Poet Of The Week

Erika Walsh

     October 19–25, 2020

Erika Walsh is a poet, writer and cofounding editor of A Velvet Giant, a genreless literary journal. Her work has been featured in Hotel Amerika, Hobart, Wax Nine Journal, Visible Poetry Project, Tinderbox, Peach Mag and elsewhere. An alumna of the artist residency program at Art Farm Nebraska, Walsh works in Manhattan as an editorial assistant and lives in Brooklyn with her pet cat Willa.

Author photo by Claire McClusky

No place but where god is

No place but where god shines a light to examine

the tube of your throat (your halo your hole). Where god got evicted. Where god got covered by the earth when we made it. Where heaven got a sheet tossed

over it. Where god is ms. schmidt

with a white paper cup. One little black olive

floats at the rim. She says imagine

we’re in ancient greece? Now everyone eat

one olive. You are the one

who will hold the fruit and will look at it and who will not eat. Where god is years and years later when you finally bite

into an olive, elliptic and salted. You think not of greece

but of italy. The ocean someone who gave birth to someone who gave birth to someone who gave birth to you once had to cross and she was scared—

The olive slick with oil—slick only

with what you would expect—

whole and unchewed at the pit

of your sacrum

hung on to the spine between two wings

of bone—hollow, a knot. It feels almost

like right before cumming. God

keeps you open

so you won’t mind.

Where god kissed you hard on the mouth

          and opened the holes in your jeans

                                 made them big with red scissors.

Where god is an olive you won’t—you would not ever—swallow. Too scared that the pit

will fall into your throat.

Where god eats the future out of a box for take-out and god eats the future out of a box for keeping thimbles and god eats the future out of a music box where god

throws you hard across the pool but god is now only playing a game. Your neck bent to one side

       crooked like a hook. Where god saw him take her

to the back room of a store where a man said there would be a job for her and there was never any job for her. God watched

him close the door and god did not say stop god did not break the lock or call for any kind of help god did not smooth her hair back with soft knuckles when she cried god did not explain how this is what happened

this is the name for it

this is what you do now

this is the sheet to peer past

and to breathe under when you need to be somewhere

nice and just for one moment in the light. God says

do you mind. God says I saw you at the park. You were crying with a woman

who was once a girl taken badly

to the back room of a store. Did you happen, then, to see my dog run

scared by that tree with some leaves on his head?

His little god-paw. God says

will you help me make this poster. I god-lost someone. I’m sad. I cannot tell the green from red.

—Originally published in Glass as part of the Poets Resist 2018 Midterm Elections Special Feature, November 2018.

Brooklyn Poets · Erika Walsh, "No place but where god is"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem nearly three years ago, during my last visit home before graduating college. I wrote it all in one sitting after having a long conversation outside at a park with someone I love. I spent the next year or so making edits. When I sat down to write this, I had been thinking a lot about the ways we learn to give and receive love (or what looks like love), and how our understanding of romantic love is in large part a learned behavior, passed down to us and influenced by patriarchal norms.

What are you working on right now?

Most of the poems I’ve been writing lately are on the longer side. The main piece I’ve been excited about is a four-page poem about a ghost that haunted my childhood home, including an advice column with the ghost. I have been very slowly working on a manuscript over the past few years, but I’m not sure whether it should be a chapbook or a full-length collection. I’m still figuring out how my poems fit together. I’ve been working on some collages, too, which feels like a similar process. I’d love to get into other forms of creating, like embroidery or mosaics. Challenging other parts of my creative brain helps inform my writing and guide me towards new poetic forms and ways of experimenting with words.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day goes like this: I wake up and remember my dream. The dream is bizarre, but it does not frighten me. I write it down in my journal. I make breakfast and eat while listening to a new episode of one of my favorite podcasts. It makes me laugh and I learn something. I take notes. I go outside and walk around, then settle in somewhere to read and to write. I get a call from someone I love. The call lasts twenty minutes. They are just checking in. I get the perfect amount of alone time. I see a cool bug. I bathe in warm water, lavender oil and Epsom salt. I sip my tea and sleep.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Work and friends. I moved to Queens two years ago when I got a job as a teaching artist at a creative writing nonprofit, then moved to Manhattan, and finally to Brooklyn almost a year and a half ago, when I got a new job at an academic publisher. I now live with two of my best friends from college. Every day I am grateful for that.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing?

I live in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I’ve only been here a little over a year, so I can’t really speak to how it’s changed. There’s a bar called Salem’s Hour near my apartment with a community fridge stocked with free food that was set up outside shortly after the pandemic began, and a ceramic shop down the block where my roommate and I painted mugs pre-COVID. I live on a busy main road, but there are plenty of beautiful trees and dragonflies and honeybees lining the streets near my apartment. It only takes about fifteen minutes to walk to Prospect Park, which has been amazing for socially-distanced hangouts and long walks during the pandemic. It takes half an hour to walk to the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, too, and although I haven’t been able to attend the former recently because of the pandemic, I’m grateful to be in close proximity to these inspiring, beautiful places.

How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in a few places around New York State and am realizing that most of them were in close proximity to nature, which is one of the most important factors to me when choosing somewhere to live. I grew up in Kings Park, a small town on the North Shore of Long Island most notable for its abandoned psychiatric center, which was shut down in 1996, the year I was born. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends at the psych center, riding my bike, collecting horseshoe crab shells at the beach and watching shooting stars in a field at the park near my house. I went to college in Ithaca, NY, which is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and spent a lot of time swimming in gorges and hiking in places like Buttermilk Falls State Park. Before coming to the city, I lived briefly in Buffalo, NY, where my mother and siblings still live.

I’m grateful to be in a much more politically active city than the town I grew up in. Although there have been a few protests against racist injustice and police brutality in my hometown, from what I’ve heard it seems like the protesters are often outnumbered by the police and these protests tend to fizzle out quickly. This is in contrast to the thousands of people who showed up to the Black Trans Lives Matter rally and march I was able to attend in June. Being able to be near such a hub of art and activism makes me feel hopeful, especially during a time where there are so many factors at play that are trying to suppress these things.

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

I’ve had a few great opportunities to immerse myself in poetry since coming here that I don’t think I would have had access to elsewhere. I’ve seen many of my favorite writers read, such as Ocean Vuong, Ada Limón and Anne Boyer, and was able to attend a free workshop on erasure poetry led by Robin Coste Lewis. I attended the outdoor Book Fair for All at Grand Army Plaza back in August and felt so inspired by this. I am hoping to volunteer with similar initiatives in the future.

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

Pretty much all of my friends pursue some kind of art, whether it be writing or illustration or film, and I feel inspired and supported by them. I don’t feel like I am part of a vast, immersive writing community yet, though. I would love to be part of a group of writers who critique my work as much as they support it and push me further. I feel that my writing thrives in academic settings for this reason. I’ve tried a few in-person and online workshops, and am still looking for the one I mesh with most. I’ve made some connections with other writers through my work as cofounder and editor of A Velvet Giant, an online literary journal. We were actually supposed to have some of our writers read at the New York City Poetry Festival this past summer, and this was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic. I would love to have an in-person reading once it is safe to do so and meet the people whose work we’ve published.

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

I love Frank O’Hara. I think about these lines from “Meditations in an Emergency” all the time:

         Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.

         Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?

         I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

         Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

Oof! Same, dude. Same. It gets me every time.

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

I had some amazing professors at Ithaca College, where I studied creative writing. I actually thought I was going to write fiction until my second half of junior year. The support I got in fiction and creative nonfiction from my professors Jacob White and Katie Marks definitely made a difference in my writing overall. Their support encouraged me to explore more experimental forms of writing and push the bounds of my creativity further. During my last semester at Ithaca, I worked on an independent project with my professor Catherine Taylor. This introduced me to the work of writers such as CAConrad and helped me see how my poems are informed and influenced by visual art.

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

I loved reading My Baby First Birthday by Jenny Zhang. I listened to her read from this book in an online reading towards the beginning of quarantine. I was struck by her work, particularly the poem “needs revision!”, and read her short story collection Sour Heart shortly after finishing this book. I appreciate how she does not shy away from the grotesque or brutal in her work, and how crushingly human her poems and stories are. I recently read the short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, which broke my heart and healed it simultaneously. I was especially moved by her stories “This Person” and “Something That Needs Nothing.” I’ve also been reading more dystopian fiction than usual (now seems like the time!!). I just finished Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and am in the middle of reading Severance by Ling Ma.

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

I follow the Susan Sontag’s Diary bot on Twitter and it really makes me want to read her work. I actually took a book of her essays out at the library right before quarantine and since the library near me hasn’t reopened, I still have it. I should read it!! I will read it. I’ve never made it to the end of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, although I’ve picked it up again and started rereading it from the beginning many times. I also own Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and want to definitely make it a priority to sit down and read that 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 read multiple books at a time, dipping in and out of them until I find one I’m obsessed with and read only that one until it’s finished. I prefer physical books. I like holding books in my hands and I like surrounding myself with them. Even the books I haven’t read emanate an energy that feels special to me. I don’t usually take notes. I underline and bracket my favorite lines and will occasionally write down ones that are particularly striking.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Music is a huge source of inspiration for me, and I’d love to write a poem that uses found language from a song or album and is really in communication with the music. I tried writing a sestina after the album Live Through This by Hole and I’m still working on it. I often have trouble writing poems that take the shape of more traditional forms, but I would like to get better at this. I want to practice writing more sestinas. I love them for the large expanses of time that they demand. I also definitely want to write an abecedarian. One of my favorite poems is the abecedarian “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle” by Mary Szybist, which is beautiful and which I didn’t even realize was an abecedarian at first.

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

I often wrote at PLG Coffee House and Tavern, prior to the pandemic. I also enjoyed writing at Poets House, especially since I could leaf through hundreds of old literary magazines and obscure chapbooks while writing, which was super inspiring.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

A few months ago I rode my bike to Coney Island along the Ocean Parkway bike path, which was super energizing and rejuvenating. I recently went to Brooklyn Bridge Park and that was beautiful, and of course Prospect Park is amazing. I especially like watching all the turtles swim around. There are also so many great bookstores here. I live right by Greenlight Bookstore and I like Books Are Magic, too, and their poetry gumball machine! I like that so many apartments in Brooklyn have rooftop access, including my own little roof, which is more of an extended fire escape but still gets the job done. Looking down at the city or at the sun setting from a rooftop never fails to bring me joy.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate reflection,

And what I give to myself I give to you and you to me,

For every feeling that remembers me as good remembers you.

Why Brooklyn?

It feels like anything can happen here, even during this time when opportunities for spontaneity are more limited. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.