January 4–10, 2021
Jessy Edwards is a New Zealand poet and journalist living in Brooklyn. As a freelance reporter, she enjoys learning about the world through the stories people tell her. She is fairly new to the poetry community, but has written poems since she was young. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jason Koo’s Silence & Sound workshop. This is her first published poem.
Quarantine Is a Gateway Drug
Organic granola with oat milk and bruised summer peaches from somewhere else’s summer. This breakfast makes me feel like I’m grasping for something out of reach.
Spectacular sunsets out my bedroom window, shared only with my dog and my iPhone 6. Look at the colors, Basil, I croon.
I find a passage in an old diary where I write of infant mortality, sex, and kittens with eye infections in the same breath. I imagine a court scene in which I am falsely accused, but my diary condemns me to death.
If you got a dollar for every tear you shed, how far would you take it? Would you raze the lands of your life so you could really grieve and get rich? Or would you just watch the scene where Mercutio dies in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, a couple times a week?
After we broke up you slept with a beautiful woman, and when I met her I didn’t know that and befriended her. We sang “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” together and I think she liked me more than you.
Remember bouncing up and down on tippy-toes in the swimming pool, and when you reach the highest point of the bounce you grab your nose with your thumb and forefinger and throw yourself underwater in a tightly-wound ball? We need to do that more as adults.
As tweens, we used to make out with the backs of our hands to practice kissing. Then we started kissing each other to practice kissing. It was only practice, though.
My hometown had the most interesting and seductive range of bushes. Hollowed-out lairs where cigarettes could be smoked covertly, even if our puffs rose through the leaves like puffs from the chimney of a hobbit’s house.
Remember going on camp and fretting about losing or damaging every item your mother so carefully packed for you? Can’t enjoy camp because you love mum too much. Or was that just me.
I had the dark grey Nokia brick, with a touch of glitter. Playing Snake was a first addiction for many of us. It’s a gateway drug to porn, tell me I’m wrong.
Porn is a gateway drug to abject loneliness. I cut myself with the razors Mum let me buy to shave my legs.
It’s a bit like if you had sparklers going off by your ears, constantly. That’s the sound of the New Zealand summer. And the smell. And the underlying danger.
Tell us about the making of this poem
I wrote this while New York was on lockdown during the summer. Without the distraction of our previous routines I think, collectively, we all had a lot of time to think, a lot of time alone in our bedrooms. Personally, I feel in danger when I have too much time to think. My mind was wandering back to my youth, perhaps to other times I felt alone.
I wanted to write, to process, but at the time I had been thinking, “I’m not a poet. I have no idea how to write a poem.” Everything felt very difficult. But my friend Anna had bought me a subscription to the Paris Review and the Summer 2020 edition came along.
In it was a piece by Sarah Manguso called “Perfection,” which reads as a progression of jotted memories that she’s since processed or understood in a certain way. Her observations about herself and others are brave and sometimes brutally honest.
For years I could barely write a page. I thought I was becoming a virtuoso of smallness while the grief, which is wordless, occupied an ever-greater volume.
It resonated with me so deeply, I felt she’d given me permission to write a poem in a different way. I sat down and wrote “Quarantine Is a Gateway Drug” in the style of “Perfection.” Later, looking back at the edition of the Paris Review, I realized her piece had in fact been categorized as nonfiction, so I’m still not sure if this is a poem.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on being brave, and being consistent. I’m very new to the poetry community. I was lucky enough to get a fall 2020 workshop fellowship from Brooklyn Poets to do Jason Koo’s Silence & Sound course. In my application letter, I said I wanted to get experience with form rather than just blobbing my consciousness onto the page. Since the class finished I’m trying to keep the habit of writing a poem a week. And picking up the courage to start sending work out. This is my first published poem.
What’s a good day for you?
Every day I make these absurd to-do lists whereby I totally set myself up to fail because there are simply not enough waking hours to achieve the tasks. Not at the speed at which I do things, anyway. A good day is when I forget about racing time and social anxiety and connect with a friend, a new idea, the city. When the world reminds me it has so much more for me than I’ve assigned to myself. Also, when I eat a croissant, when I manage to message back everyone who has messaged me, when I have completed a piece of writing I’m satisfied with.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was one of those kids who always dreamed of living in New York, for no good reason. Growing up, we often had copies of the New Yorker in the house, probably horribly out of date, with the “Par Avion” stickers on them, which only made them more exotic. I think that’s what gave me the itch. I was pretty singularly focused on it. I moved to Bed-Stuy from New Zealand in 2016.
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 now live in Bushwick, off Broadway. I’ve lived around here since I moved to NYC in 2016. I like being on the cusp of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick; my roommates and I can take the dogs to Maria Hernandez Park or Herbert Von King Park, or bike to Saraghina or Roberta’s easily for pizza and wine. I love how the JMZ line runs above-ground. When I’d walk the dog before dawn I’d sometimes see the driver speeding through the sky in their lit-up compartment. Pretty magical.
Around Myrtle–Broadway there’s a good vibe. Under the station one of the corner stores is always playing the jams, Mr. Kiwi’s sells cheap veggies, Café Erzulie has the good coffee, Enrique’s Barbershop is like the disco ball to Broadway’s party, and you can get a piña colada at my favorite neighborhood bar Bunton’s World Famous, owned by the lovely Kareem Bunton.
Gentrification is a big problem in these neighborhoods. The area is traditionally Black and Latinx and I hope it stays that way. The shit thing is that I know my presence is a sign of change. The strip I was just describing was featured in Grub Street in 2019, with the made-up gentrifying moniker “Stuyshwick.” As a journalist, I try to uplift the stories of the longtime residents of this area, support Black and Brown businesses, and be a humble student to the neighborhood.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Meeting people through walking my dog, especially the neighborhood kids. I’m learning Spanish and I like to practice with them. They endure my attempts so they can play with Basil.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’m only just discovering what a poetry community is and how important it is. When I started writing poems, they were very rough, just for me, diary-like. If I had a feeling too big to deal with I would write to comprehend it. And I was very private about it.
At my first Yawp I read what I thought was a love poem and a couple of people put in the chat that my poem reminded them of Richard Siken. And that they enjoyed it. That was so cool.
I ordered his book Crush thinking I was going to get some gentle odes to a lover, and the lady in the bookstore was like, “Oh his book is the best, it’s fucked up.” Then I read the foreword and it was like, “This is a book about panic.” Then I read his work (incredible) and I realized my poem wasn’t a love poem, it was a poem of obsession.
The Brooklyn Poets workshop with Jason Koo was just a magnified version of that—the acceptance, the encouragement, and people showing me where I fit in. I got to read with a group of insanely talented and inspiring poets in a forum where every perspective in every poem was heard, accepted, celebrated. I would still be scrawling madly in my diary if it weren’t for these people.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Biggie and Lil’ Kim were very important to me as a kid growing up in New Zealand. “Now honeys play me close like butter play toast” inspired my delight for seeing food in literature. My favorite Lil’ Kim lines are probably too spicy to quote here, but I love the way she raps about sexuality. Rap was my favorite, growing up. That feeling when you got a new tape or CD and you got to pore over the lyrics in the jacket. More recently, I interviewed poet and Lambda-winner Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, bought his book SLINGSHOT and loved his poems. It made me want to write more. And to discover more Brooklyn poets!
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’m not trying to brown-nose here, but it was Brooklyn Poets that gave me a shot and made me feel I was maybe understanding what poetry was all about when it granted me a fall fellowship last year.
Being in Jason Koo’s course opened my eyes / ears to so many other poets and forms. But also to an attitude to poetry, like everything you hear is this exciting working draft.
The way Jason runs stuff is so inclusive and generous. I feel he has this huge responsibility in nurturing people in some of their most vulnerable moments and he does an amazing job at it. It influences how I want to operate in any community, not just a poetry community.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
There’s this incredible young New Zealand poet, Tayi Tibble, who my friend Izzy introduced me to. Every poem in her book Poūkahangatus was so perfectly rendered and relatable to me as a millennial woman with Pacific and white roots growing up in Wellington, New Zealand. She even has this poem about having a hot mom and I’m like, “I have a hot mom!” Do you ever read a book of poems and every time you finish a poem you think, I wish I wrote that? She’s brilliant. Also to plug NZ poetry, Hone Tuwhare’s “Rain” is that poem I come back to over and over and over again and it is always perfect. You will feel the same if you read it, I am certain.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I did this life-changing course on journalism and literature in my first year of university. We read creative nonfiction works by authors like Truman Capote and Joan Didion and studied song lyrics written by the Beatles. I loved it so much that I dropped out of my law degree to pursue the arts. One of the required texts was The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I fell behind so I didn’t get to finish it, but I still want to, as I like thinking about Wolfe sitting on a NYC train or a park bench observing people around him and taking notes for the novel.
Also the books that people I love have recommended to me: Beloved by Toni Morrison, When I Was Old by Georges Simenon, The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
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 only have one way of reading and that is close-reading and I do it at my only pace which is painfully slowly. I like physical books and I like to do sacrilegious things to them like dog-ear the corners and underline things.
At a Brooklyn Poets reading recently, I think one of the poets dropped the term “completionist” for the way they read? As in cover-to-cover (and then maybe hit the author’s Wikipedia / Twitter afterwards). That’s me. I prefer physical books and I read in a flurry when I get an excitement for a certain text, and then go long periods where I am only reading singular poems in journals and news articles. Those are dark days.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m still really finding my voice. I would like to try more restrictive forms and rhyming forms that constrict me, so I don’t feel I am just splashing consciousness on a page sometimes.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On public transport. Once you board, your time is completely in the hands of the driver. All you can do is sit there until you reach your destination. I enjoy having as much personal choice stripped away as possible so that you can just be in the moment. Plus, you can listen and watch. I love hearing other people’s conversations and observing the way they talk and move and interact, especially in Brooklyn.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Fort Greene Park in the summer. I love how it is hilly, and you can sit on the edge of a rise under a tree and look over picnickers and flocks of sparrows and kids speeding round the bends with their bums on skateboards. Plus there is a public bathroom there. Also the Ridgewood Reservoir at Highland Park. It feels like you’ve stumbled on an oasis. In summer the path around it is full of wildflowers and butterflies. In fall and winter you get this moody swamp vibe, which is also lovely.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate all the little losses,
And what I give up, you lovingly repair,
For every sacrifice I make makes me as good as new with you.
The people, the history, the community, the endless discovery. And because you can be yourself here.