June 16–22, 2014
Laura Eve Engel’s work has appeared in the Boston Review, Colorado Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Tin House, VOLT and elsewhere. A recipient of the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she is the Residential Program Director of the UVa Young Writers Workshop. In the fall, she’ll be a Writing Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.
People with Nothing to Say Say Plenty to the Dog
Today the trees fill the space
I might fill saying today the trees.
A whole stand of them laps
at the horizon. It’s a morning
I have a feeling we keep walking
into the same morning
or that I meant to say waking
and we must always say
we say what we mean.
The dog’s bowl empties at a speed
that’s alarming. The dog empties
its bowl and who cares how fast.
This won’t be the same as what
we want to say or trees so say
today’s when we say what we can
on a day with weather or in a room
with a dog, then put whatever’s left
out in a box I can keep on making
boxes out of. The dog has its blank dog-
thoughts we feel free to put a thing or two
inside of, like look at me being a dog
I’m a dog dog dog I have some teeth I’d like
to show you is one way we can throw
our voices. Away towards trees is another.
–Originally published in Tin House, Summer 2013.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I woke up with the first stanza in my head like I’d dreamed it or something. I wasn’t in my own bed. I was feeling pretty anxious about love, as usual, which I channeled into feeling pretty anxious about what kinds of relationships and responsibilities language has to the things it carries. I guess when you’re saying “I love you” to the wrong person it can make all words seem arbitrary. Or maybe it’s a desire to describe a feeling one gets into investigating when one is “investigating” all the time instead of reacting, or using, or doing. Analysis as a form of denial, or irresponsibility. I’d been using my scrutinizing muscles pretty heavily and then there was my autonomic nervous system just sort of carrying me along as I did it. I think maybe this poem uses some of those scrutinizing muscles, some of those signposts that acknowledge that a voice in a poem is always a made thing, but I hope it also expresses that the attempts we make to connect with one another, however constructed or over-considered, come from a place of real tenderness.
What are you working on right now?
Yoga stuff. Balancing on my arms. I’ve never been very strong or good at things physically, but I’m learning that strength really is something that can be cultivated. I’m stronger today than I was two weeks ago. It’s just the truth. If I stop practicing, I’ll get weaker, and that’s the truth too.
Also, you know, patience. Love. Honesty. Poems. This interview.
What’s a good day for you?
I get everything I need to get done done, and I don’t have a coffee headache or that anxious train-feeling in my chest. I freewrite a chunk of language that I’m excited to leave alone for a day. Or, I wrote something the day before that felt good and today’s the day I get to expect more of it. I go outside. I feel useful. I get a really good email from a friend and I write a really good email back without letting it sit for too long. Mike and I laugh real hard about something stupid. I hold an arm balance. Get near water.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
About a year and a half, first in Flatbush and now in Sunset Park, so I’m still learning what “Brooklyn poet” means. I think I could live in Sunset Park forever, though. When I’m walking down 4th Ave, I can look toward 3rd and see the water. The park itself has a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty which, as a recent transplant to NYC and the great-grandkid of immigrants who came through Ellis Island, I’m still wildly sentimental about.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Though my folks never lived in the city, my grandparents grew up in Queens, and I think of my grandmother, with her yiddishkeit accent, as a real New Yorker. When I told her I was moving to Brooklyn, she said “Never to go with a Brooklyn boy. Brooklyn boys are fast.”
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
I hope it’s not too traitorous to Brooklyn to say I go to Poets House a lot to read poetry for free (and Mellow Pages is too far away for me to go regularly). Not traitorous, hopefully, because I feel like being broke is super Brooklyn. But Unnameable is great, which everyone knows. And Berl’s. Holy shit, Berl’s. We live in a world where Berl’s exists!
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I write on the train, and waiting for the train. Trains are one of the reasons I moved here. All the ways that trains can be fucked-up places notwithstanding, when I’m on a train I feel taken care of by the city. It’s a huge relief, not to be in charge of my own trajectory for a second. I make the most of that feeling by writing whenever I catch a wave of it.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Wong Good Hand-Pull Noodle. Faicco’s Deli. Owl’s Head Park. There’s this pier near the water treatment plant—apparently it’s called American Veteran’s Memorial Pier—where all these old guys fish in the Hudson and there’s a great view of the Verrazano. I pretty much love everything in South Brooklyn.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
Christopher Kondrich’s Contrapuntal is one I keep thinking about. I read it when I was visiting my hometown in Virginia and it was snowing and I was awake all night, terrified I’d get snowed in and miss my train. I love how those books you read in semi-desperate moments stick with you. Right now I’m reading an advance copy of Bin Ramke’s Missing the Moon, which is glorious and comes out in October. Chloe Honum’s The Tulip-Flame and Brett Fletcher Lauer’s A Hotel in Belgium are complete opposites, and I love them both. I keep rereading Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence, because violence is robust in this country. And everyone should read this poem by Kent Shaw, and everything else by him they can get their hands on.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Eric Cantor’s defeat in the Virginia GOP primary,
And what I like about it is that he’s a jerkbag and
he lost and you should like it too,
For every Tea Party guy that runs in the Midterms
is good for me as good for you.
Why else? I was running away from something. Then I fell in love.