May 13–19, 2019
Marietta Brill’s poems, essays and reviews have appeared in several journals, most recently Thrush, Mom Egg Review, the Adirondack Review and About Place’s Rewilding Issue. She is an enthusiastic member of Brooklyn Poets and the women-run Sweet Action Poetry Collective. Brill and her husband divide their time between Brooklyn, the Catskills and the West Coast where their son and other dear ones live. Her poem “Crossing Manhattan Bridge on the Q” was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the 23+ age bracket in our Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest.
Crossing Manhattan Bridge on the Q
Where are we going, Walt Whitman?
O Stranger who crammed in at Union Square banging my bad knee
a fist-thick space between us hip to hip breathing in your ancient
beard funk your nightworn thread funk & when the train stalled
dark patches falling between us I blamed you & dreaded your rant
please may he not rant I prayed but you did … we the day among countless
crowds of passengers together travel in darkness that I was I knew was of my body
and forever held in the waters distance avails not … etc. like that all the way
to Canal until doors suddenly lit open & the circle widened around you
still toe to toe with you & your abrupt questionings blazed from the bone:
Who was to know what should come home to me? Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you
cannot see me? then I did see you & when we ascended the bridge birdsong
filled the car & we stopped at the arc where the downflow of my river
met with the upflow of your sea & spokes of light rounded the shape
of your head & the shimmering crowns of countless passengers encircled
us & the crossing currents spangled below like jewels & you lifted them up
threading their light between us to guide our way home.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote the poem specifically for the Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest challenge, responding to Whitman’s quote “What is it then between us?” from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” I started taking notes, meditating on the double meaning: that which separates us, like fear and anger, and that which we share, like secrets or love. One day on the train to work, writing in my notebook, I found myself sitting near a bedraggled man, mumbling angrily, writing in his journal. I couldn’t read the words, but I felt a kinship with him and his struggle to express himself. Then I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “A Supermarket in California,” where he finds Whitman (“lonely old grubber”) in the produce aisle. I took it from there, weaving words and phrases from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” between the street poet and the speaker.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few series of poems, about nature, illness and work (the ones about illness are the most upbeat!) I’m also struggling with an old unsuccessful poem about the Charlottesville murder because James Fields recently pled guilty to charges, so it’s back in my consciousness.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is when I feel I’ve gotten some traction with a poem and can’t wait to get to work on it. I’m happy when I remember to meditate and my concoction of chai tea with milk doesn’t boil over. It’s a great day when I connect with my son at college on the West Coast. Taking a long walk can change my day for the better, as can a good laugh with my husband or a conversation with one of my siblings.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
About eighteen years ago, when Jack was four, we were ready to leave our bathtub-in-the-kitchen studio in the East Village. We heard Park Slope apartments were ample and affordable, near a beautiful park and nice schools. It sounded like freakin’ Shangri-La. I had no idea how much more there was to Brooklyn till we got here.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
About a year ago we moved to South Slope near 4th Ave. I believe they call it the dollar store/gym district. It feels slightly industrial, being wedged between the BQE and the Prospect Expressway, but also has pretty, tree-lined streets. There’s a nice small-town feeling. It’s more diverse than our old neighborhood, and has much less stroller intensity. In good weather, our neighbors have family parties out on the front stoop, and hold parking spots for us and each other. It’s in flux, and while I don’t see boutiques yet, they’re imminent. There are three massive construction projects within a block of us—the skyline is disappearing inch by inch. Of course, it’s disingenuous of me to complain because I love boutiques, and I am the harbinger of this change.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
The first summer we arrived, we went to our first block party—everyone came out with dishes to pass, games for the kids. It was like a family reunion with distant relatives of all ages. We felt instantly welcome. I think Brooklyn is defined by its warmth and neighborliness.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I didn’t know how much I wanted a poetry community until I found it in Brooklyn Poets and Sweet Action Poetry Collective (a women-run group of poets who have regular workshops, readings and events). Finding this community was like discovering a necessary, delicious food.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Walt Whitman, for his earnest love of humanity, hopefulness, elevating imagery and for breaking conventions to create the perfect form for his ideas. In a Whitmanesque way, I could enumerate a bunch more beloved Brooklyn poets, starting with a few “A”s like Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde. But the list is too long.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Most people can say their mother or father taught them to speak, but my mother taught me poetry just by the way she used language. John Updike said Nabokov wrote prose the only way it should be written, ecstatically. That’s how my mother spoke. She grew up speaking three different languages, and by the time she got to English, her word choice and syntax were pretty unique. And she loved words. She loved puns, muddled idioms in a charming way, made up lyrics to songs. As a non-native speaker, her language seemed to get extra magic through the filter of translation. I would have liked a real mentor relationship in my life as a poet, but I’m shy, plus I didn’t study writing until I took Brooklyn Poets workshops. The teachers of these workshops probably have no idea how much I’ve appreciated their insights.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Li-Young Lee’s book The Undressing. The long title poem is “about” the speaker conversing with a woman while making love to her. But this conceit carries so much. It’s a gorgeous, tender poem about love and life and death, with these themes building as the narrative moves from her feet upward. Here is one of many beautiful images that took my breath away:
And there’s still
the butterfly’s night sea-journey to consider.
Such a beautiful way to describe how we persevere through our bewildering lives.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Too many! Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, Sappho—I just got hold of Anne Carson’s translations in If Not, Winter. I started Claudia Rankine’s Citizen a few years ago and lost it on a train. In general, I also want to make time for more fiction as well as literary and art criticism, but there’s so much poetry.
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’m a dipper, but there are some exceptions—for example, I read Ed Hirsch’s Gabriel and Miller Oberman’s The Unstill Ones in one sitting. I try to plan my readings, but easily get derailed. I dropped everything recently for a discarded street book of essays on Pop Art edited by Lucy Lippard that I literally found on the way to seeing the Warhol exhibit. And yes, books with pages please.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to write a long poem that doesn’t bore anyone into a coma, first and foremost myself.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I envy writers scribbling or clicking away on their laptops in cafés. The minute I try it, my mind goes blank. I do a lot of writing on the subway—you’re left alone but not too lonely, and there’s always something noteworthy to muse about when you run out of ideas.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love the side streets of Brooklyn, the infinite variety of houses and hopeful little front yards. I love the Prospect Park baseball fields where I spent every weekend for about ten years watching my son pitch, drinking with other parents as the trees bloomed out in the spring and changed in the fall. I love the shores of Red Hook. And I always get a weird thrill walking across the Gowanus. Someone once told me that in Whitman’s time, Gowanus oysters were the size of dinner plates. Scientists and schoolkids are planting a billion baby oysters to filter and restore Hudson River estuaries, including the canal. I always think of that when I cross, and how estuary is such a beautiful word.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Walt Whitman’s dinner of giant Gowanus oysters
And what I want in my heart’s empty plate you fill with your enumerations
For every billion set in the wasted eddies of me as good as the falling-back to the sea of you.