September 4–10, 2023
Joanna Solfrian’s first book, Visible Heavens, was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye for the 2009 Wick Prize, a national first-book award. Her second collection, The Mud Room, was published by MadHat Press, followed by the chapbook The Second Perfect Number, published by Finishing Line Press. Beltway Editions will publish her next full-length collection, Temporary Beast, in early 2024. Her poems have appeared in journals such as the Harvard Review, Boulevard, Margie, the Southern Review, Salamander, Pleiades and Image, as well as in the internationally-touring art exhibit Speak Peace: American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings. She is a MacDowell Fellow and a five-time Pushcart nominee. On Monday, September 11, Solfrian will lead the Brooklyn Poets Yawp.
You scooped up handfuls of your mother one Easter Sunday. You stood on a cold beach and tossed. The wind blew her back onto your body, into the seams of your shoes (igniting, you did not know at the time, a decade-long crisis re: what to do with them). Thinking she was food, the gulls came.
1.9 decades later you find yourself scooping up handfuls of your father on a chartered lobster boat. The sun presides over all, blankly, blessings and whatnot coming out of its mouth. Scattering is illegal, so the captain maneuvers out of sight from land, behind the lighthouse, and cuts the engine. Take that, shithead gulls! Your children are delighted by the allowable littering of roses. Your father is cold. There’s a bit of bone.
A friend had sent a note: that night at your reading I felt your mother’s presence and she clearly told me to tell you she’s proud. You’d had a glass of wine afterward. I know that sounds weird.
Love for them has made your heart permanent. It dashes itself against the cliffs, gray and vertically veined with mica. The earth is stuck in a tectonic shrug: these things happen. You don’t begrudge the captain, who needs to cover his ass: he shows the children a lobster, explains how the feathers on the underside indicate that it’s female. Huh. Lobsters can swim up to thirty miles per hour, which is fast, but you would like to point out not as fast as the suits who zip up the dead.
Later, you return home to the city and watch the glue fall off the stars. There’s a man on the subway whose face you want to touch.
—Originally published in Iterant, February 2023.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was in a mood and near a pen. That’s the short answer! The longer answer is that I’d been trying to write the poem for a while, and bits and pieces of it had appeared elsewhere, in vastly different poems. Sometimes lines do that—they like to couch-surf before moving in. (Readers probably know that “stanza” is Italian for “room.”) It wasn’t until I landed on the second-person prose-poem form that things clicked. Sometimes form is the great unlocker: it permits the chaos of feeling.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finalizing the manuscript for my next full-length collection, called Temporary Beast, which is coming out in early 2024 from the wonderful Beltway Editions. (As I’ve been studying Buddhism for a few years now, the book is a meditation on impermanence.) “Finalizing,” to me, is as much meditation as anything else—I need to get quiet to feel that, say, the decision to pull something is pure. (Meaning, not polluted by ego.)
What’s a good day for you?
A day that balances head, heart and body. Head could be figuring out how to use a sewing machine or helping my kid with a math problem, heart could be going on a walk with my spouse or cuddling with my kids, body could be going for a quick jog. Obviously, these categories Venn-diagram overlap, but the point is to avoid spending my day looking at screens, which ruins the quality of my suffering.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Jobs and friends! I don’t even want to tell you what the rent was in 1998.
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?
After peak COVID, we found ourselves having to move quickly, and we ended up in Downtown Brooklyn. We’ll move back to a place we’re more familiar with soon, likely something around Boerum Hill or Prospect Heights. I love nearly all Brooklyn neighborhoods—there’s so much to learn about their history and settler patterns—and I love knowing the name of my deli guy and the kids who live downstairs and the dog next door. But having lived here since 1998 (minus a five-year stint in rural CT, where I was raised), of course I’ve seen the Italian fruit stands turn into Starbucks and the local coffeeshops turn into eighteen-dollar-cocktail bars. I am a reluctant capitalist with religion-induced guilt. What that means is I’ll occasionally order an eighteen-dollar cocktail, but I won’t enjoy it.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I recently had Achilles surgery and in recovery progressed from a knee scooter to crutches to a CAM boot. I could not locomote down the street without someone giving me a fist bump or yelling something like, “All right! You’re doing it!” Complete strangers are often my favorite people. A conversation with a stranger turns a city into a small town. I sat next to a man on the F train once who saw I was reading A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone), and he asked to see the table of contents. As a Bangladeshi man, he said, he knew that an important poet was missing: Sufia Kamal. He took my pen and wrote her name into the table of contents. Now I’ve been able to read up on her. That’s amazing!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, community is something that has several layers of components from the superficial to the deep. One of the things that’s weird about sharing poems—which I do with several poet-friends—is that you learn all sorts of intimate things (who has just buried a mother, who is missing an old love, who is struggling with their surgical side-effects) before you necessarily know how they take their coffee. I had coffee with a poet-friend a few weeks ago to learn how she takes her coffee. Of course I wanted to learn other things, too, but I’d been missing those foundational details, which are important for the sake of community. You never know when you’ll have to show up to a friend’s parent’s funeral—they’re going to need coffee in that receiving line.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
D. Nurkse, twenty-four seven. I love how he exalts tenderness. I am in a poem-a-day group with (among fantastic others) Nicole Callihan, whose barbed humor and crackling brain always inspires. Many wonderful Brooklyn poets have been generous with some of the more tedious aspects of poetry, like hooking up readings: Terence Degnan, Tim and Deedle Tomlinson, Gerald Wagoner, Arden Levine and Brooklyn Poets’ own Jason Koo.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In the Stonecoast MFA program, a low-residency program where students are paired with mentors, I was lucky enough to get the right people at the right time. Dzvinia Orlowsky was my first mentor, and, as most of my poems were calves tottering on wobbly legs splaying into shit, whoever had me that semester could have destroyed me with a single word. Such a thing would never have occurred to her, as she is Corinthian in her patience and kindness. I take care to follow the same lesson when I teach. Then I had Dennis Nurkse for two semesters. We’d meet in the Fall Café (now defunct) on Smith St, and he would share all the things my poems made him think and feel. I came to realize this was a gentle way of showing me potential routes for revision. The last semester I worked with Baron Wormser, who is basically a Buddhist encyclopedia—part rapture, part data. He helped me finalize my thesis, much of which ended up in my first book, Visible Heavens, which Naomi Shihab Nye selected for a Wick First Book Prize. I love all these people and am still in touch with them, almost twenty years later.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I most often read older work—this morning I was rereading Whitman’s “Sparkles from the Wheel” and thinking about his idea of “effusing” (“Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d and arrested”). Whitman self-effaces, or “effuses,” into the experience of the knife-grinder, and “devise[s] new language … from that fusion,” says Helen Vendler. Since no one will ever quote me and Whitman in the same paragraph, I will to my amusement take that opportunity here: “The gutter-drop is happiest when it joins the river.” From dissolving comes expansion, which is also what happens on the best reading days.
A more recent poem that floored me is Diane Seuss’s “[From this bench I like to call my bench I sit]” from frank: sonnets. That poem is like if you made an infinity symbol out of a Möbius strip and then stabbed yourself with it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
For fiction, Proust. Three of his books take up a good foot on my bookshelf, and they taunt me. As for poems, if I mean to read them, I generally do—poems are short! The heart is an embarrassment to the chest if it’s not on fire, says Ghalib, and poems are an efficient way to prevent an embarrassed heart. As long as I’m reading something I love (or am at least learning from), the unread poetry books don’t taunt. No sense in “barking even more madly / at the absence of the scarecrow,” to borrow from Denver Butson.
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?
Multiple volumes at a time: typically one nonfiction, one poetry collection, one fiction and one Thich Nhat Hanh. (Right now, it’s Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Lucille Clifton’s Good Times, E. L. Doctorow’s The March and Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.) When it’s time to pick another book, I stand in front of the shelves for a while and wait for something to leap out. Then I read a couple pages. Usually it sticks in my hands, and if it doesn’t, I just put it back and wait again. I read what I’m interested in—I learned this from Lydia Davis—and that might mean I read bits and pieces of several books in a given day, with “interest” being the guiding principle.
That said, I have a completely different process for plane/train trips. I love Edwidge Danticat’s method of picking a topic per trip and reading thoroughly on it. I might, for example, pick wildflowers, and take a foraging guidebook and some John Haines or Zoë Ryder White poems with me. Did you know you can eat Queen Anne’s lace?
Always physical books and always a note-taker! I take short notes in the margins, longer notes in a Moleskine and student-style notes—for lack of a better term, because it’s all studying—in a commonplace book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I am curious to apply retinal innocence to an object for an entire chapbook, with effusion being the goal. For example, what would happen if I decided (intellectually) to write a chapbook on, say, park benches? In what ways would the intellect yield and dissolve and expand into something else?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I try to read first thing in the morning before checking the news and texts/emails. I have a little nook where I sit with my coffee (splash of milk, btw) and my cat. I also read before bed, which is my favorite time of day—I re-feel the day’s good moments and stow them away in my cells.
I actually don’t like to write at home unless the apartment is empty. Even then, responsibility stares me down—I see dishes in the sink, medical bills on my desk, the kids’ school forms in the living room. In the bathroom, defying mathematics, somehow there’s only ever one roll of toilet paper. So, I prefer to write in coffeeshops or on the subway.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Bridge all day, especially after reading David McCullough’s The Great Bridge. You know those twin cables, the ones that are close together, that go up the middle of the bridge to the American flag at the top? There used to be PLANKS across them, and you could walk up! I can barely think about this without my bowels loosening. (When I walk/jog over the bridge, I keep my eyes mostly on the water.) I also love Yuji Agematsu’s tiny sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum: he takes bits of litter from daily walks and places them in cigarette-box wrappers. I love watching the elder gents play dominoes on the corner of Pacific and Smith. And of course, one of my favorite meals is a dozen raw clams and two Red Stripes in Coney Island.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my feet, their seeking velocity,
And what I know from their scars you know from your scars,
For every sidewalk that enters me as good enters you.
The people. And the Nets.