Poet Of The Week

Maghan Baptiste

     December 21–27, 2020

Maghan Baptiste is a Haitian-American poet, friend and Cancer stellium. She is sometimes working on a poetry manuscript that explores the realities of daily grief, mental illness, sexuality and the journey of arriving at the self. Maghan is the editorial assistant at Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, an academic journal that publishes scholarship and creative work by and about women of color. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in JP Howard’s Poetry of Resistance workshop.

Author photo by Geoffrey Baptiste

Dream of a friend who lives inside a tiger

after Jesse Cohen

 

A, the death-doula-in-training

hand delivers me this poem on all fours

I don’t know where she came

from    only that the before

has left her flaming

this is her way

now that everything has tried

to age her   still she gifts me:

wrinkling back the folds of

her new body    retracting

the jewels in her mouth

only eyes on eyes

rosebud lips

her face confesses

to me

I kiss her noses each set

of cheeks   we hold hands—

I know how it must sound

to the untrained eye

embracing her like this:

girl loves animal

animal will devour

but what if we are just

two animals    sharing skin

once again

 

Brooklyn Poets · Maghan Baptiste, "Dream of a friend who lives inside a tiger"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem is named and written after a drawing by Jesse Cohen. In it, everything is red, “flaming,” and a very soft face is emerging from the mouth of a tiger whose eyes, as a result of the emerging face, have become beady. The inside face looks present but tired. At the time that I came across the drawing, my dear friend and I were both going through separate breakups that were pretty destabilizing and kind of isolating, and something in me recognized the face in the drawing. I think that big heartbreak made us both feel guarded in a very primal way. We both went inside of our grief / tiger-skins but we were also always watching each other. I found myself becoming braver through this watching, more able to practice my own healing by watching and talking to her about her healing process. It can all feel very messy and delicate but I am very grateful that we not only witnessed each other in this way but that we trusted each other too. I think that we’ve found new security in our friendship during this time and that is no small miracle for two water moons. Anyways, this poem is my dedication to her, our grief-skin and the miracle of being able to confess yourself to someone despite your world being on fire.

What are you working on right now?

I recently started a new job that I adore and is a pretty significant adjustment from my previous job. So these days I am working on centering myself, keeping grounded and fine-tuning my systems of organization, which is an every-day, every-hour activity. So with that, plus the fact of everyday-pandemic-grief, my most important “work” is eating well and staying alive.

I am sometimes working on a manuscript that I began while taking a yearlong workshop with Angel Nafis. After the workshop ended in April, I started giving myself permission to write about things that I hadn’t fully explored over the year and those poems were very different and have kind of led me to another baby manuscript in progress. It’s a battle of the themes in my head right now but I’m excited to settle down soon and recommit to a daily writing practice.

What’s a good day for you?

There are so many possibilities for a good day but I think the most important component is that I want for nothing that is not available to me with ease, which is easier than it has been in the past since I’ve become very reliant on small pleasures.

Some small pleasures: recording my dreams, raisin bran with Oatly, the urge to leave the house willingly, sitting by water, speaking to my dead out loud, reading until I feel like I don’t want to anymore and not feeling guilty about it, quick meditations before I leave any space, walking around town and tricking myself into buying something like beeswax candles or a runner for the dining room table, being extremely comfortable in my home, using Brodo’s vegan broth as a base for ramen with lots of collard greens and mad ginger … like an entire knob or two. I need to be sweating from the amount of ginger. Watching Dawson’s Creek has become pleasure and torture (though Pacey is King). I also regularly indulge in long vlogs by my favorite YouTubers or watch several episodes of Girlfriends at a time and admire just how fine Toni Childs is. At night, I ritually enjoy a cup of chamomile tea with hibiscus and I sleep so deeply. That is the greatest pleasure of all.

What brought you to New York?

I’ve actually spent a lot of time in my life in New York since I was a baby. Brooklyn was where both my parents first arrived when they immigrated from Haiti at fifteen and twenty-three, respectively. By the time I was born they’d been living in Massachusetts for many years, but my grandmother was living in Jamaica, Queens, and I spent the first couple years of my life there with her. Even when I moved to Massachusetts permanently my siblings and I regularly went to Queens most summers and a couple times throughout the year. Because it had always been, I wanted New York to continue to be a part of my life as a young adult, so I tried to be very intentional when applying to schools. My sister took over my grandmother’s apartment in Queens and I was willingly and regularly commuting from Westchester to spend time with her.

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?

For a while home was Harlem, which I was introduced to by my teacher / mentor / friend Naomi Jackson (a Brooklyn native / Caribbean kin / bomb-ass novelist) and later fell in love with through my sisterfriend who graduated two years ahead of me and moved there. She very generously housed me on the weekends until I graduated and for a while after. We spent a lot of time falling in love with the rhythm of Harlem. She recently relocated to Brooklyn this past fall. Y’all won.

In February of 2020, I had just moved into my very own first apartment (which turned out to have a significant rodent issue) when COVID-19 hit and my anxiety skyrocketed. I eventually left and ended up quarantining in Maryland for some time and just before my birthday I secured a sweet apartment in Northampton with my cousin and made my move back to Massachusetts for good. So for the first time since I went away to school, home is here again.

I think Northampton is lovely and charming in the way that many places in New England are. I walk everywhere and the air feels clean and comparatively uncompromised. I buy local as much as I can and I generally feel more relaxed and settled than I have in a really long time. I’m just, like, praying that I meet three more Black people. If you’re reading this, use your powers to find me.

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

Of course. I’ve spent a good amount of time in Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy. The only hair-braider that ever spared my edges is in Crown Heights. In the before-times I traveled to Flatbush to get my nails done every so often. I spent a summer being underpaid to babysit for a family in Carroll Gardens and by their home there’s this restaurant, the Eatery @ East One Coffee Roasters, that had this grilled fish sandwich that could unite countries. I have a couple of wonderful memories in Red Hook—one is seeing Erykah Badu aka Fat Belly Bella do a DJ set, and the other is making chocolate with a former love at the Raaka factory.

But can I tell you? My older cousin, Queens-born and partly Brooklyn-raised, proposed to his wife on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2013 and I think that day is among the top ten of my favorite Brooklyn experiences. They are my favorite people, aspirational parents and one of my greatest examples of love and care.

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

My first poetry community was my sister, the only person I would share sad and closeted poems with and pretend they weren’t about me. She was also the first person to take me to Nuyorican Poets Café when I was a teenager. So I think I often relate the idea of a poetry community to the feeling of closeness / family which does not always mean other poets. Over the years that feeling of closeness has expanded to include more of the world around me and every pulse that allows me to witness it.

The poets (collagists / essayists / teachers / producers / musicians / playwrights / sommeliers / Animal-Crossing-players-extraordinaire / etc / etc) in my yearlong workshop at Catapult are such a generous community and our Slack channel is unmatched. I’ve learned a lot about myself through their support and reading their work is such a privilege. Plus, I think they’ve all modeled in different ways what showing up for your community—poetry and otherwise—looks like, and that too feels like a privilege to witness and learn from.

I haven’t found a poetry community in Massachusetts yet but soon come.

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

Oh, there’s so many. I’m continuously moved by Aracelis Girmay and revisiting June Jordan. I’m very excited for Desiree C. Bailey’s forthcoming collection What Noise Against the Cane and I really love hearing her read—listening to Caribbean women speak makes me feel whole. kim mayo’s poetry, visual art and music are all sooo dreamy; her interdisciplinary game is aspirational! Which reminds me of Shira Erlichman, whose work gives me so much permission. I return to Odes to Lithium when I need help feeling less shame and it keeps me curious about finding the language to speak about my own illness.

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

I don’t know that I’ve had any super-formal poetry mentors but I’ve had some wonderful writing teachers to whom I am very grateful and look up to: Naomi Jackson, Tina Chang, Sharan Strange, Carolyn Ferrell and most recently Angel Nafis. I don’t think I’ll ever stop talking about Angel. In many ways I feel like she taught me how to read. She is so thorough, animated and generous in her teaching. She touches everything and then somehow finds one last thing to turn over and examine. And more than that, she offers you the opportunity and confidence to do the same. For a year I was walking around the city harassing strangers: (points erratically at a sonnet) “DO YOU KNOW WHAT MY TEACHER SAID ABOUT THIS POEM?!” Her class opened me up in a way that I had not been before, as a reader and a writer, and for that I am eternally thankful.

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

A poem that’s been stuck in my head for quite a while now is Leslie Marie Aguilar’s “Bathtub Baptism.” This opening line haunts me:

I know I’m having an episode when I dip my toes into lukewarm bathwater only to take a step backwards for fear of drowning.

It immediately frames so much and then I’m asking myself all these questions: What is the narrator going through? When do I know I’m having an episode? What do I fear that’s not necessarily “logical”? All before I even get into the rest of the poem. I’m obsessed with poetry like this, that makes you ask questions at every line; it only makes what is to come juicier and more curious. I want my poems to do this. 

I recently finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and it’s changed my world. It took me a while to get through it because I straight-up started having nightmares if I read it at night. It’s a tough read but one of my new favorites.

Gyasi’s storytelling feels really active—by which I mean everything feels like it is happening right now, all the time, even if it “happened” seven generations ago in the book. You know how folks say Black people operate on a different timeline? To me it’s, like, how could we not? Our histories are always present, our ancestors: how they walked, how they ate, wrote or dreamed, it happened however many generations ago and it’s happening right now. I was reading this book around the same time that Lovecraft Country was airing, and reading alongside Hippolyta’s episode “I Am.” had me asking all kinds of existential questions. I felt really emotional seeing Hippolyta be forced to name herself and dream outside of this physical realm, where she felt like everyone else was determining who she was and could be. And she did so in a way that did not limit her or deny her anything. Witnessing her confidence change through different timelines made me think a lot about how Black people might fit everything we have been / are being into this physical realm. How do we allow ourselves the freedom to dip into different timelines so that we can effectively name ourselves in this one? It’s a little woo-woo and I’m still sorting through the language for all of this but like Gyasi’s book, it feels very active and happening. “I Am.” Black people are.

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

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. I remember seeing the cover / title of this book maybe around my freshman year of high school and feeling scared, like I might understand what it was about without reading it. And then in college I knew that I understood, and that scared me even more. I’m almost two years out of college and I’m still wondering when I’ll be ready. It’s one of my aforementioned sisterfriend’s favorite books and she loves to quote it. I think that because I lost someone from suicide when I was young and understood the weight and consequences of the action, seeing that word on a book about Black girls had always felt like a lot to confront. I suppose it’s the fear of that confrontation that has kept me from reading it, but hopefully I will soon.

I’ve also been wanting to read The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara. The book is in my possession so I’m closer to reading it than For Colored Girls. Though this opening line is so loud:

”Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

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?

One thing about me—Imma buy a bunch of books that I know I’m not going to read until 2030. I am a compulsive book-buyer and have somehow convinced myself that if a book is not in my possession it will cease to exist. I know it’s dramatic, but I will go broke for books. I think that I am constantly trying to soothe and satisfy my inner child for the time that we stole money from a classmate to participate in the bookfair in first grade and got caught.

In general I am a monogamous book-reader but it’s been difficult to stay focused and I kind of have to trick myself into reading poetry these days. Right now, I keep this stack close to my bed; these books help me re-enter poetry and remember that I actually like to read it:

How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton

Haiti Glass by Lenelle Moïse

Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Teaches of Peaches by Diane Exavier

I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space Between Mountains by Rio Cortez

I also always try to leave the house with a novel in my hand so that I’ll read while I walk to work and I can feel like I’m making progress on something.

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

I really want to write an obverse poem, the form that Brooklyn poet Nicole Sealey created. I’ve been trying to write a contrapuntal for a smooth three years now but truthfully, I’m still developing the curiosity that is required to keep doing something that you might fail at more than three times.

I really adore poems that are arranged in different shapes or images, like this one by Angbeen Saleem. I often see poems in my head in shapes and images but am still working on executing this on the page.

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

I am an all-the-time writer. I will scribble poems / one-liners on whatever is closest and my notes app is full of baby poems. When it’s time to really sit down and work on something though, I am sitting up in my bed or on the couch, early in the morning with lots of water.

My favorite place and time to read is while walking anywhere and by a source of water. I really missed the beach this summer so finding spots by me where I can hear water running or see it move has been a special practice.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The bookstore and café at the Center for Fiction where I met the dreamiest booksellers and baristas, peace to my forever loves: D, Riley, DeShara, Nate and marcus! I have shaken my ass wherever there is an Everyday People party and at Café Erzulie many times. Mood Ring was kind of the spot during my junior year … chaotic.

I would do almost anything for the cheddar scallion biscuits at Father Knows Best and a seafood boil bag from Claw Daddy’s. In the before-times I enjoyed seeing movies at BAM and literally any Van Leeuwen’s location.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the blurring consequences of the moon,

And what I lose in the dazzling darkness you handle with earnest care,

For every misplaced rhythm in me as good as the metronome in you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because there is always someone I love nearby.