August 18–24, 2014
Hafizah Geter is a South Carolina native currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A Cave Canem Fellow and recipient of a 2012 Amy Award from Poets & Writers, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, Drunken Boat, Vinyl, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Linebreak, Narrative Magazine and Gulf Coast, among others. She is a poetry editor at Phantom Limb Press.
With my hands around the throads
of my mother’s marigolds
removes the heads
sure someone’s been stealing
The Ohio sun gathers
about her fists
like a loose dress.
I know her
by the broomed sound
of her digging,
her colonial English.
The way she turns
her spade like a key,
and refuses to let me see
her green card.
she stitches bought earth to the roots
of marigolds, plants herself
in the garden.
I barely fit into the grooves
of my mother’s knees.
–Originally published in Pinwheel, July 2013.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The first iteration of this poem happened somewhere around April 2011, the last shortly before it was published in July 2013 by Pinwheel. By this time my mother had been dead for ten years, which seems like long enough, but if you’ve ever lost a parent, you understand me when I say that the loss is persistent. When my mother died I was 19 and between that mentally and physically awkward place of not knowing whether to call myself a girl or a woman.
When I first wrote this poem, I had just spent the last ten years writing about her death. My mother’s death was my rabbit hole, one so deep, I thought if I followed it down long enough, it would lead to light. After ten years writing about her death I had practically nothing left of her life.
Maybe poetry is what we write when we are scared.
When I wrote this, I was as scared.
As scared as I was when she was removed from life support. I was scared I had forgotten the nineteen years I had lived in and with her. I was scared that the only part of her real to me was her leaving.
And so, in that terror, I tried to remember something else.
The form of this poem is, I suppose, usual—minus the brackets around the title in the original. I think this was the first poem I wrote where I was truly beginning to grasp the cost of her immigration. It’s not often talked about, but for those who immigrate, children come at a cost. I think I was trying to understand my own cost. After we left Nigeria for the States, my mother saw her mother three times in my 19 years. My sister and I lost my mother’s language. Her history. And here I was in her garden, six years old, nine years old, fifteen years old, my hands like machetes, around the one thing that was hers. This one thing she had that was hers, she continued to give to me.
What are you working on right now?
I’m not sure. I’m not writing that much, which doesn’t bother me. I go through long periods of not writing, but that’s where most of my writing gets done—in those moments of quiet and observation. I suppose right now, I’m working on reading. I’ve been a bit slack in my consumption of literature, so I’m focusing on that. While I do read quite a bit of poetry, what stirs me most towards writing is literature and essays, so I’m trying to get back to that. I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own with my manuscript so, right now, it’s in my friends’ hands.
What’s a good day for you?
Even though I am a persistent and epic worrier, most of my days are good. I’m a secret optimist. It doesn’t take much for me for a day to be good. The good days involve waking to hilariously crazy texts from good friends … for example “a bird flew into my head” and a short lunch line at the taco truck. Or the days we just photo bomb each other pictures of Billy Collins. The good days are when I see New Yorkers in their smallest acts of kindness, like giving up their seats on trains or helping mothers carry their strollers up the stairs. Though, as I get older and more contentious, good days are not enough. I want better days—days with no Michael Browns, Eric Garners, or Renisha McBrides.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?
I’m going on my 3rd Brooklyn year. For the first year I lived in Prospect Heights, but now I live in Crown Heights—the not gentrified part of it. Though in the past two years since I’ve lived in Crown Heights, everything has changed. Huge apartment buildings are popping up, apartment buildings with doormen—where the entire first floor is made of glass. They are repaving sidewalks and roads and putting up stoplights at intersections that have needed them for decades. It’s like having a front row seat to what happens when the city decides the “new neighbors” are worth caring about. When I first moved in, I was on that last edge of Crown Heights where gentrification had poked its head in but couldn’t decide whether or not to stay. In the past two years gentrification seems to have made up its mind. It’s here to stay. It’s a bad thing. But, I’m glad to live here.
What do you like most about it?
Of Brooklyn, I like the choice and the chances. It’s a place where people come together. Here, there’s a little bit of every place I’ve lived.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Before I moved to NY, I visited a lot. My best friend from college, Daniel Morgan, moved here right after we graduated, and so NY became this other home. I must have visited Daniel about a dozen times before I actually moved and I got to see much of Manhattan and Brooklyn through the eyes of someone I love very much. Daniel lives in LA now, but so much of what I have come to understand of NY I know through Daniel—this guy who would read Paradise Lost and then sing Sugar Ray at karaoke. Those first years, there was a lot of Sugar Ray. A lot of ’90s music and conversations about literature and examining how we were connected to other people, our selves, and our surroundings. I suppose it’s all very defining.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Nick Flynn. Maybe for these lines alone:
“My version of Hell / is someone ripping open his / shirt & saying, // look what I did for you.” [“Emptying Town”]
“First thing we should do / if we see each other again is to make / a cage of our bodies—inside we can place / whatever still shines.” [“forgetting something”]
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Unnameable Books. It’s one of those places that is so cramped that if there are more than three people in the bookstore it’s kind of awful to go in, but you go in. If I’m going to be surrounded by anything, let it be old books.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My favorite place to read is on the train. I love public transportation. We didn’t have this where I grew up, it’s my urban chauffeur and I never look a gift horse in the mouth!
As for writing, even though I have issues with how technology has permeated our lives, I write a lot on my iPhone, because I mainly write when I’m walking around and my memory is awful.
In my walks around Brooklyn I find the source of what I want to say. Or at least on my walks, poems germinate. And so walking to and from work, or to the grocery story, and especially in the summer, when the moon is out in the afternoon, poems happen. I write them on my Evernote app and then record them. I listen to the drafts while I walk and edit them.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Ryann Wahl and Will Brewer’s apartment. Would it be rude to give their address?
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
This is going to be a bit of list …
I’m consistently always reading Jean Valentine, Nick Flynn, Audre Lorde, Aracelis Girmay, Claudia Rankine, Carl Phillips, Michael Dickman, Marie Howe, Lynn Melnick, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, D.H. Lawrence, Faulkner and Steinbeck because their writing leads me to a place I did not know I could find—there is courage in their words. Their writing is both the core and the complex.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo because we need to know words can do that.
Waiting by Ha Jin because we should all learn to be so quiet.
The New Testament by Jericho Brown because there is nothing like a finishing a book that makes you want to try harder.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine because America does not give enough consideration to where certain groups are placed. Because it is often disregarded that being a black woman is really, really hard. And sometimes I think words were invented solely so that Claudia could use them.
Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press around Spring 2016 because she had me at Slow Dance with Trip Wire.
And the poem “It Is Tuesday” by Matthew Zapruder has been doing things to me you wouldn’t believe.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate 90s music,
And what I hear you shouldn’t mute,
For every Matchbox Twenty song in me as good as every
“can’t hear on the radio band” 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.
In the 90s we jacked
Were born to black panther fathers
accused of being draft dodgers
instead of patriots. Accused of being ink
in broken pens.
I think that America is Biggie
singing, If you don’t love yourself, I’ll make you
see your own heart. After 2 AM,
the moon shines like a slow train to Brooklyn.
She’s a hand over your heart.