Poet Of The Week

Jessica Greenbaum

     February 2–8, 2015

Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty, was awarded the Gerald Cable Prize and praised by George Steiner as a “first book by a poet very much to be listened to.” Her second book, The Two Yvonnes, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and recognized by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of Poetry in 2012. As a social worker she has run poetry reading and writing groups for older adults and will be initiating a similar pilot program for 9/11 first responders. She is the poetry editor of upstreet and lives in Fort Greene.

Streaming Nancy

When the subway doors opened skunk
wafted over the platform, and the confluence
—14th Street: where it all comes together!—
brought on dualities, the dual nature
of dualities, like quatrains made of two
rhyming couplets I would soon read
on the train, and how my friend Nancy
Ralph (even her name going in opposite
directions) talking to me in the rain—well
half in the rain, one of us seemed to be
in the rain at all times beneath the triangular
awning of Three Lives & Co.—how Nancy
looked like a motorcycle moll and sage
all at once, and that’s pretty true
for the experience of talking to her which,
if I could graph our conversations would be
something like Dive! Dive! because
we’re instantly deep, deep in conversation
and the currents of philosophy (Nancy)
are swirling in a current of subject matter
(that’ll be me) and in this case we were talking
about the nature of love and after I said
it resembles being caught in a huge yearning machine
she said, “I’m glad to hear you say that
because I’ve never found it to be a good feeling—
it doesn’t feel good” and I remembered
first knowing Nancy and being at a wedding
where she wore a suit approximating bright
green sod, because she came from Oklahoma
and read Women’s Wear Daily for her first
whole year in Manhattan and that’s why her
magenta bra strap taught so much, and how
the day I came home from the hospital,
a big strange mammal, she brought brand-new
Bella a roll of yellow, starry tulle as a gift
and how, months later we dressed the baby up
as a pirate, a red bandana knotted over the top
of her baldy head, and strolled her around
the neighborhood, and one good thing
about middle age is how many such experiences
you can have with one person who still
meets you in the rain at a book party
even with all she’s accomplished in her own
life which I would have to list in a list
poem in Ripley’s Believe it or Not
including the little-clay-devils-in-a-bottle
project, the poetry-vending-machine
and The New York Food Museum entire
and by the time she waves goodbye, back
to her ex-weaving factory apartment
on the Lower East Side, now Chinatown,
I’m primed to enjoy the after-party itself,
and hard not to since the smashed
poet said to me, who maybe she thought
was someone I might know, like Nancy, “You
should congratulate yourself on your very
existence on this earth!” to which I replied
with an astonished are-you-okay?-look,
and everyone had written their addresses
on one napkin that was going to be transcribed
to one person’s computer and e-mailed,
but you know, it was raining pretty hard
and that was not a Sharpie we wrote with
and I was thinking about marriage, that duality,
how you create an island in the middle
of two streaming disappointments (here,
Jed may disagree, disappointed; I’d be
disappointed if he didn’t) just sitting together
surveying the meandering, frothing
happinesses caused by your rock and stones
of friends and kids, and as I walked home
the wet leaves on the shiny night sidewalk
looked like pennies in a fountain and I thought
that was pretty funny since I felt so hugely
unlucky (regardless of the local, national
and international reasons I had no earthly right
to) until seeing Nancy, until waving goodbye

–From The Two Yvonnes, Princeton University Press, 2012.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

First and foremost a love poem to my friend Nancy Ralph, and one of those fun experiences where the form of the poem comes to resemble part of what is attempting to be conveyed—in this case, a long, added-on-to conversation and experience winding through the years. At some point when such poems “catch” you feel the little cheering squad say, Go Go Go, and you just have to worry about whether they have been too encouraging for the poem’s good.

What are you working on right now?

Shockingly, shaping the manuscript for a third book! I finally let myself look at the folder that had been gaining girth since the manuscript for The Two Yvonnes was taken in July 2011. And trying to write poems. Gotta live.

What’s a good day for you?

A two-hour coffee-drinking buffer twixt me and the rest of the world, with laptop or paper and pencil. Set out breakfast, perhaps, then a swim—and my daily dose of the locker room guru ladies—a jaunt across the street from pool to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch for a glance at the shelves of new books, and some time with them and one of those awesome and expensive scones, maybe a walk through one of the heavens (the gardens or the park) but time for work (by which I mean sitting alone) without the errands taking over. If I am teaching or running a good group, may they go well! See a friend for coffee? See my whole family at dinner and if the dream continues, go to the theater! Why not?!

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I was born in what was Brooklyn General Hospital but didn’t ascend to residency here until I was thirty. I grew up in Long Island, went to school in the city, and grad school in Houston—where I ended up for seven years as a reporter. When I first moved back to work in the civil rights division of the Anti-Defamation League, it was into what had been my grandparents’ apartment in the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, (though they weren’t Hasidic, just had a brother-in-law in the NYC Housing Dept) in one of the housing authority’s high rises of the 1960s, where I had been visiting them since childhood. Living in their apartment—with all their stuff—was my first home out of disenfranchisement. ‘Twas just me, the Hasidim, the Latino communities, a hutch full of dishes and every greeting card my grandmother had received in her ninety years. It was the most comfortable privacy I had experienced. Then I went on a blind date with a fellow who lived across the Navy Yard in Ft. Greene and, dear reader, I married him. I have lived here for almost thirty years, and I can honestly say that the outside feels like the inside—I wake up every day (well, pretty much every day) knowing I am where I want to be, and that is a great gift, I’m tellinggyu, as my grandmother would have said.

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

I bought a bike (first wrote book by accident!) on Craigslist from a lovely young woman in Greenpoint, who, luckily for me, was moving to be with her boyfriend in Norway and so felt nothing here mattered a stick anymore and sold me a towering good bike, with helmet and lock, offered at a basement price. I took it to a shop tucked under the BQE in Ft. Greene, having gotten a tip from one of my locker-room guru ladies (see above) that the owner might actually be nice and not find me age-invisible. You can say that again! After exchanging life stories, tears, laughs and a hug, we seem committed to a life of friendship. A pure Brooklyn story, from wing-nut to bear hug.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Close race twixt D. Nurkse and Walt Whitman. I do go back further with Whitman, though, being as my college-age brother gave me the little Leaves of Grass edition from which I took passages to embroider on overalls; it was the ’70s, they were good for many things, including that. He’s the original “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” kinda guy, what I understand to be a model for poets as humanists. And that’s what I’m in it for.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Does anyone remember a little Brooklyn Heights shop called Our Mutual Friend that I think I once found on a snowy day in the ’80s? It may have gone the way of myth, but now I need to give a shoutout to the ladies who run Greenlight Books, in my neighborhood. But I really like them all … don’t know how any remain standing …

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch, home away from home.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Gardens, or Prospect Park, heaven on earth.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Betsy Sholl’s new book of poems Otherwise Unseeable. Glorious. And David Caplan’s scholarship, Rhyme’s Challenge, which includes all kinds of discussions on rap and more, including the opinion of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge, presented in rhyme including the couplet “A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium / When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.” Need I say more?

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the sidewalk,
And what I take as delightful offerings you should—well,
     I won’t say what you should do
For every fortunate choice for me as good belongs (if you
     want it!) for

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.

Artful Dodger who would jack the trunk
and rob the father of seven
of all his spare
flashlights, why not consider
the better sin of self-love,
you know, if you can go to Brooklyn
College, if you can find the time,
the money, if you can say,
I have to find a way to do that, it’s the only Biggie?

Why Brooklyn?

Because of my great fortune of being able to live here with my family. I’m kinda stuck on the idea that good fortune—not of my own making—has dictated my life.