August 2–8, 2021
Gabriel Kruis is a poet, educator and arts administrator originally from New Mexico. He is a cofounder of Wendy’s Subway and the author of Acid Virga (Archway Editions, 2020). His work has been published in A Perfect Vacuum, the PEN America Poetry Series, OmniVerse, the Brooklyn Rail, the Atlas Review, Frontier Poetry and elsewhere. Kruis is editor and contributor for Martha Tuttle’s Return to the Field, forthcoming from Wendy’s Subway.
$2,15/hr + tips
and elsewhere dark money
and the bottles and plates,
salt and pepper,
coffee cups, half ‘n’ half
and sugar, everything
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
you & me
printed in red and green
on the server’s T-
In the photo of the diner
on the diner’s wall, imagine how
the model’s pearls, from the
into the air,
Having a Coke,
Her cashmere cardigan, gingham
skirt, The red clock
below her head,
That’s the term,
Hot oil, burnt
sugar, “All my diamonds
shine cause they’re really
on the radio,
I hold her baby, We smoke
her cigarettes, She asks me
if I like to party,
and little bumps of yay
behind the grease trap, Thus
A new science
for every object, For every object
a new song,
and like little knots of flame
going cold, all my diamonds
are slowly turning
back to coal,
—From Acid Virga, Archway Editions, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
There’s a little spot in my hometown called the Route 66 Diner. It’s got all that red and white ’50s malt shoppe schmaltz and a photograph on the wall of the small-town American diner it’s attempting to replicate. Gallup—where I grew up—and other parts of McKinley County are some of the poorest areas in the US. The contrast between this bit of suburban middle-class Americana and my experience of Gallup felt uncanny. Gallup can feel like a place that’s slipped free of the flow of time; a place where the Great Depression never ended; and, especially throughout the past year—where Covid hit harder than anywhere else—a place where the genocide and ethnic cleansing of First Peoples is ongoing, even while it experiences occasional periods of attrition.
Anyway, I was reading a book called Depression Glass the poet Erin Morrill gave me, about the relationship between the work of the objectivist poets and the WPA photographers. So I took some cues from an Oppen poem set in a diner (I and II from “Discrete Series”) and I tried to imagine the photo shoot of this simulacral restaurant, imagining how a viewfinder in an old camera might invert the image. When you stare long enough at something in downward motion (a waterfall, for instance) then look at a static object, it appears to slide, float upward, levitate—an optical illusion caused by neuronal fatigue, called the “waterfall effect.” But the concept of a “waterfall” is reflected in theories of business and economics, too. Similar to the neoliberal “trickle-down” theory, in this case the structure of an investment is imagined as a series of buckets: fill the first bucket and money spills over to fill the one below it—and so on. So, in this slow cascade, only when the top-most buckets are full do the buckets below them begin to fill.
These two ideas felt like the perfect marriage of the issues I was exploring in other poems in my book and “Waterfall Effect” helped solidify some formal concerns, while highlighting various themes. I realized, in writing this poem, the book is meant to be read vertically—like scrolling. So I edited some poems with longer lines into long poems with very quick, short lines. I wanted the reader to feel like they were falling through the poems, off-balance at the turn of every line, moving at speed. I wanted the poems to envelop the reader in the dizzying sensations of precarity. I’ve found such states of insecurity painful, hallucinatory and boundary-breaking. They destroy any sense of orientation; of which way is up or down. In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus makes an observation about emotional pain being a kind of hyperspace that links us to others, both in our lives and throughout history.
What are you working on right now?
I have a chapbook called ASBESTOLITH which feels done enough to be done, but whose poems keep coming, so who knows? I’m editing those and sending that around. I’m also collaborating with the artist Martha Tuttle as both contributor and editor for a book called Return to the Field, which Wendy’s Subway will be putting out in August. I have a long poem in it that kind of threads throughout it and I intend to continue to stretch it into a book-length called Connectome—which is the term for a neuronal map.
And I’m starting to try my hand at art criticism and writing about music. I’ve been making these mixes as a kind of soundtrack to the book. There’s some audio archival poetry in there but mostly music. I’ve only uploaded one of them to SoundCloud, which relates to the first poem in the book, “Auscultation.” Folks can hear that here.
And sometimes I watch TV and cut images out of magazines and books to make collages.
What’s a good day for you?
Since last year, my life has centered around McGolrick Park. I get a coffee with an old-fashioned sour cream donut from Moe’s Doughs: walk around the park with a friend. Take a break from staring at a poem: take a blanket and iced tea down to take a nap or read a friend’s book in the park.
I’m also into making up cocktails and love to cook, so that’s something I’ll do in the evening and sometimes we make a picnic of it down in the park. Or if we’re feeling particularly ambitious, my favorite time of day to go to the beach is at sunset, and we’ll take those things on the road with some friends to Fort Tilden and go nightswimming.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I wanted to be a writer; I didn’t want to own a car. I’d spent a year teaching in Korea after college and two of my best friends from high school had decided to move here, kind of on a whim. They needed a roommate or two. One went to law school. One worked as an intern at WNYC. One got a job at a Chelsea coffee shop. To make it possible we built bunkbeds and all lived in the same room for the first two years. We paid less than $300 a month each.
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?
That first place was in Bed-Stuy and we moved to a second, much more spacious place, also in Bed-Stuy, where I lived for another seven years. I had a brief interlude in Crown Heights and Provincetown before moving to Greenpoint, which is where I live now. As I’ve said, the park is really meaningful, especially this past year, but in many ways I still think of Bed-Stuy as my neighborhood. It felt rooted and intimate and hardworking there. I worked the census my first summer in New York and got to know the neighborhood quite well, which means I also have a pretty good insight into how it’s changed. The obvious answer is it’s gentrified. The South Williamsburg Hasidic neighborhood has expanded five to seven blocks further south. The bars are “nicer” (read: more expensive) and the variety of food more various (and expensive). It’s one of those cruel things about this city, something that could be fixed on a policy level, but like so many things in American society the shame and guilt generated by the system largely falls on individuals. It’s strange feeling that I am a part of that, coming from a small town and being poor. I didn’t anticipate it.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I used to run a reading series called Shitluck at the Tip-Top Bar & Grill in Bed-Stuy with my friend the poet Caroline Gormley. I loved going there and drinking Old Grand-Dad and chatting with Irene, Linda and Junior (who passed a few years back). They had owned the bar for something like three decades. It was something I did that felt slow and intimate in a way that reminded me of the kind of time people keep in the places I grew up in. At the readings, the sound system would always have some issue that seemed different than the month before, so we always started at least an hour late. People got used to it. Readers started showing up thirty to forty-five minutes late. Sometimes the city moves too fast. I was looking for a way to slow it down and stay in one place for a minute. I wanted people to feel like sticking around. Tip-Top is a Black-owned business and I could see how it might look to some in terms of gentrification and things, but I loved that place and those people and I think they made good money those nights, and that felt better to me than going elsewhere and not supporting them. That feeling is emblematic of my experience in New York. You can ignore, you can be ignorant of, you can feel every tension acutely, but it’s nearly impossible not to participate in the trouble one way or another.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m a cofounder of Wendy’s Subway and it very much has come to define community for me—and in that way, I think places like the Poetry Project feel like a community of communities with us. But it’s been hard, in a lot of ways, to be in a position where you are deliberately trying to make a space for community and for art, not getting paid for it (for years I was PAYING to keep the doors open), and working really hard, but still subject to all the corruptions endemic to our “heteropatriarchal capitalist culture.” And then you’re also, rightfully, subject to all of the criticisms that attend that. But there’s also a lot of sniping that goes on from people who haven’t put in the work and don’t know the difficulties. On top of that, there’s this thing that sometimes happens: people stop seeing arts administrators for the poets, writers, thinkers and artists that they are. They think of them as facilitators of their visions, not participants. It’s a troubling phenomenon, especially when the work is unpaid. So I’m proud of the stamina of the people who are running Wendy’s Subway now. They are amazing, caring people. There’s this phrase that came out of a lot of conversations about who and what we want it to be because of these various challenges: “a politics of care and solidarity.” At its best, this is what “community” means to me.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had this teacher in college, L. S. Klatt. I love his work and our friendship is important to me, but the most influential thing he did was just exist, as a poet, doing his own thing, in a place and in a world that largely thinks poetry is an archaic and totally defunct art form. I wanted to be a poet before I met him and he showed me it was possible to do it just by being one.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The difficult intricacy of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is awe-inspiring. I only really read it this past year. And by really read it, I mean read it like four times + various essays on it. I did it as a reading group with the staff and fellows at Wendy’s Subway and I learned so much about the dark side of language, the beauty of the void, and the meticulous construction of challenging and enduring works. On that note, I also read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings after I’d read Dictee and her essay on Cha, like so many others in that book, is galvanizing. Oh, and I just read Babel-17 by Samuel Delany which is about an intergalactic poet/linguist who is trying to decipher an alien language. It’s very much about the concept of embodiment and the senses as a mode of expression, as well as how language helps to refine and accentuate—and sometimes even carve out—new spaces and ways of being. Very good.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I think I’ve read them all.
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 am a scrounger, a forager, an omnivore. I like it however I can get it. I’ve been working at the Park Slope Food Coop for the last year and since I’ve been doing physical labor, I spend the time listening to a lot of poetry readings from the PennSound archive, Poetry Project and elsewhere. I also listen to novels and nonfiction using the Libby app. (Pro tip: you can get library cards from various New York libraries, which means different collections and shorter wait times.) During the pandemic I also got an e-reader because it was easier to get books from the library. It’s backlit so when I had insomnia I could read at night without waking my wife. This is also where I read a lot of the JSTOR articles and PDFs about Dictee and Cha. I have also been reading books in Spanish from the library digitally. It’s very easy to translate using it, so I highlight phrases I want to learn and then write out the phrases or words by hand the next day. That’s all kind of practical, but for me it’s about the content, about the mind of the writer and not so much the physical book—which I also love. Anyway, I usually have something going I read cover to cover, but I love to just grab a book off the shelf and dip in until something excites me—especially poetry. If it does, I might read it again; I might go write something. As for planning, yes, I keep shelves for various projects and a list of books on an app in my phone that I want to add to those shelves. I read to write. It feeds me.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I have this dream of writing something like this book called A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist. He gives the reader page numbers for different themes they might follow (personal memoir, scientific, political, etc.) and it’s essentially like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but cleverer and better-written. It mimics the scatter of a bombing pattern formally and I think if I ever did it, I would write something that might be digitized/hyperlinked, and comprehensive. Somewhere between poetry and essay.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
It’s more about time than place. I like to write in transit, or while I’m waiting for somebody because I got to the bar a little early, or that person is late. I like to sneak away at lunch and take that half an hour to get some ideas or lines down. Or I take notes in the bathroom at work. Which is where I’m writing this. I think of my writing in terms of mnemonics or memory palace. If I put it into language, craft it, even if it’s in the moment, it captures a kernel of the experience or idea. A seed I can foster and develop into a complete piece. I think with poetry especially it feels holographic in the sense that the whole poem kind of lives in my head, so I’m always thinking about it. Adding lines or rearranging. So note-taking and seizing the moment is fundamental. I want to get to a place where I know the content well enough, am immersed enough in the ideas, and have enough notes, enough fodder, I take it all home and go from there.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Wendy’s Subway. Tip-Top Bar & Grill. Park Slope Food Coop. Each feels like home, or a space away from the transactional economies of time and money in a big city.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate blankness and say nothing of silence,
And what I keep to myself you speak not of,
For every hushed utterance in me as good resounds in you.
Actually … after twelve years here I’m moving to Northern Ireland in November. So …