November 9–15, 2020
Jessica Lanay is an art writer, poet, librettist and short-fiction writer. She is a frequent contributor to BOMB and has interviewed artists such as Howardena Pindell, El Anatsui, Rirkrit Tiravanjia and others. Her poetry can be found in Poet Lore, Indiana Review, the Common, [PANK], Prairie Schooner and other publications. Her debut poetry collection am●phib●ian won the 2020 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize from Broadside Lotus Press. Her short fiction can be found in Tahoma Literary Review, Duende and Black Candies. In 2020, the opera she libretted, Virgula Divina, composed by Karen Brown, will premiere with Pittsburgh Festival Opera at some point after COVID-19 fucks off. She is a 2018 recipient of a Millay Colony Residency. Also in 2018, Jessica Lanay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poem “Milk. Milk. Milk,” that appeared in the Normal School. On Wednesday, November 18, she will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Jihyun Yun and Hanif Abdurraqib.
Seven Facts About Octopuses
1. Should I ask my mother if she is lonely?
Female octopuses, when they are protecting their deep sea nurseries, turn themselves inside out.
2. Once she began telling me a story about Rick James, and it sounded like she knew him. I was really quiet, still, like I would scare her away. I wanted to ask her what Rick James was like in person. Should I have asked her?
Octopuses have three hearts. One stops beating when they swim.
3. In a rush to leave the house, she kneels on all fours, tossing shoes over her shoulder. Designer leather straps and hand-formed heels pile up. Our features are identical, but I am the color of wet sand, like my father. I want to ask her why she chose that white man.
Octopuses are able to change the color of their entire body in three-tenths of a second. By controlling the density of their melanin, they can change their colors to orange, yellow, purple, blue …
4. She tries to make me wear pink. She tries to make me comb my hair. I am as fraudulent as ever, but it makes her happy. What am I supposed to get out of this? What did she get out of it?
Even when severed, octopuses’ arms react, pulling away when pinched. Two-thirds of their brain’s neurons reside in their tentacles.
5. I want to ask my mother how to be alone, how to lessen my body’s tendency to be lonely.
Female octopuses die after mating. They retreat to lairs where they lay their eggs and guard them until they hatch. They lose strength as they fend off predators, stop eating, and then slowly go through cellular suicide.
6. I show my mother how to accentuate her peak with liquid lipstick. I make two mountains and then fill in a tight bow. She knows how to do this but still demands I show her. Why?
Octopuses use their ink to disable their prey. However, the ink also contains an enzyme called tyrosinase, which causes blinding irritation when it gets into another animal’s eyes.
7. Her “boyfriend” comes over by mistake. She says he is spying. I peek through the window and I hear him say, “I just want to know more about you.” She sighs in the driveway, tells him to leave. I want to ask if she’s ever confused peace for loneliness or loneliness for peace.
Octopuses love to be alone.
—From am●phib●ian, Broadside Lotus Press, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
My mother and I make strange promises, and one is that we will come back in the next life as sea creatures. Sometimes we agree on starfish, sometimes we agree on Greenland sharks, sometimes we agree on whales. In a recent conversation we agreed on octopuses because I think we both have this need to feel that we can protect ourselves with intellect and dexterity. My mother, to me, is a lot like that creature: protective, secretive, surprising, an escape artist. She has gotten us out and through some situations that were definitely the equivalent of jars with screw caps. I wanted to write something for her and about her and her similarity/kinship to this incredible creature. I went online and just started reading everything I could find until I found this list of facts that reminded me of her. She has turned herself inside out for me. She can make it seem as if her heart has stopped beating. I have confused her independence and solitude for being lonely—she is really just self-sufficient as hell. So, we’ve been writing this poem together for a while, I just finished it up.
What are you working on right now?
My PhD. Lol. Really—it is all connected. Listening to and reading the distillations of Black women philosophers and theorists incites me to poetry which is a kind of thinking for me, an unresolved, imagined moment. But I am working on a new book of poems, a solo operetta, a larger opera—the second—and a short something for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Trying to organize and find time—sometimes it is everywhere.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is when I manage to stay on routine. I keep a strict schedule around what I do at certain times, a mixture of physical and mental activity. My days are that way because it is how I manage my anxiety and depression. A good day is when I can negotiate with my brain to have an emotional equilibrium or when I see/speak to anyone that I love who loves me back.
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?
Home is always and forever Key West, Florida. I am lucky to have several hearts in the world and most of them live in Florida, the biggest ones in Key West. I grew up between Stock Island and the corner of Howe St and Truman Ave across from the lighthouse and catty-corner to the Ernest Hemingway Home. I like it because it is the place that holds me best, it is where my elders are buried, I can see them when I am there. A lot of people I grew up with have lost their homes to fair-weather tourists, the economic situation at home is restricted and affected by race—there aren’t many jobs—when you are Black sometimes it is hard to find a job, even if your family has been there forever. Water bills and extortionist property taxes run out hard-working Black diasporan families. There was a point that many people on the island were in the Navy, working at the Naval Base (now shut down), fishing, shrimping; Stock Island is Stock Island because there was once livestock there. The lagoon across from my great-grandparents’ house is now an apartment complex. Very rich people have always lived on the island, but their influx means that whatever is in the grocery store, or whatever clothes are sold—everything is for the tourism industry. A lot of people go down to Key West and want some sort of ownership over it and are not interested in the actual history of it or the people whose families have been there since 1900—it is an island, people bring their fantasies and force them on you. Jehovah—I have lived so many different places—for some reason, New York and Key West are the places where I compromise and hide parts of myself the least. In Key West, nothing about me is a question, I feel safe, I feel total. I am made from sea edges. In New York, what other people consider loud becomes quiet—because I am in no way from New York—I approach the city in this way that I will just go anywhere even if the train takes two hours, into the city and out of the city. I am attached to the MTA in my memory—that is what it is—I never feel trapped in New York—ever.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Most of the jobs I had when I lived in New York were in Brooklyn. I moved to New York and lived at 145th and Broadway, right on that corner, and began a curatorial fellowship that I ended up walking out of on a Friday and not returning to on a Monday. I was impetuous in my early twenties, but bullshit is fucking bullshit no matter how you turn it. The fellowship was in Fort Greene. Then I worked in Bed-Stuy and moved to the corner of Post Ave between Dyckman and Academy. When I moved to the Bronx near the corner of Clifford Place and Walton Ave, I switched jobs to Poets & Writers Magazine that was down past Wall Street. Where I lived compared to where my job was always had me throwing myself into Brooklyn, plus most of my friends lived there, some loves. I never got into the borough beef, because who am I? But it was interesting to watch. I try not to walk into new places with expectations because those can turn into projections. I recognized that people who are not from New York are the ones that say that the people are coarse and that the city is hard, especially Brooklyn. I never experienced that—I experienced intimate hardship in New York, but my friendships in Brooklyn, my work in Brooklyn, was really, really beautiful to me. My friends, of course, always wanted to be in Brooklyn, so we were constantly jumping between the neighborhoods. When I moved to Pittsburgh, I would go back and visit a lot, I missed what felt like home in the people I met there who love me—I would usually stay between my girl Blue in Bushwick and my girl Aya in Harlem. I never felt placeless. I never met a born-and-bred Brooklynite that fulfilled the stereotype that circulates. Everyone is always talking, everyone is always bright, even when you can tell they are having a bad day. I think people think that realness, not having time for bullshit nicety, is rude—it isn’t, it is a generosity, and so my impression of Brooklyn is that it is generous.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
A poetry community can be many things and I think that is super personal. Super personal. I, actually, never did very well socially in strictly poetry communities. I was always trying to find a way to weasel out ASAP. Interdisciplinary communities are what I invest my time in. I founded the Jasper Collective, which was an editorial group, all women of color who met once a month after spending that month editing pieces we submitted: short stories, poems, personal essays, you name it. We talked about journal submissions, we did two awesome readings and had Nicole Sealey, Dianca London, Sean Doyle and some other great-great people come read with us. I am a firm believer in helping a person do what they want to do, not offer them a fucked-up suggestion to do something else—you cannot interrupt people’s learning like that. You cannot help another poet or writer unless you understand what they are trying or want to do in their own work. I twisted and bent my way into a community of books, and found people who liked those books, and suggested other books. One of my best friends, Matty, is a lawyer, and if he ever fucking publishes his poems … I just cannot wait for that. My intuition about community is that if you aren’t approaching in love and are approaching with a bunch of shoulds then you’re already fucked up. All that is to say that my most supportive community are people whom I have healthy, deep love with that happen to be writers.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Some of these people are from Brooklyn and others just live there: Ntozake Shange, Nicole Sealey, S. Erin Batiste, Kim Addonizio, Wo Chan, Tyehimba Jess, Vanessa Jimenez Gabb—all of their works give me the Dickinson feeling of having the top of my head chopped off—this frothy, airy, dumbfounded feeling. This feeling that kind of makes me yell and want to throw the book, but more importantly, reading their work makes me write—always. There are more.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
A lot of poets who play at the margins of genre help me see how far I can run. Dom Sylvester Houédard, Giovanni Singleton, Bhanu Kapil, Douglas Kearney, Tristan Tzara—that mentoring came through their texts. Reading them over and over again, sometimes not understanding and not believing and then going back. Chris Abani, in a Cave Canem workshop, taught me so much about the way to interact with my own work and the work of others as an editor. Toi Derricote’s writing as well as her insight into creative impulses was a wonderful support—Toi gets down to the nitty-gritty about poetry. Lynn Emanuel was on my committee for am•phib•ian, and she just was very straightforward, clear and giving—specific, also very much to the point. A question that Yona Harvey had for me was “Why do you keep explaining yourself?” and that changed a lot. Ariana Brown, just listening to her work is a mentoring—she is also a great individual who I am lucky to be friends with. So many poets have led by example in how they live their artistic life. I am grateful for the mentors that showed up. Chiwan Choi! I also read his books over and over, then text him randomly about something like “horror poetics” and he always goes down the rabbit hole with me. Jason Koo, I took a workshop with him via Cave Canem and he was willing to wrestle with me mentally about a lot of stylistic tics I had and still have—he fought the battle of reminding me that often those tics are only effective when they are intentional. We agree about cussing in poetry—we love it.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil and the poetic progression of quotidian tortures from living with someone who doesn’t mean their love—that turned me. So, so, so, so careful. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic left a warp in some of my neurons, for sure, everything in that book is so distinct, the intimacies and the freedom within intimacies and the political interruption or violation—refusing to comprehend as a strategy of resistance; deafness as perhaps an inherent form of resistance—a condition of living that requires others to listen with their whole body. What else? David Antin, I keep jumping in and out of his work, I love the idea of the talk poem, a site-specific speaking. I just finished up Animacies by Mel Y. Chen and before that Queer Phenomenology by Sara Ahmed—learning to be light in my thinking, question this body, undo some knots in my mind. I am in the middle of Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I am pretty diligent about reading what I want and not letting people put should on me. Should is a misery and I can be very contrarian for no reason when someone tells me that I should read something. So that leaves a short list. BUT I have this book called “Girl, Colored” and Other Stories: A Complete Short Fiction Anthology of African American Women Writers in the Crisis Magazine, 1910-2010. I want to finish it so badly. Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen is on my shelf of I want to read. There are a lot of things I want to read again. Other books I have my eyes on are The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies by Tiffany Lethabo King and Debts & Lessons by Lynn Xu.
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 will read a few books, each of a different genre, at a time. I can’t read multiples of the same genre at a time. For fiction or essays, I hunker down and can finish in a day, I get lost, I fade into the narrative. For poetry, I will read each poem about three times before I move on to the next—I write a lot of marginalia, highlight things, make sure that my writing book is near me for when I hear things in my head. For theory, I will take a weekend, lots of underlining, marginalia, note-taking, calling people and yelling about what I am reading, then reading some more. Now that I am in a PhD, everything has to be on a schedule, everything has to be planned; before that—I would just read on a whim. I like checking out books from the library and seeing other people’s marginalia and then responding to it.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I will try anything once and I have. I fail at most forms because I have trouble abiding by form. Sestinas are fun but they make me cry by the end. Ghazals are so fucking hard for me—I just focus too much on the structure. I wrote a cento and I loved the process so much—it made my brain feel fizzy. I want to do a concrete acrostic somehow, like a puzzle. I am working on a form where I black out the words from texts, but footnote that blacked-out word and search through the etymology like a poem. Carson did something similar in Nox.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Ah, fuck. This question makes me sad! There is a pandemic and I just moved—so everything is different now. I don’t want to linger, or rather I can’t linger in public because I am a type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic which can cause autoimmune disorders. I am not very familiar with where I live now—it is really a town—I have lived in cities for the last eight years of my life, so I feel disoriented. I liked to write at the bar, all the noise fading into the background. I liked to be a very conspicuous writer at a coffee shop that was a small walk from where I lived in Pittsburgh. Now—all we (some of us) have is home—so I sit on the floor, on top of a couch cushion at my coffee table and write. My cat Zora likes to come down and snuggle while I write, she also loves watching the ink appear on the paper, she thinks it is a game. Like, okay, you giant, weird, hairless cat walking on your back legs—how do we do this together? How do I play this?
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
When I lived in NYC, Samuel Colon, a community activist, bomba and plena percussionist, eternal tío, and I would sit in Betty Carter Park and just talk for hours about culture, the city and life. He was a great friend and life mentor. I would often walk from my girl Blue’s place in Bushwick to Bed-Stuy where another friend of mine, who is a poet, S. Erin lived. I loved that walk, especially in the spring when it was still a little chilly. I have, I guess you could call it, rendezvoused on the bridges, the ribs of NYC. I spent a lot of time in the homes of my friends. I enjoyed JACK Theater in Clinton Hill, I had an artist fellowship there that was founded and activated by Virginia Grise. And sometimes I never knew if I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the art or to sit on the steps and watch the people.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate catastrophe,
And what I give to you is sincerely, sometimes, my last,
For every sharp image you have of me as good, I hold the opposite that I keep from 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.
There was a hurricane party when we lost Biggie.
Small gums eased by honey and Hennessy—the t.v. echoing: Brooklyn, Brooklyn.
Auntie made up with the third Uncle-by-marriage she gave us
after crushing his windshield with a car jack.
We don’t celebrate those storms, but these ones, screaming wet mouths, we forgive for love.
Water arms embrace, we flippantly forget—downward wind leaves stores open to rob.
Lord Jehovah this and that, and nothing doing from great auntie Mina, oranges we peel like sin.
Making busy under the noise of the ocean walking, the cousins search the junk drawer for pens.
We will draw the flamboyants that are disappeared like a history of fathers.
While the television croaks of storms and losses crossing the country like the Brooklyn Dodgers.
My answer is for anyone who has been displaced, anyone looking back at home and sucking their teeth because gentrification turned their best effort into not enough. For people who are from-from the space and are holding on by the nails on their pinkies. Why? For them, because it belongs to you. Because in the economic and political obligations placed on Black bodies—we still manage to make these spaces into coruscating galaxies and then we welcome in. When I think of Brooklyn for this question, I think of all Black neighborhoods that are gutted by urban blight via institutional and government neglect, I think of the web of women that created and held these spaces together with their rhetorics of survival, wombs and joy. I think of how we have to gaslight ourselves into neoliberal bullshit to earn the buck that helps us afford the place we already made, then I think of those of us who just, understandably—rightfully, could not do it. Why Brooklyn as Brooklyn? Because it is yours, because it is itself. Why Brooklyn as an encompassing metonym for Black neighborhoods (East Coast urban privilege definitely working here, I apologize, Atlanta, my long time lover)? Because they are ours.