Poet Of The Week

Mari Pack

     September 18–24, 2023

Mari Pack is a writer living in West Philly. She graduated with an MFA in poetry from Hunter College in 2020. Her poems have been published in Poetry International, Cagibi and Pigeon Pages, and her poetry chapbook The Description of a New World came out in 2019 from Dancing Girl Press. She was a finalist for the 2020 C. P. Cavafy Poetry Prize.

Author photo by Brandon Dottin

Bet means house in Hebrew and other Semitic languages

I pass strangers at the supermarket, arms loaded with cottage cheese, golden-headed persimmons bursting into fistfuls of angry delight.

Is a bet a lie you grow into?

My Ashkenaz father taught us to rest, invest, assume life will get better,

but I bet on dying horses, run with what is left of my face—howling!—into a summer dress, assume life will get something, until fear grabs me by the throat, says eat it, good girl, eat it, and the spine answers its own question.

What horse doesn’t dread the jump, stop short, collide into holly bushes, beg to taste the other side of revenge?

Is a bet a lie you grow into?

According to science, gamblers never recover, risk everything at the uptick—double or nothing, coins into crapshoots, another, another drink.

O Lord, if I let myself grow uninterrupted, wild beneath the Golan, will I explode, sprout red into ocean palms … ?


Brooklyn Poets · Mari Pack, “Bet means house in Hebrew and other Semitic languages”

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem is from a larger collection that explores themes of guilt and punishment, which I started writing as an MFA thesis at Hunter College in 2018. A solid half of the work is dedicated to Judaism and Biblical themes, and some of those poems explore mythical and literal representations of Israel. It occurred to me after most of the collection was formed that I didn’t really have a poem interrogating the Israeli government. This felt like a massive hole.

In 2021, when I started exploring a statehood poem, Al Jazeera released a video of an American-Israeli settler arguing with a Palestinian woman about his right to occupy her generational family home. That same year, I started a twelve-step program for friends and family of alcoholics, so I was very tuned in to addiction narratives. How does one enable the alcoholic? How does a gambling addict behave? The central question—is a bet (meaning both a house and a wager) a lie you grow into?—formed around these influences.

What are you working on right now?

The second draft of my YA graphic novel about the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which I started writing before the war. It was very surreal the day the Russian army overtook the site in 2022.

What’s a good day for you?

I almost wrote a list—morning yoga, a chunk of time writing, a long walk, dinner with friends, etc.—but honestly, a good day is when the winds of providence carry me across the ocean like the birth of Venus. A good day is when I feel lucky. I’ve had a lot of them recently.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was sick with a miserable chronic illness back in 2015, and we weren’t sure if I was going to really recover. I had moved back in with my parents in the DC suburbs, but decided to move to Brooklyn as a sort of trial by fire. It was an “If I fail, at least I’ve failed in New York” kind of mentality. I had a chunk in savings, which floated me until I got a copywriting job. In retrospect, this was not a particularly smart idea, and it certainly freaked my mom out. But I did find an excellent physical therapist in Sunset Park.

Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I lived for several years between Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, where I made a lot of friends. Ridgewood, Queens (sorry!) was my favorite New York neighborhood to live in. Packed to the seams with Soviet dissidents and many delicious taquerias.

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

I was walking a dog out in Bed-Stuy when a man came up behind me and said something like Nice curly hair, girl. I have big hair, so this is not an uncommon street compliment. The dog also happened to have curly hair, so I said Thanks, but he is actually a boy dog. Some of the neighborhood aunties hanging around outside the apartment complex overheard me and laughed. They always gave me a wave after that.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?

I moved to West Philly a few years ago and I love it. I have been told by the locals not to talk it up too hard and attract more New Yorkers, so I will just share that I am still in the process of finding my poetry community here. I recently started hosting an outdoor poetry reading in North Philly where readers are required to read the work of other poets in addition to their own. I want to be around poets who prioritize and uplift the writing of others across time and space. I had such an incredible writing community when I lived in Brooklyn, so I am taking it slow here.

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

Shira Erlichman has become a foundational influence on my writings about illness.

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

I cannot possibly overstate the impact of Donna Masini, Catherine Barnett and Tom Sleigh. These were my professors at Hunter College and they changed everything for me. Donna Masini oversaw my MFA thesis and encouraged me to write poems out of the painful moment rather than (by my own instinct) holding it at a distance through memory.

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

I just finished both of Madeline Miller’s books, The Song of Achilles and Circe. I don’t know why I always resist bestsellers until a few years after the hype dies down. I got to (re)read some of The Father by Sharon Olds to a new audience last month. It’s so good. Screaming, crying, throwing up, etc. Also, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? by Mahmoud Darwish. The reason they left the horse alone is, predictably, very devastating.

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

I have the Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey sitting half-read on my nightstand. The Dolphin by Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, which I started reading but lost in my move out of New York.

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 used to be a big note-taker. That is probably a holdover from going to graduate school too many times. I recently got a Kindle. It’s a better fit for my current reading style, which is to read two or three books at once and DNF (“do not finish”) anything that doesn’t blow the top of my head off within the first sixty pages. I like to have a poetry collection, a nonfiction book and a novel in rotation at the same time.

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

I’m often told by poetry friends that I would benefit from a more formal style to guide my first drafts. Containment scares the hell out of me, which is probably something to be worked out in therapy rather than poetry. I should probably try a form with a lot of structural rules. I feel like everyone says villanelle. A ghazal, maybe?

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

On my phone while on the subway. I heard that this is how Melissa Broder wrote her first collections, too.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Father Knows Best on a Tuesday night was my go-to for years. I ordered loaded nachos and whiskey gingers and gossiped with staff and other regulars. Everyone had an intriguing backstory, an addiction problem and a great sense of humor. Those folks have since moved on, but it was a time and place that shaped my Brooklyn experience.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the last good year,

And what I fear you fear,

For every bad apple in me as good ripens in you.

Why Brooklyn?

A lot of gluten-free restaurant options.