Poet Of The Week

Matvei Yankelevich

     June 17–23, 2013

Matvei Yankelevich is the author of the poetry collection Alpha Donut (United Artists Books) and the novella-in-fragments Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books), and the translator of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook/Ardis). He is one of the founding editors of Ugly Duckling Presse, where he curates the Eastern European Poets Series. This summer he’ll return to the writing faculty at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, and in the fall he’ll be a visiting writer at the MFA Program in creative writing at LIU in downtown Brooklyn.

Author photo by Sara Renee Marshall


The Author woke up one morning and wrote down all the things he had to do. Then he looked at his finger. The same finger he had had all his life at the end of his hand. All his life he had pointed at things with this finger, asking what they were. But he had never asked about his finger. A finger like any other, it should not have given him any pause. To think, even this day. But there it was, a finger at the end of his hand, extended and breaking at the edge into the end of him. He examined it closely and saw a singular finger. He tried pointing at this and that, but all he could see was his finger. Everything was his finger. Everything he touched now was a finger. A long time passed for everyone. He went through the list, moving his finger down the page. So much to do, so much to do.

–From Boris by the Sea, Octopus Books, 2009.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This is an odd piece to ask this question of, just because it’s not really a poem. It’s a little story about the Author who is a character in the Borises (little pieces “about” Boris, also a form of prose I tried to invent). This way of writing was a zone I could get into when I was writing the Borises. In this case I was in that zone writing about the Author (who may be the author of the Borises in the world of Boris). It’s sort of the piece when the Author becomes really just like Boris, a counterpart or doppelgänger, etc. Or just the same thing. (In that sense, it could be the end of the “story” due to total identification of author and character, a kind of death of the dynamics caused by their difference.) But I didn’t plan it out, if that’s what the question’s about. It’s just that the Borises yielded things like this.

Authors (traditionally speaking) point at things. It’s like an idea of writing as simply an index, a pointing out of things “out there,” as if writing were a transparent window or “clear” screen, without its own medium … Here this act of just pointing becomes problematic–the Author is re-focused on the thing that points. That’s really the main issue that runs through the Boris book in different ways: The pause provided by the interference of the medium in the narrative, what does it do? Here it interferes to the point of occluding the Author’s vision. Each piece in the Boris book is perhaps a possible ending of the book, and this is a rather final one, despite the suggestions that there’s still more to tackle on the “to do” list.

What are you working on right now?

Speaking of “to do” lists: I’ve been working on long poems for a while, the last four years. Two are in the editing stage, which for me is a long process, and I’m trying to find publishers for them, as book-length poems. Excerpts have appeared here and there, but it’s hard to know what to do with a long poem. A large selection from one of these–“Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt”–has just appeared in an unusual place (a large-format art book from Dia, about the work of Koo Jeong A) and in an unusual form: a sort of shot-by-shot commentary is squeezed between the poems.

This current jag of long poems started for me with “Composition Book” around summer 2009. (I’m almost finished editing about 4 years later.) The Boris book–built out of little bits of simple prose, vignettes, skits and aphoristic fragments–was finally coming out that fall and I had no idea what next. My father had just died earlier that year, and I just decided to try to put one letter after another in the most banal quad-ruled composition book, to see what would happen. If I could write about where I was with that and everything else around me. Through very slow accretion and some constrained visual parameters, in about a year, I managed to fill up 99 of its pages (I had torn one out), which meant, maybe I was able to write something after all–and then I began editing, letting it sit, then editing again. And started another long poem, with very different parameters.

I spent part of 2010-11 trying to figure out how I might piece together my most recent book, Alpha Donut, which was really my first book of poems, a pastiche of “shorter works” from about 12 years of writing, starkly different from these longer forms. For the last two years, I’m mostly in editing mode, which involves reading stuff I maybe should’ve read before writing the long poems, re-thinking their flow and pace and attempting to discern why I am (or was) so darn certain they are long poems to begin with. There are a few new long poems that are just beginning to form, some in drafts and notes, one just in my head, and maybe won’t amount to anything. And then, if you consider my dissertation a long poem, well, that’s been forming for a while and might someday lead to a book or, even better, just a few letters after my name.

I realize you asked about “now,” and I guess “now” can be a fairly long time. Maybe the long poems (help to?) stretch it out. If “now” just means today, well, depends on the day you ask: I could be writing grants or otherwise trying to replenish the depleted coffers of a very small press, or editing other people’s translations or poetry for publication at UDP, or teaching a class about books (as objects that carry meaning), working with interns, designing a cover, answering a hundred and one emails before breakfast, staring at a brick wall with a glass of red wine in my hand thinking about whether the long poem should be cut into three sections with a prime number of poems in each, or maybe scrap the equilibrium, and more likely doing a combination of those things in one hectic “now.”

What’s a good day for you?

Sometimes even a day spent alone typesetting a book or printing a cover is a kind of meditative day (meditating upon the letter without writing), which I’m grateful for, stepping out into the Can Factory courtyard on a break and seeing the strange sunset light by the canal. Other times it’s a day spent walking. Or a day spent at home. It’s good if I’m not checking email. A day spent without leaving my neighborhood further than I can easily walk or bike is pretty nice. A day spent without a deadline in mind–I dream of that day.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

Not counting about 7 months in a cheap illegal loft in Jersey City, I’ve lived in Brooklyn pretty consistently since 1998 or 1999, after a year or so in Woodside (Queens). From 2000 to 2006 or so I was in Red Hook, which was for a long time “my neighborhood,” and since then in Prospect Heights, which I find a bit more convenient, though I sometimes miss the empty streets. The press (UDP) has been pretty much headquartered in Brooklyn since 2000 in various places, beginning with my living room on Pioneer St. in Red Hook, and for the last six years in Gowanus, at the Can Factory. I can bike or walk there, which is as good as the weather.

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

All my experiences in Brooklyn are defining, by definition. Many of them shouldn’t even count as experiences, they are more succinct, non-narrative: movements of the light on brick warehouses near the water, or the affect of a salesman or a drooping stoop or standpipe, or the snapshot of a scrap-metal collector on 3rd Ave passing a gaggle of Muslim school children, etc. Its ordering a martini at the weird bar at Juniors; or Sunny gesturing for us to come in and learning to tally our drinks on a little card with an etching of a frigate on the other side … Maybe I don’t have experiences? What does it take for something to become an experience?

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Laura (Riding) Jackson went to high school in Brooklyn, and at the age of 15 decided she was a poet. That happened in Brooklyn, so that’s good. And she definitely left Brooklyn in a big way. And maybe I like her most because she also left poetry, with plenty of good reasons. I think of Oppen and Reznikoff as Brooklyn poets (though Oppen was born in New Rochelle). Oppen has a beautiful poem on Sheepshead Bay, and so on. Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn. Steve Dalachinsky came up in Park Slope when you wouldn’t want to, as did S. David, a poet who still lives in Red Hook. Actually, Eugene Ostashevsky spent his high school years around Park Slope, too, so I think he should count. Poets who’ve come here in their twenties, and maybe lived here briefly … maybe they are Brooklyn poets (like Hart Crane from Cleveland?) but I don’t think of myself that way.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

I cannot name them. But they exist. The one around the corner from me is my favorite, and not just because it’s around the corner.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

You could call it home, but actually it’s my apartment. Really the only other place is in the subway under Brooklyn. The cafes that have gardens don’t let you smoke anymore, or make you feel weird; you can’t even smoke in the park. Maybe Outpost on Fulton is the last bastion of a relaxed civilization. But cafes in New York / Brooklyn are now geared toward “work” (laptops), which is not what I think of as a space for writing and reading, which requires, for me, getting away from from the work-vibes emanating from the Screen.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Again, my apartment. I used to be more of a flaneur, but I still like wandering and tasting odd food in odd little places in this or that neighborhood, Sunset Park, etc. or stumbling upon weird “Russian” food stores down in Sheepshead, Ditmas, etc. (Brighton Beach creeps me out a little because I can speak Russian … Well, I won’t explain that here.) Now that most neighborhoods in walking distance (and easy biking distance) to me are predictable (and predictably gentrified), I have to explore further out. But I still like walking around anywhere in Brooklyn but not really stopping anywhere. Getting lost in the park is still good. I like some of the bars but my attraction doesn’t ever last long enough for me to become a neighborly regular–and how would you? If they’re pleasant, they get too busy too fast. (If you know of a quiet place, don’t tell anyone, but you can tell me.) And then there’s my apartment, close to a bookstore, “intimate,” with a fairly full bar, and if I get my record player working again maybe I can lure some friends over and they’ll–hopefully–recognize me.

Last awesome book(s) you read?

Elizabeth Robinson. Counterpart. (Ahsahta, 2012)

Vilém Flusser. Writings. (U of Minnesota, 2002)

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Frigidaire,

And what I put in it you should find in there

For every plum for me as good dawns, chill you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

I had a father

who couldn’t tell a Yankee from a Dodger

his name was not, um, jack

and yet, by the same account, his name was not, uh, rob

so un-american, I don’t think he even believed in sin

he liked rhyme–he didn’t hear poetry, he said, in the English
though he wrote with it, sparingly, which is what one could say
     of his use of love

I don’t think he really cared, or could care less, if I lived in
     Queens or Brooklyn,

what’s the difference really, to him I mean; if he knew how,
     he’d have said, no Biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

Because in what other place would that question sound both ironic and preposterously proud. Brooklyn has for a long time had a big head about being a small town. In this sense, it is perhaps perfectly provincial, now even more than Manhattan, in the best and worst ways. (I like that tension.) I’ve always thought it could be really great as a separate city, if we could take it back again, as it used to be. I’m not so sure the stadium and high-rises forced on us by the usual collusions between NYC politicians and developers (most of whom don’t pay income taxes in Brooklyn) wouldn’t go up just as fast, bringing down the little houses and dive bars where I used to hang, and filling the open spaces, and changing what Brooklyn likes to boast as its “character.” But one might hope that it would resist the temptation. In any case, it’s still got enough character for me.