Poet Of The Week

Joshua Mehigan

     January 20–26, 2014

Joshua Mehigan’s first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including the New Yorker, New York Times, Paris Review and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. The recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mehigan is a teaching fellow in English and English literature at the City University of New York and has led poetry workshops at the Stonecoast Writer’s Conference and the West Chester University Poetry Conference, where he is a faculty member. His second book, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2014. He lives in Windsor Terrace.

Heard at the Men’s Mission

How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—

have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor
before they got their bread and piece of floor?

–From Accepting the Disaster, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Usually that question would be like a bad dream for both of us. But in this case it’s easy. This poem is one of the few that came to me all at once, like they’re supposed to. My wife and I went to see On the Bowery, a Lionel Rogosin movie about the Bowery as it was in the ’50s, before the unmonied forms of abjection had gone and the monied forms of abjection had arrived. The movie mixes documentary footage and acted scenes, but with no swelling score or Sterling Hayden, just homeless, terminally alcoholic actors. One scene shows a chapel filled with hungry guys who have to listen to a long sermon before they can get food. I reacted by thinking a version of the poem’s main clause, then started filling in details in my head. I had most of it in five minutes and wrote it down in the dark, to be fixed up later.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the second pass of my next book, which is called Accepting the Disaster and will be published by FSG in July 2014. For the most part, I’ve been distracted from writing poems lately. I just finished one about a bottle of spring water, not my usual subject matter. A year before that were a few lines about something indeterminate crawling over my bare foot. In the past couple of years, I’ve managed to produce only partial poems, one about a home infestation, another about an experience on anesthesia. So, nothing much. Part of it is that I just finished a book. It also happened last time I finished a book.

What’s a good day for you?

There are many answers to this question. Here are two scenarios. The first one is usually within reach. In it, I wake up well-rested when it’s still dark. I have an idea for a poem. I do not become distracted by anything. I work on the poem for ten hours only getting up to go to the bathroom. My wife, Talia, has a similar morning experience, but rises a little later because she needs normal sleep and never gets it. In late evening, she and I get cleaned up and go for a good dinner, then to a good movie, with gangsters or Barbara Stanwyck or both. Then we ride the F train home, not drunk, with sweet drunk people and read good stuff before bed. An altered version of this scenario could swap out the writing for a trip to the Met or the Frick and the movie for a night with friends.

The second scenario is harder to realize and involves any number of places we’d like to visit but haven’t, such as Borneo, Rwanda, Cambodia, or southeastern Utah. In this scenario, we would spend the day looking at great apes, Angkor Wat, or Martian landscapes. Another version of this scenario could involve places where we’ve spent time, but not enough.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve lived here 21 years. In 1992 I moved to 7th Street, off 4th Avenue in Park Slope. The day before, a head was found in a gym bag in an alley across the street. After 5 months, I left for a year but then moved to Downtown Brooklyn. (Now I am making a real effort not to get started on the Rents of Yesteryear.) Soon I moved to Clinton Hill, then back to Park Slope, where I lived for 14 years, in five places, always managing to leave just before that part of the neighborhood blossomed. I lived in Manhattan for one of those years. Now my wife and I live in Windsor Terrace, though it’s the last block before Kensington and feels more like the latter. What I like most about our neighborhood is that we have the park, and the population is mostly normal people (rather than ironical ones) from an astonishing range of cultures. We also live by a stable and hear horses clomping by in the silences between construction noises.

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

There are many. Here are a few of mine: driving up Flatbush, in Flatbush, with every other driver and pedestrian trying to kill me; having a waiter in Chinatown laugh uncomfortably and suggest to my friend and me that perhaps the silkworm larvae entrée was not for us; waking up alone on the F Train at dawn in Coney Island, with the doors open in winter, and seagulls screeching outside; defending my lack of faith in companionable debates with twenty fifteen-year-olds in Manhattan Beach, where I taught English in a Yeshiva; becoming acquainted with actual mobsters in Park Slope, and also with their soft, conventional grandchildren in Bay Ridge; helping an elderly woman shovel in the Heights, then finding out she’s a rare book dealer and I can pick anything from this bookshelf (except for the early edition of Leaves of Grass); coming up the Gowanus Expressway and seeing the Brooklyn and Manhattan skylines; getting drunk on a Sunday afternoon in Smith’s Tavern in Park Slope with Norman Mailer’s garbageman.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Auden. Whitman. Marianne Moore. Alan Dugan was born in Brooklyn. I like some Hart Crane. Mel Brooks.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Community Bookstore in Park Slope, BookCourt, Unnameable.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I have fairly severe ADHD so I can only write at home, at my desk. I need to have my oversized computer monitor, no people, and either silence or white noise machines and earplugs. I also need to have my books. I do sometimes read in public, especially if I have my iPhone (which has white noise on it). I have had good experiences reading in diners, and in Prospect Park. My wife and I have read things aloud there.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Prospect Park, where I like walking, looking at birds, people, and other animals, and eating picnics with my wife. BAM for good movies and Shakespeare when we can afford it, which is every three years. The Bedouin Tent on Atlantic in Boerum Hill. City Sub. Victorian Flatbush. The Promenade! The Pavilion Cinema for fun bad movies. The Heights, to look at all the pretty buildings I will never live in. The IKEA cafeteria in Red Hook, for Swedish meatballs. Coney Island. The Brooklyn Bridge (where I proposed to my wife, on the Brooklyn side).

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Letters, Emily Dickinson.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell (a must for all poets).
Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green.
My Inventions, Nikola Tesla.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate whenever I get candy,
And what I want is candy and so you should give me candy,
For every candy that belongs to me as good belongs to me.

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.

Please see “What are you working on right now?” above.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is where I live.