August 9–15, 2021
Karisma Price is from New Orleans, LA, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, the Adroit Journal and elsewhere. A recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and New York University, Price was a 2019 Best of the Net winner, a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize and the winner of the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University.
A Woman Yells, “Maxine!” 14 Times Outside My Brooklyn Window
Please Lord, let it be
a dog dead in the street
and not a woman black
as me. Today was a good
day. I drowned my hash browns
in a plate of ketchup and David Ruffin
sang about the bee’s envy. I rode
the subway without complaining
today and there was no delay
after crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.
The only crimes I witnessed
were the solid-built man refusing
to rise and let the old woman sit
on the hard plastic of subway seat,
and the white woman who was bold
enough to leave her apartment
with “dreadlocks” tangling out her scalp.
Today, I almost forgot
that I was far away from my mother
and her growing hands that would grease
the driest parts of my scalp without being
asked to. Today, I almost forgot
that anyone who doesn’t share my face
would care if I went missing. Maxine
should be the name of a Jack Russell
or a Retriever that has escaped
its leash and run into the street
for some type of wet freedom
nothing else but the rain offers.
I know nothing of pet ownership
but I know what it is like to fear
the night and every precious thing
that can get lost in it.
—Originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, July 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
As the title suggests, I was living in Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy at the time—I’m currently in my hometown of New Orleans), and someone was outside of my apartment building yelling the name “Maxine” several times in the middle of the night. When I first heard the yelling, I thought it was just someone yelling for their friend to come outside because I was used to my neighbors hanging out, fellowshipping and playing music—being a community. However, I realized the person kept screaming and the name turned into a sad plea, and it made me think that something bad had happened. The yelling stopped soon after but it made me think of the potential danger that person could have been in (if it was a person, I’m still not sure) and how, as a black woman, I know that we and other women of color are often harmed and go missing and no one does anything about it. I lived on the top floor of my apartment and got out of bed and tried to look out the window to see what was going on, but I didn’t see anyone even though I knew the voice was coming from outside. I wrote this because I felt powerless and didn’t know how to help in that situation. The poem turned into a prayer hoping whoever “Maxine” was, that they were now safe.
What are you working on right now?
First and foremost, recovery. Right before the pandemic, I was in an accident and had very bad whiplash and have been dealing with a lot of chronic pain and fatigue. It was only recently discovered that I have a connective tissue disorder and that’s why I’ve still been feeling this way. Now that I have extra moments of energy, I’ve been working on poems about chronic illness and am revising a screenplay.
What’s a good day for you?
No pain. Getting outside and soaking up the sun. I try my best to take walks, and I’ve been trying to establish a writing schedule now that I’m no longer in my MFA program and have a full-time job. I’m trying to write for at least twenty minutes a day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn when I was getting my MFA from NYU.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in Bed-Stuy for two years. I enjoyed the community that was there—there were black and brown multigenerational families living together, and it reminded me of New Orleans because of the way everyone looked out for each other. There were also many non-native New Yorkers, including myself—I’m very aware that me living in that space most likely contributed to gentrification. I loved that I lived across the street from a grocery store, Caribbean food places, a post office—all the essentials. It started to change about a year after I moved there when I saw construction workers come and tear down old buildings and remake them into new and what I’m assuming are expensive, rent-gouging condos and apartments.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Good: I once got locked out of my apartment late at night and two men waited with me until my roommate came back from an hour-long journey and made sure I wasn’t outside waiting alone.
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?
To me, it means I am surrounded by poets who care not only about the work they produce but how they treat others. It’s hard to have one complete definition of community because I feel like communities change (people, proximity, etc.). I definitely think I found a community in my classmates in my MFA program, mutual friends, and other wonderful writers I met at readings in Brooklyn. Living in Brooklyn was the first time that I felt I had a group of people who understood me. I have found some of that back home in New Orleans but because of the pandemic, it’s been harder to connect and meet people, but I have a small group of friends who encourage me and I cheer them on as well.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
There are so many poets, some of whom I’ve met and some who have no idea I exist. Off the top of my head: Nicole Sealey and John Murillo, Angel Nafis, Ricardo Maldonado, Aracelis Girmay, Morgan Parker, Ocean Vuong, Desiree C. Bailey … honestly anyone I’ve met or seen in Brooklyn living their life.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Terrance Hayes is a big influence and mentor to me. He was my thesis advisor in my MFA program and he’s also a fellow black southerner. I feel that he’s been the best reader of my work. He’s always encouraging me to lean into my “weirdness” and to never hesitate to try anything new in my work. I feel like working with him has definitely given me the confidence to try everything and not be afraid of what comes out.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Inheritance by Taylor Johnson. It’s so smart and meditative.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I need to read more Lucille Clifton. No one can read enough of Lucille Clifton.
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 try to read one book at a time, but in actuality, I am most likely reading multiple books at a time and often they are different genres. I find that reading multiple books makes it easier for me to process them and I don’t want to wait to start on something else, so I feel like reading things at the same time will help me find connections between the pieces and also it all finds its way into my writing.
I prefer physical books to digital texts. It’s extremely important for me to hold a book and get a feel of it in my hands. It makes it “real” for me, you know? I think it’s great that people have digital versions of books and have multiple texts at their disposal via Kindle, phone, laptop, etc. and they don’t have to carry them all with them. I’ve found that audiobooks have been extremely helpful for me since my injury. When I feel too tired or if my neck hurts too much to crane it down, I love to listen to audiobooks and be read to. I get to absorb the text in a new way and it makes me train my ears to focus and be more aware of what I am processing because I cannot visually go back and reread it.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I think I’d like to try to write a funny poem or a poem not tied to elegy. Also, I think I’d like to continue to try more experimental forms.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love coffee shops, libraries, friends’ houses … you name it. I tend to carry a notebook with me and jot down ideas when I am in transit. When I lived in New York, I would draft many poems on subway rides throughout the day.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Museum. Greenlight Bookstore. I really like walking around in those spaces to view art and books. You get to be alone and around others at the same time.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the mundane,
And what I need from this world is to know you don’t know everything,
For every fear that runs through me as good as thread, it does not know you.
Because it nurtures.