September 13–19, 2021
Nadia Bongo lives in West Harlem. She tutors in French language and literature. In 2018, she was selected to attend a Cave Canem workshop. Her work has been published in Newtown Literary and NYPL’s Library Zine! This past spring, Nadia was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Joshua Mehigan’s workshop on The Sonnet.
A Wels Catfish Is a Good Enough Reason
Wels, I often saw them on my mother’s plate, swathed in sauce, resting on nkoumou herbs, like a spawn of Zeus’s affairs in a makeshift crib.
My mother’s favorite dish always gave off a smell of red pepper, strong and strangely inviting.
Often, I went down to the river to see the wels, to no avail. I could only hear the plop they made as their slick bodies flirted with the surface.
Only one night, one spoke to me in a dream. Here I was, underwater, scantily dressed in algae, like a strange Venus ready to emerge, not out of foam, but the greenish trail of dirt, and creatures’ feces and semen in freshwater.
In this realm, a wels came close and said to me, “I see you looking in during the day trying to see us. Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”
“Oh, dear wels, it’s just that I only saw you on a plate, on my mother’s plate. I don’t eat your kind.”
“How sad you look walking around in the garden. Maybe you should go away, far away. Migrate, like us.”
“Migrate?” I said.
Migrate echoed the lily pads.
Migrate echoed the evergreens.
Migrate echoed the neighbor’s dog who never recognizes me after dark.
Then I woke up, ready to leave.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
During his wonderful Silence and Sound workshop, Jason Koo asked us to write a poem with dialogue. I wrote a prose poem driven by sensations, like the memory of the smell of nkoumou (a Gabonese dish). The image of a fish delivering something was recurring in my mind. During the workshop, someone pointed out the Alice in Wonderland feel: I had just finished studying the book with several students. Another subconscious reference might be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which a friend recommended a few years ago. Finally, because it shocked a friend of mine, I substituted a Biblical reference with one from Greek mythology that carries the same weight.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a poetry collection about colors, but also questions of travel, migration and language. I am also working on a gothic novella set in my country. Recently, a writer I don’t know personally, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, generously sent me invaluable comments on the first twenty pages.
What’s a good day for you?
Right now, a good day involves these: a huge cup of coffee, toast with jam, a student’s fun comment, a long phone conversation with faraway friends, a mango and a good book.
What brought you to New York?
Since childhood, I had a fascination with African American culture. In college, I became obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance, which led me to visit New York. During my stay, I walked around Harlem, went to Broadway shows (Memphis and Sister Act) and visited the Schomburg Center. It was amazing to have access to all these resources. When the opportunity presented itself, I moved here.
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?
Home is Libreville (my hometown) and New York City. I just moved back to my old neighborhood in West Harlem after living in Jackson Heights (Queens) for almost three years. Both neighborhoods feel like home. Jackson Heights seems more residential, with houses, plants bordering sidewalks, and the affordable Natural Market. In West Harlem, I have a close friend with whom I walk in Riverside Park. On Sundays, I hear the beautiful choir from the nearby church. Though the area is a little gentrified, it remains diverse and affordable.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
When I moved to New York, I’d visit acquaintances in Brooklyn twice a week. There, I took many pictures of trees in the fall, graffiti and half-torn posters in Williamsburg. At times, it looked like a surrealist collage.
One of my favorite memories in Brooklyn is a walk in the Prospect Park area during a storm. I exited at the Grand Army Plaza station and walked on, looking at the medium-sized buildings, the big lanes, the brownstones and the little shops. There’s something mesmerizing about walking in neighborhoods that look so different from where I’ve lived.
I felt the same when I practiced for an art project at Chez Bushwick. The area looked so industrial: its buildings resembled abandoned factories, and here and there were concrete-mixing trucks that looked like huge grey wasps.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, a poetry community means ordinary people with whom I can talk about poetry and exchange. We can come from different backgrounds and circumstances and connect through the work. Brooklyn Poets creates that kind of community. During the pandemic, it was vital. I stayed in touch with several people; we exchange work regularly, except when our lives are too crazy. Thanks to the New York Public Library I belong to another writing community as well, which helps me feel I have some structure in my life and on the page.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Coming from another continent, I am still learning about American poets. Jason Koo has been important for me since he is nurturing the Brooklyn Poets community. During his workshop, I learned how silence can become constructive on the page. Since I used to have a complicated relationship with my silences, it was formative.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My poetry mentor is Rimbaud. He and Baudelaire elevated the prose poem. Pierre Reverdy’s prose poetry inspires me with its uncanny and pictorial feel.
Emily Dickinson teaches me about pacing, punctuation, depth and musicality. Plus, I love nature poetry. Finally, as a kid, I had a nanny who spoke in a poetic way so we would understand better. Her relationship to language and stories nourishes my poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
This summer, I was stuck in Douglaston while I looked for a new place. To escape, I devoured Ben Loory’s books of stories which are like strange Aesop’s fables. In Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Loory’s use of repetition is soothing and poetic. I marveled at Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides with its beautiful language, slight irony and subtle critique of the male gaze. Last year, I read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and it’s like a persistent melody. There are so many understated emotions. Besides, he mixes genres I love, like the gothic. Finally, I fell in love with Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Feel Free. They are hilarious, unpretentious, deep and tender.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been meaning to read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: I love the uncanny and isolated sickly people tripping on mountain air. As for poetry, classics such as Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno are long overdue.
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?
Although I prefer the physical version of a book, I often have the digital version too. In public transport, or in bed with the lights off, I use the digital version.
I wish I’d take more notes, but sometimes I just want to keep on reading. I read novels cover to cover, but I can dip in and out of multiple poetry books until I get glued to one.
At least once a week, I walk around in the library or a bookstore to find my next read.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would like to write a poem about a thing (maybe a pigment) or a situation that spans through centuries. I also keep working on sound: stressed syllables and prosody.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like writing at the nearest library branch or coffee shop; sometimes it’s easier to focus out. Sometimes I write while riding the train during a long trip. The time frame, the sense of urgency and the movement motivate me.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Museum is one of my favorite museums. On the first floor, there is a panel displaying various African fabrics and their areas of origin. When friends come to visit from abroad, I bring them to Prospect Park. In the fall, it looks like an enchanted forest. Through a program by the Brooklyn Public Library, I gave lessons in front of a lake surrounded by bushes and trees at the Prospect Park Boathouse.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate places that held our bodies,
And what I took for an embrace you took for an embrace too,
For every breezy morning or noon or night is to me as good as it is to 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.
The last time I listened to Biggie
was before I left my father
’s land. Don’t know a thing about the Dodger,
if it’s a sin
give me time—soon Brooklyn
will seep through my veins as I pen
myself as an NYC landmark, ignoring Jack,
John, and Jill—I won’t rob
you. It’s no sin for this place, but love.
Because the people she made say her name like she’s a mother.