Poet Of The Week

Joe Elliot

     February 25–March 3, 2019

Joe Elliot is the author of the poetry collections Idea for a B-Movie (Free Scholar Press, 2016), Homework (Lunar Chandelier, 2010) and Opposable Thumb (subpress, 2006), as well as numerous chapbooks including You Gotta Go In It’s the Big Game, Poems to be Centered on Much Much Larger Sheets of Paper and Half Gross, a collaboration with the artist John Koos. His long poem 101 Designs for the World Trade Center was published by Faux Press as an e-book in 2003. Elliot coedited two chapbook series—A Musty Bone and Situations—and ran a weekly reading series at Biblios Bookstore in Manhattan. For many years, he made a living as a letterpress printer. He now teaches English at Edward R. Murrow High School and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Anne Noonan, and their three sons.


I always leave the front door unlocked
and the kitchen light on. I make sure
the Mr. Coffee’s set up, and put a plate
of oatmeal cookies out on the counter,
and leave a note: “Help yourself. There’s
cream in the fridge and a sugar bowl
next to the stove. Anne’s mom’s silver
is on the top shelf above the sink.
We hardly use it. The home computer
is sleeping in the office off the hall upstairs,
and our password, a scramble of names
and birthdays, is scribbled on a post-it
affixed to the window sill. My laptop’s charging
on the kitchen table. The flat screen TV,
of course, is hanging in the living room,
the dark open area you just walked through
to get to the kitchen. My wallet and anything
I found in my pockets today is in a tray
on top of my bureau in the bedroom
at the top of the stairs. Anne’s jewelry box
is on hers. If it makes you feel more comfortable
you can go back outside and use the ladder
I left leaning against the eaves in the back.
From there, you can get in the open window
quite easily, but before you enter may I suggest
you pause and turn and have a look
at the night sky floating above the willow’s
silhouette. Tonight should be a full moon, too!
Or perhaps you’d prefer the alleyway
where a crowbar rests against a half window
to the basement. It is quiet there,
and dark, and you can work in peace,
and the sound of clattering glass
in the middle of the night is a pleasure
difficult to frown on. I do not hide cash
or valuables under mattresses or bury them
in the back of closets, although you’re welcome
to turn them over or dig through them
to your heart’s content. My passport
is in the top drawer of my desk. The car keys
are hanging on a hook by the front door.
If you are confused by the location of anything,
or if you feel the need to ask any questions,
or, above all, if you find yourself at any time feeling
uncomfortable or scared or ashamed or bad
in any way, please feel free to nudge me gently
on the arm and wake me up to talk about it.
You don’t want to carry that stuff around.”

—From Idea for a B-Movie, Free Scholar Press, 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem is a response to the fascist “homeland security” fear/mania. I was raised Catholic, and we were taught that we are not supposed to build walls to keep out our enemies, but to “turn the other cheek,” meet aggression with vulnerability and generosity. We’re not supposed to freak out about safety, but have the courage to be vulnerable. So, the fact that my wife Anne hates to lock or close doors even, and that we were living with three teenage boys who never locked or closed or put away anything, led me to turn this frustration into a positive. Maybe this is the right way to live. After all, Jesus said so …

What are you working on right now?

Right right now I’m working on a poem that starts with a phrase I overheard from my middle son, George: “If you’re weird enough to want to be President … ” We were talking about Trump and stupid non-policies about the environment. So now I have about twelve “if” statements but they don’t have a “then” yet, and also a lot of the statements are a little obvious. So I have to wait until I find something else to combine it with or until I have some insight or desire to finish it.

I am also working on “poem responses” to 5, the new book by my friend Mitch Highfill. I recently listened to an interesting On Being interview with Maira Kalman, the children’s book author and artist, who talked about how, when she is in the groove, the world feels like it is “enchanted” again, and how then anything, any stray object or piece of language or chance encounter, can feel luminous. (Why do and how can we get so used to the world being unenchanted?) Then George, coincidentally, brought a book home by Morris Berman called The Reenchantment of the World and was reading passages to me. It’s very Emerson. So, when I run across a phrase I find “enchanted/ing,” I put it in my notebook and then try to see later what there is in it that could be or wants to be developed. I have about seven so far.

What’s a good day for you?

It could be either my habitual day: make coffee, breakfast, lunch. Do dishes. Pray and meditate. Write a little. Ride bike to work. Listen to kids. Ride home. Walk dogs in park with Anne. Make dinner. Clean up. Look at emails. Work a little. Fall asleep reading in bed. Or it could be something new, traveling or meeting someone new. The ocean is always good. Playing tennis is always good. Going to a museum or a poetry reading is always good. Answering this question, I realize how conventional I am.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

When I was twenty-three, my friends went on their honeymoon for a few weeks and asked me to house-sit. So I moved down from Albany to Washington Heights. Then I got a backstage gig at Theater for the New City, so I thought I’d stay in NYC. Then a friend, Laurie, introduced me to her friend, Karl, who had a spare room in his painting studio in Greenpoint. That was 1984. So I’ve been in New York for almost thirty-five years, twenty-four of them in Brooklyn.

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?

We’ve lived in Windsor Terrace for seventeen years. I love being close to the park, being on a hill and so seeing more of the sky, having a little backyard and garden, living on a dead-end street. It’s been great for our kids, since we are only a block from where they went to gradeschool, and they got to know the community pretty well, and they’ve had the freedom to play on the street and in the park. We moved here after living on Broadway in the Village for eight years. The first month, I couldn’t sleep because it was so quiet!

When we first moved here, prices were just going up and the neighborhood was still solidly Irish working class and civil servants. For instance, there was still the traditional attrition at the local public school, because families were still moving their kids in the fourth grade to the local Catholic school to make sure they got a spot for middle school. That’s all over now. The Catholic school almost closed, and a lot of the students there are from outside the neighborhood. Farrell’s is no longer the heart of the neighborhood!

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

One of my first jobs in NYC was as a file clerk for an adult home for schizophrenics in Coney Island. I started in January. I’d get off on Stillwell and walk twenty blocks on Surf Ave west, almost to Seagate. It was a minimum-wage job through a temp agency and that meant my take-home after taxes was just under $100/week. Most of the neighborhood was burned out. And the facility was so sad and understaffed that they’d hired me to come in and “fix” the files on clients for an impending audit. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the boardwalk every day. This was my first experience of Coney Island! It was both terrifying and wonderful.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I didn’t really start writing until I was twenty-five. It was too scary and solitary an adventure. When I started to go to open mics in Manhattan with Anne, we found a friendly and active group of poets, and we started to publish them. We had a letterpress in our house. Anne had studied Black Mountain and New York School poetries and was ahead of me, and her associations in the book arts also led me to more poetry connections, bookstores, and doors opening. I started going to readings at the Poetry Project and at the Ear Inn, where the Language Poetry crowd hung out. Soon after that, I had the opportunity to start a reading series in Manhattan, which is still happening many years later, and that also brought me into contact with many poets. This is all to say that poetry for me has always been about meeting people and hearing them read and becoming friends with them on some level. It has always been a face-to-face thing.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Todd Colby, Joanna Fuhrman, Mitch Highfill and Sharon Mesmer. Each of them have super strong qualities as writers, qualities that I admire and for a long time secretly envied. The fact that they have treated me as their peer and friend made/makes me feel encouraged. Another friend, Douglas Rothschild, who used to live in Brooklyn and with whom I run the reading series, taught me to be what he calls “a 24/7 poet,” meaning that it is a more-than-full-time job and that you are responsible for practicing this job all the time, even when you are not actually at your desk. And, of course, Walt Whitman.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My main mentor is William Carlos Williams. I read everything he wrote in my mid-twenties and he gave me permission to write. Ann Lauterbach was my teacher at City College, where I went for my MFA. She taught me how to track nontraditional poetries, and pointed me towards practices that my “squarish” nature resisted but I needed. She also took me more seriously than I took myself. This was very instructive.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling. I love all her work. In this novel, the older suppressed culture engages in a heterogeneous and decentered spiritual practice whose main feature is storytelling. Oral storytelling. Every night. Local gatherings. This benign and human-sized practice is highly threatening to the “enlightened” corporate state. I guess I liked it for two reasons, at least. One, the narrator can’t figure out what this “Telling” is, what it adds up to, where it begins and ends, what it means. It means many things. This feels a lot like practicing poetry. You are just doing it, you are in the middle of it. You don’t know what it is going to add up to, if anything. Two, the characters lived like poets, but they weren’t called poets.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve never read Olson’s The Maximus Poems or any of Jane Harrison’s works on mythology and Ancient Greece. This is a real deficit. I want to read more Bernadette Mayer. I think she’s funny and liberating and knows what she’s doing, the relationship between her living and her writing.

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 teach high-school English, and this extreme fact determines my reading life. During the schoolyear, every night I am reading or rereading what I’ll be teaching the next day. I’ll be reading for something I can surprise or amaze them with. The reading has to get you excited so you can go in the next day and communicate excitement. Thus, for ten months I am squeezing in new books one poem at a time, power-reading through winter and spring breaks, and making stacks of books I plow through in the summer. I like to get hooked on one author at a time, or to have two different kinds of books going at the same time: a book of essays and a book of poetry, say. I do take notes, because it’s more stuff to put in my journal, and that’s more stuff later to write with.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to try to incorporate more research into my writing. I’d like to write a novel about my mother’s childhood.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I read and write on the subway, on buses, in my office, in my classes with my students, while proctoring exams (it’s so boring and quiet!), in diners, at the park. I write in notebooks or on napkins and receipts when I have to. For a while I talked into a recorder while I walked, but that seemed a little pretentious. But then, I am a poet.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

This one would be better answered by our sons, who are now all in college. They just spent their teenage years avoiding coming home, roaming all over the place, Greenwood, the Park, climbing up the side of the Pavilion (now the Nitehawk), swimming in the lake, working at the Red Hook farm, going to parties in abandoned buildings in Sunset Park, hanging out at the Bartel-Pritchard traffic circle, walking anywhere side by side in a pack yapping. Last spring was my last season of seventeen years of continuous youth-soccer coaching and sideline cheering as a dad. I love the Parade Grounds and SC Gjøa’s home field in Dyker Beach, but really all the fields out there next to highways, abutting power plants and cemeteries and slaughterhouses and abandoned industrial plants and salt marshes, fields on the tops of piers and underneath bridges and alongside rivers. I saw the sun come up and go down in these places and spent wonderful hours with my children there.

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.

Bridge: 1969

It must’ve been a terrible blow to my father
to have fathered a son who was a draft dodger
and so he kicked my big

brother, not out of love
for us, or even for himself, out of the house. Yes, it must’ve been
             a terrible sin
to rob

your country of your body and blood,
             the ink and pen
with which they might write their thoughts,
             synapses jacked
crossed, engine turns, car creeps over paper
             into Brooklyn.

Why Brooklyn?

The United States is a nation of immigrants, either recent and or not so recent, and Brooklyn is the borough of immigrants, absorbing wave after wave for the last two hundred years. Something like fifteen percent of Americans have come through Brooklyn, one way or another. Here, in Brooklyn, we develop positive attitudes toward diversity that could be instructive for other parts of the country. There are no walls in Brooklyn.