December 28, 2020–January 3, 2021
Joanne Mosuela was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Virginia. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Area Program in Poetry Writing and studied computer science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As a software engineer, she has worked in big data and led programs for Girls Who Code NYC, whose mission is to close the gender gap in tech. Her poetry is forthcoming in the inaugural issue of HERE. She is the runner-up for the 2020 Yawp Poem of the Year award from Brooklyn Poets for the poem below.
Do You Actually Taste Sweetness in Your Dream Like You Do in Your Mouth
The joy you get from lunch is totally disproportionate to how easy it is
to sit down and crack a boiled egg. Query: For someone who codes
for a living, why does it feel like your body is what’s on the line?
You exercise breathing in a square: 4 in—4 hold—4 slow out—4 hold.
Who will you be today, the office phantom or the outlaw? Nothing here is
ambiguously defined. This morning you debugged the error exit point
placed but not yet bound. Function missing an argument. You roll back
a messy construct. Brace the irregular data we leave behind. Your idea
of heaven is a glossary. As a poet you also spend time like this,
buzzing in the weeds. The machine’s initial allure stuck and you stayed.
You like being underestimated as a single-hyphenate. When you’re
ahead of the game, you can’t let the game know it. Query: Will this
white blazer survive the 12 o’clock potluck? The catered spread
from Pret A Manger is aggressively green. From where you are in FiDi,
you can walk to six different Prets. Given the choice, you want what’s hot.
What’s sweet. Turns out Pret’s brownie is the best in this gourmet city,
the gooiest of your life. At 1 inch by 1 inch, the brownie instructs you
one bite is enough. It’s early afternoon. You’re spoken to but not
necessarily reached. You’re defrosting. Instead of laughing you respond
to a joke by saying True! In an experiment that backfires, you ask Dan
how his day is going and it isn’t small it’s wonderful. You have an answer
for why New York. The move to New York literally happened, and then
New York happened in your heart. Query: Where to go from here,
missing right parentheses? You’ve seen more digital trees than real ones.
But if not New York, another wicked perfect city. Query: Is code
just another language, the lazy parallel you drew for your friend Sarah
who is brilliant and warned you about a split mind. Really, it’s all bugs.
By cute term bug they mean failure, an awkward mouthful. Under
your name, three failures are open in the backlog. It’s honest labor but
who it is that completes it feels like an outrageous act. From that first rush
of pleasure on, you followed the delight of doing something people value,
code never wasting words. Lunch hour is almost over. You are porous.
If you start thinking about what grapefruit LaCroix tastes like as you drink,
you’ll stop drinking. The office kitchen smells of mustard which sounds
like that word for pull it together, words your core power. The same room
overlooks St. Paul’s Chapel, cramped tombstones below. You remember
hearing Manhattan’s cemeteries were exhausted, the 19th-century body
problem—bodies exhumed, bodies stacked, bodies loathed. You’ve waved
a forkful of salad over a keyboard that unlocks hundreds of terabytes
of user data. You don’t know their names either. Query: Can you fulfill the
archetype but still feel fraudulent? Any day now you’ll get the feedback
you want. You second-guess the entry-level professional who dared you
to make money in the first place. She says you are a sweetheart who
grew up to become the man you wanted to marry. Can we time out for
a minute? Ever the tinkerer. She says how rude it is to change your mind.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It started with a boiled egg, one of the bland, efficient snacks I bring to work in order to perform. Anything I find ridiculous sticks with me the most. In the absence of utensils, there’s no unfunny way to eat a boiled egg. That initial laugh to myself brought language to the page although in later drafts the egg imagery all but disappears. An alternative title to this work-lunch poem could be “A Poem Ending with a Line by Gloria Steinem.” Steinem’s quote is as follows: “Women are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” You know in life when you’re performing a new identity, and you say it every chance you get until you believe it? I wanted to enter a poem with a capable speaker—in the case of this poem, a female software developer—who’s teetering on impostor syndrome. She’s out here chasing a dream, checking the boxes, but is she absolutely certain? Is anyone?
What are you working on right now?
Writing a poem is a dear practice to me, but right now it resembles sending a postcard from Hell. Recently I found solace in what Carl Phillips said about another disaster: “Every poem after 9/11 is a 9/11 poem.” Poets are living in the psychological space of the pandemic. My eyes and ears are open but I’m not trying to do anything forced or special. On a different note—I’m new to publication as part of my writing process. Confidence is an ongoing project. At the conclusion of a recent workshop, José Olivarez generously broke down submissions for us: the tight five, the minimal cover letter template, steeling yourself to face hundreds of rejections. His transparency dissolved most of my fear. On the days when rejection stings, I think of Chelsey Minnis’s sympathetic poem “Anti-Vitae” in Bad Bad and feel better.
What’s a good day for you?
The other day I read about “soft fascinations”—a restorative meeting with the natural world versus the “hard focus” of facing city life and our screens indoors. A good day here in Virginia is a day spent in the woods, hours on the trail, maybe towards an overlook, keeping an eye out for shy mushrooms along the way. If this interview starts sounding melancholy, it’s because my partner and I moved from Park Slope to the DC metro area this past September. My mushroom ID skills are weak for now, but I’m optimistic. I work up to things.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My Brooklyn angel, a childhood friend already living in the borough, got word I was moving to NYC for work. It was her idea to live together, along with a California friend and his big dog who were NYC-bound too. We began cross-country scheming about where to live. I lived in Charlotte, NC, at the time, finishing up my second degree, and looking forward to moving north. Bushwick makes a daunting first impression with its elevated J/M/Z rail line running overhead, the disused subway’s graffitied skeleton hovering above too. There are dimly-lit corners, the hyper-lit like twenty-four-hour Mr. Kiwi’s on Myrtle, the troubling juxtaposition of luxury high-rises. There are urine-soaked walls whose exact locations I would somehow memorize—it’s not a handsome, or subtle, place. One day I dodged a whole birthday sheet cake face-down on the sidewalk. I thought about that sheet cake all day. There are the pink magnolias in the spring, Maria Hernandez Park, the busy salons, churches, the artists, my neighbors. I loved Bushwick immediately. Later I would live in Boerum Hill and Park Slope, smitten with them too for different reasons. At the time of this interview, Brooklyn is under a foot of snow. I miss Brooklyn in winter. It’s humbling. You open your door, and the city imparts there’s more going on besides you and your life.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
A poetry community is at the beginning, the middle and the end of a poem. In my first Brooklyn Poets workshop, Shira Erlichman pointed out my poem’s “syntax fuckery.” From then on, it was Brooklyn Poets 4EVER. Like all my best poetry communities, the workshop saw me for who I am, and saw the someone I was striving to be. I could say the same for Jay Deshpande’s and Grace Shuyi Liew’s workshops, for Jason Koo’s monthly open mics. Shira’s workshop was years ago, but that warm room meant a lot to me. Fellow classmate alex cuff just released an awesome chapbook with Ghost Proposal. Following each other through time, welcoming whatever poetry or non-poetry arrives, that’s part of a poetry community too. It’s looked different over the years: in undergrad, it was my program cohort, it was my lit mag staff, it was goofing off in impromptu living-room book clubs. In post-grad, it was DC open mics. In Charlotte, not writing much, I finagled my way into a workshop anticipating that I’d want to be surrounded by poets when the 2016 election was called. Even my poetry community’s smallest gestures of encouragement keep me going.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
My poetry origin story goes something like this: watched Beau Sia perform on Def Poetry, fell in love. That’s the whole story. I was a teenager. In the Virginia suburbs! On YouTube! I bring this up only to say that when I think of poets in Brooklyn, I think of their live poems. At any Brooklyn Poets event upstairs at 61 Local, poets congregate from all over the borough—too many to name have made a mark on me. The poems are serious, and the night is raucous. When Angel Nafis hosts the Greenlight Poetry Salon, early is too late, it’s standing-room only. When I saw Ocean Vuong read at Books Are Magic, the crowd overflowed to the street curb, his mic audio piped to the audience through an outdoor speaker. There’s Berl’s in DUMBO. There’s Franklin Electric in Crown Heights. Of course these spaces are at a standstill for now, and that makes me sad. This pandemic summer, Brooklyn poet Aracelis Girmay began a Zoom reading by saying she was “sending courage to add to your courage, love to add to your love”—they give me the guts, that’s what Brooklyn poets do.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Lisa Russ Spaar, who guided me through my undergraduate poetry manuscript, lights up the poetry community in Charlottesville. Her Poetics of Ecstasy class is legendary. Her Bryan Hall office is one of my favorite places on Earth. Many years after graduation, we reunited in Crown Heights at her reading—she quoted a conversation we had on one of the worst days of my life. I hadn’t remembered, and hearing it brightened my impression of that era. I was reminded of the clarity and wisdom she has given to me and countless students. Jason Labbe, my Introduction to Poetry teacher, was my first example of a working poet. He modelled the rigor but also the sense of humor it requires. His multimedia syllabus has stayed with me. My love of Ashbery and the New York School poets isn’t random. The life of a poet is an enchanting possibility to consider at nineteen years old. Jason told me that what I was writing were poems. I still hang onto his every word on the page and in life. I’m lucky to have had the friendship of Marvin Campbell, another teacher and early mentor, in Charlottesville and later New York City. Maybe it was over dinner at Tito Rad’s or Villa Brazil Café Grill in Queens, but Marvin wouldn’t let me, a lapsed poet, off the hook. He’d sneak in a “ … but are you writing though?” Poet Sara Yenke will reject the title of mentor, but it’s the truth. We met in my first few days at UVA—I admired this creative misfit, and a fellow Northern Virginia native to boot. We bonded instantly over a shared love of literary magazines. In the gnarly, windowless basement of the student center, we created beautiful publications together. Sara would introduce me to Lisa. Because of her, I celebrate the web of a poetry community.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
It’s almost my birthday! In that spirit, here are some books of poetry that have made me punch the air, gasp to myself, the ones where voice is doing the driving. The reread characterizes a lot of my reading in the pandemic. Most of these are new to me, with one old favorite:
—When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
—Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay
—Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics, ed. Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg
—Deluge by Leila Chatti
—My Life by Lyn Hejinian
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Pretty much everything by Bernadette Mayer, Wisława Szymborska, J. G. Ballard and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Stiff by Mary Roach, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison.
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?
Reading is everything. Cue Strummer’s Law! Poetry is my jam but I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction and memoir lately. As I write I’ve been known to stack, like, ten books that share a tone, form or subject I’m targeting in my own work. I keep them close as talismans. Even reading the above poem back, I suspect that the character and attitudes of the following books on my bedside table at the time made their way into the poem: Fast by Jorie Graham, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, Life in Code by Ellen Ullman and Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Counterintuitive maybe, but I have a lot of fun and feel pretty rebellious writing in a fixed form or procedural game. I want to write a zuihitsu, a Japanese form that isn’t fussy at all. Khadijah Queen, Tina Chang, Jenny Xie and Kimiko Hahn have all written in the form. With a gorgeous collage central to her book Hybrida, Tina Chang describes zuihitsu as “an Eastern, female form and its freedom lies in fragmentation and even welcomed chaos.” Doesn’t that sound incredible?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Shout out to the Brooklyn laundromats that I have definitely read in, sometimes written in, and occasionally had takeout delivered to so that I could continue to abuse their space: Clean City Laundry on Bushwick Ave, Dirt Busters Laundry on Atlantic Ave, Cobble Hill Cleaners on Court St and Brooklyn Sudz on Hoyt St.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
We sneered at the crowds flooding Prospect Park in the first week of NYC’s lockdown, but maybe the dummies were prescient. The park has become a lifeline. Early on I was delighted by a woman playing with her cat in the grass, the coziest thing, as if the park was her living room. Now everything is public. I liked to walk for long stretches: Myrtle Ave through Bushwick, Smith St through Carroll Gardens, Union St through Gowanus, 5th Ave through Park Slope. One of my favorite three-acts on a weekend: Books Are Magic + fried panzerotto, extra sauce at Panzerotti Bites + Carroll Park. Another one: Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 2 kayaking + Vegitalian w/ celery soda at Court Street Grocers + Green-Wood Cemetery where writer Allison Meier hosts the best night tours. Clark’s at Christmastime. Ugly Baby at peak dinner hour. Bar seating at Henry Public. Evening by the Gowanus Canal.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate soft fascinations,
And what I dread about the wild’s chance operations you love as the sibling to calm,
For every ripple of micromovement in me as good as yours, buoyant shimmer at the root of you.
Because I loved Brooklyn, I went home and loved home just as dearly.