Poet Of The Week

Liv Mammone

     May 16–22, 2016

Liv Mammone is an editor and poet from Long Island, New York, where she lives with her parents, brother, family of feral cats and geriatric dachshund. She has previously taught creative writing at Hofstra University and Queens College. Her poetry has appeared in wordgathering, Wicked Banshee, the Medical Journal of Australia, Rogue Agent and QDA: a Queer, Disabled Anthology, and is forthcoming in the anthology Grabbing the Apple and Typo Magazine. As a spoken word poet, she has featured at Sip This, Artists Without Walls and Tache Chocolates and is the winner of Union Square Slam’s 2015 Nerd Slam. She is the third visibly disabled poet ever to place as a finalist for a national slam. She was awarded a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship for the Winter-Spring 2016 season.

Surgery Psalm

Ready yourself for starving the night
before; for the urine yellow soap that will soften
your skin like a ripening pear; for the sunrise drive.
Ready your ears for the moans of the woman
drooling in a sling in the waiting room. She’s you.
The paper gown that exposes your ass.
Ready the backs of your hands for the needle—for your
iPod dying while you wait strapped to the gurney, four
hours to go. Open your throat for the codeine; veins for the saline.
Ready your mouth to be masked for anesthetic.
See your voice disappear into that sweet ether?
Breathe deep. Shut up.
Ready your eyelids to play projector
to your nightmares. Paint the inside
of your brain fluorescent white and ready your mind
for medicinal misremembering.
Be aware that the bed will be your world, a paper boat
on a hazy Hudson. Ready your eyes for the nurses’ smiles.
They wrack your frame worse than when the meds wear off.
For your parents sleeping hunchbacked in plastic chairs, somewhere
between jailers and mourners; for your rest to be ruined
with the retching of your roommate. Ready your chest for the heaving.
Stop sleeping completely. (Maybe you’ll write more poems.)
Ready your knees; they will transform to melting candles,
your ankles to nuts and bolts, your hips to clenched
fists, your calves into riots. Ready your ribs to collapse
around your fruit pit heart. The impulse to starve
will stay for years. Ready your lips to say endless
“i’m fines.” Become slave to a new smile
like a necklace of predatory teeth. What gifts
will loved ones shower on you now? Stuffed cats
and fairie dolls will no longer do, woman-thing.
Ready a cackle instead of laughter. Try and recite
the questions future lovers will ask
surveying you naked. Imagine their eyes, slitted critical.
Say freak until it’s the name of a black dog
that licks your face. You won’t feel hands
plunging in you—these doctors your gods;
discussing their weekends over the red rind
of your exposed spine. Instead, loosen your flesh.
Just one more time. Just a little
more machine and we will make you

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I originally wrote this as part of my thesis in grad school, but it’s existed in one form or another since I was 18. But it came to its current form when I was in a workshop with Jennifer Bartlett about the disabled body. I tapped into my love of Jeanann Verlee and how she uses anaphora to build these kind of incantations around trauma. I’ve been operated on eight times in all, and all my memories around that are centered around spinning them positively; talking about how I got through it. This was really an exercise in tapping into my feelings of helplessness around it.

What are you working on right now?

I’m doing an erasure poem out of each page of Wuthering Heights. I wanted to engage in a really interactive way with that text. I’m also organizing and polishing poems for a manuscript edit with Rachel McKibbens, which is probably the scariest thing I’ve done. She was one of my first idols.

What’s a good day for you?

Eighty degrees with no humidity, sitting in the backyard with a Coke, a bowl of strawberries, music and my best friend Kate on AIM from her home in Budapest (we are retro, pre-Skype folk) and getting on the train to a poetry event as the sun goes down.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

All of my favorite poets are living or have lived there at some point. From where my family lives on Long Island, it just seemed like where things were happening. Community is critical to me as a poet and this seemed where it could be found. As a non-driver, transportation is also much easier than Long Island.

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

Last year, I saw Rachel McKibbens at the Greenlight Bookstore Salon. The place was packed; people were sitting on the floor. A few people were intrigued by what we were all doing and wandered in off the street. It was a moment where I was lifted up. I felt like I was part of something.

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

This year, I went to the Women of the World Poetry Slam, held here in Brooklyn. The morning I arrived, I met Emi Mahmoud and her sister FoFo. They wandered around with me helping me to find Pratt’s invisible elevators, getting really angry at the campus’s inaccessibility. Then, while Emi was in orientation, Fofo and I napped on a sofa and she told me this story about being detained in her family’s Sudan town by police just for carrying a camera. (She has a soft spoken, very calming, Luna Lovegood sort of sound to her voice that makes this story even more incredible.) I spent the whole weekend watching Emi deliver finely crafted poems about things she and her loved ones had been through that I couldn’t imagine. I was continually overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness they had each shown me when they’d known so much suffering. The weekend culminated in coming down to an exact tie between Emi and Imani Cezanne at Final Stage, and instead of a tiebreaker they both decided to share the championship.

That was really microcosmic of the kind of poet I want to be. My work is important. I hope it impacts people. But I always want more to be behind someone else’s work and letting myself be impacted. Poetry has taught me about social responsibility. It’s other poets that have made me my best self and keep me always striving, not just creatively but to be a better person.

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

Shira Erlichman is my teacher and brings out the best in me. Shamar Hill, whom you guys just featured here, is so fraternal towards me. Joanna Valente is one of the hardest working people I know. April Ranger is just so brimful of gratitude for life. Cecily Schuler makes me feel utterly safe. Matthea Harvey is a legend and one day I’ll learn magical realism like her. Kait Burrier teaches me the value of quiet poems. Miles Walser has the clearest control of concept I’ve ever seen. And Jeanann Verlee, as I said, is queen of everything. I don’t want to accidentally list someone who is actually from Queens!

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

At Hofstra University, I had a teacher by the name of Connie Roberts (she has a glorious book called Little Witness about growing up in an industrial school in Ireland that I’d gift to every poet I’ve ever met if I had money) and her work, combined with the confessional poetics of Jeanann Verlee and Rachel McKibbens, opened an honesty in me that set me on fire. When I got my MFA at Queens College, there were Kimiko Hahn and Nicole Cooley. Kimiko is a genius; she just has the keenest sense of aesthetics and helping us sharpen our own voices. Just buy Toxic Flora. Love yourself. Nicole taught me how to harness that confessionalism and turn it into a political act. She was the one who gave me Jennifer Bartlett’s anthology of poetry by people with disabilities. Jennifer, who has Cerebral Palsy, as I do, makes me feel like my experience is important. SaraEve Fermin is another disability activist and poet who is a big sister to me. We crip up Union Square Slam together.

Shira Erlichman—I’m made speechless by her every day. I leave her presence and want to shake strangers because they don’t know who she is. There’s something about the way she phrases things that makes me able to concretely tap into vague emotions and themes that I haven’t known before how to give voice to. To meet someone I’ve admired since I was a teenager and then find them to be both the most emotionally knowledgeable and the most giving, generous person I’ve ever known has been the great gift of my life. Her continued efforts of advocacy, self love, and continued forward movement are awe-inspiring.

My first mentors were the women of the singer-songwriter movement of the ’90s; Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. As a child I learned literary devices from things I noticed in their lyrics, even if I didn’t know that’s what they were.

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

Taylor Steele has a poem over at FreezeRay called “Not Today (Inspired by Arya Stark)” that just has such a delicate touch of using a character to springboard notions of her own strength. Morgan Parker’s latest poem in the Columbia Poetry Review called “And Cold Sunset” is incredible. She taps into a kind of generational melancholy I didn’t even know I had, much less could articulate. Lately, I’m also learning tremendously from / stalking all the poems Linette Reeman has published, especially “Virginia Woolf Walks into my Apartment” over at Phoenix Rising Review. Poems that use beloved historical ancestors to tell something of the poet are my obsession and I’ve never seen it done with so much rawness and beauty.

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

Oh my God! Everything ever! When I have anxiety attacks, my bookshelf laughs at me. Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Grimay, Opened Ground by Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, most of the Romantics. I find “famous” poets hard because I want a wide sample of their work but the books themselves are usually very large and heavy and I have trouble carrying them.

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’ve become a slower reader as I’ve gotten older. I usually have a novel, a book of poetry and a nonfiction work going at the same time. I love audiobooks because I have chronic pain and fatigue and on days when I can’t get out of bed, I still can read. Usually I move in cycles where I’m reading a lot or writing a lot; it’s how I fight writer’s block, by just letting myself not write and letting others speak. But if I’m working heavily, I can’t focus on books.

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

Angel Nafis runs a workshop out of the Brooklyn Pride Center at certain points during the year and she has taught me not only about poetry, but more about loving oneself. The Botanic Garden is just another universe.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

My uncle has begun renovating an apartment building in Williamsburg. It’s a conflict because, on the one hand, that’s a tremendous source of pride for me and my family and I hope it will become my home, but I do feel, very literally, like a part of the gentrification process. But it is really the first time I’ve understood the importance of owning a place of one’s own.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate ripe fruit and the body,
And what I fill my mouth with you will taste,
For every day I spent in the incubator cradled me good
      and hot and thriving as your mother did you.

Why Brooklyn?

If 14-year-old me knew I made a place for myself there, she’d call me her hero. It’s a mythical city I carved a hole in. It’s a planet.