Poet Of The Week

Lonely Christopher

     October 13–19, 2014

Lonely Christopher is a poet and filmmaker. He is the author of the poetry collection Death & Disaster Series (Monk Books, 2014) and the short story collection The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, which was a 2011 selection of Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint of Akashic Books. His plays have been produced in New York City and China. He wrote and directed the feature film MOM (Cavazos Films, 2013) and his stories have been adapted for the screen in Canada and France. He lives in Brooklyn.

Author photo by Daniel Graindorge

Something Happened

I saw a black cat with a chicken bone in her mouth.
The time has finally come in my life to make difficult choices;
when my mother died, no difficult choices were made
it just happened
I watched her die on a Hospice bed in the living room
and as my father turned orange and cried
I stood up and turned off the television
which was playing a rerun of CSI: Miami.
I wake up into a future that I have spent
the last seven years buying out.
When my mother died she did not look at peace
her jaw was open slack revealing her teeth and pale tongue.
The mortician came in a black suit and dressed her
I was asked if I wanted a final moment with the body.
That whole week was so terrible, honestly we
were relieved it was over, the suffering and all.
Before she wasn’t able to get upstairs anymore
I found her on my way to the guest room
in the middle of the night, slumped halfway out of bed
just collapsed into her own lap
(the lights were on but her exhausted husband slept)
I semidrunkenly
approached her and pulled her shoulders up
and laid her back horizontally on the mattress
I whispered, “I love you”
and she moaned through the drugs, “I love you.”
I wish I could say that was the last exchange
but she later chastised me for smelling like cigarettes
and told me she was worried about my survival
and that was the real last thing she said to me
or really at all, except she could say “No.”
Dad: “Do you want some water?”
Mom: “No.”
Anyway, I resented her lack of faith in my life
as expressed in a sedative haze through her pain
but it’s becoming increasingly clear her worries
were honest, practical, and very founded;
I am apparently an adult and have absolutely no way to exist.
I hate money, I hate it, and I hate myself.
Love means less and less every day we are alive.
Love is good but it’s not going to save us
or keep the lights on.
My boyfriend fucked me tonight without a condom
or lubricant; my anal wall started bleeding and
he cut open his dick before he came
and I shit blood
and he poured hydrogen peroxide on his dick
and we both felt stupid, stupid and like crying.
That is an example of something
that doesn’t belong in a poem
but at this point, you know, fuck it.
Every day I wake up a little less of a lie
and a little more destroyed in my citizenship
and I’ve never been more terrified.

–From Death & Disaster Series, Monk Books, 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Okay, well, I do have something to say about this poem but if I had chosen an excerpt from Death & Disaster Series for you to print, it would not have been this one. In the critical reception of the book, when “Something Happened” is addressed, the whole intention of the piece has been often discarded and whoever is writing or talking about it zeros in on the description of a gross sex accident at the end, which includes, in a superficial reading of it, unsafe practices and blood and shit and tears, etc. Never mind that it’s an angry, pathetic and personal poem about watching my mother die. The way that I tried to entangle death and sex in the book is maybe complicated—and some people seem to think I’m just trying to be outré or morbidly confessional or like an exhibitionist—but when I was dealing with my mother’s illness and death, I self-medicated a lot with drugs, alcohol and sex. Some of the sex was casual/promiscuous and then later I was in a committed relationship, in love with a boy for the first time since the person I loved most in life had died, and that was a whole different multivalent and tortuous dynamic. The whole project that ended up being Death & Disaster Series began as a kind of reflexive way of receiving and processing trauma related to my mother’s sickness and passing. It’s comprised of three long series poems—Poems in June, Crush Dream and Challenger. I wrote Poems in June about two months before my mother died, when she was very ill, when the medical industrial complex eventually told her to go home and die, and that’s not what she wanted to hear, and she started pursuing alternative methods of treatment that were as emotionally/physically taxing and expensive as the legit treatment but which didn’t work either. And I was young, and alcoholic, and broke, and stuck in a sweltering, roach-infested apartment during a really disgusting Brooklyn summer. All I did during that month of June was collect food stamps, fuck strangers, drink, cry, read a biography of Beckett and furiously write short lyrics. It seems like readers have responded well to Poems in June for its immediacy. It was originally published as part of a chapbook imprint called the Urgent Series. I had finished the thing while my mother was still alive and cogent but I decided not to show it to her and that was the first time I’d withheld my work from her. And then she got really, really sick. I remember I was reading at some summer festival in August and I called my mother for the first time in maybe two days to check up on her and my father picked up. I asked to talk to her and his reply was, “She doesn’t talk anymore.” I was shocked but neither of my parents really knew what to do about what was happening so there was this drawn out narrative of them trying to conceal the reality of the situation from especially their children. So I asked my father what this meant and he got it together enough to tell me, “It means you have to come home.” I asked when. “The next flight,” he said. So I left the festival, went home and packed, and then to the airport—flew back to Buffalo. All of the emotions that I was trying to process or at least acknowledge in the June poems became so overwhelming it was beyond writing for a while. It was so nuanced and monolithic at the same time, I just sort of blew a fuse. Then my mother died. Then there was a big storm. Then my father drove me back to the airport and I came back to Brooklyn, shell shocked. After that I was preoccupied for many months directing a feature film that I had written, coincidentally titled MOM, but I did understand that I wasn’t through with what I was trying to do with Poems in June. I decided I needed to write another book around the same issues. But by the time I got around to it, the pain had changed, I was distanced from it enough that I was able to start writing away from the open wound, get more formal and metaphorical, more theatrical. That ended up being Crush Dream. When I looked back on it I thought, well, there is still something missing. I am going to have to write a third book. So I started in on Challenger, which began as a single epic poem in iambic pentameter, but which I eventually reformatted into a series or collection of shorter pieces. “Something Happened” is the opening poem of Challenger, which happened when I was editing the complete manuscript for publication. Originally, “Something Happened” was the poem I thought I was writing toward as a culmination of the project—a direct reckoning with witnessing the fact of my mother’s death. But I ended up writing it somewhere in the middle of the manuscript, and I kept writing. And the book came to address the failure of trying to make sense of something as vast and implacable as death within the rubric of poetry. But I felt like “Something Happened” was very necessary for me to write, in the context of the series, to attempt to stare as directly as possible into a situation that I had been turning around in the light to inspect from all possible angles that I could. Grieving can be a very narcissistic experience (especially for a narcissist) and I think Death & Disaster reflects that. Death can make you hate everything, especially yourself. And one can become obsessed by that loathing. So “Something Happened” is about my own pain, my own experience. How much it hurt to watch my mother grow dark. I tried to put as much detail in it as I could. The only thing I remember now that I left out is that I was right next to her when she died and when it was happening I didn’t touch her. I didn’t touch her because I was afraid of interrupting what was happening. I didn’t want to impose myself on her last earthly experience, so I just watched. And it just happened. And I wanted to violently publish this experience, sort of force it on the reader, let them know that I’m not trying to make sense, and she’s gone, and I’m broken, and this isn’t really a poem. When I was working with Monk Books on the final edits, I took “Something Happened” from the middle of Challenger and put it at the front like, I told my publisher, “a gauntlet thrown down.” And people do seem to be challenged by it and react in this way or that. In the end, what anyone thinks of my work is hardly my concern because that’s not where I write from.

What are you working on right now?

After Death & Disaster Series I spent a year writing another poetry manuscript titled In a January Would. Since then I have tried my best to retire from poetry for as long as I can to focus again on fiction writing, which hasn’t been entirely successful so far. I started out in fiction and want to get back to it for a while but the transition has been a struggle. It’s a whole different discipline. Part of the poetry moratorium is about forcing myself to return to fiction but also—when I do start writing poetry again, I want to be coming from someplace new. I want to have learned something since my last book of verse, have developed as a writer and a person. There has to be more beauty, more clarity, more craft and intention than I’m currently capable of. With that being said, when the poet Rachel Levitsky asked if I wanted to collaborate with her recently, I couldn’t turn her down. So we did this project together, sort of quick and dirty, called Woman Makes Man Clear. It’s about Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Richard Neutra, architecture, modernism and misogyny (set against the backdrop of Monsanto’s bygone “House of the Future” attraction at Disneyland). We also collaborated with the animator Rijard Bergeron and presented a version of it as a performative, audiovisual experience recently at an event in Bed-Stuy. But I think we’re going to keep developing it when there’s time. I have also been getting more and more into film work. My next project in that regard is a film I wrote titled Crazy House, about “gay teen suicide,” which is going into production I think in March, to be directed by Aaron Mirkin in Canada. It’s really his project but I wrote the script and he and I are basically filmmaking partners at this point (we’ve collaborated on two projects together previously, the first of which was actually produced). There are some exciting names attached already, in terms of who will be doing the score and who will be acting in it, but I’m told I can’t reveal that information quite yet. I’m also super keen to get into writing for television so if you’re reading this and have any leads, let me know. Also I’ve got two poetry manuscripts and a novel I’m trying to place, wink wink. I’m currently obsessed with queer theory (again or as always), classical antiquity and Disney theme parks.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day is a rare blessing and I press it between the pages of my favorite book like Spring’s flowers.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?

I have lived in Brooklyn for a decade now. For the past year and change I’ve resided in Clinton Hill, slightly above my means. I’ve spent most of my time in Bed-Stuy, at least eight years over three apartments (though weirdly the same landlord—he just kept moving me farther East to more dilapidated properties as the neighborhood gentrified). When I first moved here I attended the Pratt Institute and lived on campus and then sort of squatted in a friend’s Williamsburg tenement. The tenement is still there but now it’s surrounded by brunch restaurants and I’m sure the rent has quadrupled. From there I moved with a murder of poets to a walk-up on Gates and Franklin. We were running a reading series at the Bethesda Angel in Central Park, twice monthly, but when we got a place together we turned it into a salon series that ran for years, was very popular with a certain depraved collegiate set of writers/scholars/artists/musicians, and eventually became a semi-functional press. We were moved after a while into the basement for being too rowdy and terrorizing the neighbors, but that only made it worse. It was a great communal experience, full of conflict and love. People came and went, some of whom you’ve already heard about and some from which I am sure you will hear. Although some are dead or normal now. After that, after my group started to splinter and disperse geographically, I relocated to a place on Quincy and Nostrand. I stayed there for maybe two years (that’s where I wrote Death & Disaster Series) but had to give it up after a disastrous trip to Paris where I ended up stranded for an extended period of time and spent all my money. I was homeless for the next half year, cat sitting when I could but mostly staying in the guest bedroom of a City Hall probate lawyer who lived in Flatbush. That man saved my life. Finally, I landed my first “real” job, in the field of social work, and have been slightly more self-sufficient than I am used to since then but also trying to figure out what the hell I am doing, where I am going from here. I like living in Clinton Hill because it’s so close to Fort Greene, where I spend most of my day. Even when I was slumming in Flatbush and didn’t even have bus fare, I would walk down through Prospect Park every day to visit Fort Greene. That’s where my favorite diner is.

What do you like most about it?

I can breathe the air here, so to speak. It just makes sense and always has. I wasn’t the kind of boy who came to New York with big city dreams and “ended up” in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was always the goal for me. And damned if I can put words to it but—reread some Whitman, some Crane. It’s still like that. I know the borough has changed a lot even since I came here, but those who know what they need, who know what they are looking for, can always find it here.

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

I have plenty of entertaining stories I could tell but my experience of Brooklyn is living loudly and quietly in a community, and spending time with friends and loved ones, and writing. I guess I would say my defining Brooklyn experience is being at home, walking downstairs to the corner bodega to pick up a 40 of Ballantine, becoming engrossed in a book or a project, then taking a leisurely walk to Fort Greene Park, entering at Willoughby, walking up the hill, around the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, and then down the sloping steps under which a crypt is buried.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

The usual suspects.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Easy: Unnameable Books. I’m very happy to have seen so many new bookstores pop up in the borough over the past few years, but I’m an Unnameable loyalist. They’ve hosted my birthday party every March for I think five years now and I even worked there briefly, covering for a regular employee who was away on a residency. I visit frequently to peruse the wonderful stock and to annoy Adam, Nat, or Penelope. Sometimes I’ll even buy a book there—today I picked up a copy of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for four bucks—although in a more desperate period of my life I sold a significant portion of my personal library to them for walking-around money.

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

I tend to only write at home. I’m not the coffee shop writing type. I read mostly at home as well—or on the subway if I have occasion to use it. Going on long walks around Central Brooklyn provides me with time to mull over new ideas or to daydream.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Besides the aforementioned Fort Greene Park and Unnameable Books (harassing retail employees doesn’t exactly have to do with writing), there’s also my regular diner—Mega Bites, which is also on my street: Dekalb Avenue—and as far as bars go, I’ll take One Last Shag and Alibi. If you’re looking to have breakfast with your boyfriend while sharing the house copy of the New York Times, try Bedford Hill. Then, of course, there’s the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I’ve been fortunate enough to see many movies and shows, including Einstein on the Beach. Otherwise, most of my favorite places are all clumped together slightly to the Southwest: Brooklyn Public Library (Main Branch), Defender’s Arch, the Botanic Garden and Prospect Park (best after dark).

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

The last few notable books I’ve read were Flow Chart by John Ashbery, Deconstructing Disney by Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan, A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, Phallos by Samuel R. Delany, The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter, again, in a very interesting translation by Andrew Brown, and now I’m rereading The Odyssey but for the first time in the Fagles translation.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

Hello, my name is Lonely. I celebrate what I destroy and what I want you should fear; for every disaster is to me as good as a lost lover’s embrace is to you. Arf, arf, arf.

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.

Give it up, Jack. You think you’re such an artful dodger, but your suburban schemes aren’t going to cut it in Brooklyn. This is an indurate land. I hate to rob you of your amusing entitlements—but if you keep it up you’re going to step on your pen and end up with ink on your shoe. No more of this equivocation, dastard, you gotta go hard, son. Get real, admit and learn to love your sin. Understand the struggle instead of trying to eat it. In the end? No biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

If you are asking yourself that question, I have two words for you: Get out, for the love of god, while you still can.