May 31–June 6, 2021
Mark Bibbins is the author of four poetry collections, most recently 13th Balloon (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), winner of the 2021 Thom Gunn Award from the Publishing Triangle. His first book, Sky Lounge, received a Lambda Literary Award. Bibbins lives in New York City and teaches in the graduate writing programs of the New School and Columbia University and in NYU’s Writers in Florence program. A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Paris Review and Best American Poetry. On Thursday, June 3, Bibbins will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Cea and Jordan E. Franklin.
Author photo by Rex Lott
from 13th Balloon
Twenty years after you died
I am still seeing sometimes
around Manhattan one of your exes
also named Mark
because that’s how our story
has always told itself
Mark and his dogs lived
in the same building downtown
as my friends and their dogs I assume
he didn’t recognize me
and what would I even have said
as we passed in the lobby
Hi you might not remember me but
Recently Mark and I ended
up seated at adjacent tables
at a restaurant in the Village
where I lacked the nerve to bring myself
to lean over to my friend
and say Don’t look
but that guy over there
My friend had been talking about
colony collapse and poetries
of witness but I was too distracted
to listen I felt like a bee
who’d been heading
for honey and gotten trapped instead
Recently I read that saving the honeybees
would no more save all the bees
than saving the chickens would
save all the birds
I often confuse
a sense of futility
with a call to action
An artist places broken
figurines in beehives
and the bees build their honeycombs
on them mending and mutating
Grief operates like that
its collaborators unwitting unaware
of the work being done
Grief arrives as shadows
darkening hives of loss
—From 13th Balloon, Copper Canyon Press, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It’s taken from a book-length work that’s mostly an elegy for someone who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. This section was written later on, once the book had gotten chugging along on its own. It’s fairly representative of the collection as a whole, which collages autobiographical experiences (e.g., spotting my dead boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend in the wild) with seemingly unrelated metaphors (e.g., the bee sculptures). Of course the metaphors are related, assuming they and I are doing our jobs.
What are you working on right now?
A few new poems have been showing up, albeit unsteadily and infrequently. 13th Balloon is the only book I’ve written that was really a “project,” and I’ve felt a little adrift since finishing it. Fallow periods are normal and good, I’ve been told, although I still find them terrifying.
What’s a good day for you?
Napping at some point is good. Laughing with friends is even better. I did plenty of the former throughout the pandemic, and it’s wonderful to be able to do more of the latter again.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Several friends of mine had decamped to New York City from Albany, where I grew up, around 1989–90 and I used to come down to visit them. It didn’t take many trips to figure out this was where I needed to be. I also needed to finish college (long story), which I did at Hunter. When I first moved here some dear friends let me crash at their place in Park Slope for a few months, before I landed in the East Village.
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?
Let’s just say Park Slope then didn’t exactly feel like Park Slope today, especially the block where I was staying, but I was so busy with school and work that I didn’t have much time to explore. I lived near the Navy Yard for a few years, which was kind of bleak, although Clinton Hill and Fort Greene were close by. At the time there wasn’t much to like about the neighborhood unless you had some weird attraction to the BQE—there was really no public access to the Navy Yard itself back then—and the thrill of walking past Whitman’s little place on Ryerson St. wore off quickly, although I thought the dilapidated houses on Admiral’s Row were fascinating (there’s a Wegmans there now). Being somewhat isolated was fine, as I enjoy neighborhoods that are kind of off to the side. I always end up living close to one of the rivers.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
As for the good, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, by whatever means. I’ve sustained two minor bone fractures in my life, both of which happened in Brooklyn, so that would fall in my personal bad column.
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?
Like breathing, it’s something I don’t necessarily notice or think about all the time, but I’d be sunk without it. Everyone has their own definition of a poetry community—how they engage with it, what they derive from it or are able to put into it. It’s meant different things to me at different times. With the Internet it all seems more diffuse now than it did twenty-five years ago, but not necessarily in a bad way. Even before that, especially among queer poets, community for me didn’t feel dependent upon a neighborhood or a borough or a building.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Enough of my esteemed poet-friends currently live in Brooklyn that I won’t try to list them, so I’ll say Marianne Moore. She lived in Fort Greene for almost forty years, which is why it’s odd that this archive should be in Philadelphia, but maybe I’ll go visit.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’m skittish about claiming anyone as a mentor, but I would certainly have to name the faculty I studied with at the New School: David Lehman, Robert Polito, Jason Shinder, David Trinidad and Susan Wheeler.
Before that, Richard Howard and I became friends when we met at a conference in 1994, and his support and encouragement really changed my life. (Scores of other poets would say the same thing about Richard.) Some years ago he and I read his poem “Wildflowers” together at the Brooklyn Museum; it’s an imagined dialogue between Whitman and Wilde, and I played Oscar to his Walt.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Some recent-ish ones are Claudia Rankine’s Just Us, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Chris Nealon’s The Shore and (currently) Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Listen My Friend, This Is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, all for their sustained commitments to both subject matter and form.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Having purchased it recently, I’m on the verge of getting to Bob Kaufman’s collected poems. People have been telling me for years that I would like Lisa Robertson’s work, so I should probably get to that too. And I just received an advance copy of Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, which is as good a reason as any for me to finally finish reading the whole thing.
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?
My attention span has never been great, and the pandemic has made it alarmingly less great, so I definitely dip in and out, although assigning books for classes helps me to be a lot more disciplined in terms of cover-to-cover reads.
I can use an e-reader for prose, but not for poetry—I’m still very much attached to physical books when it comes to the latter. If I assign something for a class I take a lot of notes, but not if I’m reading for myself, and either way I never write in books. Someone suggested that this is a holdover from when we were forbidden to write in school textbooks or library books.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m not exactly ancient yet, but at my age, if there were something I wanted to try, I would probably have tried it already. That said, I’m open to suggestion(s). With 13th Balloon I hadn’t set out with the intention of making a book-length poem—things tend to work out better when they sneak up on me.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I do enjoy being at home (my cats are awesome), but train and plane rides have always been weirdly generative for me. Being trapped in a seat with limited distractions helps me focus on both reading and writing. Otherwise I find it hard to concentrate in public; I’m in awe of anyone who can work in a café.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Live music is one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic, and in recent years a lot of the bands and DJs I love were playing more at venues in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. I’m a big fan of Elsewhere, in Bushwick, and I’ve seen tons of shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg since it opened. It’s a bonus that those are both in fun neighborhoods for grabbing a drink before or after a show. Kings Theatre is stunning, although I don’t think I’d be psyched getting stuck in the balcony.
A friend and I went to Green-Wood Cemetery recently (my first time) and I loved it, so gorgeous. I like to gawk at the fancy houses in Flatbush. I’ve always had a soft spot for Coney Island and Brighton Beach—it’s wonderful to be able to take a subway to the ocean—and the Bonsai Museum at the botanic garden is sublime.