Poet Of The Week

LaToya Jordan

     April 4–10, 2016

LaToya Jordan is the author of the chapbook Thick-Skinned Sugar (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry has appeared in Mobius: The Journal for Social Change, MiPOesias, Radius and Mom Egg Review. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University–Los Angeles.

Author photo by Nisha Sondhe

Miss Missing

White sashes embroidered
with gold letters
showcase our locations:

Bottom of the East River
Abandoned Lot Southwest of Philly
Burnt House in North Carolina
Buried in a Park in Seattle

Last year’s winner pins
the crown to my head.
From Miss Ditch in Ashland County
to Miss Missing.
Mascara tears and black eyes
There she is, Miss Missing.

You probably saw my college graduation
photo on the news and in the papers.
All-American face and form. Flawless skin
now dressed in tiny red mouths
trapped in rigor mortis screams.

I pray for someone to hear
our remains. We sing a raspy song,
reenactment of last breaths
to welcome the new pageant girls.

The newest sisters of our piecemeal gang
include the one with fingerprint tattoos,
a girl who carries her head like a purse,
and the woman whose baby trails behind her,
still connected by the umbilical cord.

The girls add pushpins to the map
on the wall backstage. X marks the spot.
A rainbow of pins, thousands of them
crisscross with our limbs
like cross country railroad tracks.

Find any of the other contestants,
Miss Landfill Los Angeles or
Miss Abandoned Car in Brooklyn,
and I bet that beneath brown decomposing skin,
their bones are as pale white as mine.

–Originally published in Radius, November 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

At the time that I wrote this, I was working on a series of poems about women. I came across an article about missing women of color whose cases weren’t covered as much in the media as missing white women. That’s how I learned about “Missing White Women Syndrome”—where the media focuses more on the stories of young and pretty white women. I originally wrote this from the point of view of a missing woman of color but then decided to write it from the point of view of a missing white woman because she’d be the one with the larger platform, with more media coverage; she’d be the one that could spread the message that all of the missing women are important.

What are you working on right now?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a magic realism novel about organ donation inspired by my mother donating her kidney to my brother. This novel is one of the toughest writing projects I’ve ever taken on. Though it’s overwhelming, it’s something I just have to do; one day the story popped into my head, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

What’s a good day for you?

My daughter wakes up on time, and we don’t battle over getting her dressed and ready for school. We take the bus instead of an Uber (taken when running late). I drop her off at school and at the train station the B comes instead of the Q. The R train is running on schedule and I get a seat. The barista at Starbucks writes my name and order on my cup before I get to the register. No crises at work, just a day of writing and maybe some cake (we like cake in my department). I leave work while the sun’s still out. The platform for the A train isn’t six people deep. An A comes and there’s no stranger pressed up against my ass. I get home at a decent time and we grab pizza from Wheated, talk about our days and watch Jeopardy!. My husband puts my daughter to bed, and I get to catch up on HGTV or work on my novel.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was born here. “Representing BK to the fullest,” as Biggie once said.

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’ve lived with my family in Kensington for almost four years now. I like that it’s quiet and there are a lot of families with young children here. We’re close to Prospect Park and the new Lakeside center there. We’ve got the Kensington Stables a few blocks away; my daughter loves to walk by and see the horses. This is actually one of the most diverse neighborhoods I’ve lived in. In our building, the caution signs for wet floors are in English and Polish. In addition to English, you can hear Spanish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Bangla and Urdu being spoken in the neighborhood. There are masjids, synagogues and churches. We’ve got some new upscale buildings with apartments for rent or sale. We’ve got a new school and new things being done with traffic to make some of the scary streets less scary. I try to avoid crossing on Ocean Parkway at Church because that intersection has so many trucks turning there. We’ve got some new restaurants and cafés springing up—I’m anxiously awaiting a new wine shop that’s supposed to open near us soon.

I actually wanted to leave Brooklyn before we moved to Kensington. I know my husband is happy to hear me stop talking about moving out of New York City (though it’s still something I want to explore in ten years). What I was looking for was a safe, quiet, family-friendly neighborhood with a slower pace, a location that offered some amenities but wasn’t consumed with shops and stores.

I do miss the beauty of brownstones. I miss the sense of community I had in other areas I’ve lived in; in my old neighborhoods, people said hi and good morning, and we bumped into people we knew all the time. We’re slowly building a community here.

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

When I was thirteen, I was on a private track team. We used to practice at Brooklyn College’s track. One night I was coming home from track practice on the bus and something was happening on Eastern Parkway, so the bus had to make a detour. I found out later that what was happening was the Crown Heights riot. At the time, all I knew was that it was dark and I didn’t recognize any of the streets we were on as part of the detour. I didn’t know where to get off, and the bus driver was not helpful. At the last stop, he made me get off the bus even though I had no clue where I was or how to get home. I was terrified. I was this young girl, lost in the dark in an unknown neighborhood. At that age I only traveled to home, school, friends’ and family’s homes and track practice. I didn’t know the city as well as I do now and I had no Google Maps to help me find my way. This was before everyone had cell phones. My mom worked two jobs at the time, so I had to call her from a pay phone. I gave her the street names of the intersection I was at and her job sent her in a car from Manhattan to pick me up. I was afraid and crying while I waited, but my mom came to the rescue. I doubt I was in any real danger at the time, but damn it was scary.

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

I have a writing community right in my neighborhood. I found my writing group through a fiction workshop I took a few blocks from my house. We get together almost monthly to workshop and drink lots of wine. I also used to be part of a larger writing community when I mentored for three years with Girls Write Now. It’s been a struggle to find a community—I’m not necessarily looking for a poetry community because I also write nonfiction and fiction—but it’s hard to get out to events/readings to mingle and meet new people with a child and day job. When I get home from work most times I just want to sit on the couch and veg out. If it’s not close to home, it’s rare that I will make it out. That’s why it’s been great to also have an online writing community, made up of friends from my MFA program as well as some Facebook writing communities I am a member of.

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

Ntozake Shange. I think she lives in Brooklyn now. I had been a writer before I read Ntozake Shange, but I don’t think I claimed that until after I read her work in high school. In high school, there was a lot of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, J.D. Salinger; you know, a lot of white men. And then we read Shange and I said, “Oh, people like me can do this writing thing, too?”

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

All of my mentors in my MFA program at Antioch University pushed me to stay true to myself while helping me grow as a writer, especially Molly Bendall. It’s always great to have someone in your corner who only wants you to become the best you can be.

I am lucky to have befriended and worked with women writers whose work inspires me and whose guidance helps me flourish as a writer. Kate Maruyama, author of Harrowgate, is such a great writer friend and mentor. We were in the same cohort at Antioch. Although we’re on opposite sides of the country, she’s usually the first person I go to with writing questions.

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

I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children twice, once in hard copy and once on the Kindle app. It’s a novel, but it’s so unique. It’s more than a novel. It’s poetry; it’s language and experience at its core. It’s a brutal story; it’s a beautiful story. It’s raw and gut punching and makes you want to cry until snot drips out of your nose. That’s the type of writer I want to be. Or the type of writer I hope that I am.

Reading Lidia’s book gave me the same experience I had as a teenager when I read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange in my Women’s Studies class. When I read Shange’s book, it was like coming home. I was finally reading something in school that I could identify with, in the language I wanted to speak but didn’t think I had permission to use. Shange was telling stories in a unique way and telling stories that most people hid inside of themselves. I was in awe. That book, and Lidia’s book, make me feel less alone, make me feel like my voice is important. I think of both of these moments as defining moments in my life and in art. I remember pressing Lidia’s book to my chest after I read it the second time. Sometimes when I’m feeling blocked with my novel, I’ll bring up her book cover on my Kindle app and just look at the cover or read a passage, and it inspires me all over again.

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

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. I’m kind of ashamed to admit I haven’t read that.

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 sometimes read more than one book at a time. I’m a fast reader and mostly spend my commute to my day job reading on the Kindle app on my phone. I used to be against digital text until I had a kid. I remember those early days of middle-of-the-night breastfeeding when I finally accepted that the only way I’d be able to read again was to go digital. During my maternity leave, I basically spent the days holding my daughter in one arm and my phone in the other, reading while she was nursing or sleeping. I discover new books by asking my friends on social media, checking out what my friends have rated on Goodreads, and if I read a great review. Last year I challenged myself to read 50 books and I read 51—and that doesn’t include the ton of children’s books I read too.

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

Honestly, I do most of my reading on the subway, and the B/Q/N/A/F/G trains are the lines I ride Monday through Friday. I have a 40-minute commute in the morning and a 30-35 minute commute in the evenings. When I’m not writing on my couch, I will write at Lark Café near my apartment.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I don’t get out much beyond my neighborhood anymore—but I love my neighborhood, so I enjoy Kettle & Thread café while my daughter is at dance class, Hunger Pang restaurant for family dinners, and of course Prospect Park. It used to be a pain for me to get to Prospect Park when I lived in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, but now it’s so convenient, and I love that we have this beautiful place as our backyard.

I work in lower Manhattan, so I love walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I also love the Clock Tower—whenever I look at it, I think of my teeth, because my orthodontist was in that building.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate my future child,
And what I bleed is pieces of you, an unformed self,
For every drop from me as good as the potential of you.

Why Brooklyn?

It’s home.