March 27–April 2, 2023
Isabella DeSendi is a Latina poet and educator whose work has been published in Narrative, Leveler, Small Orange and other places. Her chapbook Through the New Body won the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship and was published in 2020. Most recently, she received a Poets & Writers BIPOC grant, and she has been named a finalist for the Frontier Digital Poetry Chapbook Award, the June Jordan Fellowship, Narrative’s Annual Poetry Prize and Palette’s Spotlight Award. Isabella holds an MFA from Columbia University and currently lives in New Jersey. On Monday, April 10, she will lead the Brooklyn Poets Yawp.
My Death Urge Is Strong
Kait says my death urge is strong and that’s why
I try to sabotage my life.
Far out on the river, boats float from harbor
to harbor like lovers becoming strangers
becoming lovers once again
and all I can think about is distance, my mother
and the hunger she carried with her
before she became American, hunger that spreads
in me like juniper erupting all over the park
the winter I decide I can’t breathe, don’t eat.
I’m in a new city now but I’m not lonely. Kait was right
about my urge but we’re not friends anymore.
October again, the engine of summer stopped
by the galloping trance of an impossible cold
light and certain as the music
of one hundred blue wings
humming like soft machinery
in my bones. I thought by 30 I’d stop looking
at my body as a wind-ripped metaphor
or would at least have learned to love
my ruinings the way a child loves collecting pennies—
worth something because they unburied them.
Worth something because they’re mine.
Instead, I order oat lattes every day of the week
and practice laying sentences down in stanzas
like bodies lying on a bed. These days, I am only writing
to understand the character of myself as an attempt
to have grace when I fail me.
In here, there is a version of me that never felt shame
for helping my mom clean offices for cash.
The light is dewy, cinematic. I am inarguably holy
and never lonely, never cruel. In here, I can recite
the name of every film in Timothée Chalamet’s
repertoire even though Kait told all our friends
I’m an indie film poser. I don’t care. This is what life is:
intimacy, chance, the thrill of so much beginning
new and so often always its end.
At the beginning of my mom’s new life,
a photo was taken of her blowing kisses
toward the shore the day she left and never looked back.
I miss the friends I’ve lost to age, small griefs, love.
In poems, I can remember them.
In poems, I can believe the person I say I am
in a story I invent that goes like this: Bella waits
by the water when a dog, loose from its leash,
runs up to her ecstatic, demanding to be acknowledged
as the living often do—yes, I decide
the plot will start here: the animal bounding toward her.
Its face held between her palms
the way only strangers’ faces can hold the mystery
of one another. For just a moment, this trust.
Eyes linked having understood
the wildness that rests between them.
But before you think of me as hero, know this:
I knew my mother was hungry
and I still took food from her plate.
The dog returns to its owner as it must.
I don’t save anyone
but I blow kisses to all the strangers
passing by me on small boats. Nothing else
but a blue sail on the water
growing smaller in the distance.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem on a Zoom call with my friend Cat. After catching up, we wrote together in silence and then shared what we had worked on. For some reason, the opening line came to me instantly and I wrote a majority of the poem during this thirty-minute date.
I think the fact that we had been speaking beforehand helped me step into the chatty, colloquial voice of the speaker—a voice I admire in poems for its candidness and its ability to bounce around from subject to subject the way a comfortable mind bounces around in the presence of a friend. A few weeks ago, after some months had passed since the skeleton of this poem first appeared, I went back and added flesh to the bones. It turns out that the friend who had claimed I was always fighting the urge to sabotage good things (psychologically speaking, this is a normal response for some people who have experienced great trauma or stress) is no longer my friend. Of course, the poem became the place where I would work out the feelings I had been carrying about the dissolution of this friendship—feelings of grief and relief. The poem surprised me (as poems do) in that it showed me how good it can feel to move forward once the initial sting of loss is gone.
But this grief alongside relief, this moving on, made me think of my mom and the courage life demanded of her, of any immigrant, of any person displaced, as they move forward in a country where they must learn to build a life in order to survive. Is there a word in any language that describes the relief of arriving somewhere new as it alchemizes with the grief that grows as we abandon people, cities, homes we’ve left behind? I think this is what I mean when I write:
… This is what life is:
intimacy, chance, the thrill of so much beginning
new and so often always its end.
As I mature and move further away from people I love and people I don’t, I also become more and more certain of how I want my life to look. Distance and time help me see the beginning and end of all things that enter and exit my life like boats. There is joy in the crossing—sure, but there is also sacrifice, some sadness for things we let go. My buddy Phil recently told me that all relationships are simply the perpetual cycle of rupture and repair. I think that’s a good metaphor for life, and writing this poem helped me grasp that—or at least helped me understand that life is not contingent on arriving or departing, holding on or letting go. We find joy, make joy, when we dance despite the chaos—when we adapt by enduring the natural and delicate balance of opposition that is life in every season.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on filling out the manuscript of my first book. Don’t get me wrong. I have many poems that could go in (in fact, I think I might have two books) but I’m particular and obsessive (like all poets) and I need everything that I can control to feel just right. For context, I wrote my chapbook while completing my MFA seven years ago and since then, life has happened (is happening) and time has given me the ability to look at myself, my history and the world with language and courage I haven’t had until now. It’s annoying, but it’s true what they say: things get better with time. As I become more sure of myself as a human and a woman, I become more sure of who I am as a writer. So I’m excited, now more than ever, to go deeper into the weeds with tools and insight and clarity I didn’t have yesterday, and I want the poems to reflect that.
What’s a good day for you?
A perfect day looks like starting the morning with a cortado while writing or reading; then a good, hard workout, followed by a long walk in the sun with my dog and partner; and later, dinner with my friends and a movie at home.
What brought you to New York?
The MFA. I did mine at Columbia and had the privilege of learning from so many greats, including Lucie Brock-Broido when she was still with us. The years I spent at my MFA were some of my toughest, but I wouldn’t be a writer without them.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I currently live in Hoboken, New Jersey, where I’ve been for six months, but before that I spent the majority of my life in Jacksonville, Florida. As the poem mentions, I love the harbor in Hoboken. The skyline in New Jersey is unreal (of course it is, we get to take in the entire sight of Manhattan in one breath). But I also love how quiet and charming it is. That it’s close to the city, but still feels like the kind of neighborhood you could spend a decade in, that you could call a home.
Although, as with any neighborhood close to NYC, Hoboken’s gentrification isn’t lost on me. But I also love how much of it isn’t changing. Jersey has a certain grit to it, and a major sense of family and community. It feels like a much smaller, cleaner NYC and I absolutely love that about it.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Even when I was studying and working in Manhattan, I spent (and still do spend) most of my free time in Brooklyn with friends. Although I love it for its literary appeal, my favorite thing to do in Brooklyn is dance. Because of the range of cultural diversity, you can find a club for nearly every kind of music: salsa, reggaeton, Afrobeats, dancehall, disco, pop, punk—you name it. Some of my best nights in Brooklyn were spent bouncing around from club to club dancing with total strangers. A good chunk of the poems in my manuscript are all about these nights—the bodies, music and stories they brought me that I will never forget.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
It’s everything. Period. Just recently, I was lucky enough to attend Bread Loaf and connect with a group of writers from NYC. I was skeptical that we would keep our bond alive outside the confines of the conference, but we’ve managed to sustain a monthly poetry workshop (called the Desire Field after Natalie Diaz’s knockout poem) and have grown even closer since.
The great thing about having poet friends is that you don’t have to explain yourself, and I am so grateful for that. There’s a pressure I sometimes feel to make this poetry part of me make sense to my family, to friends with non-artistic jobs, but with poets and other creative people there’s no explaining or unveiling; they see you as soon as you speak.
Even at AWP this year, I ran into friends I hadn’t seen in a year or two, and it was like no time had passed. There’s an intimacy that develops when you share your work with people you trust, a connection that grows there. Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe that these bonds can last a lifetime—or at least survive many, many seasons.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I just taught a drop-in course on rage and poetry at Brooklyn Poets, and you best believe June Jordan and Audre Lorde were with me the entire time.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
There are so many. I started studying poetry at the age of eleven when I was admitted to a magnet arts school in Jacksonville. There, I was introduced to the canon and encouraged to be creative. Most young people don’t get the opportunity or space to practice their craft with rigor, but I was treated like a true artist at that school and am so thankful for that education. In undergrad, I studied with a harsh but brilliant poetry critic who taught me everything I know about craft, musicality, line length, breaks, etc. … When I got to Columbia, like a jazz musician, I had to unlearn all the rules I’d been taught so that I could play and make new sounds. The culmination of all of these experiences is what makes me who I am in the writing world today. So much of becoming a writer is trying on voice after voice until you discover the one that’s yours.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Katie Condon’s Praying Naked, Leila Chatti’s Deluge and Eugenia Leigh’s Bianca are a few.
Katie’s speaker has this sarcastic, chatty, self-aware and self-deprecating humor that I cherish in friends and in writing, so of course her poems are like candy to me. I’ve read her book more than I’ve read any other book in the past few years.
Leila’s book is a lyric godsend. Her lines are tight, precise, musical—and I love watching her explore themes like womanhood, goodness and godlessness through the lens of her body’s illness, its departure and re-becoming.
Eugenia’s book is the one I’ve read most recently and my god is it candid and fearless in all the ways I can only hope my poems might be. I want more poems like hers to exist in the world, and I want more emboldened poets. My wish, for every writer, is to feel like they can make the kind of poems that admit themselves and look at the stories they tell with grace and guts and transparency.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
More Joan Didion and creative nonfiction/essays in general. I’m specifically obsessed with the lyric essay, which I feel is cousin to poetry. I’m excited to see how it continues to explode and disintegrate the parameters of its genre.
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 at all times, of course. It’s the Gemini in me. I both plan and discover—in addition to creative writing, I also love reading books about psychology, neuroscience, resilience and the body, as well as wading through all kinds of research that spans a wide variety of topics. Nothing is off-limits if I find myself curious, obsessed with a particular topic.
I prefer physical books, but there’s no denying we live in a digital world that offers immediate access to all kinds of texts.
As for notes … I hesitate to lend my books out because the sprawling marginalia is embarrassing. I’ll write on everything—even my palms and wrists if nothing else is handy.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Lately, I’m trying to focus less on utilizing the Poetic voice as the predominant tone of my speaker. What I mean is, we all understand the Poetic dialect that certain published poems have, and that these poems are imbued with this tone due perhaps to the long lineage of Poetic poems that exist in the canon, and that have forever been perpetuated as perfect pieces of art. But we all also know the canon needs to expand and make room for new, different, excellent poems that are entering (and challenging) the world today.
For example, I love the frank and chatty dialect of many women poets (like Condon), and I also love the bravery of marginalized people who articulate rage and frustration in poetry (like Jordan and Lorde). I want to bring all of that to the page. When I was first learning to write, there were very few role models in the canon I could turn to for guidance because so many of them were writing with precision, and also wearing masks. And of the few that I could connect to, an even smaller number of them were writing with the kind of boldness and conviction I craved from a speaker. The canon taught me how to engage with poetry, but it also taught me to perform language a certain way, to disguise and dress up meaning with artifice which usually also meant layering or obfuscating hard truths.
This makes me recall an AWP panel focused on the lyric essay as resistance, where one of the speakers touched on the notion that writing by POCs that happens to feature a speaker with an angry or colloquial voice is often misinterpreted by editors as “sloppy” or “not academic” or “unpublishable” due to its divergence from the Poetic, the discomfort it causes the reader. But why can’t great poems be musical and lyrical while simultaneously being pissy, forthright, sardonic, fed up? Is the point of all poems to create something beautiful, make the reader feel good? My goal these days is to write the kind of poems I would’ve wanted to read, even if, especially if, they feel authentic to the language I think and write and love in. And if they make the guilty feel uncomfortable, so be it.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Coffeeshops. All of them. And near any body of water.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
It may be corny to say, but I love the space Brooklyn Poets has created. It’s a true testament to poets, that we crave community and closeness despite being practitioners of a solipsistic, solitudinous art. Whenever I step into BKP, I feel safe. Like I can set my backpack down and take a big sigh of relief. There aren’t many spaces in New York where I can do that.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the light, and sing the light
And what I carry with me you carry with you too,
For every flaw I try to hide is already known to you.