May 11–17, 2020
Meher Manda is a poet, short story writer, journalist and educator originally from Mumbai, India, currently based in New York City. She earned her MFA in fiction from the College of New Rochelle where she was the founding editor-in-chief of the Canopy Review. She is the author of the chapbook Busted Models (No, Dear / Small Anchor, 2019), and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Peach Mag, Catapult, Epiphany, the Los Angeles Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and elsewhere. She was a fellow of the Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium at DreamYard and has been nominated for the Best New Poets 2020 anthology. Her poem “The Other” was a winning entry in Lumina’s La Lengua NYC Multilingual Writers Contest. She is one-half of An Angry Reading Series and lives in Brooklyn.
—after Nicole Sealey’s “Medical History”
Before I’m dead and gone, I really want
people to know that you often inherit
that which you don’t want.
I come from a family with no discernible
medical trauma, so spare the forms
for a moment please, and hear this out.
My father was the first diabetic in
a healthy family, pitter-pattering household
squabbles sent him running to deep fried
street food and all those years of blocking out
the anger; now a gentle cawing of conflict
sends veins popping on his neck. Varicose
blood vessels have irrigated blue channels
all over my mother’s legs. She once had a
deep murmur in the chest but it was anxiety
she learned to hide, so she began to lift
bucketfuls of water for a dry household,
carrying weight on her legs, which is
why even in life-threatening events today,
she will only take small, unhurried steps.
My parents have loved and lost parents
to mortality counts, and cheap rumours,
so my father always stuck around with a job
that sucked the life out of him, never daring
for enterprise. My mother’s father walked
one day and then never did for twenty
years, so even the smallest twinge of shooting
ache my mother calls lethal, because we live
in a world where people haven’t returned alive
from a number of things like jobs / sleep / baths /
love / and my mother only knows too damn well
the consequences of taking things lightly. I,
in turn, take everything seriously, every snide
remark, stink-eye, disapproval I take to heart
and body like insomnia pills. I stay awake
long hours agonising over shameful moments,
and I have learnt to be hated without ever
asking why. I walk, vulnerable to death falls.
I imagine my death will hit me shoddily,
mid-emotion, jolting me out of wakefulness,
so I never allow myself too much happiness
at the beach or too much distance in the sea,
I take great pains to not take for granted
the safety measures on any mechanisation,
checking for locked switches, on-off buttons,
and power bolts. I believe nature is more likely
to kill me than man, so I keep equal distance
from both, like my mother who on her
first flight at the age of fifty was certain
that as luck has served her, she will plummet
to death toward the mouth of an eager shark,
like I who will never unfasten my seat belt
on a plane no matter how smooth its sailing,
it’s only temporary. I don’t know why my
parents are so scared of dying, when they
never really dug the living part. But I bear
great likeness to them in that I’m constantly
anxious of dying too, and this anxiety looks
like all my unwritten words in balloon font
growing inside my head, until one day they will
explode with all the gray matter and kill me
instantly. All this I will be unable to say
on an emergency form, so I carry a copy of
this poem in my wallet folds.
—From Busted Models, No, Dear / Small Anchor, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was reading Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey and it is such a stellar work, without a single note out of place. There are such brilliant, one-of-a-kind poems in the book that I found myself returning to, but for some reason the poem “Medical History” had me wound around its finger. It was a theme that I was exploring in my own work at the time, about the things you inherit without a choice in the matter. “For Admittance” was born from that as a way to place the inheritance of worry, grief and fear within the parlance of a medical history form, thus the ending, “All this I will be unable to say / on an emergency form … ”
This is the only poem I’ve ever written where I had the closing lines before I had the rest of the poem etched out. This poem stemmed from resentment, but along the way it grew toward acceptance. In keeping with the sort of step-by-step, clinical narration of a medical form, the poem has quick line breaks, and doesn’t linger on a moment for long—almost like a list poem. As soon as a hypothesis or a symptom is laid out, I quickly move on to the next. Much like Sealey does in “Medical History,” before landing on the devastating final line that marks her poem.
What are you working on right now?
I am revising my poetry manuscript titled Some of Many Women. A small chunk of the collection appeared in my chapbook, Busted Models. The collection is both a letter of reverence for the femininity that shaped me and a clarion call for a better tomorrow. A few months ago, I had a moment of radical reconsideration, during which I sacrificed a few poems from the collection and replaced them with some others. I’m currently reimagining the narrative structure, which means sheets of paper sprawled on the floor with me sat in the center, hoping for an answer.
I’m also working on a short story collection that has been in the works since my MFA days. Each story in the collection travels through the hallways of intimate, interior lives of Indian women.
What’s a good day for you?
A day without anxiety, when I don’t have deadlines or expectations to make me nervous. A day where I can pace myself out, read books, write a little, cook and eat good food. A walk outside on a nice sunny evening feels so necessary, all things considered.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
When I moved to New York from Mumbai, I first lived in Flushing, Queens, because it was the only place I could afford on my graduate assistant stipend. I then moved to Harlem, and I loved that part of the city. For the first time, I felt like I was home. When that ended, I realized all my friends were in Brooklyn, my work was in Brooklyn, and the literary events that I had attended and missed happened in Brooklyn. It seemed destined for me to move there. I have only been here a month since the lockdown, but I kinda appreciated how I could just walk to meet my friends, and how vibrant the space is.
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?
I live by the Franklin 2/3/4/5. I think it’s the intersection of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights? I’m not really sure. I love that, before the quarantine anyway, I could walk to work and walk to meet my friends, and the nice restaurants are all around me.
My current neighborhood is definitely more gentrified than either East Harlem or Flushing. I didn’t get to experience the place enough before the quarantine hit, and right now, I just want to be able to go to a well-stocked coffeeshop and write.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I think about the first time I went to Brooklyn, spent the evening at my friend Chelsea’s terrace, shooting the shit. Or about my first movie at Nitehawk or chatting up Salman Rushdie at the Center for Fiction. Or that time I went to see Mitski live, all by myself as one does here. Or watching Kikagaku Moyo on a roof-top venue?
Brooklyn, for me, until I moved here at least, always existed in these moments and evenings. But now that I live here, I’m excited to see how the borough reveals itself to me.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Because I’m not from here, or from America, I tend to see New York City as a monolith. Not because I don’t see how diverse and completely removed from one another—economically and culturally—the boroughs are, but the city and country sometimes becomes one foreign place I dropped into.
And the poetry community has been such a salve. From my very first reading, when someone spotted me doing a poetry open mic and invited me to another reading, to an editor coming up to me soliciting my work after a reading, to friends who’ve offered to read my work and talk shop with me. Writers are my closest friends here, and if it weren’t for them, I wonder what doors would have opened for me. I think of the kindness and generosity of this community, and hope to model that for any writers who come after me.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Oh! Walt Whitman, obviously. And June Jordan, Aracelis Girmay, Ocean Vuong and Kim Addonizio have been personally important to me. I’m sure there are a lot of other poets I love but don’t know of their association with Brooklyn.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I did fiction in my MFA, so I would say my biggest poetry mentors are those poets whose work I read and felt something shift within me as a writer. Sharon Olds taught me to be incisive and honest, Ocean Vuong to be generous with the world and the written word, Marwa Helal to be inventive, Diane Seuss to be vulnerable—I could go on and on.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
In poetry, I absolutely loved Ariel Francisco’s A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, and I happened to read Ling Ma’s Severance just as shit was about to hit the fan with the pandemic, and it was both scary and exhilarating? I loved it.
I also think Safia Elhillo’s “For My Friends, in Reply to a Question” is the poem of this time!
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Is it sacrilege to say Ulysses by James Joyce? I’m not even trying to be cool here; whatever I’ve read of the book—any lines, excerpts and thematic considerations I’ve come across—I’ve liked. So it’s just a matter of committing. I feel the same way about David Foster Wallace. I read a quarter of Infinite Jest, which I enjoyed, but it just wasn’t a good time and I gave up. Someday I’d like to dig through all his work.
We studied canonical American and British poetry in school, but I discovered contemporary poets whom I’ve come to love only after moving here: Sharon Olds, Aracelis Girmay, Rilke, Louise Glück and Diana Khoi Nguyen, among many others. I’d like to read every word they’ve ever written.
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?
Definitely multiple books at once, each of different genre and style and voice so my brain doesn’t get mushy. Sometimes I plan my texts according to teaching schedules, but mostly I read very much on a whim. I request a lot of my books from the public library, and when I end up waitlisted for something I often turn to another available book very randomly. I also just follow recommendations by my favorite writers on Twitter; if they mention a poem or a book I don’t know about, I immediately add it to my list to read. I prefer physical books, but I do have a Kindle. It’s just easier sometimes. And yep, I am a note-taker. I have a book where I record all the new words I learn in reading, with their meanings, as well as phrases and sentences that I must keep for later (whatever that means).
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I was taught the Oulipo method by poet Vincent Toro in a workshop, which is essentially writing poetry using intensive constraints—say if you were to write a poem without a vowel or a pronoun. I want to push myself to try it more often in my work, particularly during the revision process. I also want to try forms and themes I haven’t before, such as the Burning Haibun as created by Torrin A. Greathouse or the Markov Sonnet invented by George Abraham—I did a video with them recently where they explained the genesis of the form and its construction. Also, I recently wrote my first aubade and it’s not very good but I’m excited for its revision.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love a good coffeeshop. I am that person. When I can’t get anything done at home, I will gladly and happily run to a coffeeshop and sit there for hours. Thank the universe for a coffeeshop work culture where no one will kick you out for spending five hours with a single drink (although I like to purchase an additional something just to earn my time there). I love reading a good book in a park; when I lived in Harlem, I was a block away from Central Park and I could just go there on a whim. I love reading and writing on the subway; the sensory overload just makes every word richer. At one point when I was teaching in the Bronx, I’d always end up sharing the train with this one teacher from the school, who would spend her time journaling. It seemed like the most obvious thing to do! I do it now, all the time. Whatever time of the day it is, I can sit on the train and write.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I absolutely love the Center for Fiction, particularly the space where you can sit and write. It’s a little library, and you can spend as many hours as you want without any disturbance. I had a brilliant, absolutely wonderful reading at Park Church Co-Op, and I would do anything for an opportunity to read there again. It’s such a quaint place, and reading there makes you feel the weight of the words. I think Franklin Park’s layout is so great; I’ve read there once and been to multiple readings and I love the space. The energy of their readings is so cumulative; it feels like you’re part of a real, thriving community.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this time
And what I can share with you, and you with me
For every word that strikes me as good belongs to you.
It feels like the only place to be now, all things considered. It feels like literature, and home, and friendship.