April 4–10, 2022
Jasmine Ledesma is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Rattle, [PANK] and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology and twice for the Pushcart Prize. Her novella Shrine was a finalist for the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and her entry for the Moth Poetry Prize was commended by Warsan Shire. Last year, Ledesma was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow to attend the eighth annual summer retreat.
Sally’s turning thirteen tonight and I’ve been invited.
My niece, a little blonde twig who can recite the alphabet
backwards and has no idea what they do to war captives.
I’m putting on my finest furs. I’ve got my hair slicked back.
The field that sits across from my bedroom window
looks like an ocean. A private, green, temperamental sea. All mine.
I stain like glass. Thirty-seven years of wasteland.
I’m a den flooded with stale orange light. I’m dean of the bottle caps.
My heart is full of flies and gunshots.
My latest doll was Joanie, lady of anger. Filled with such an ambition to live.
Her hair seemed to burn from her skull.
You’re a cactus, she once told me, her teeth gleaming in the sunlight.
What am I to do with a cactus?
She left, wordless, last spring like a bird. That’s what she must have been.
It’s summer now and the air out there is mean, thick and highly combustible.
Everyone walks around spritzed with delicate beads
of sweat, towels thrown across their backs. It’s nearly juvenile.
The annual rodeo has brought in a desperate zoo to busy up the town.
Masses of unloved families with manic children yanking
at every pinwheel in sight. A flurry of legs. Fried everything.
That cranky ferris wheel turns her tricks well into the oiled midnight.
Last night I bought a ticket to drink beneath those fun neon lights.
And I went to stare at the horses which are not quite show-ponies
but still real enough to draw in twelve bucks a ride.
Their muscles like lightning bolts.
I stood in front of them and peered into their divine, black eyes.
Right down the chamber and I didn’t feel a thing. But perhaps I could have.
Life isn’t wonderful. There are no perfect acrobats in my palm and
exclamation points are a rarity. But look.
There’s a chair for me in Sally’s backyard. My sister in a blue dress.
There’s even cake, a white disaster with pink sugar flowers
dotting the edges. Imagine that.
Life is a rock in my shoe.
But sometimes, like tonight, I can put my body away.
My tissue won’t dissolve within the minutes.
The damage is not entirely done.
And I know that at least I will not die.
Not right now.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I write best with a prompt dangling in front of me like a gem in a robber’s eye. This prompt can range from photographs of women in silk to a stray bass line or a film I once saw. Sometimes lines are delivered to me as though by a sudden, heavenly intravenous fluid. That was the case one afternoon last spring when I wrote this poem. I sat at my desk and the line “I know that at least I will not die” came to me. I popped in a piece of Nicorette—like Ginsberg armed with his benzedrine inhaler—and focused the scene on a county fair. I needed a crux of movement. Thus, a niece on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. I wanted the voice to be dirty and beautiful and simple. A nameless uncle somewhere in nowhereland. I could see the narrator in his best get-up, pathetic and going soft where he never thought he would. I could see him strolling back, half-drunk, to where they keep the horses as the moon glowered overhead. I could see him attempting to feel something. To feel anything.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I am working on a novel about a lonely journalist who writes about the people nobody else will speak to. A teenage drug lord in one, a girl after a recent suicide attempt in another. Each chapter is one of her pieces. It is an American tale as much as it is a human one. I am working on it in the dark long after everyone has fallen asleep.
What’s a good day for you?
I work at a preschool at the moment so a good day is when I can go to work, feed and change and play with the kids, and come home with ideas left over. A good day for me is one where my vision is intact, where the trees aren’t trees but great, reaching, charred fingertips tapping against the glass of the skies. A good day is one out of the doghouse.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I’m originally from a small town in Texas (called, and I’m not making this up, Humble, Texas) and moved to New York for college five years ago. I spent my first year here living in a dorm in the middle of midtown with all the chrome and rich puppies and old women. I was terrified of taking the subway and made art as quickly as I breathed. I eventually moved in with my father the following year because the cost of the dorms was too much. My dad lives in a housing project in Sheepshead Bay, an area ruled by concrete and seagulls, and until last month I lived there with him.
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 only been here in this new apartment for about three weeks and now live in Bed-Stuy near the A train. It is a strange, beautiful and divided place. Down one block there is a restaurant serving filets with little houses made of glass outside. Plants dot the scenery. The public library brims at night. And down another block there is constant police activity. I wade between these two scenes and love them both. I like the mural across the street. I like the big, big trees and the men on bikes and the laundromats and the fluorescent nail salons. It is less rigid than the last place I lived, where everyone walked around with a stern intention bundled up against the elements, elements we could not even yet see.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
One evening I was at my window looking out and like a terrible joke out of the too-long set of a comedian, an entourage of vehicles passed by. First, a party bus, then an Uber Eats delivery guy on a bike, then a firetruck, then a police car, one after another. The punchline would be that they were ranked most important to least.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Brooklyn Poets for one has been wondrous to me! I like going out to poetry clubs like Bowery. I spent a couple of my birthdays at the Nuyorican Poets Café. A poetry community is anywhere you feel safe to share your work with the expectancy that those around you will listen. This can be anything, a class or a bus stop.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
While I must admit that a lot of my influences are Southern-bred, Allen Ginsberg and Jeanann Verlee have been incredibly important to me. I listen to “Howl” on the train. I actually met Eileen Myles, another great influence, at a reading she hosted a couple of years ago. The room was hot pink.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been very fortunate to be taught by many wonderful poets! Alex Dimitrov taught my freshman poetry class, which couldn’t have been easy. He introduced us not only to the mystique of the poet, but also to the work of Joan Didion, Richard Siken, Melissa Broder and Flannery O’Connor, among others. He really laid the groundwork for us. Shira Erlichman’s workshop I took with you guys was so pivotal in enabling me to push my poetic voice! I remember the nights there in a stranger’s apartment with an orange fondness. Another incredible mentor of mine has been Jerry Williams, who taught several writing classes in college. His own narrative-based work has been a great influence. His support really has been absolute over the last couple of years and in some ways helped me get to where I am now.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently got a vintage copy of Lolita in the mail. I’ve never read the thing in its entirety, but even the first few pages have inspired me endlessly. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” of course has been one I return to again and again, and more recently this poem in the Paris Review, “King’s Feedery” by Rohan Chhetri, made me gasp out loud the first time I read it. It’s such a stunning, stunning poem.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Aside from Lolita, I’ve been meaning to read The Brothers Karamazov, McGlue by Moshfegh and, I’ll be honest, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been sitting on my shelf for the last two years.
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 wish I was a note-taker! As a child, I read very fast and very much, but that’s long dissipated. Now I read on my lunch break every so often, turning the words over in my mind like hot stones. I’ve been focusing on White Noise by DeLillo. Sometimes, like a sprint back to childhood, I’ll read an entire book in one day, though that hasn’t happened in a while.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I like to find inspiration in strange disasters or figures. They compel me. Some things I’d like to write about would be the way Archduchess Mathilde Marie Adelgunde Alexandra of Austria died. She was wearing a dress made of gauze and lit herself on fire in front of her entire family on accident. I mean, that’s fantastic. Or a story my friend told me about where everyone on board a plane died due to oxygen loss and the plane flew in the air on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. Imagine the silence of that! I’ll tackle it eventually. I’d like to write more odes. I’ve been trying to write a poem about the Unabomber for months but can’t quite get there. Just the idea of him sitting in his shoddy cabin alone, plotting and reading and thinking sharp thoughts, really intrigues me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing on the train because of the constant stimulation coming in from every corner. There’s inspiration everywhere you look. It really sets the tone. I’m also partial, as every writer is, to writing during big thunderstorms.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Avenue U near my dad’s place. I have found some of the most beautiful people and places there. A liquor store called Liquor World, a party supply store, wig stores, etc. It’s a place that feels alive at any moment. I love Chinatown in Sunset Park.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:
I celebrate poverty,
And what I, gilded stone, you, kept leopard. It is division that divides us.
For every rumpled mother in me (is) as wondrous as the gilded swan 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.
On Christmas Eve
I drank wine from Jack’s shoe.
This was how much I loved him.
I would have robbed for him.
As Brooklyn careened outside in her
flagrant blues and replays of Biggie and
all of that taxidermied sin, I drank and for a moment
I couldn’t remember my own father.
Brooklyn because it isn’t Manhattan.