Poet Of The Week

Kiril Bolotnikov

     November 1–7, 2021

Kiril Bolotnikov is a writer, editor and translator who divides his time between Oakland and Shanghai. He is a contributing editor with the Shanghai Literary Review. His writing has appeared in Neocha, Radii, Shaving in the Dark, A Shanghai Poetry Zine, SupChina and Scene4. He currently translates articles for Vogue Business in China and works as a barista. You can find him on Twitter @kbolotnik. This past spring, he was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Joshua Mehigan’s workshop on The Sonnet.

Author photo by Di Wei

on the shelf

 

mama’d kept the tupperware containers her turkey came in

openly declared her obsession with saving them

she was glinting

you wanna store your artichokes?

you wanna bleach some socks?              here!

she held them out across the kitchen in offering

woke with her eyes much too big for her head           so did I.

there was no room to exert over

nothing to do but spread tapenade on toast

boil three eggs, leave one in the fridge

full enough now to take an ibuprofen      wait

for my eyes to stop expanding

soiseztoaraxi

me in california? now?

what a strange thing to happen

what a life

  cindy’d watched her grandma strangle

                 a goose to pluck

              its feathers to the basin where

           in childhood they’d washed her

    she said and i felt like hm

  young volodya watched his grandfather

  take the chicken in the yard

  and remove it from its head

  watch it run til the nerves went quiet too

came to in my own stench in the dark

mother puttered in the kitchen’s grayish white

wished that i could open up

the back door to let

in the air without

in the cold

viva san rocco and the mini-golf course of his body:

deliver us from the contagions of plague and sin

viva general alcazar and tom cobley and all (the kids he wouldn’t claim) (the harriers he hunted)

viva the used car salesman working the symphony hall crowd

viva the jojoba oil at the jamaican market round the corner

God we’ve got

to make this country

   work

Oakland, August 2020

Brooklyn Poets · Kiril Bolotnikov, "on the shelf"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This was written on a blank sheet of A4 printer paper, as many of my poems are; I take the emptiness of the white space as a reminder to move freely. For as long as it takes me to fill up that page—ten minutes, ten days—it’s the only place I put down any line that comes to me. The constraint is simply: once I’ve filled up the page, I have to be done. I may tinker with wording, line breaks, etc. But poems created this way are intended to function as a snapshot of my state of mind during a given time, so to change too much would go against the spirit of the thing. So:

This was put to paper in early August 2020, over a period of about twenty-four hours. Just a few days prior, I had left Shanghai, where my life had been centered for about seven years, and returned to my childhood home in Oakland. So this is a peek into my mind in that moment, as I left one home and returned to another. And jetlagged as I was, I felt caught between places even on a physical level. These fragments capture family and friends, old stories and new, little details of life on either side of the Pacific, elements of my physical reality and interior life.

What are you working on right now?

For most of this year, my only attempt has been to consume and create continuously, and without allowing myself to think about an end goal. I haven’t submitted my work anywhere; it might be a stretch even to say that I write any “complete” poems. I put bits of things into one long Word doc on my desktop; or wake up at 4 AM and blearily type a poem into my phone, using the screen’s edges as a constraint to guide my line lengths. That’s it for now! One voice in my head says it isn’t enough, says I should be doing more; but I’ve felt stubborn about slowing down, dwelling in that more exploratory, ruminative space.

What’s a good day for you?

I’ll give an actual example—on a recent Sunday, I woke early on a friend’s couch in SF, read for a couple hours, then went for a long walk, through wind and rain, up and down some steep hills. Then I went and sat in a café for a while, and on the back of the previous night’s concert poster, I wrote down everything I could remember feeling or seeing. Around noon I went to a bookstore, where I spent some hours and bought four books. I got a late lunch and read some more, and it was getting dark by the time I got back to Oakland. My phone was dead through all of this, which added immensely to a feeling of presence through it all—not all good days are predicated on phonelessness, but it doesn’t hurt.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Oakland is home. It’s where I was born and (mostly) grew up. And when visa matters proved I could only conditionally call Shanghai home, even after years of being based there, it was to Oakland that I returned. Unlike Gertrude Stein, I am fortunate to still have a “there there.”

So now I’ve been back for a little over a year. There’s such an undeniable energy here: so much art and music, a lot of politics, a lot of food, a lot of history. Also undeniably, it has increasingly gentrified (see: Zion I, “Tech $”); I appreciate about Oakland that people step up to try and make up for the system’s failures, but it isn’t enough, and it’s chilling seeing workers put the finishing touches on computer-generated apartment buildings while encampments of houseless people get cleared out.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

My time in New York City, mostly scattered between 2015 and 2016, has been largely work- or school-related, which got in the way of my looking into Brooklyn very much. I went for a Robert Glasper album-release event at Brooklyn Bowl once; I went out to a few concerts; once I went to the apartment of someone who’d been on America’s Next Top Model, for whom I had a short-lived “internship” that quickly petered into nothing.

Most memorable might be a riverside circus-esque event in Greenpoint; I went with someone I didn’t know very well, but who later became one of my closest friends. She knew an actor there whose job was to wander around in some Victorian costume, interacting with attendees; when we found him, we each had to whisper him a secret confession. He didn’t say much to mine, just smiled understandingly and wandered off to talk to others. Then the event turned out not to have some permit, so it got shut down by the police; the night cut short, my friend and I went for a beer and told each other the secrets we’d whispered. A fine foundation for a friendship!

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

I got involved with a poetry workshop during my last year in Shanghai, and I credit that community with making me fall in love with poetry all over again. As for Oakland, being inside for the last year was not super conducive to finding community. But I know it’s there, and as things open up I’m on the lookout. Bay Area poets reading this should feel free to hit me up.

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

Morgan Parker is the one who has left the deepest impression recently; reading her work touches on such a range of places in me. I heard Mahogany L. Browne read over Zoom earlier this year; her skill as a performer left a deep impression, and I devoured her book Smudge (and later found out she was born in Oakland). And Tyehimba Jess’s structural experiments in Olio are something I want to return to.

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

One Sunday morning when I was nine, my mother sat me down and we read the first scene of Richard III together. She would point out how the rhythms and alliteration were set intentionally, both to convey mood and to contribute to an actor’s ability to smoothly memorize the lines. No one has done more to instill in me a sense of the beauty of language.

If I can push the meaning of “mentorship,” I learned a lot just going to readings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman (both sadly taken from us this year) when I was growing up. I didn’t read much of their work until this year, but listening to them was in itself an education. To my (potentially questionable) memory, Ferlinghetti wrote with mostly plain language but with a twinkle in his proverbial eye; Hirschman thought very flexibly about language, pulling in fragments of a dozen other languages and freely combining the very archaic and the very modern. I was inspired by them then and continue to be now.

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

Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk is full of pieces that, to me, illustrate how surrealism can sometimes capture life better than realism can.

I recently read the epic poem “Cawdor” by Robinson Jeffers, who I had somehow never heard of even though he is apparently a quintessential California poet. Fascinated these days by his life, by his philosophy of inhumanism, and by the way he borrowed from Euripides’s Hippolytus but baked his own environmental concerns into every page.

And Aria Aber’s Hard Damage is one I’m slowly rereading right now—there’s just so much to savor.

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

I’ve been trying to read The Glass Bead Game for quite literally half of my life, but I can never make it through the first part. I’ve read other Hesse but this one won’t stick. One day.

I read a little Lu Xun in college, and a bit more after, but I always think I need to sit down and read the rest.

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?

For better or for worse, I never have fewer than ten books going at once. But reading that way, I like that you find surprising overlaps between what initially seemed very disparate works. I rarely plan reading in advance, but I do get ideas for what to read by following a writer’s reference points—for example, Kaminsky led me to Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Babel.

Some books I read in a day or two, others take me months of reading in short bursts. Recently, on Twitter, someone said there’s nothing wrong with putting a book down if you’re not vibing—that’s true, but on the other hand, The God of Small Things was sometimes a painful read, and now I think about it a few times a week. If I’d stopped, I wouldn’t have that.

I prefer physical books but I confess my K*ndle is convenient. I’ll get an e-book if I’m not sure how much I’ll like something, but if I love it I’ll buy a physical copy so I can underline things. I rarely take actual notes, though—or, as someone else said, the underlining is the note.

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

I sometimes write as versions of myself that aren’t exactly me, but I’m always overly conscious that a reader might assume it is literally me. I’d like to let go of that and play more with writing in other voices, push the boundaries of those other versions of myself, and try harder to say things no version of me would ever say. A proper sestina would be nice, too.
 
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Public places, cafés, parks, the sidewalk, the BART platform. Anywhere, really. I enjoy finding myself writing in places I wouldn’t expect to be writing.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman with words of your own choosing:

I celebrate the monkey I am the night that grandpa dies,

And what I spin about you you hold to,

For every revolution calls me as good as labor seems to stay 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.

truth be told there isn’t jack

could ever see the end of my pen

if not for the fact of love

rising, always out of sin—

see: the family member as draft dodger;

the crude matter with us, too much reduced to no biggie;

that night we rose, dully conscious, out, out of brooklyn.