March 20–26, 2023
Mary-Alice Daniel was born near the Niger–Nigeria border and raised in England and Tennessee. Her debut poetry collection, Mass for Shut-Ins, was selected by Rae Armantrout as the winner of the 2022 Yale Younger Poets Prize and will have its NYC launch on March 25. Daniel’s writing has appeared in the American Poetry Review, the Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, the Yale Review, Callaloo and the Best New Poets anthology. This past November, Ecco/Harper Collins published her first book of prose, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, a migrant memoir chosen as People’s Book of the Week and one of Kirkus’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2022. She is currently working on her third and fourth books as a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University. She is obviously a Scorpio.
for the actress terrified of aging
Imagine doing Hollywood with a phobia of light.
Faring fluorescence along La Brea, shy on Sunset.
Despairing of this desert where a defect in scorpions
makes them glow and reflect moonlight, starlight.
Navigating night via dung beetles, who in turn steer
by the imprecise & petty light from our Milky Way.
Meanwhile, Lucifer—Light Bringer, Morning Star—
seeks whom he may devour.
You’re exposed in Technicolor outside every 99¢ store,
unmasked in the alright yellowing at early bird events.
By matinée and marquee. Vintage & Space Age neons.
Bad energy adds up in glossy infrastructure of unluck.
So, flee to Nollywood—
to Nigeria’s daily power outages and the mercy in kerosene.
Just stay hidden during the dawning hours, and safe away
from alchemies of equatorial light steeped with all sunrise.
On the Dark Continent: Night is coming, when one can work.
The Vatican formally declared the death saint Santa Muerte
blasphemous, so pray to any patron saint of total lost causes.
Pray to sink into tar pits and transform fully into the fossil
you are already becoming . . . enshrined eons later in Lucite . . .
—From Mass for Shut-Ins by Mary-Alice Daniel, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2023 Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is actually one of my favorite poems in terms of my experience of writing it. I connect Nigeria and Los Angeles via their influential film industries (Nollywood is the world’s third-largest). In this poem, I embrace the idea of writing one’s own speculative visions—and versions—of mythical inheritance. I introduce an Africa that meets the noir. My Africa meets the city of Los Angeles in an interplay of light and shadow: noir Nigeriana.
This poem also presents the image of the scorpion, which appears in both the deserts of the American West and of my birthplace—as well as on the cover of my book. The glowing scorpion lays bare the body horror and grotesque beauty in all living creatures, and it corporates the definition of one of my favorite words—lurid—embodying all at once: gruesome, revolting, sensational; terrible in intensity, fierce passion and unrestraint; shining with an unnatural glow; wildly red. The exact dichotomy of light and dark. It mirrors the warning symbols I use to mark sections within the book—the garish hue of a moonlit scorpion is nature’s warning.
The original ending of this poem was:
Pray to sink into tar pits and transform wholly into the fossil
you are already becoming . . . reemerging eons later . . .
when you can be
I edit my poems long after they’ve been published—I don’t feel this ending is right yet.
What are you working on right now?
My third book involves an occult murder mystery, Chinese restaurants in rural Nigeria and me journeying to the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. I’m also writing some truly bad poems with titles like “Get into the Extra-Steroid Business (‘The Secret’ Is What We Call It) & Lift Heavy.” But give me ten years of obsessive revisions, and I’ll make that poem a knockout.
What’s a good day for you?
Waking up in a new city near a big body of blue water. On one of those days after I’ve done everything on the standard tourist checklist, after I’ve visited dozens of holy sites (I’m agnostic but gravitate always to churches, temples and mosques) and have nothing to do but walk around and get lost and eat and drink. Eighty degrees with a light breeze if I’m walking around outside; eighty-five to ninety-five degrees if I’m going to the beach. No clouds, ever. One of my best friends is with me—or I’m completely alone, anonymous, in a place where no one knows me or cares that I exist.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The summer before I moved to Brooklyn was the happiest time of my life; I was also broke. The day I was supposed to start my new job at the hip bakery in New Haven (where I was taking a summer course), the guy I’d had a crush on since freshman year happened to be driving to New York. By the way, he looked exactly like a young Bob Dylan. I said yes, ghosted the job and showed up with nowhere to stay. My sister lived in the East Village but only had a twin bed and a roommate with a strict no-guest policy. I was given two days to find a place, then I randomly received a message from a girl on Craigslist who messaged me because she had an armchair I could sleep on for $200/month in Williamsburg. We became such fast friends that the same night I moved in, we slept together platonically in her double bed, and kept that sleeping arrangement the whole summer until I had to return to Yale. My two best friends and I had a pact that we’d all move to NYC after graduating college, but we graduated into the recession of 2008 and didn’t have jobs lined up. Still, two of us followed through. One of them lived on the couch in my railroad apartment’s living room, but he wasn’t cut out for the uncertain, unsettled life like I am, and fled home to Dallas. He’s now a very successful graphic designer, and he helped me design the cover of Mass for Shut-Ins.
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 in Crown Heights for about eight months before moving to Harlem, because I got a job upstate and needed to be able to commute on the Metro North. Our landlady was an antagonistic Jamaican lady with whom my interactions always gave me intense déjà vu—I grew up in England, and our landlady was also a Jamaican woman. Her screaming matches with my mother became one of the soundtracks of my adolescence. I loved the Caribbean and Afro-Cuban restaurants. Apart from that, my food-procuring abilities were trash. I’ve never struggled that much to obtain the basic staples of nutrition; I didn’t even have a granny cart, and for that reason alone, I was doing New York City all wrong. My parents drove up from Maryland with sacks of potatoes and assorted oversized tubs of microwaveable slop from Sam’s Club. I liked that I could walk to a Tasti D-Lite, which I was obsessed with. Remember that chain? It was famous for “zero-calorie” ice cream; I vaguely remember some scandal where it was exposed for lying about its fat content. I just looked it up; it’s no longer there. I imagine the rents have doubled in Crown Heights like anywhere else.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
We naïvely bought a Russian blue kitten, Milhous Von Obama, from an “ethical” breeder only to realize that all his veterinary records were fake. He turned out to be a pretty good guard cat, though, and scared off some dudes trying to break into our apartment through the fire escape in the middle of the day—when my sister and I were both home. They weren’t very good burglars.
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 was able to move to Brooklyn with a surprise fellowship I won on the day of my graduation. After rent, nothing was left, so I got a job. I didn’t write poetry most of that time. I didn’t go to any events. I went to work and to bars, and when I couldn’t afford bars, we drank in parks like all broke new transplants. I don’t really live anywhere now. I’m working to build a poetry community of Black writers across the Diaspora—using my existing network of Nigerian writers—to make a space where we can heal some of our rifts. I’m both African and American (a dual citizen), and the conversations I’ve had with friends from all corners of the Diaspora lead me to believe I can do this work.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Too many to name, so I’ll mention two unexpected ones.
When I think of Brooklyn and poetry, I immediately think of Jack Kerouac, who is not one of my favorite writers and not primarily known for his poetry. This is because I read his poem “Hymn” when I was that age (fifteen) when I was first getting acquainted with the Beat Generation and first committing poetry to memory—not purposefully, as I later did, but because I read their poems over and over, incredulously, learning for the first time that we were “allowed” to do things like that with words. These lines from his poem recall Brooklyn and bathe it in a quality of light that is always of the brightest morning:
And when you showed me Brooklyn Bridge
in the morning,
That’s when you taught me tears, Ah
God in the morning,
Sufjan Stevens also counts as a poet. I’m taken with the confluence of his perfections: perfect presence, perfect aesthetics, perfect predilection for death.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ll mention one. Louise Glück, who taught my undergraduate poetry workshops at Yale, gave me advice that has become the overarching directive in my creative life over the past two decades: “Write only what only you can write.”
Tell us about the last book(s)/poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
One of my absolute favorite poems is “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World” by Lucie Brock-Broido. I read it first in her book Stay, Illusion, and I was lucky enough to meet her at USC when I’d just started my PhD there. I have the poem’s link bookmarked and return to it often. Somehow, I only recently realized that I’d been misreading one of my favorite phrases in these lines of the poem:
Too far gone to halt the Arctic Cap’s catastrophe, big beautiful
Blubbery white bears each clinging to his one last hunk of ice.
For some reason (I blame my bad eyes), I always read the phrase as “big beautiful blueberry white bears.” I imagined the bears being that shade of white—Arctic white—that’s so cold it’s tinged with a pale electric blue. A frigid blueberry. So, I’m just rereading the poem anew.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
So Far So Good by Ursula K. Le Guin, Bestiary: Poems by Donika Kelly, Nox by Anne Carson, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James.
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 do keep reading lists. I start one book (I travel so much that this usually takes place on a long flight) and get as far as I can. But whenever I’m not traveling, I have so little time to read that if I return to that same book, I have to start at the beginning again. I’ve read the first fifty pages of the same books so many times; I desperately want to finish them, but while I don’t remember what happened well enough to parse the rest of the plot, I remember enough that I’m impatient. One of my major life goals is to return to Cuba, where internet access is spotty, and just read for half a year.
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 poem with a happy ending. I’m not sure why.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
There is a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, which has a hot tub overlooking the main square with a bar above it and a bar below it blasting music until 3 AM. I read entire books soaking in it all day.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I loved that I could walk to Prospect Park, though I only did so twice. It still existed in my mind as a sunlit sanctuary I could theoretically transport myself to whenever I wanted, if I weren’t stuck in the inertia of winter, watching every episode of The Simpsons from beginning to end to distract myself from the breakdown of a relationship with the man whose love I delusionally believed would solve every problem in my life. He made my mind feel immaculate, and he greeted me in the morning: “Hey, gorgeous.” His apartment was spotless. He was an exquisite liar; he forgave me everything. I lived right by the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. I liked to take it to its terminal point and back, going nowhere, listening to the playlists on my iPod I downloaded during New Haven winters, which almost prepared me for New York City winters. I liked the going, somewhere and nowhere. I liked the bars that I wore my American Apparel bodycon dresses to, those dresses I still wear fifteen years later. I loved the bridge because I was young when I chose to walk across it into Manhattan just to save a couple of bucks. When everyone was fleeing Manhattan during the pandemic in 2020, I moved there for a few months for research for my memoir.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I chose to fill in the blanks with Whitman’s own words, recalled from my own memory, to see what I can get right. I think it goes:
I celebrate the song of myself,
And what I shall assume, you shall assume,
For every (something something) me as good (belongs to?) you.
I’ve been torturing myself trying to remember the last line, and I can’t. After this is published, I’ll look it up and kick myself. I’m embarrassed.
It’s probably still possible to rent an armchair in Williamsburg to sleep in for $200/month. I will never live in New York City again.