Poet Of The Week

Michael Dumanis

     August 19–25, 2013

Michael Dumanis is the author of the poetry collection My Soviet Union (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. He is also the co-editor (with poet Cate Marvin) of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006) and (with poet Kevin Prufer) of the volume Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Pleaides, 2013). Formerly a professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University and Cleveland State University (where he served as Director of the CSU Poetry Center), he teaches literature and creative writing at Bennington College and divides his time between Vermont and Brooklyn.

My Mayakovsky

I walk through Moscow in my yellow shirt.
I stagger in my sallow shirt through dusky Moscow,
brick lilies blossoming the length of its grey parkways.
I rest a pistol on my temple. Nothing happens.
I, in my scandalous yellow, have traversed
the length of grey, dirt-lovely Moscow, past the odors
of rifle-fire and fresh bread, slamming my fist
against the lacquer of my chamber’s red armoire
until my knuckles bleed. With my red hand I trace
the many letters of my name over my chest.
My knuckles blister as I gently rest
on my armoire, my pistol, storing my luck
in one of its six chambers, but which one?
My lifetime, darling, stay with me forever.
Dear lifetime, I can’t bear you any longer.
I telegram inferior poets the good news
of their departure and my repertoire, then skid
past mists of mink and nimbuses in squirrel
over the glacial streets of wintry Moscow.
Lifetime the length of a papercut. Of a parade
of soldiers through the snow. Length of my chamber
in the housing tower. Length of my Soviet Union, of a song
that can’t remember how to end itself. I rest
the trigger on my frontmost teeth; the barrel
feels cold against the barrel of my throat.
You bound and gagged me, passionate, cold lover.
Lifetime the brevity of our encounter.
Down with your love, I wrote in each boudoir.
Down with your art, I wired the Hermitage.
I told the officer, Down with your social order.
Down with your worshipping, I whispered to my mother.
Down with my faith in you, Creator, who dismembers
and sews me back together every hour.
I telegram inferior poets to inquire
why readers love and understand them better.
Down with your hair, Maria.
Down with your hair, Lily Brik.
I hide my shirt in a wool suit and march
my polished boots through Moscow, brandishing
my heart’s four chambers, skewered, on a rapier.
I rest a pistol on my temple. Fire.

–From My Soviet Union, University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I remember wanting to try to do several things in a poem: to have a speaker literally hold out his heart to the reader, to have him play a game of Russian Roulette while narrating the poem, and to have him alternate between arrogant self-confidence and vulnerable insecurity over the course of a page. Vladimir Mayakovsky is a writer who towered over my imagination since I was a kid encountering poetry for the first time. I was re-reading “The Cloud in Trousers,” in general one of the poems I return to the most, and I wanted to see what would happen if I ventriloquized my voice through his biography and body.

What are you working on right now?

This fall I’m teaching a course on the New York School, so I’m reading and re-reading lots of poets: James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Joseph Ceravolo. I’m also trying to finish up a second manuscript of poems and trying to push myself to write a series of compressed, shorter, sonnet-like pieces–my natural tendency is to keep going and I’m having fun cutting myself off.

What’s a good day for you?

I learn something I hadn’t known. I go to a museum and get overwhelmed by the paintings. I think of a line for a poem.

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

In 2010, while still living and working in Cleveland, Ohio, I fell in love with a poet in Cobble Hill and started spending a lot of my time here. In 2012, I was offered a faculty position at Bennington College, in Vermont, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Brooklyn, which is really not as bad or complicated as it sounds. So now we are married, and I live both in Cobble Hill and Vermont. I love this neighborhood and feel really lucky to be in it–it always feels like it’s smiling.

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

When I first started spending time in Brooklyn, my wife and I would take meandering long walks across the neighborhoods, to Prospect Park and the Promenade and the Gowanus Canal and Fort Greene and Vinegar Hill and Red Hook. I‘d briefly lived in Manhattan fourteen years ago, but my sense of Brooklyn had been quite vague. These walks–each turn, each side street–unfolded Brooklyn before me.

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

While I don’t know whether it’s fair or appropriate to label the late Agha Shahid Ali a Brooklyn poet (as opposed to a poet of Kashmir or Massachusetts or Utah), I feel lucky to have had the chance to get to know him a little bit in Brooklyn shortly before his death: we sat on the rooftop of his Fort Greene apartment and talked about poetry. He remains one of my favorite writers.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Book Court, especially for the readings they host. Though I get out to them less often, I also really like Greenlight in Fort Greene and, in Williamsburg, Spoonbill & Sugartown.

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

I find myself getting a lot of work done at Maybelle’s Café, at the corner of Henry and Sackett, and at 61 Local, on Bergen Street.

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

I really like the Brooklyn Museum. Also, Cobble Hill Cinemas on Court Street. A trio of restaurant/bars: Henry Public, Buschenschank and Abilene. Red Hook and the Columbia Street Waterfront. Prospect Park and the Promenade.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Amity Gaige’s novel Schroder is extraordinary and full of stunning sentences that make me giddy, one of the best books I have read in a long time. As far as poetry, I’m smitten with two wonderful first books by Brooklyn poets: If I Should Say I Have Hope by Lynn Melnick and The Lamp with Wings: Love Sonnets by M.A. Vizsolyi. I also recently read and liked Brenda Shaughnessy’s My Andromeda, Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird, The Mimic Sea by Erica Bernheim, Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) by James Gendron, Begging for It by Alex Dimitrov, and Dear Weather Ghost by Melissa Ginsburg.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate nothing,
And what I assume you should question,
For every wall or fence delaying me as good could be an open
     field to

Why Brooklyn?

I find it easy to be happy here.