Poet Of The Week

Monica Romo

     August 3–9, 2020

Monica Romo is a California-born poet and East-Coast transplant. She moved through Silicon Valley desk jobs in marketing and copywriting before leaving home to campaign for womxn and Latinx leaders in electoral politics and work to build movements. She has taught creative writing and literacy to young adults, as well as ESL courses abroad. Romo currently lives in Vermont as an organizer for worker justice. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Constantine Jones’s workshop on persona poetry, A Chorus of Selves.

Author photo by Radical Matriarchy

p(o)em (o)n changing the spelling (o)f my name t(o) make it s(o)und mexican again

 

accent the o in mi nombre:

my ó

so that when he calls

and demands my name

i     say     it

in a voice he thinks is sex     y

—not because i actually moan

but because have to say “moan”

to say mónica, and my ó isn’t

a moan at all but it’s almost like scat

singing, like   ó    nó    ,    mató        pó    …           eia!

for his pleasure.

the risk of accenting my name is this: it’s like me ó

-pening my legs for him through the phone, and when he hears my

pronunciation he is determined to know whether i am

An American Citizen; just by lengthening my ó longer

than the wind capacity of Yankee lungs does his my o       pia   come

to bear and he wants to have a closer look at my ó.

my ó is pregnant

the accent is the shirt tail i left untucked easily grabbed and Yanked

as the conduit to my nudity

to my new

identity:

i added it

(illegally)

because i had to, because

there is no room in the anglo o         rthography

for an accented o, an ó

who is a mother with an umbilical cord

hanging out loose   un    bridled                        but     still

filled with a child. ortho is from the greek orthos and means

just that: straight and erect, which describes my ó

as it is plucked up, straight and erect as

if by a stem, straight and erect like an apple’s

only my apple was never an apple at all;

when i accented my o i transformed it into

an ópal

my ó pal abides by no legislation

it is in flux between the American Forces

[who sought to nick the tick off my ó

the small plucked up straight and erect appendage

that granted me, my name its pleasure

that rendered me, upon introducing myself,

an opportunity to moan. Colonialism

is the same as Clitorectomy

because they found it threatening

because it was small but had the capacity

to power over the human brea  (d)  th    and surge

the space that a vowel, unshapen and without hard edges

could come over every other bony consonant surrounding it

in totality

they took it away]

and my —

self

 

—Originally published in Cosmonauts Avenue, 2018.

Brooklyn Poets · Monica Romo, "p(o)em (o)n changing the spelling (o)f my name t(o) make it s(o)und mexican again"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I think something in me knew while I was writing it that it might go on stage. That stage ended up being an erotic poetry slam on the outskirts of DC, in a place I like to think of as secret only because it sits just beyond the jurisdiction of the District and out of earshot of the federal government. Moaning out your own name to a crowd might seem narcissistic; on the other hand, it’s just a string of letters that’s got nothing to do with me, so it was easy to put under a microscope. From what I gather, my parents picked my name to assign me some anticipated femininity, and because it worked alright in English and Spanish. Problem is, I grew up in the States. Learned to do and be everything in fluent English, and have been conditioned to feel ridiculous saying my own name the Spanish way, which is the way it sounds in most other languages, with those boiling, yearning vowels. You say it that way, the un-American way, you’re downright using the metric system now, pandering to the non-U.S. world with something that feels and sounds natural to them. This makes you a polyglot, but it also makes you unpatriotic.

Also, at the risk of demystifying all this: this poem is so old, and a lot of these lines read to me as plain silly years later. That was the messy anger of the moment, and I never bothered to edit it out. I was working in Congress when I wrote this, getting calls on the regular from bigots who’d ask why my coworker, who had an overtly Hispanic-sounding name, was occupying a job in government that should have gone to a “deserving” American citizen (which my coworker, to the surprise of no one, was—in spite of the threatening specter of a sombrero his NorCal accent had somehow suggested to the caller).

What are you working on right now?

Reading more. It feels like a study period, like when you make that three-by-five notecard you’re allowed to take into the final where you write in a raw format everything you think could possibly be important later when you’re expected to perform—everything that you’ll want immediate access to when the stakes are high but don’t trust your memory to retrieve for you on demand. I’m cramming so I can be ready for the test—the moment when producing something coherent feels right.

I’ve also written a letter every day to a friend for the past 123 days to sustain something like dialogue while I’ve been in Covidian isolation in rural Vermont since April Fool’s Day. It’s been a lesson in shelf life: I haven’t sent any of the letters yet, so I recently opened a few older ones, and never realized anything could go so rancid so fast. Your mid-April blues were all “So they’re saying more like six weeks now, worst case.” The shock you feel when you pull something out of the refrigerated aisle that you expected to be reasonably fresh, but it’s already way out of date, and you think, “How is this so bad already? What’s this still even doing here?!” And then you buy it, get home and throw it away.

What’s a good day for you?

It starts early. It has such good coffee, it happens in the summer, I can’t stop smiling. I spend it running—or somehow in movement. It ends late. Somewhere completely different than where it began. Or: it contains something else that delights me so much that none of these other things has to be true.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

A failure to establish roots anywhere else. A jobless, lease-less inflection point. Whim. I wanted to be in NYC for AOC’s campaign. As a Latina, still confused about whether my attraction to politics was more to the tailored-suits variety or to jeans/whatever activism—and without a boss waiting for me to clock into some real job every morning—this seemed like the light I wanted to live in. Ultimately, I’d live adjacent to it, in Brooklyn. A poet I met at a writing workshop in Tbilisi earlier that summer offered me a couch that would’ve been perfect for my height if I chopped off my feet. And yet, I fit.

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?

It was a pocket of Flatbush with a lot of gates, bricks, flags and a hot breath to it that was attributable to something more than just the summer in which I landed there. I loved that the subway let you off onto a wide boulevard on the walk home that gave you enough of a horizon to take in and consider reversing a questionable decision or judgement you may have made on the train. The flat was my temporary shelter away from the protests that I was commuting four hours down to DC a few times a week to join; so I also loved that there, in Flatbush, the Capitol Police and the Senators and their boys didn’t know where I was when I laid down to sleep each night, feet jutting off the couch, flypaper streamers overhead.

I left Flatbush at fall’s start, and came back on Thanksgiving. It was seventeen degrees and completely dark. The hot breath was still there, though. This time baked into a dinner that bucked the Americana: salmon, cheesecake, Chinese NYC tradition. You ask me how my neighborhood in Brooklyn compares to other places: I say Flatbush was briefer; it was a rare place capable of carrying over warmth like a kiss from the summer past to make the November cold bearable; and it kept my heartbeat steady, the cadence right. I left too soon, and I can’t say that about most other places I’ve lived.

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

Leaving Brooklyn. Before my time in NYC closed out, my Flatbush friends led me across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot into Manhattan. We ended up in Midtown, having tea somewhere we weren’t intending to go. Everything had a price so far beyond its real worth. The best tea to be had was the loose leaf in the jar on the second shelf of the cabinet back in Flatbush. The poet I was living with was the only one who knew the particular parameters of its steep. The realization that you didn’t really have to leave Brooklyn to get what you needed.

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?

A poetry community means being among people who value the not-perfectly-optimized way of saying and doing things, and who will stick around and listen to you when you take the scenic route. I’ve had a harder time finding patience and genuine interest in convolution, mistakes and wandering in places I’ve lived where people are laser-focused on escalating their careers and salaries and amassing bonuses while accruing unused PTO to the brink of its expiration because their capitalist inertia is unstoppable and not to work for even just one day = to be worthless. I don’t diminish how essential income is for survival, but so is poetry.

I guess I’m finding a “poetry community” in tiny-town Vermont insofar as the trees on the mountain in my backyard will stand and listen to me and not demand I Venmo them for the time they gave me or the coffee we shared or the intimacy we (I) felt. I found a poetry community in Brooklyn too, when life allowed for it. Those moments in the month when money wasn’t a strain, when the work of staying alive until at least tomorrow didn’t put us all on edge—in those windows, the community ignited.

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

Here is probably not the answer you were looking for. There are a lot of folks with one foot in Brooklyn, the other foot somewhere else. I’m thinking especially of the ones who convened in the spirit of BK during this summer’s workshop with Constantine Jones, some of whom were nowhere near the geography of it—missing it for now, or had maybe never called it home. Zip codes aren’t as important as where your energy is rooted and cultivated, and we were all right there in Brooklyn—“Location: Zoom meeting URL” be damned. The group showed up every week hungry for each other’s words, bypassing our three-hour cutoff and constantly spilling into overtime to figure out what our art could mean and do.

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

The ones who set an example while I faltered in my own purpose. Other writers who continue to produce in impoverished prospects/ in pandemic, and have clarified for me that keeping at it matters—especially now. They give me permission to do something that feels good and not have to draft a weekly report of who received which dividends because of what I produced, how the world was optimized, etc., to justify it.

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

I was pacing around my house reading aloud from Porsha Olayiwola’s i shimmer sometimes, too and Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head and kept stopping in my tracks every ten feet to borrow a word or make notes on clever tricks and formal surprises. It’s not fuel-efficient, walking to poetry that good. You’re just hitting the beat and then halt because Wow, I HAVE to write that down, I CANNOT lose this, I have to adapt this to my own register. One time this guy on a bus said something to me like, “I declare that no greater words have been written in the English language than ‘The world is too much with us.’” Meanwhile, every slice of space on the page between every letter of every word of Porsha’s and Rachida’s poetry was reinventing me out of my high school sophomore honors English canonical curriculum. Language is everybody’s thing to sanctify, to fuck with, and everything in between.

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

Giovanni’s Room, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Bloody Chamber, Don’t Call Us Dead, This Bridge Called My Back, Moby-Dick. They’re notable enough that I tell myself I won’t die without eventually reading them, so they sit on the backburner.

But the real issue is more complicated. Usually, it’s that I’ve acquired copies, and then leave those copies behind after moving to another city for new (often temporary) work because I have to travel light. Away from the originals, it feels duplicitous to pick up replicas and read them. Meanwhile, all these unread books are in a box weighing down the floor of a friend’s closet in a city I just left, anchoring me back. This ends up being the key to keeping me from straying too far for too long: leaving unread books in a past city. If I don’t read alternate copies of them while I’m away, I have something to go back for. If I cover the material elsewhere, the places where I’ve left books behind become redundant, and there’s no reason to ever return.

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 tend to build reading lists off recommendations and the fate of the Little Free Library. But in quarantine, I dedicated myself to a regimen of three books/week—fiction, nonfiction and poetry—where I divided the page count of each book by seven, and sampled daily portions from all three. The impetus for this method was that I had to read down all the books I had; I simply couldn’t amass more while in Vermont, lest I leave them unread, and then always have unfinished business to get back to in the remote Northeast (which is way out of my usual route). I like to take literature from physical books, but really like memoirs as audiobooks because it feels like someone’s whispering you their life story. Not a fan of digital texts. No more screens for a minute here.

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

Palindromes.

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

I don’t like to be home. I miss writing in movement—on public transit, trains, buses—where you’re never in a real, definable place for more than a split second. It’s especially satisfying in these moments to write about the place and people I’m leaving behind, or the ones I’m barreling towards—but while I’m still out of sight and don’t belong to either place as a proper resident. In liminality, the rules and schedules and systems on the ground can’t get you for a little while. You’re out of reach. For that reason, I write a little more frankly there.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The nondescript ones.

1. The sidewalk in front of a brownstone I won’t live in. Why: sidewalks are publicly owned, and my friend held my bag there when it got too heavy.

2. That fruit stand with the abundance of guavas after everywhere else I looked for miles had denied me them. Why: they ripened in a cascade. A new one was perfect every day.

3. A thrift store I got caught in leaving Williamsburg where a woman sold me an ill-fitting dress through the seduction of mythology (“We don’t know its origin, its creator, or when it was sewn…”). Why: I’m guilty of never taking stock of any of those points in my regular garb in the first place, but stories out of Brooklyn fall on me with a weighted lore.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate departure.

And what things I leave

behind, you consider:

“Could they also be

mine?”

For every bite

I take leaves

imprints on my teeth

But what scars me as good

may break

your jaw.

Why Brooklyn?

Because it’ll have me. Plus—a couple unread books back there. Some unfinished business.