January 11–17, 2016
Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator and musician. Recent translations include Gogol’s The Nose and Comradely Greetings, a book of prison correspondence between Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek. Last year he published two chapbooks: sonnets, from Metambesen, and barishonah, from DoubleCross Press. Other work has appeared in The Agriculture Reader, Pallaksch. Pallaksch., the Boog City Portable Reader, Elderly, Web Conjunctions, Bomblog and elsewhere. He likes walking and talking.
“oxen wild like bellowed land”
after most things have happened, Chaon appears.
he’s filth, a mishmash theophage guzzling chaos
out of the city, draining it to linearity. doors become
invisible, alphabets realign their orders under the
meshes of our speech. I will mutely scowl says the sun.
I will turn the Chrysler Building inside out.
he drank so much chaos they called him Chaon,
of course. he took all but two of every household
(as though walls even existed, or remembered light)
and lived in the sky with them. open air pivoting,
invisible embouchure into a body of contradictions.
or into nobody if that’s who we are. I was righteous
out of my age, says Chaon. I soldered together
the seams of the sky, I blew breath into the city’s
gridded syntax. weeks without rain. flesh in no
number. recombinant grammars flash in the
skyline. the doorway. a language all breath
conspires in. bandwidths enlacing to form noise.
–Originally published in BOMB, February 2014.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
About two years ago, I was exchanging poems with my friend and teacher Robert Kelly (a native of Brooklyn who, tho he hasn’t lived here in more than fifty years, has a tender, vast polyphony of mind that sometimes reminds me very much of the city I live in). The poems we were exchanging were all “backwards” versions of stories from the Bible, with “backwards” meaning different things in different cases. This one is the story of Noah—in the original, he’s called Noach, which reads backwards as Chaon, a pretty common ancient Greek name. And I liked dog-reading it as designating the incarnation of chaos.
What are you working on right now?
A project that I’ve been calling “Mandelstam Variations,” tho I don’t like that name, which is an attempt to write into, out from, and through the poems of Osip Mandelstam. For me, Osip is an incredibly resonant figure, who stood in the burning building of Soviet politics and insisted that language is the only water, that poetry is the discourse where the values get generated to which other systems of value must be held accountable. And then died there, beautifully, stupidly, horrifically, in that fire.
Another project I’ve been calling “ill ibid,” a long series of short, prose-shaped pieces that try to investigate the kind of media zero-culture I grew up in, the latency and forced equivalences of mass electronic media in the days before the emergence of cybernetics.
And some prose that began as a talk I was invited to give by the great Rachel Valinsky, of the amazing Brooklyn cultural space Wendy’s Subway. WS had just partnered with Mexico City–based Aeromoto to produce a fascinating, intimately curated library, and my response concerns itself with different ideas about wisdom and collections of texts in the Ancient Near East (one of my favorite landscapes to abscond to). Like, what do we know about knowing? What does it mean to gather a collection of texts in one place? How far can we stretch the meaning of the word “library”?
What’s a good day for you?
A long, luxuriously desolate walk. See some people I love. Eat falafel, drink whiskey. Hear music. Throw in a crossword puzzle and I’ll be so, so happy.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I don’t really remember, except that I’ve never really too seriously thought about living anywhere else.
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?
I’ve lived in Sunset Park for three and half years now—by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere, since I was a kid. I love it here. In a fifteen-minute stroll, you can eavesdrop on conversations in Chinese, Cantonese, Fuzhounese, Polish, Turkish, Vietnamese, Arabic, several Spanishes. There’s an archaeological layer not too far down that speaks to the neighborhood’s Scandinavian past, with old, hand-painted signs in Finnish and Norwegian sometimes peeking out from under the awnings. It’s got to be one of the best places in America to eat a meal—like, prepare to have your brain destroyed by total deliciousness overload. Great buildings, including the first workers’ co-ops in the city (from back when it was Finntown), a grand movie palace that has become an Associated, beautiful churches and temples of many denominations. Melody Lanes is by far the best bowling alley in New York, for reasons including local legend Peter Napolitano, a resplendent human who tends bar there, taking all conversational comers and developing theories of the universe one feels lucky to hear. The park itself is full of sports and families, with neverending mahjong, soccer and volleyball games when the weather permits, and huge groups of people who gather for ballroom dancing to electronic music most evenings. It’s also very high up, topographically—the second-highest point in Brooklyn (the highest is just a little ways up in Greenwood Cemetery, the northern border of the neighborhood)—so you can look out at the Hudson and New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, much of Manhattan—and the sunsets, especially when they honey to a crawl at the height of summer, are just preposterously great-looking.
How it’s changing is a little oof. We just got our first fancy-ass coffee shop. The coffee’s really good and the folks who run it are lovely, but coffee always seems to be the bellwether of major gentrification, and teeth are being gritted. All-time scuzz-chewers Amazon have announced plans to open one of their dystopian exploitomats down by the waterfront, and the twee cheflings of Smorgasburg are moving here too, I think. The neighborhood has long been a stronghold of immigrant families who were able to put down roots here, and the feeling in the air is that this may grow imperiled. It all adds up to a funky situation.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
C’mon, this is sort of an impossible question! Brooklyn is defined largely by the incredible plurality of experience it’s home to. But here’s a glee-soaked memory: one day a couple years ago, I remember walking down Atlantic Avenue with a friend, and getting stopped by a wiry, energetic guy in his forties who was playing something beautiful on a classical guitar. When he saw that he’d captured our interest, he began explaining his background, and it was fascinating—he came from a dynasty of Puerto Rican luthiers, and was himself a kind of math genius who had modified his inherited designs to create instruments with phenomenal range and tone. Like, magic-trick stuff. He was a sort of classic affably-mad-genius type, explaining to us thru diagrams and mathematic equations we couldn’t possibly have hoped to understand just how he had managed to bend air around the will of his instruments. He invited us into his workshop, which was full of the most gorgeous guitars I had ever seen. And then, after like an hour of this, we walked on, got a torta and a banh mi and each had half of each on the promenade, watching the ferries come and go and the marvels of lower Manhattan just stand there. A great day.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
It seems to me that a poetry community is a group of people who have made a mutual commitment to a common language. The old saying is that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy; I want to think a poetry community is a dialect, a chosen family in language that concerns itself not with armies or navies but with the making of worlds.
I totally find that here—Brooklyn is like a crazy disco of languages I want to join. A talky place that brings together an incredible concentration of energies from all over the world.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The Brooklyn poet most important to me is Anna Gurton-Wachter, my partner and a third-generation Brooklynite. Anna’s writing often addresses public personae, images from film and texts of different kinds, destabilizing the logical schemas that they assume, and opening them up to new possibilities, irradiating them with powerful alien logics. She’s also an expert archivist with ideas about the role of the documentary in art that I’ve learned a huge amount from. Hilarious and devastating. She’s seriously the best.
MC Hyland, who with her husband Jeff Peterson and Anna G-W runs DoubleCross Press, is a super poet with a huge range of practices, ace rhythm and amazing erudition. Nathan Austin is a dear friend and phenomenal poet, whose work sifts thru the neon-lit ashes of postmodernity for remnants of public emotion. I recently heard Francesca DeMusz read, and was really excited by what she was doing. And Tommy Pico’s work seems better to me every time I hear or read it. Jared White is an old friend whose poems never cease to set my neurons on fire. Tons more people, too—impossible to list them all.
And of course Louis Zukofsky, my poetry grandpa. After the revolution, riding in cabs will become impossible because every street will be named after Zukofsky and just go nowhere. It’ll be great.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Oh wow, very hard to list everybody! I’ve learned so much from so many different people. But any list I made would include Robert Kelly, who turned me on to a huge number of the poets that have meant the most to me, and has for all the nearly twenty years I’ve known him been exorbitantly generous with response, encouragement and suggestions.
Ann Lauterbach was another early teacher whose responses to the work she let me share with her, even many years later, continue to bounce around productively in my head.
For a while when I was younger I lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, and had the incredible luck of knowing and working with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. He was a mentor in a very literal way—he would sit down with translations I had made of his work, and go over them in great detail, explaining what, from his perspective, was working, and what wasn’t.
Peter Dimock is another friend and mentor, who’s lived in Brooklyn for most of the time I’ve known him, altho he just recently moved upstate. Peter’s a novelist, but in a mode of novel-writing that is very nearly poetry, and his thinking about the relationships between writing and editing, the literary and the social, language and power is incredibly nourishing.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Oh jeez. I recently had the total pleasure of hearing Vivek Narayanan read from some of his work that unstraightforwardly—and heart-stoppingly—translates the Ramayana. I’m a huge fan of Gracie Leavitt’s writing and I thought her poems in the most recent Elderly made life pretty worth living. The aforementioned Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Robin Coste Lewis’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus is totally wonderful. David Larsen’s translations in his recent chapbook Lightning Scenes were a total feast and I loved them. I’m also super-excited for erica lewis’s new book, but I haven’t read it yet so I guess it doesn’t count as an answer to this question.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Most of them! I still haven’t read Madness, Rack, and Honey, which feels a little like saying I’ve never taken a bath. A book I have always wanted to spend some time in is Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men. I haven’t read the novels of Sylvia Townsend Warner, which mean a huge lot to Anna and other people I look up to, and really want to. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. And oh shit: Middlemarch.
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’s pretty chaotic and improvised. Usually I’ll have one or two books that I’m reading start-to-finish, with side journeys through articles, poems and other things that erupt into my attention and wind their own trails beside and around the main ones. So for instance right now I’m reading two books, both wonderful: Rebekah’s Rutkoff’s The Irresponsible Magician, which is amazing—as various, surprising, and rich in exuberant experience as life, but I can’t say more yet because I haven’t finished it—and Mary Beard’s SPQR, a popular history of Ancient Rome that manages to be deep and transfixing while also zippy and fun. But lots of other stuff has cropped up in there too, much of it totally splendid—this includes some poems from Fred Moten; the Complete Light Poems of Jackson Mac Low, which is just absurdly beautiful; some bizarre and terrific essays on museum studies from the early Soviet period in Avant-Garde Muselogy, a book I was one of many translators on that’s just out from e-flux classics; and the Enuma Anu Enlil, an ancient Mesoptamian collection of omens that’s absolutely fascinating.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I don’t really ever write in coffee shops or bars or anything. I love to read in the park. It’s fun to write on the train. I don’t know.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
My friend Andrew and I once wandered to a beautiful little park together on Sixth Avenue, noisy but peaceful, and, shockingly, it was called only PARK. I mean literally, there was a plaque for the name of the park but all the plaque said was PARK. This was the saddest thing we could think of, so we did some bibliomancy and were given an almost impossibly good name, Charming Virginia. It’s a beautiful spot.
Unnameable Books is easily and hands-down the best bookstore in New York City and I love it and I love the basement and the backyard and the wonderful folks who work there.
Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop is also a stunningly great space with every poetry book you can imagine and magnificently good vibes.
Issue Project Room is probably the best place in America for hearing music.
The Spectacle Theater is fantastic. BAM is fantastic.
Brighton Beach and Coney Island are Brighton Beach and Coney Island, respectively.
The many waterfronts.
All the streets everywhere.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman
I celebrate the heart of the mountain,
And what I freeze syllables light in you fugal disaster,
For every breath keeping account, the eye on me as good
as the needle that traces you.
To crib a motto from another bastion of Brooklyn culture, the Carroll Gardens Diner at Bergen and Smith: Where else would you go?