November 4–10, 2019
Jon Sands is a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, selected for his second book, It’s Not Magic (Beacon Press, 2019). He is the author of The New Clean (Write Bloody, 2011), co-host of the Poetry Gods podcast and a curator for SupaDupaFresh, a monthly reading series at Ode to Babel in Brooklyn. His work has been featured in the New York Times as well as anthologized in the Best American Poetry series. He teaches at Brooklyn College and Urban Word NYC, and facilitates a weekly writing workshop for adults at Bailey House, an HIV/AIDS service center in East Harlem. He tours extensively as a poet, but lives in Brooklyn.
Author photo by Jonathan Weiskopf
When I See André 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joe’s
I say, Everything you’ve ever done
has meant so much to me.
He says, I’ve done PCP.
I say, That meant so much to me.
He says, I’ve lost my keys
and took it out on a waitress.
I forgot to brush my teeth on Tuesday
and I do commercials for Gillette razors now.
I say, I saw that commercial. So much to me.
He is enjoying himself.
How about you, Tex? he says. And I can’t
believe no one has ever called me Tex before!
I say, Okay.
I’ve been wearing the same undershirt
for a week-and-a-half.
I pose for every photograph.
I masturbated this morning
picturing a woman I made out with two years ago.
I am preachy and self-important
when I talk about race with my family.
Sometimes when I’m not listening
I make my face look like it’s SUPER listening,
and I might be incapable of romantic love.
He says, Did you hear my song
about being incapable of romantic love?
I say, It meant everything to me.
He says, This isn’t working.
I say, Wait! I write poems? Would that help?
He says, I’m scared if you read one
it might suck. I’m not ready to risk
having to say something.
We are walking now.
I say, Say something
only André 3000 would say.
He says, I’m lonely.
I say, Oh my God.
That was so brave.
—From It’s Not Magic, Beacon Press, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was doing a reading in LA a few years ago. The org I was working with sent a woman to pick me up at LAX, and we were headed straight to the event, which was to be on the pool deck of the Standard Hotel. It didn’t start for a few hours, though, and I was wearing these smudged and faded sneakers with little splotches of Brooklyn sidewalk gunk along the sides. I asked if it was possible to buy some sneakers on the way. She took me to this classically LA boutique shop, and right when we walked in, none other than Jeff Goldblum was standing before us, trying on some shoes in the mirror. She audibly gasped and grabbed my arm while I tried to play it cool. When we left, we had a conversation about which celebrities, if you saw them in public, would leave you speechless, and my list was pretty much André 3000 and Fiona Apple.
Two weeks later, I was back in Brooklyn, and she sent me a text that said, “Guess who I just ran into at Trader Joe’s?” And there was a picture of André 3000 in front of her in the checkout line in this immaculate all denim outfit, buying only a bunch of bananas. Within an hour, I had the first draft of this poem.
What are you working on right now?
So many of the poems in It’s Not Magic are artifacts of a transformation in my life when I was—at times desperately—trying to shed isolation and court intimacy. It sounds corny, maybe, but I know the process of writing that manuscript created a door that I could walk through. I got married in 2017.
Then something else happened. After we fell in love, as if from nowhere, my fear of death arrived, both mine and my wife’s. I thought more about our safety than I had before. I’m interested in the relationship between love and fear, particularly what the stakes of that fear are. As a straight, white cis man, history shows that my fear itself is dangerous and worthy of skepticism. If my first manuscript was in part about how objectifying yourself can compromise the safety of others, then this one is about how love, unexamined, can do the same thing, especially if you try to make it last forever.
There are systems of oppression that depend on my fear of what’s temporary. I’m thinking about how people who are 85% safe and want to feel, say, 95% safe can have devastating effects on those whose physical safety is more vulnerable. I think of the way that mass incarceration, gentrification, school segregation and the military-industrial complex all depend on my fear as fuel. But the poems I’m working on aren’t explaining much of the logistics here, really there’s a deeper search. I’m coming to grips with the not new, but immutable, fact that all things end: careers, relationships, lives. That when they do, it’s not a betrayal, it’s the ticket we punched to ride this ride. So I guess I’m writing towards some sort of détente with my own mortality, and that of the people I love.
What’s a good day for you?
My newborn son and my wife are really the center around which I circle, and would be at the forefront of any optimal day. We’ve recently taken to filming reenactments of famous movie scenes with our son as the lead. He just killed in A Few Good Men. I’d like to read and write, too, and to play basketball with my friend José. We had a really long pick-up game losing streak to high schoolers at these same courts on 5th Ave and 5th St, but recently, we’ve been kind of dominating. We’re finally stepping into our wisdom on the court.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I lived with my brother in Chelsea for a few years in a rent-controlled apartment that my great-grandparents first rented in 1931. Then my brother got sued for succession rights, and they settled on moving him to a smaller apartment. I moved to East Harlem for a year, but my roommate went to law school, and so in 2010, I moved to Gowanus. Before that, all my commuting time had been spent traveling to see my loved ones in Brooklyn. Once I had it in my head to move here, all other options left the table.
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 live in Flatbush, right near Brooklyn College. My wife and I moved here from Crown Heights in January, so we haven’t been here that long. About a three-minute walk from us, when you cross Foster on 23rd St, the townhouses turn into these single-occupancy mansions that all look like they were built in the early 1900s. And, depending on the block, there are huge sycamore and maple trees that tower over the sidewalks. Just north of us, once you get on Flatbush, are a lot of dollar stores, hardware stores and really great West Indian restaurants. My son snoozes in the front pack carrier we have, so I’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of the neighborhood while the two of us walk around. The homes range from scrupulously upkept to newly renovated to disrepair or abandoned, as Flatbush, like most of Brooklyn, contends with the complicated and vicious effects of gentrification.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I moved here in 2010, it was one of those things where I had to be out of my then-apartment in a week, and I still hadn’t found a place in my price range. I remember almost saying yes to this situation where I was going to move into this woman’s room, and she was gonna move onto her couch. When I came to visit the apartment, I got such a weird vibe, and she wouldn’t let me see the kitchen. It was rough.
Then a Craigslist ad popped up for a spot in Gowanus, a truly incredible deal. And I got the room! I was paying $500 in Gowanus, which was impossible to find. My roommates—a man and a woman, also in their late twenties—and I were all meeting each other for the first time. For a year, we lived cordially and respectfully, sometimes making small talk. They were perfect roommates.
Then, since we were transitioning fully into adulthood, my female roommate and I wanted to spruce up the apartment. We looked for pillows at IKEA, we went to Lowe’s to buy plants, we got rid of our TV and rearranged the living room. She was funny and charming and had recently gone to Dead Horse Bay and brought back all of these old bottles that she cleaned to display in the apartment. You know that moment when you develop feelings for someone? How it creeps up and you lose your breath, it’s like an Instagram filter, it’s like gravity, even though you can’t really say how it starts. I had it bad, and I didn’t know if she felt it too, but thought she might. Our situation was so good, though, that I didn’t want to act impulsively. I was out in Oregon for a week that summer, driving with my friend down the coast. (I remember it as a convertible, but that can’t be right, it must have been a Hyundai or something.) I said it out loud for the first time. I have feelings for my roommate. I decided I would give it a month, and if it didn’t dissolve, I would say something.
After three weeks, my other roommate was having a birthday and invited the two of us out to Williamsburg to a bar/club with him and his friends. We had only known him as shy, but surrounded by all these people who loved him, the right amount of alcohol and a DJ whose song selection was impeccable, he really let loose. The three of us took a shot of tequila together. I don’t remember why, but we were laughing really hard, and then he was dancing by himself in the middle of the bar, and there’s no other way to say it, it was magical. Then my other roommate joined him out there, and it, too, was magical. She stayed for another song, and they started to dance closer, and I love the phrase they had chemistry. It’s so accurate. At that point, my stomach was fully in knots. I said my goodbyes with an ostentatious smile, trying desperately not to know what I already knew.
The details aren’t important, except to say that I was heartbroken, and they were at that giddy, exciting, please-don’t-make-me-name-it-lest-it-disappear stage of their relationship. I left the apartment for two days and stayed with friends. It was impossible to miss. It was tense. I had to tell her how I felt, both to release it from my own chest, but also because I was in self-protection mode, and I needed to make it clear that the distance I was taking wasn’t punitive, that I wanted her to follow her heart.
You’d think I’d move out, but this was a $500 room in Gowanus with roommates who did their dishes and replenished the toilet paper! I stuck it out and within a few months was in a much better spot and was really happy for both of them. I was grateful, too, that the circumstances had forced me to say how I felt. It turns out that, if you wish to grow, saying how you feel is a muscle that has to get stronger, and it’s not contingent on a response, it’s a literal thing in your body that must be released in order to become something else, intimacy or acceptance. That moment was indispensable and set me on a path that has served me well. By the time I met my wife, whom I had stronger feelings for than anyone I’d ever met, who I thought I might die if I didn’t say how I felt to, I was able to express myself (in that same apartment!) with at least some level of cogency.
My two roommates dated for a year, and then broke up, seemingly on good terms, and we all still stayed in that apartment for another two and a half years. I can’t stress enough how good and respectful a situation it all was, how much admiration I have for both of them. But also, I do think it’s a uniquely Brooklyn story in that, if you have a $500 room in Gowanus with compassionate, communicative and respectful roommates, you do everything in your power not to let that go.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I’ve been lucky to find people who love what I love, and to hold them close. I really believe I found my voice, yes through reading vigorously, but also through the orality that my particular slice of this city afforded between 2007 and 2012, specifically the open mic and slam scenes at LouderARTS, Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Café. The benefits of reading first drafts out loud in listening rooms was incalculable. I also met most of my best friends there. By 2017, I felt a deficit of that kind of space and could tell because, when I was booked for readings, all I had to offer was old work. I had all these new poems that I didn’t trust yet. I shared that sentiment one night with Mahogany Browne, Adam Falkner and Jive Poetic, and they had each felt something similar. That was the night we founded SupaDupaFresh (a name Mahogany came up with within seconds), our monthly series/open mic at Ode to Babel, the first Tuesday of each month. As far as the capital-P Poetry community I feel now, it’s about what helps you grow, and that’s where I’ve been finding it.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
It’s too many! It’s too hard! I want to run away from this question! I can’t stop using exclamation points! What writer isn’t out here talking about how their friends are the best poets? They can’t ALL be right, RIGHT? But seriously, Lauren Whitehead, Adam Falkner, Jeanann Verlee, Eboni Hogan, Mahogany L. Browne are all Brooklyn poets, and all have been deeply important to me.
But also, Aracelis Girmay lives like a ten-minute walk from where I’m writing this. Her work, to me, is on the short list of what survives this era of American arts and letters. I think of her like, if aliens were to orbit earth, and then to request a human representative who really knew the infinite depths of humanness to hop in a pod and be an ambassador for us, Ara is who we should send. But she has a family, so honestly, we could just send her three books up there, I think that would suffice.
Also John Murillo lives in Brooklyn! Nicole Sealey! Willie Perdomo (when he’s not in New Hampshire) lives in Prospect Heights! Tina Chang is the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn! Jive Poetic lives here! Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and Elana Bell live in Brooklyn! Samantha Thornhill used to live off the Montrose L stop! Patrick Rosal used to live here before he moved to Philadelphia! If you follow Anis Mojgani on Instagram, you’ll see that he visits here! José Olivarez lives uptown, but that’s why we have trains! I could really keep going.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I loved Jenny Zhang’s short story collection Sour Heart. It’s filled with deeply funny, wildly serious, expertly crafted, insuperably earnest work. There’s a story in it called “The Evolution of My Brother” that, as the youngest of five boys, just wrecked me. It’s all these snapshots that fully encapsulate the difficult sorcery of siblinghood. In it she says:
Maybe we would grow apart, he would develop a personality that I would know nothing about, we would start our families, have children of our own, and there would come a point when in thinking about “family” we would think of the ones we made, not the ones we were from. From that point on, I would refer to him as “your uncle” and he would mostly refer to me as “your aunt” and it would take a long time for our children to even understand that we were siblings first, but more than that, our children, just as we hadn’t, would likely not think much about a time before they were born, a time when he was my brother and I was his sister, and together, we were our parents’ children.
I think about that quote all the time.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I recently read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and it made me wonder why I haven’t read so many of the books I know by title or author only. Sometimes the ubiquity of a name repels me, and I think it’s to my own detriment. Like, I really need to read Dostoyevsky, Octavia Butler, Cervantes, way more Ursula K. Le Guin. There are three or four Toni Morrison novels that I still haven’t read. I just need to read all of the books, and it’s impossible. Someone needs to take my phone away, I’m literally begging you.
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’m physical books for sure, dog-eared throughout, but my wife uses almost exclusively a Kindle and she’s the most voracious reader I know. I usually have about three poetry books, two fiction books and one nonfiction book going at once, but there are some authors that any time new work comes out, I’ll drop everything to read it. If Willie Perdomo, Aracelis Girmay, Patricia Smith, George Saunders, Jesmyn Ward or Stephen Dunn come out with a book, I read it immediately.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I don’t feel that goal-oriented in terms of subject or form. I’m usually trying to use whatever tools I have to work something out. I’ve never written a sestina before, but—unpopular opinion—I often find them tedious (unless Patricia Smith writes them). I tell my students that the poem shouldn’t serve the tools, the tools should serve the poem. But I guess I would always like to be a little braver.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I really enjoy writing on the train, but if I think someone’s looking over my shoulder, party’s over.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Batcave in Gowanus, if you can manage to get over or under the fence, and shimmy through the barely open loading dock, and find your way through what was an abandoned power station built in the late 1800s—and then home to a robust squatter community—to the third floor, it’s like a graffiti cathedral in there, absolutely breathtaking.
The paths in Prospect Park, too, that go through the woods and feel distant from city life. I proposed to my wife on one of those paths. We had our dog with us, and he was off leash. While I was still on a knee, both of us with tears in our eyes, an older man came out of nowhere and started asking us all these questions about our dog, and where we got him groomed. It was a fully Brooklyn experience.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the gray rivulet in my hair that has become a small pool,
And what I have transformed into wrinkles, you can keep,
For every mistake has made me as good as this moment, where you learn to put your hand in your own mouth, where I love you now, and still, imagine 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.
Am I the flower, or the sin
of the seed? All change betrays someone. Ask a Dodger
circa 1957. 90,000 Californians showed up to love
them. World is changing, Jack,
nostalgia is its own poison, the father
of heartbreak, come to rob
you of your expectations. The pen
traps the moment, but won’t keep it. They can’t talk, but all over Brooklyn
are murals of Biggie.
I just love it.