April 3–9, 2023
Heather Bourbeau’s work has appeared in 100 Word Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, Meridian and the Stockholm Review of Literature, as well as in several anthologies including America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018) and RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music (Michigan State University Press, 2020). She was a contributing writer for Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond with Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. She has worked with various UN agencies, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia and UNICEF Somalia. Bourbeau and the Irish-Australian poet Anne Casey are joint authors of the collection Some Days the Bird (Beltway Editions, 2022), their conversation-in-poems during the coronavirus pandemic. Her most recent collection Monarch (Cornerstone Press, 2023) is a poetic memoir of overlooked histories from the US West.
Monarch, the Last California Grizzly
Ursus arctos californicus
To rule alone
Colin Preston killed 200 grizzlies in one season.
Mariposa hotel served fried grizzly for 75 cents.
A trapper made furniture from bear parts, presented a chair
to President Johnson. Four legs and claws, a cord to push
the head, its gnashing teeth from under the seat.
In 1889, Hearst asked a reporter to become a hunter,
capture the last wild grizzly. Five months later, deep
in southern coastal wilderness, lured by honey and mutton,
Monarch was captured.
Gagged and collared, one leg “well-anchored,”
a rope around his loins, tethered to trees at night.
He bit and tore at restraints, chewed the chains,
splintered his teeth, spattered the trap with bloody froth.
In San Francisco, Monarch was fêted and feared,
moved from gardens to park to zoo. By the Midwinter Exposition,
the ostriches drew more spectators. But in ’06,
a city beaten by quake and fire looked to Monarch’s survival for inspiration.
Five years later, he would be put down,
skinned and stuffed. His remains buried, then exhumed.
His skull lost, cracked, and broken. His taxidermied body—
the model for the new state flag.
On the white background, red star to left,
walks a bear, head bent slightly, mouth open, teeth bright,
free to feel the soft and rough of the ground,
the green underneath its unchained feet.
—From Monarch, Cornerstone Press, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Monarch, the Last California Grizzly” is part of my newest collection, also entitled Monarch. This collection examines overlooked histories from the US West, where I was raised. “Monarch,” the poem, specifically explores the decline of the California grizzly population and the life and death of the last California grizzly, named “Monarch” by William Randolph Hearst (after a Hearst newspaper tagline, “Monarch of the Dailies”). I first learned about the extinction of California grizzlies on the podcast East Bay Yesterday. That led to a research rabbit hole where I kept uncovering more fascinating and brutal details.
What are you working on right now?
I continue to write poetry, but not for a focused collection right now. I have had two collections come out in the last four months (Monarch and, with Anne Casey, Some Days the Bird). However, for the first time in my life, I have an idea for a novel that I am developing.
What’s a good day for you?
A day filled with strong tea, good people, abundant nature, some scribblings and unexpected explorations.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved from Manhattan, where I first lived in New York, to Brooklyn to live with two good friends. At the time, I thought it would be short-term as I was supposed to relocate overseas for work. In the end, I lived in Brooklyn for seven years.
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?
I was in North Williamsburg in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I loved the closeness of other artists and creatives who lived in the neighborhood, as well as the wonderful mix of Polish, Italian and Asian immigrants and their families who welcomed us. It felt perhaps more disconnected from Manhattan than other neighborhoods as the L and the G were not always so reliable, but very connected and inspiring in its own way. When I moved to Brooklyn Heights (which sounds posher than it was), I loved all the trees, but I missed the random conversations that would lead to new poetry or collaborations. Over the years, I saw the demolition of our old ersatz live-work loft in Williamsburg, the creation of high-end condos and hotels, and the transition from pierogis and cannolis to specialty coffees and craft beer.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I loved biking in Brooklyn in the springtime, gliding through the distinct neighborhoods, learning new nooks and crannies, and savoring the way everyone seemed kinder as we shared the joy of being outside after the bitter winter.
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?
Poetry community is vital. Without the support of other poets (and the people who read them and/or love them), I would not have been pushed to better writing and bigger ideas. I am involved with several overlapping poetry and writing communities and am grateful for each of them. I used to be very quiet about being a poet, focusing instead on my journalism. But thanks to the joy and support I find in these communities, I lead now with “poetry” when asked what I write.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Dave King has been an inspiration as a writer and a friend. He was also an early supporter of my work from my time in Brooklyn. Also important to my later time in Brooklyn were Matthea Harvey and Matvei Yankelevich.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
San Francisco legend Jack Hirschman was a wonderful supporter of my work. Through his encouragement, I began reading in public again, which led me to write more and explore collaborations with some jazz musicians that I might not have had the courage to do without his consistent support.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Leila Chatti’s “I Went Out to Hear.” Those line breaks! And the end that makes you examine your life.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
So many times I have stopped and started James Joyce’s Ulysses only to skip to the end to Molly Bloom’s juicy soliloquy. In terms of poetry, the book that calls to me but somehow I never get to is Mascha Kaléko’s Mein Lied geht weiter (My Song Goes On).
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?
It varies. Currently, I have one novel, one book of poetry and an audiobook going at the same time. My brain wants different speeds at different times. While I will usually go for a specific book, I love going into bookshops and finding the recommendations of the staff or picking up a “blind date with a book” where I have no idea what I am getting. As you may guess from this answer, I adore the printed book. I am on my computer so much for my day job that I welcome the physical connection with the written word—the smell and feel of the paper itself.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A successful ghazal.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love a particular room at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Visual art often will lead to the notebook opening, even if my notes have nothing to do with the work itself. Same with nature. I often will take notes while hiking.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I miss walking along the waterfront, dancing in Fort Greene Park and wandering the art studios of friends.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the lush and the lowing of the earth,
And what I can offer you to remember its rhythms, ease its pain,
For every ant and avalanche prods me as good love might remind you.
The people, the geography, the history, the vibrancy.