Poet Of The Week

Josephine Blair

     October 7–13, 2019

Josephine Blair is a 27-year-old writer who recently relocated from Miami to Brooklyn. She majored in global studies and political economy at St. Lawrence University, but somehow decided that she’d rather travel while working in restaurants and writing poetry than work for the government. She has called places from Rouen to San Ignacio to Dakar home, and her poetry has been featured in Epiphany, Soliloquies Anthology, Meniscus, Allegory Ridge and elsewhere. This past winter, she received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for study in Jason Koo’s Blank Verse workshop. She joined the staff of Brooklyn Poets as events manager in September.

woman

 

she is behind me scalping fresh garlic

or cracking yolk skins, building

delicate watchtowers, white cities

in the valleys of her palms.

there is not a word for the way

this makes me feel, like the lighthouse

so small on the edge

of her thumb, slipping

ever so gradually into history

with each gentle wave from her wrist.

the kitchen hums and miles away

we’re tumbling, warm like sun yawns

dripping into first snow, warm

like first love, fresh out the dryer.

the song i am playing is called

this will destroy you. i swallow it

like a memory. i’m not sure

how to fit lips around my breathing

anymore. she is behind me slipping

out of my gray wool sweater, settling into

the floorboards appearing beneath me, she is

so Woman

the house is rebuilding itself.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem while a woman I loved was behind me, cooking dinner. I had just come home from work, where I learned that my friend’s mother had suddenly died, and I was thinking a lot about women—the ways we love each other, support each other, continue each other’s legacies.

I can’t quite explain the feeling—safe, I guess. Warm, maybe. But this woman was behind me, cooking, at work making the cold apartment (New-York-winter-with-broken-heat cold) feel like a home, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It reminded me of times when I’d been grieving and thought of a future, survivor self holding me and helping me through even the littlest things like eating or getting dressed. I thought of my amazing friend who had just lost her mother, and wanted a way to verbalize this idea.

I didn’t set out to write a poem; I was just feeling safe and sad, fortunate and fragile—so I started writing things down.

What are you working on right now?

My credit score. Being kind. Taking my meds at the same time every day.

Writing-wise: always ten poems at once. Reading other poets’ work every day. Texting people back.

What’s a good day for you?

One where I feel like myself the whole day.

It sounds so small, but I’ve struggled with major depressive disorder for as long as I can remember, and also fought a grueling eight-year battle with an eating disorder, so having a day where I like myself the whole day is everything to me. Ideally, I also go outside, eat good food, talk to good people and laugh a bunch.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was living in Miami, and I wanted to remember what it felt like to be happy again, so I decided to move somewhere where people read books and care about who the president is. Being originally from DC, I’d always loved the idea of being a writer (and a person, really) in New York, but was completely freaked out by the idea of living in Manhattan. A childhood friend of mine moved to Brooklyn, so I came up to visit the city and fell in love with Brooklyn (and then with him).

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?

When I first moved to New York, about a year and a half ago, I lived in Bushwick, which I loved. Actually, I don’t think I realized how much I loved it until I left it (of course). There was a mix of people from a mix of backgrounds, and it was pretty easy to find spaces where I felt comfortable (and uncomfortable in good ways).

Since April, I’ve lived in Williamsburg, near McCarren Park. It’s beautiful, and I work in a restaurant on the UWS, so it’s much more convenient for my commute, but moving here has challenged me in ways I didn’t expect it to. I know gentrification is a major issue throughout the country—it certainly is where I’m from in DC—but I’ve never felt so complicit in it as I do as a white millennial living in Williamsburg. (To be clear: the issue is gentrification itself, and not my feelings about it.) It’s just complicated for me because I’m also poor. My annual salary is nearly $20,000/year less than what is considered “low income” in NYC. My parents don’t pay my rent. The only reason I can afford to live where I live is because of the people I live with. I haven’t lived here long enough to witness the changes over the years in my neighborhood, but I know that it used to look vastly different; I’m a part of the problem and I can’t even afford to live here. I think a lot about the intersections between white privilege and socioeconomic privilege, and feel pretty out of place in a lot of spaces in my neighborhood.

McCarren Park is nice, though—the best dogs in the city hang there.

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

A few months ago on the L train, an entire brass band—including the largest tuba I’ve ever seen in my life—played jazz from 1st Ave to Bedford. Most of the subway riders kept their AirPods in. When we got to Bedford, the musicians didn’t ask for money; they just hopped off and yelled, “Have a great night, everybody!” and everyone on the car pretended like nothing ever happened.

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

I know this sounds obnoxious, but I don’t know that a poetry community is really a tangible thing. Like—I can’t pinpoint a location where my poetry community exists. There are people who don’t even know they’re in my poetry community, but whose work I interact with and continues to influence me daily; there are people who are poets in Brooklyn whose work I don’t resonate with at all. I think your poetry community is made up of the variety of work, people and ideas who inspire you and that you connect with in an artistic way.

I will say that the community that Brooklyn Poets has fostered is the closest thing to a family I’ve found in New York, and that a huge amount of the poets I feel connected to I’ve been introduced to through Brooklyn Poets. It’s a truly special organization, and a truly special community of its own.

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

When I was fifteen, I met Sonia Sanchez at a reading at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in DC, and she turned my world upside down. She has enough connection to Brooklyn that I’m claiming her as a Brooklyn poet. She is exceptional.

Also incredibly important to me: all the poets in my Blank Verse workshop, as well as Jeanann Verlee, Shira Erlichman, Constantine Jones, Saul Williams, Marwa Helal, Julia Knobloch and (of course) Jason Koo.

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

Jason Koo is the first and only poetry mentor I’ve ever had, and I feel like the luckiest writer in the world for it. I could go on, but I don’t think I will. I’m the luckiest—I’ll leave it at that.

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

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. It’s totally stunning. Nothing ever makes me want to be a teenager again, but I really thought about being a teenager nostalgically after reading this book. Also, I’m a sucker for magical realism.

A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib. By the end of the first poem, I was already audibly reacting to the poems. Sorry to my L-train neighbors … but you need to read this.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. I always considered myself to be educated about mental health issues, but I had no idea how much I still needed to learn until I read this book. It’s honest, informative and gorgeous. Months later, I’m still thinking about it.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown. I don’t even know what to say to you if you haven’t read this. Or if you have read it. I don’t know what to say at all. Jericho leaves me speechless. This book is everything.

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

Do I get kicked out of Brooklyn Poets if I say I haven’t actually read Whitman? Not admitting. Just asking. (Maybe admitting. I should read Whitman.)

Also Moby-Dick. And The Sea-Wolf. And maybe, like, Yeats? I should probably have a better handle on the classics. Or not. Whatever. I’ve been meaning to read those, though.

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?

So, first things first: PHYSICAL BOOKS.

I’ve usually got at least two books going at once, one fiction and one nonfiction. There’s also always a poetry book (or multiple) being read somewhere in there.

I don’t really plan out what I’m going to read in advance, but sometimes I’ll realize what I need to read next, before I finish what I’m reading at the time. I have a whole bookshelf of things I need to read—it’s more of a mood thing than a planning thing.

As for note-taking, yes, but usually only with nonfiction books (because I will forget it all if I don’t take notes).

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

Oh man, there are so many things I haven’t tried. So many things, in fact, that I don’t even know what they are. I didn’t study writing or poetry in school, so I don’t even realize what cool things there are to do in poems until I see them done. Erasure, maybe. I really like the idea of transforming a text, getting to the heart of it, by highlighting words that call to you, and erasing the excess. (Candace Williams is the queen of this.)

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

I do like home. But also I like the park, the roof, outdoor spaces in the sun, bookstores. Also coffeeshops, but only in the winter.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The ferry across the East River. The top of the Williamsburg Bridge. Rooftops at night. The giant swings on the East River State Park bike path. All of these places make me feel small in the most overwhelmingly beautiful way.

Also Van Leeuwen, because I have an ice cream problem, and they have the best vegan ice cream in the game.

A lot of things in my life began in Brooklyn—I told my partner I loved him for the first time on a visit up here, and now we live together (and I get to tell him constantly). I applied for a Brooklyn Poets fellowship, and now I have a new job, new friends and a beautiful writing community. Brooklyn has given me so many wonderful things, so much life, so much to look forward to.

(I’ve also been told that I really enjoy karaoke night at Heavy Woods in Bushwick, but I have no recollection of ever being there. Possibly related fact: for every song you sing, you get a free shot.)

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the histories of these scars

and what I sculpt from old songs, you design.

For every note, remember me as good.

Why Brooklyn?

We get each other.