Poet Of The Week

Janelle Tan

     October 12–18, 2020

Janelle Tan was born in Singapore and lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, No Tokens, Winter Tangerine, the Southampton Review, Nat. Brut and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was the web editor for Washington Square Review, and currently serves as assistant interviews editor at Singapore Unbound. This past spring, Tan was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Shira Erlichman’s poetry revision workshop The Possibility Lab.

Author photo by Sean Lee


for whitney jimenez


section 309 of the singapore penal code is adapted from the indian penal code, formulated in 1860 during the british raj regime. it was repealed in may 2019.

whoever i feel like, i am not. my attempts against abandon to commit a living. suicide is insufficiency, and a takeaway, and a contraction—in its wreckage, does any other act matter? i move towards the window, the pill bottle, the noose. i move through the years to come. living has become commission, an unmaking of the way i was made. whitney, i’m sorry. sometimes i hold my life in such cold contemplation that i wish you had it instead. sometimes this very life is an offence, a mirror shattering. shall we move through it together? teach me to love like i’m dead. the question depression asks of me: would you prefer to be nothing, or be punished? whitney, it’s been four years. sometimes i want to dance with you, tearing in the imprisonment of august. for a term, i almost give in to the endless. whitney, hold me. i’ve reduced myself to a hundred seconds, which may extend to nothing, to one trimmed year, or a single stray thread. with your hand on my cheek, tell me i’m fine, or endless, or with you, or both.


Brooklyn Poets · Janelle Tan, "Attempt to Commit a Suicide to Memory"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Central to the project of my manuscript are these erasures related to the Singapore Penal Code. I have a chronic mental health condition, and this particular section of the Penal Code has always struck me as a particularly archaic piece of legislation. Though it’s since been repealed, I’ve always carried the impulse to make something of this section. For this project, I’m particularly interested in inserting intimacy next to and into legalese. There’s a lot of intimacy in suicide. A friend of mine passed in the summer of 2015, and I’ve been trying to write a poem in her memory. Though I don’t know how she passed, I wanted to speak to her memory as someone who is sometimes preoccupied with dying.

What are you working on right now?

I was working on my manuscript really closely, but I’m kind of taking a break from it now. I’m a really big believer in the fallowing that comes after a period of intensely working the soil. A friend of mine told me the other day that a poem is made of emotional revelations. After months of putting my nose close to the poems and swimming in their world, it felt like all my poems were coming from the same place. I think I’m giving myself the space to come to other emotional revelations, and make new poems about those. I’m slowly, slowly writing one line at a time, and enjoying making new discoveries and growing in my personal life. I’m actively engaging in fallowing.

What’s a good day for you?

When I wake without an alarm but it’s still morning, and it’s sunny and warm out. When I get to go to Prospect Park and sit in the sun, or when I get to have a meal or a drink with a friend. Maybe a roof at night and some wine. Sometimes it involves going to a last-minute gig for a band I’ve never heard of. A good day usually involves seeing dear friends and lots of sunshine.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I came for NYU’s MFA program and stayed. I’ve tried to leave because of love and high rent, but I’ve found so much community here that it’s hard to leave. I still feel the most at home here—my friends, the food options and the energy make it home.

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 live in Crown Heights now, and I moved here in August after almost leaving New York. I love how it still feels very much like a Caribbean neighborhood, and how the mom-and-pop shops reflect that diaspora. I like being able to feel like a place is home to a diaspora, and though Crown Heights is gentrifying and becoming whiter—as are most neighborhoods in Brooklyn—it still feels like a place people have roots in. I like how close it is to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum, and the farmers’ market at Grand Army Plaza. I love the food options—the amazing vegetarian Ethiopian place right on Franklin, and Gloria’s has the best goat curry.

In every space I’m in, I’m always conscious that I’m a gentrifier—that me being an immigrant to the US does not make these neighborhoods “mine.” I used to live in Bushwick, and I loved living there when I first moved to New York. I loved the energy of all the twentysomething creatives, but I slowly grew to see that Bushwick is about the carts that pop up on weekends on Knickerbocker selling empanadas, churros and Mexican corn. I loved living there for the years that I did, but I’m much happier being in Crown Heights now because I’m closer to the park, and I felt like I was getting too tired too easily to be in 2019/2020 Bushwick.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

This happened when I first moved to Crown Heights. I was having a really bad day, and stopped at the wine store near me (Franklin Wine & Spirits) on the way home. I picked something out, and at the counter, the owner, an older Italian man, told me that it paired best with a great salad for dinner. As he was ringing me up, I told him I had just moved nearby and was new to the neighborhood. He welcomed me, and after I paid, he asked if I was a doctor. When I told him, “No, I’m a poet,” he said, “Oh! The most difficult of the professions! Bring a poem the next time you come and read it for us.”

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I’ve found the richest kind of poetry community here. I was lucky that I went to grad school here, but socially, I’ve met a lot of people I love at poetry readings. When I say poetry community, I don’t just mean people who read my drafts, though that’s an incredibly intimate exchange of vulnerability and trust. I’ve found people I can just talk poetry with for hours. Poetry has its own language, and sometimes to speak that same language to someone else for hours feels like coming up for air. In these conversations, I feel most alive.

Recently, a poetry community has also come to mean simply a community made of poets. The last six months have been one of the toughest periods of my life, but witnessing my community rallying around me, feeding me, holding me and keeping me company during this time has been something close to sacred. I’ve never had community like this, and it’s been the holiest thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s changed the way I see myself.

In more abstract terms, I lie, but my poems never do. Having a community of poets around me means having people who give me the Marie Howe treatment: pointing to a part of my poem, or my life, and asking, “Is this true?”

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Shira Erlichman, Angel Nafis, Tina Chang. Jenny Xie. Sally Wen Mao, Aracelis Girmay, Shayla Lawson. My entire NYU community, who I would name individually if it wouldn’t take an entire page and if I wouldn’t inevitably forget to mention someone; all the other poets I’ve met over the course of my life here who have shared picnics in the park, phone calls, and wine at readings with me.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My first poetry mentor was Ellen Doré Watson. She taught me a lot about discipline, courage and being playful. She was the first person to teach me that a poem is about bravery.

Catherine Barnett taught me how to make a metaphor, and how to come right out and say exactly what needs to be said without adornment.

Sharon Olds taught me the power of being direct, and about the power of vulnerability and intimacy. I was afraid for a long time that being a “confessional” poet would make people dismiss my work, but Sharon has taught me that there is a devastating power to the truth.

Terrance Hayes has been the most influential person on my process. I think of some of the things he told me every time I sit down to write. He helped me see my own work, and I don’t know how you thank someone for something like that.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Some desert-island poems I’ve carried with me over the years: Ada Limón’s “State Bird,” Nicole Sealey’s “Object Permanence,” Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” sequence, Robin Beth Schaer’s “Holdfast,” Emily Jungmin Yoon’s “Decency.”

Recently, I’ve been going back to the few books I left New York with, the books I deemed so important I couldn’t leave in storage. Jane Mead’s 1996 debut The Lord and the General Din of the World has been my Bible. It is the book that makes me believe in myself and my ability to write poems. I have the first and last poem memorized, and in the time I was away from the city, I read it every time I felt uncertain about my life, burned out by the business of poetry, and when I just wanted something that felt like an old friend.

I also brought Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap with me when I left, and I reread parts of it in the bath with candles when I felt particularly down. Stag’s Leap has this way of coming out and saying the thing perfectly, and as I’m writing line by line, I try to carry that with me.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

This is embarrassing, but Arthur Sze’s Sight Lines and anything by Li-Young Lee. I’ve had The City in Which I Love You on my bookshelf for years and haven’t gotten to it.

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?

I almost always dip in and out of multiple books. I read three to four books at a time, and when I was in grad school I carried them all around in my backpack. There are some books I’ve read cover to cover, but it always happens after I read the poems in fits and starts first. I kind of just pick a book based on what I’m feeling—sometimes someone gives me a heartfelt recommendation and I buy the book right away. I’m a huge physical-book person—plus screens are hard to look at in the sun, and I like reading outdoors when it’s warm. I am not a note-taker, but I am a dog-earer! I used to be an underliner, but I realized that a book changes with every rereading and I want my books to be clean and open to any new revelation.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I don’t think I’ve ever written a short poem. I think I’m just one of those people who is naturally verbose. One of my big goals is to write a Jean Valentine-esque poem.

Also, I’m always trying to write a contrapuntal and failing. Eventually.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

While I was at NYU, my favorite place to write was the Writers House, because in the mornings it’s quiet and there’s a lot of light, even in the winter. I also did a lot of work on my manuscript at Dweebs in Bushwick. Now, a lot of lines come to me when I’m commuting on the 4 or 5 train. I find that walking usually helps me work out some tough spot in a poem, and sometimes lines come to me as I’m walking. I’ve found that there’s too much movement on the subway for me to read, so I mostly read in Prospect Park.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I’m a little bit obsessed with Prospect Park, as I’m sure everyone in Brooklyn is. I’m obsessed with how the park’s energy changes. Sometimes it swells and has a bloated crescendo about it, and sometimes it’s pretty serene. I like to take walks along Eastern Parkway, and I love Fort Greene Park for its hill—plus Café Paulette is nearby. I love Franklin Wine & Spirits for the owner, and I love Bottoms Up for the way they make wine accessible. They’re both in Crown Heights, but I also love Irving Bottle in Bushwick. When I lived in Bushwick, I was at Molasses Books all the time and frequently snacked on their pistachio madeleines. Now, Unnameable Books is much closer and I love them too. I love Ix by the Prospect Park Q stop, and Bar Tabac near Books Are Magic. I’ve gone to many a show and party at Elsewhere, and it’s one of my favorite venues. My all-time favorite restaurant in New York City is Nicandra’s in Bushwick, and I like to say that I take everyone I love there. Every Sichuan spot in Brooklyn has probably fed me at some point. I love my roof, my friend Elliott’s roof, my friends JinJin, Julia and Kat’s old roof. If there’s a roof in Brooklyn, I probably love it.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the life you’ve built that I now inhabit,

And what I would give for you to turn back, turn toward me,

For every re-encounter with me as good a love with you.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s the only place in the world I can find good thrift stores, hole-in-the-wall bars with cheap drinks, restaurants with cocktail lists, a bodega with a cat, and a halal cart—all on the same eight-block stretch.

I once went to an early dinner with a friend at a restaurant in Brooklyn with a wonderful natural wine selection and oysters—and next to us, a bee was pulling the center of a flower towards his face, as if anointing himself in pollen. And our hands paused over the broccolini and the bread. And we just watched. Brooklyn is the most poetic to me in those moments. It’s also the most like home.