community to me is a place where poets can hear each other’s work and influence each other. It is a place where poets can feel supported and accountable and feel safe to express themselves creatively. I had never experienced such a community until I moved to Brooklyn and was fortunate enough to discover Brooklyn Poets.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The first poet I heard read in Brooklyn was Brenda Shaughnessy. She read from Our Andromeda and I was devastated by it and subsequently became obsessed with her work. I often turn to one of her books when I’m working.
I have also taken workshops led by Jason Koo, Joanna Valente, Leigh Stein, Natalie Eilbert, Nicole Sealey, John Murillo, Sheila Maldonado and Joshua Mehigan. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to check whether that all really happened! They are all such generous teachers whose work I admire greatly.
Through the Brooklyn Poets community I made many friends who are important to me. I met Cindy Tran, Meagan Washington, Laura Linthicum, Jessica Miller and Ona Abelis and we shared poetry, challenged each other and drank coffee. I also shared work, thoughts and wine with Julia Knobloch, Tess Congo, Joe Nasta, Nikki Ritchie, Julie Hart, Emily Blair and many others through the Sweet Action Poetry Collective.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I have learned a great deal from Jason Koo, through reading and hearing the humor and irony, the devastation and solitude in his poems (just read More Than Mere Light, if you haven’t already, to see what I mean), through his workshops and numerous readings, and from his direct feedback on my work. He has taught me so many things, including how to be bolder and push my work further. Jason and the Brooklyn Poets organization are poetry angels; they help, support and lift up so many poets.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve read Franny Choi’s collection Floating Brilliant Gone many times. I find her work truthful, painful, thoughtful and beautiful to read. Her poem “The Well” is all of these things. Also, I love “Notes on the Existence of Ghosts,” and these lines really resonate with me:
I understand the gravity of a train from the empty space and afterbirth air I encounter when I run down to the platform twenty seconds too late. It is the same with all things of such weight—to know them best when you have just missed them.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There are so many. It actually hasn’t been years for this one, but I recently ordered Laura Eve Engel’s Things That Go. I can’t wait to read it!
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?
All of the above. I like physical books and digital texts and I try to hear poems read aloud whenever I can.
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 try writing a series of poems set in the desert.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like writing on the subway, in cafés and restaurants. I love the feeling of quiet moments in busy places.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Greenlight Bookstore, Books Are Magic, 61 Local (home of the Yawp), Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, Gimme! Coffee, Mia’s Bakery, Konditori, Bergen Street Station on the F and G lines (home to many subway rats) and the PS216 playground. These are the places that give me a little pang of nostalgia when I think of them and remind me of my life in Brooklyn.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate constellations and watering holes,
And what I find in you is hidden between the leaves,
For every fragment of glass holds me as good and opens up
raindrops in you.
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.
Between blizzards, you dreamed your grandfather
visited your Brooklyn
apartment. In his hands a suitcase, a silver pen.
You took him to all the bridges and brunch spots you love;
only thing was, he didn’t know jack
about mimosas—the light was dim and he’d never heard of Biggie.
He looked at you like it was a sin
to forget moonlight hitting the river bed and rob
yourself of milk money. The whole dream, you somehow dodged
the question: Why not whistle your way to water?
Brooklyn is so many things all at once.