Poet Of The Week

Monica Gomery

     May 8–14, 2023

Mónica Gomery is a poet and rabbi. Her most recent collection, Might Kindred, won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry and was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. She is also the author of the collection Here is the Night and the Night on the Road (Cooper Dillon Books, 2018) and the chapbook Of Darkness and Tumbling (YesYes Books, 2017). Her poems have won the Sappho Prize for Women Poets and the Minola Review Poetry Contest and have been featured in the Poetry Foundation’s Ours Poetica series. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Four Way Review, Muzzle Magazine, Adroit, the Iowa Review, Poet Lore and Poetry Northwest, as well as the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center’s Poets In Print series. Gomery was raised in Boston and Caracas by her Venezuelan Jewish family and lives on unceded Lenni Lenape land in Philadelphia. She serves on the clergy team at Kol Tzedek Synagogue, a vibrant, multiracial, intergenerational community, and teaches on the faculty of SVARA, a yeshiva that empowers queer and trans people to expand and transform Jewish tradition. On Friday, May 19, Gomery will be a featured poet along with Dean Rader at the Brooklyn Poets Friday Night Open.

Author photo by Jess Benjamin

Granddaughter Casting Afternoon Shadows


What I love about death is the way everything else falls away.

Everything else falls down around death and only death remains: bright, sharp and ringing.

What I hate about death is death.

What I love about death are the bones in the face.

What I hate about death is the goneness, the afters and pines.

What I hate about death are the sleepwalking mourners, peeling an orange bare-fingered.

Or turning a car key in its ball joint. Only sunk, only cupped bones cold in the face.

What I love about death is the swimming through velvet, a body burning with crying.

A chance to grieve hard, fuming with love.

What I know about grandmothers is swimming through nightgowns.

What I love about death is God’s molasses of time, of sky-time, of trees.

What I hate about death is its thwack on the clock.

The clock slicks the world with its oil and motion.

Death is the onlyest mouth.

What I love about death is the dirt.

What I hate about death is the sound of dirt thunking.

Dirt slapping its heavy brown facts onto the humble pine box.

Dirt piling itself into an underground hillside, dirt closing its mouth over the box.

Dirt-boat cast into the dirty brown ocean of time to deliver the dead to a shore moneyed with soil.

Death is so tongued and so wealthy with nothing. Death is so soiled and so swimming.

What I hate is the way goodbye is two truths and a lie. Death is so clever, I hate it.

Death is so pined box and goodbye. What I know of goodbye is a door.

I know sometimes the dead show up at the door.

Lay a palm flat against it, and they talk or they listen.

What I loved of my grandmother were her tiny bones.

I loved her round hungry eyes, her mouth of nine tongues.

I loved her hands sandwiching mine.

She wouldn’t have known what to do with this poem.

She was my onlyest, brightest bone in my scorpio sky.

What I loved about her were her rumbling eyes and her trembling love.

How she was the sun.

What I hate about death is the sun.


—Originally published in Waxwing, June 2021.

Brooklyn Poets · Mónica Gomery, "Granddaughter Casting Afternoon Shadows"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem while sitting shiva with my family after the death of my maternal grandmother. We spent the week telling stories and looking at photographs of her. Everything is different in the aftermath of a death—time altered; the texture of living distinct. I’ve lost a number of intimate beloveds, and I find myself writing about loss a lot. Being in close proximity to death has been a formative part of my life and my poetics. When my grandmother died, I entered that liminal, acute space of grieving with heartbreak, but also with a sense of return. It was almost a homecoming. I was taking Jay Deshpande’s “The Poem’s Ending” workshop through Brooklyn Poets at the time, and we had an assignment that week to write a poem that ended on some kind of negation. I wasn’t planning to do the homework, but I woke up one morning and the poem tumbled out of me. I was trying to process something about why I felt both at home and estranged in the suspended consciousness of new loss. I wrote the first line, “What I love about death is the way everything else falls away,” and the rest followed. In the months after, I tried to play with the lineation, to enjamb the lines in revision, but I kept coming back to this form. There’s something important to me here about saying things plainly in the face of death and loss, about completing full sentences.

What are you working on right now?

Lately I’m writing poems that are asking questions about generativity, gender roles and tradition, menstruation, care work, failure, prayer, and matriarchs both familial and Biblical. Poems that wonder about the verb “to mother” as it applies to many kinds of rearing and creation. I’m pretty terrified of these poems, but they keep coming. I’m also, messily, trying to write essays for the first time. There are some texts and questions I’m eager to weave together through the essay form, but it’s brand new for me. It’s so humbling to work on new writing—I’ll briefly think I know what’s going on, and then things change, and change again. I don’t surf, but I picture it like surfing—I’m trying to be curious, flexible, and engage my core so I can stay on the board!

What’s a good day for you?

The best day I can think of is a day on the beach. Alone, or with friends. Definitely with my dog. I’ve got a stack of books and an umbrella. There’s abundant, unstructured time for walking by the water, getting lost in conversation, building something out of sand. If there’s kids with us, they’ve got that excellent sandy-beach-diaper vibe. The waves are vigorous enough to rough me up a little bit, but subdued enough not to be scary. Everyone’s brought snacks to share, and everyone takes turns falling asleep. Then that golden light arrives toward the end of the day; it’s mesmerizing, and it feels impossible to leave. There’s nowhere I feel more alive. And when I finally do come home, I’ve brought half the beach back in my hair.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

I have a complicated relationship to the idea of home. My parents are immigrants to the US, and their parents were immigrants to Venezuela from Eastern Europe. Each generation has grown up on a different continent, assimilating to a different language and culture. I often feel that my real home is the spaces in between—the airport runway, the silence before switching from one language to another, the decisions we make about what to carry with us when we move and what we leave behind.

That said, I live right now in West Philadelphia. I’ve lived here twice, first from 2008–2010, and now again since 2019. I have close friends and chosen family here, and a beloved buried in a cemetery here, so I’ve always felt rooted to the earth, birds and trees of this place. There’s an ethic of interconnection that I find woven into life here, distinct from other places I’ve lived, which include Boston, New York, Providence and Chicago—all cities I’ve loved for different reasons—plus some rural places and farms. Philly is a generous city with a culture of connection and mutual support. People look out for one another.

Living in a city is complicated by race, class, migration and gentrification, and I’m not from here originally, which means I’m part of the changing face of this place. West Philly was Lenni Lenape land before it was colonized in the 1800s. It’s been a majority Black neighborhood for basically a century. The presence of UPenn has been a major factor in the development of racist housing policies in the neighborhood. I work as a rabbi at the neighborhood synagogue, which has been involved in the fight to Save the UC Townhomes, an example of the ongoing housing struggles that happen here.

My neighborhood is full of gardens and free library boxes and populated with queer folks, artists and teachers. I know my neighbors; I do errands for them, and they for me. People are out on their front porches all day when the weather is nice, and you can always stop by. There is a long euphoric spring here, and a glorious autumn. The whole neighborhood was built on top of the Mill Creek River, and every so often, a chunk of sidewalk will cave in, the sinkhole reminding us how temporary and hubristic our human structures are in this place.

Because I live and work in the neighborhood, I can’t go anywhere without running into members of my community—the grocery store, a run, the pharmacy, even on date nights with my partner! Maybe home, for me, is a place where I know people and am known, where I’m plugged into the joys and sorrows of other peoples’ lives.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I lived in New York twice for less than a full year, for a temporary job and a fellowship. I always stayed in Brooklyn. A friend of mine grew up on 7th Ave in Park Slope, and his parents, retired labor organizers and teachers, frequently offer their spare room as a place for friends, and friends of friends, to live for short periods of time. When I’ve lived there, staying in the little blue bedroom where countless others have also stayed, I’ve often thought about how I want to grow older in this way—sharing what space I have, foregrounding hospitality and generosity, nurturing intergenerational relationships. Their apartment is right by the 7th Ave subway station. I love riding trains in New York, seeing the Great Blue Heron on the lake in Prospect Park. I love the bookstores, brownstones and people of Brooklyn. I used to love meeting friends at Ginger’s, being in Brooklyn for Pride, taking the bus to Brighton Beach and eating pierogies there. I’ve been to some amazing political actions and rallies at Grand Army Plaza. I love walking to the Brooklyn Museum, going inside or just sitting on the steps taking it all in. I’ve felt very blessed to have been a guest in Brooklyn.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Poetry community means everything to me. In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser writes that poetry is an “exchange of human energy, which is consciousness.” Building community with other poets has meant opening up channels of exchange for this consciousness wherever possible. My poetry community is a web of people who trade drafts and feedback; share our successes, rejections and frustrations with each other; problem-solve together; and cheer each other on. People who are vulnerable and in process with one another. People who tell me what they’re reading and swap titles and suggestions. We’re not trying to impress each other or compete; instead, we’re helping one another grow. It’s such a gift to be in mutually supportive, caring relationships with other artists. In recent years, it’s been easier for me to sustain this community virtually rather than locally. But there are lots of Philly poets I admire, and it’s a treat to connect with them whenever possible.

Yesterday I listened to Charif Shanahan interview Marie Howe on the Poetry podcast, and he asked her what the role of the poet is in the world today. She responded,“There are as many answers to that question as there are poets.” This is another reason to seek out poetry community—because there’s no one right way to do this. I feel nourished and fortified within an ecosystem of difference. I grow and learn so much from the way other poets embody their practice, their language and their voice. I want to be there for others while they shine, and I need their shine in order to find my way.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

The list is very long, so I’ll stick with a couple of absolute heroes. Like many others, I’ve been shaped and moved profoundly by the work of Aracelis Girmay. It’s impossible to pick favorites, but if it really came down to it, her books are all I’d need on a desert island. The first time I read Kingdom Animalia, it completely reconfigured my molecules. There’s so much truth in her work—in strangeness, tenderness, beauty, grief, the human and the animal, the earthly and political, in celebration and dream. Each of her books reads to me like an atlas of the human soul.

Two virtual writing communities that have meant a lot to me are both led by marvelous Brooklyn poets: “In Surreal Life,” taught by Shira Erlichman, and the “Emotional Historians” workshop taught by Jon Sands. Wow, these communities are gorgeously stewarded. I’ve learned a ton from Shira and Jon, and from the poets and friends I’ve met there. I much prefer workshops that foreground generativity over critique—so many of my poems were first drafted in these spaces, guided and led by these gifted poet-teachers.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My first poetry mentors were my elementary school teachers! Even though I don’t remember most of it, I know we were writing poems, because my mom has saved some—acrostics, haiku, free verse. I’m so grateful for those teachers, and for all teachers. I’m lucky to have been a kid in a classroom where imagination and experimentation were part of the learning, and I’m sure this learning laid seeds in me that are still flowering to this day.

In adulthood, a significant poetry mentor was Jill Magi (a Brooklyn poet for many years who now lives in Abu Dhabi). I studied with Jill as an undergraduate student at Goddard College. At the time, I was deep in a project about family oral history and the silences that cluster around transmitting identity and trauma across generations. But I kept trying to write into these themes through really bad fiction. Jill said to me, “Did you know there’s a whole genre of writing where you don’t have to complete your sentences?” That was poetry, of course. Jill introduced me to poetry as a tool for inquiry. She taught me that poems think, that they can be a site for questions we don’t (yet, ever) know the answers to, that poetry itself is research. She brought me to the works of Bhanu Kapil, Juliana Spahr, Leslie Marmon Silko, George Oppen, Robin D. G. Kelley and others, whose writing about the role of poetry in public life shaped both my politics and poetics. I think my work was more experimental when I was learning with Jill, whatever that means exactly. More fragmentation, incorporation of visual arts alongside poems, more space on the page. She is incredible, in her teaching and in her own creative work, at integrating a wide range of mediums and disciplines—she works in theory, verse, textiles, painting, essay. I hope to find my way back to some of those practices.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just finished listening to Carl Phillips’s My Trade Is Mystery on audiobook. I’m always grateful for the labor of poets who articulate what a life of poetry means to them. A couple gems include:

In writing a poem, I’m mapping the simultaneous intimacy and distance between my obsessions and my demons. It’s as if, having mapped this, I briefly know where I am, how I got here, and when I’m lost, as I surely will be, how to get back home.

And also a claim he makes that poems are “advance bulletins from the interior”—meaning that the poems are often ready to give voice to thoughts and feelings the poet doesn’t yet know, or isn’t necessarily ready to hear. As Phillips describes it: “I sang myself through, or more exactly, one of my selves sang another one through.”

I’ve read many books of poetry this year that stand out to me, but one that’s haunting me currently is Hila Ratzabi’s There Are Still Woods. It’s a book grappling with climate crisis, a book that looks again and again into the heart of a grief that’s hard to keep turning towards. I admire the uses of silence, irony, heartbreak, uncertainty and awe in this book. I love how the speaker’s voice slips between the human and the beyond-human—within one poem the speaker is the poet, then the sea, then the poet again. She weaves a web of interconnection between all living things, while also giving voice to the discomfort and anguish of being human in this mess.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

One of my besties (another Brooklyn poet!), Sasha Warner-Berry, gifted me Grenade in Mouth, a collection of Miyó Vestrini’s poems. Vestrini was an explosive political and confessional Venezuelan poet. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, and I’m also fearful of it. Her translators, Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig, write in the introduction that “to translate Miyó Vestrini is like letting a deadly current pass through one’s body and hoping not to get hurt.” So I’ve been waiting for the right headspace to dive in, and then to spend time with her work in Spanish as well.

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 definitely dip in and out of multiple books, though my hope is to get entranced enough by one that it eclipses the rest of the stack! That does occasionally happen, and it’s the best. I read physical books and I mark them up—leaving asterisks, underlines and sticky notes. I want to be able to easily find my way back to the lines that gutted me. I also request a lot of books from the library, in which case I’ll transcribe whole paragraphs and sections into a doc on my computer called “Learnings.” I love audiobooks, and I wish more poets made them! Listening to a poet read a full book out loud is such a deep pleasure. I usually have a novel, nonfiction or craft book that I’m reading cover-to-cover, as well as a stack of poetry books that I’m reading simultaneously in rotation.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’m excited because today, after finishing and submitting this interview, I’m taking an online workshop with Leila Chatti, another mentor to me, called “Poetry Is Fun,” which is about embracing games, joy and play while writing. I often get swamped in the seriousness of writing, and I’m looking forward to new techniques that bring out a different energy—levity, oddity, buoyancy. I want to better understand humor in a poem—how it happens, what it makes possible. Separately, I’ve been trying to revise this one pantoum for over a year now … I hope to play more with this form.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I like to sneak a poem into an otherwise mundane part of the day—right before a meeting starts, on the subway, or in a waiting room. Poems are portable experiences that transform the texture of a moment; they are portals that help me make transitions. I love reading and writing on the beach. The vastness of the sea and sky opens up my brain in a special way, and language comes to me there like nowhere else. Before the pandemic, I used to take myself on reading dates—to a café, a bar, a park at dusk. I’d read, jot down lines and notes, sip on something. It felt special to romance myself like that.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate what can’t be named,

And what I reach for past the limit, you echo back,

For every yearn that psalms my heart, as good as oceans from your giving.