April 25–May 1, 2022
Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet and the author of Bianca (Four Way Books, forthcoming March 2023) and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications including the Nation, Ploughshares, Waxwing and the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. The recipient of Poetry‘s 2021 Bess Hokin Prize as well as fellowships and awards from Poets & Writers, Kundiman and others, Eugenia received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and serves as a poetry editor at the Adroit Journal. On Thursday, April 21, she read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series via Zoom along with Ananda Lima and Tom Sleigh.
How the Dung Beetle Finds Its Way Home
The Milky Way’s glinting ribbon helps the dung beetle
roll his good ball of shit back to the ones he loves.
But blind him to the sky with as little as a hat,
and he will swerve like a drunk who, if he makes it home alive,
might find the family, soured with waiting,
gone. Drawers cleared, beds cold, even the watercolor ark
of giraffes and raptors pulled from the face of the fridge.
See? I want to tell my missing father, it’s a metaphor so simple
it’s almost not worth writing down: even beetles need the stars
to nudge them back to where they need to be
when they need to be there—toward their little ones’
gummy grins ever pardoning the grisliest parent.
I am thirty-four with a son the day my mother tells me
she enrolled in a four-day seminar about how to be a good mom.
A little late, I know.
Once, in a rage, I left my husband and our sleeping child.
Where did you go, friends ask when I tell the story.
I wish I’d had a grander plan. I wish I’d stood on the roof
of our building and, empowered by that single Brooklyn star,
I’d ripped up the book of my parents’ sins.
Or I wish I could tell someone the truth: that I fear
I am the kind of woman who could leave the one good family
God had the gall to give her. Really,
I sat on the stairwell leading up to the roof and wept
until a large bug threatened my life, at which point I recalled
the dung beetles, stopped blaming my parents, and—
thanking the metaphorical stars—I rolled up my pile of shit
and trudged back home.
—“How the Dung Beetle Finds Its Way Home” from Bianca (c) forthcoming 2023 by Eugenia Leigh. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem took five years to write. Trapped in a writing and reading rut in 2015, I subscribed to Scientific American, which led me to the dung beetles and the revelation that they rely on the Milky Way for direction. My first book was published the year prior. And everything I wrote during that post-book season (including the first draft of this poem) sounded like a synthetic knock-off of my published work. I was trying to mimic the “Eugenia Leigh” already out in the world instead of trusting my voice to evolve. When I wrote this poem’s first draft, I was neither a married person nor a parent. It wasn’t until I landed on that literal stairwell ready to run away from these new roles that I “recalled / the dung beetles” and returned to the draft. I was surprised to find myself unconsciously enacting the conflict I’d wanted to explore in the poem, which had started out more emotionally distant, mostly informational. So I pushed myself toward vulnerability. Then the poem found its way.
What are you working on right now?
My second poetry collection, Bianca, comes out in March 2023, so I’m currently finalizing the cover and preparing to do the requisite rounds with the copy editor. In the meantime, I’m hacking away at some terrible essays and some even more terrible poems because I am, once again, trying not to sound like a bad parody of myself.
What’s a good day for you?
A day that includes a shower, the consumption of a vegetable, some deliberate chugs of water. Also, a day when I’ve been more human, less cyborg—meaning I’ve pushed myself to be imaginative both as a mom and as a writer as opposed to being a mom/writer on autopilot relying on the usual routines.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
In my early twenties, I hit rock bottom and thought I could either die or run away to start a new life. But while I was often impulsive, I was also strangely risk-averse, so I waited until I got into graduate school to do the running away. So the pursuit of an MFA was ultimately what brought me to Brooklyn. (All right, fine, the truth is I first wound up in Yonkers in 2008 by accident, but then I got my bearings and moved to Brooklyn the following year.)
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?
Like many New Yorkers, I’ve moved quite a bit in the city, but I keep returning to North Brooklyn maybe because my first Brooklyn neighborhood was Greenpoint in 2009. I lived in Bushwick twice, the East Village, the West Village, briefly in Hell’s Kitchen. I currently live in Williamsburg by the East River, which is not the same East River I knew thirteen years ago. I walk past a Trader Joe’s to get to it now, and the wind tunnels from the new high-rises drive me bonkers. I do wish Brooklyn would retain its old-school charm and personality a little longer (I mean, why does anyone need a Herman Miller store??). Prior to my current apartment, I lived in East Williamsburg for five years—the longest I’ve lived in any one place my entire life. It was the home that felt most like a home. I brought my baby home there. I sheltered in place there in 2020 for almost ten weeks.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Bed bugs. At that first Greenpoint apartment with my then-roommate, poet Victoria Lynne McCoy. We washed or tossed every piece of fabric we owned. Lugged it all—blankets, jackets, bags and bags of clothes—to a laundromat and stayed the whole day. If I’m remembering correctly, we got Polish pierogi next door while waiting, or maybe I just longed for them. The fumigators needed to spray the entire building three separate times, and we had to contact the neighbors to arrange this. I can laugh about it now, but I’ve blocked most of the experience out of my memory because it was such a trying, exhausting time. But we earned our Brooklyn stripes. We had a third Craigslist roommate who did most of the neighbor-wrangling. She eventually left the country with hardly a warning and left us in a rent lurch until we found a pretty boy from Georgia with a big dog to come and take her place. I don’t think we told him about the bed bugs.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Your poetry community is the people who push you and give you the permission and freedom to make what you make as your whole, unadulterated self. They get on a gut-level what you’re doing as an artist and respect the hell out of that. Some of these people are poets, many are not. Some of my people I met in New York. Others through graduate school, many through Kundiman. Still others, I met on Instagram or Twitter, where I’ve managed to form real, energizing friendships while burning in that social media inferno.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The two most iconic Brooklyn poets I look up to and have learned from are Tina Chang and Mahogany L. Browne, both of whom labor tirelessly to uplift and create opportunities for other, often less visible poets—especially BIPOC women and marginalized people. The other Brooklyn poets who come to mind immediately are the friends with whom I can share a meal after many months apart and instantly be my truest, most struggling self. I can always expect an honest and soul-mending conversation with Brooklyn poets/artists Linda Harris Dolan, dawn lonsinger and Jess X. Snow.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have crossed paths with women poets who never let me feel like an imposter. In college at UCLA, Harryette Mullen steered me toward spoken-word poets, and Joy Harjo showed me that my journals were invaluable. In graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, Laure-Anne Bosselaar challenged me to write about my family, Marie Howe taught me to stop hiding in my poetry, and Cathy Park Hong instilled in me a sense of confidence and calling. I cried almost every time I met with Laure-Anne and Marie in our conferences, and by the time I studied with Cathy, I’d come far enough to be able to talk about poetry without breaking down. Every single one of these women took me and my poems seriously even when I failed to do that for myself, and that made all the difference.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve been thinking nonstop about Joan Kwon Glass’s Night Swim, a collection of poetry that takes us through all the manifestations of grief as it follows the loss of her nephew and her sister to suicide. It’s emotionally honest, emotionally expansive. The kind of book you read when you are in pain and need something to help you feel your feelings because these poems have felt them all and act as a safe, unpretentious space for you to fall apart.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
All the parenting books in my Kindle. At this point, I’m a trial-by-fire parent who assumes it’s enough that I bought the books and have read their back-cover synopses.
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 all the books all at once and dip in and out of them chaotically. It is painfully rare for a book to hold my attention enough for me to ignore the other half-read dozens. Even rarer for me to finish it (shameful, I know). I add books at random and have an ever-growing To Be Read list light-years long. New books I want to read come out faster than I’m able to read them, which maybe explains why I don’t finish a solid majority of books. I’m a slow reader and like to read via all forms. I only recently discovered audiobooks, which have improved my quality of life drastically. I can’t believe I can now read while commuting or doing chores or waiting in line at some government facility instead of playing to death my KPop Killa playlist while cursing the mundanity of human existence.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Before I die, I want to write something laugh-out-loud funny.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Coffee shops. It pains me that I don’t have a better, non-cliché answer. I like the unspoken pressure of strangers lasered in on their laptops. I work better when I feel like I’m not measuring up, like I have something to prove.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Cooper Park in East Williamsburg. When my son was a baby, I spent so much time there that it began to feel less like “the city” and more like a backyard extension of my home—a feeling the pandemic cemented. Also, Emily’s Pork Store (426 Graham Ave). It’s been around for almost fifty years and sells delicious sausages, cured meats, cheeses and other Italian goodies like their prepared large artichoke hearts.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate incompetently,
And what I fail to praise you praise and praise,
For every good thing lost on me as good is safe in you.
Is it melodramatic to say Brooklyn saved my life?