August 1–7, 2022
Gbenga Adesina is a Nigerian poet and essayist. He received his MFA from New York University, where he was a Goldwater Fellow and was mentored by Yusef Komunyakaa. His chapbook Painter of Water was published as part of the New-Generation African Poets series from Akashic Books, and his poem “Across the Sea: A Sequence” won the 2020 Narrative Prize. Adesina has received fellowships and support from Poets House, New York, the Fine Arts Work Center and the Norman Mailer Center, and he was the 2019–20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University, where he taught a poetry class called Song of the Human. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner, the Poetry Review, Brittle Paper, the Yale Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.
Author photo by Ladan Osman
The only citizenship I have was given to me
by the Brooklyn trees. The trees-of-heaven, now ghost trees;
the trees of Canarsie: littleleaf lindens, silver maples, Norway
maples, and their little ship of seeds like ships on the Atlantic.
Or their paired tinted samaras which have wings and
thus love to spiral and flutter down to the soil in the gardens
where I sometimes sit and try to listen
to the labor of aquifers underground, the groan of seeds.
My sister who died and is now underground must be one of those seeds.
The white seeds, milky and deciduous, grow up to feed
Carolina wrens, buteo hawks and laughing gulls, these birds
of Brooklyn are my companions when I sleep and dream
that I’m singing in my sister’s voice,
or that I’m a bird-of-paradise, high and mauve above a mountain,
gliding over a blue marina, and in that dream I have on my head a crown
of fuchsia, and on my feet the bronze
hooves of white horses, the animals of grief.
Once, in the slice of the dark, returning
from the day’s labor, with rose apples in my knapsack, and suddenly remembering
something funny my sister had once said, I laughed
in the dark and blessed myself. Then flush with images of how we
used to climb trees together as children, and knowing that I’m invisible
in this city of gilded harbors, I thought,
though I did not do it, I thought I might climb the bark and silk of this maple tree
and jostle with black ants and vine dust, and go higher and higher,
as in my childhood until I reached the dome of the tree.
And from that high up, look toward the ports and islands and tidal estuaries
of the city and see them as silver constellations held together by a finger of darkness;
or toward the leafy cloud of the botanical garden
where goldenrods, asters and canna lilies sleep in midnight sap
and await resurrection by light. Perhaps, my sister is only asleep.
Or toward the bay of the Hudson, near the Little Red Lighthouse,
where the Atlantic hides in the river and meets the shore, and see my ancestors
rise as mist from the ocean.
I thought I might look from my tree and see the mossy acres
of Hart Island, that burial ground of strangers and citizens,
where all those we’ve lost are under the white dwarf stars of headstones.
The spectral multitude. As if while we slept, the graves began to spread
from plot to plot, multiplying all over the face of the earth.
It is not true that I praise the dead. I merely ask them to teach me their song.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem that seems so rooted in a place derived, in fact, from placelessness. There is a loneliness, but it’s not a loneliness without companionship. It’s that diasporic, historical thing. A species of fear that the place you have claimed will never claim you back. Or that your claim to it, its claim to you, is glass-fragile and merely waiting to shatter.
This feeling, even if there is no tangible reason for it, is always there. It’s a wind that follows you.
I’m always investigating the spiritual and emotional worth of citizenship. What does it mean? Who’s protected by it? Who exists outside its border at the periphery of grace? Some have the legal aspect, but are denied the spiritual belonging. Some are shut out of it entirely. The “citizens of nowhere.”
Added to that impulse is the history of place. I think it was Marilynne Robinson who said in an interview that she’s unable to live in a place without investigating/knowing its history. I’m always asking: What do we have here? What do they love here? What do they love to eat? Where do they bury their dead? Where do they bury strangers?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I went to the grocery to get things (not in Brooklyn, this was upstate). There was a substantial queue and an atmosphere of fear, but at that point people could still contain their panic. When it was my turn and I opened my mouth, the woman at the counter asked me, “Where’s home?” At that word “home” there was a sudden catch in my throat. To fill in my silence, she said, “I mean, you wouldn’t want to die here, would you?”
All of this she said very gently.
Poems like this derive not so much from such encounters, but from the spaces beneath and above them.
The city is a wondrous place and a puzzle, a spatial riddle that is full of the enigma of strangers. Think of the museums and bookstores and thrift stores and nightlife and cuisine and culture. But the city is also a place of unacknowledged disappearances.
There are people I loved and laughed with, people I broke bread with, people who moved through me who are now seeds under the ground. There is, I have sensed, this atmospheric version of events that the past two or three years were at best a mere pause or inconvenience, that they left no scars. No. Something happened to us. That’s the source of the palpable grief in the poem.
As for the trees, winter was always brutal, you know, in the inward places. That made me very alert to the slightest announcements and annunciation of spring. The trees were my sentries. They were how I calibrated the seasons. They taught me how to wait for resurrection.
I come from a people who always knew trees and rivers to be sentient. Trees and rivers are not merely ornamental, they exist among us in the continuity of living presences. Anyway, I began to pay close attention to the trees of Brooklyn, their names, their histories and their migrations, and record things in my notebooks. It was a small private project and it happened unobtrusively. Same with the hidden waterways of the city.
I suppose there is something of a flâneur tradition there. The eyes and canons and systems of knowledge by which we know a place. I also know that ecological history, the supple histories of trees and seeds and rivers, and architectural history might in fact double as a melancholy investigation of history, the colonial erasures and the invisible violences that solder a city together.
Water is always sovereign in my work.
I love port cities. New York. New Orleans. Lagos. Dakar. El Jadida.
When I’m in New York and I’m close to, say, the Hudson, which we know leads out to the Atlantic, I think of Lagos because the same systems of water lead down there. I begin to think then of my body as bracketed, as existing in a parenthesis of historical waters.
These waters we know once had brilliant white ships sail over them, carrying bodies like mine as cargo. Ships which those on certain shores might have seen appearing from a distance like a strange mist.
Anyway, there is the intention of the poet, and there is the poem. Poems, I have always thought, are always wiser than poets.
To write a poem, you sit down and try to follow elusive layers of music and hope you write what was given to you to write.
What are you working on right now?
What’s a good day for you?
I wake up at dawn and have that soothing early darkness, that quiet, meditative pocket of the morning to myself. The sun comes out.
I love it when I’m inside an illuminated book. I don’t even have to read it that day, but that feeling that I’m currently reading it, that when I pick it up something brilliant awaits me.
Oh, those days you receive surprise letters from friends.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The dream of language?
More formally, Poets House and the MFA program at NYU.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
It was mostly Bushwick/Bed-Stuy. Crown Heights also figures into the story. When I lived in Bed-Stuy, just outside my door, if you looked to the right, you would see the word Brooklyn spelled out in bold and loud colors, billboard-like, on the wall of some hotel. I loved it. Anytime I stepped out my door and saw it, my instinct was to play Mos Def’s “Brooklyn” as I walked to the train station, which was ten minutes away.
Brooklyn, in summer, is a dance. Everyone comes alive, smelling of shea butter and natural oil. I take long walks just taking in the brownstones and their hand-painted doors. I love the block parties, street activities and carnivals. I love Afropunk, OkayAfrica events, jazz nights and all kinds of nights at BAM. Of course, the nefarious forces of gentrification were and are always at work.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Oh, all kinds of experiences. Good ones, for the most part. I should tell you this one, though: there was a three-month period before Poets House, before NYU, when I couch-surfed at a few places and later lived in a beautiful house in Park Slope as a favor from kind people. I was so new to the city and deliriously happy and broke.
That house was a house of books and curios. I would sit up late into the night reading books from the shelves by the light of sculpted lamps, listening to the jazz station WKCR 89.9 FM or a pop radio station playing the summer hits. Even now, to make myself deliriously happy, I just need to listen to my playlist of that summer’s songs.
I had lost my phone and refused to get another one. I communicated mostly by email. I would wake up and go to the Brooklyn Library at Grand Army Plaza, my head a sieve of poems and images. Then later in the day to the Brooklyn Museum. I wrote tons of poems at the library and worked on my applications to MFA programs and fellowships I would enter the following year. There was a pay phone with a blue receiver (if I remember correctly) at the Grand Army Plaza train station I used to make long-distance phone calls to friends in Europe and back home.
I went to parks and gardens where I sometimes tried to start conversations with strangers, some of whom nodded and feigned interest, the majority of whom excused themselves and promptly disappeared. I would mutter something under my breath about capitalism-benumbed city-dwellers who lacked civilization and had no love for poetry. Philistines! I might then proceed on a walk to seek out the hidden waterways and ponds of the city using a map I had printed out from the library. It was a romantic time.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
There is living and there is writing; a great poetry community for me is a cross between the two. They understand the life, the eyes, the ways of seeing and being that feed the work. That way I don’t have to translate for them. Or at least they don’t come to the work assuming their own lives and their ways of seeing the world to be the center of all things.
I definitely found a strong community with my cohort of fellows at Poets House under the tutelage of the marvelous r. erica doyle. They were on fire!
And my poetry cohorts at NYU, too. What a great bunch. I have made some great poetry friends elsewhere and in my current program, too.
I should mention that pre–Poets House, pre-NYU, when I was very new in New York, I had friends who took me to Sunday poetry readings in a brownstone in Brooklyn. It was someone’s living space and had a feel of home to it.
You had nurses, teachers, clerics, jazz musicians, council workers, there was a professor of classics, botanists, veterans, parents with children on their laps, etc. We would sit in a circle and read poems to each other.
Something was alive in the way they used language, because they did not believe an audience was promised. They tried to lift their lives as they felt it to be true and put it in a language that could travel.
They read from phones, tablets, scraps of paper, some from memory. Sometimes, you heard a kind of hymn. Sometimes, a kind of wail. That one, a whisper. It was always electric.
Something of this notion of underground poetry spaces has never left me.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Reading Walt Whitman makes me happy. I don’t even know why. I love Hart Crane, too. Nicole Sealey (who is a genius and was always kind to me), Marwa Helal, Ladan Osman (who wrote the introduction to my first poetry chapbook), Gregory Pardlo, Omotara James, John Murillo, r. erica doyle, Tyehimba Jess, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Desiree Bailey, Kechi Nomu, Natasha Rao, Bernard Ferguson and of course Aracelis Girmay! I’m sure I’m leaving out some names.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I think for me it’s how the eyes of a teacher can potentially stretch your own eyes, your vision of what a poem can do.
For the longest time I didn’t have teachers, so I feel really blessed to now have them: Gregory Pardlo, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Sharon Olds, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, Maaza Mengiste, Edward Hirsch, James Kimbrell, Meghan O’Rourke and Yusef Komunyakaa (who was my thesis advisor). The late great Meena Alexander was my first teacher in the US. Breyten Breytenbach had a great impact on me on Gorée Island, Dakar, off the coast of Senegal. Kwame Dawes has been very important. I’m sure I’m leaving some names out. And of course, various ancestors and ghosts.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen. For its surge, joy and a fury that does not preclude humor. What a book. I love A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi, What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree Bailey, My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long, Latitude by my friend Natasha Rao and Quiet by Victoria Adukwei Bulley, which is out in the UK.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Well, Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form. I love that incandescent notion of landscape in his poetry; it’s so beautiful, which was why I got the book. I have it in a prominent place on my bookshelf and I see it every time and say, “Thou book, I shall read thee.” But I never get to it. May God forgive me.
I think more satisfying though are the books I deliberately never finish, say Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I slowly read it from the beginning and when it’s a few pages to the end I stop. And then pick it up months later and start all over. I love it so.
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?
Multiple things at the same time. I find paper copies and digital ones useful. If I’m sentimental about a book I want to hold it in my hands.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I guess something more chaotic and experimental on the page.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Reading: on the train, by a lake, in the library, in a lover’s house curled together.
Writing: cafés, sometimes, but mostly in my own space.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Library, Prospect Park, Bembe (where I loved to go dancing), BAM, Bunna Café, etc. They are vaults of good memories.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate earth, my good soil,
And what I give to you I give as a seed.
For every dark root is a cry and a voice in me as good as the noise of resurrection in you.
It’s a dream space. I definitely see myself putting down roots here.