May 12–18, 2014
Natalie Eilbert’s first book of poems, Swan Feast, is forthcoming from Coconut Books in the summer of 2015. Her chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. (Big Lucks Books) are forthcoming later this year. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Tin House, West Branch, Spinning Jenny, Handsome and many others. She has taught creative writing at Columbia University and Barnard College and is the founding editor of the Atlas Review. She lives in Greenpoint.
Author photo by Emily Raw
Forgot to start this poem “In a dream . . . ” like I
forgot the dream like I forgot the lettuce mask
tight on my face like I forgot to copy the mailkey
for five years like I forgot what keys are what
letters are what Amazon Primes are like I forgot
there are too many men who have forced their way in.
Forgot the field where I am the field like I forgot
midpose what a quadricep should feel like in
Anjaneyasana like I forgot my travel mug in Vilnius
two summers ago like I forgot to wash the lettuce
mask off. My money is the moment I’m remembered
when I’m again and still that dumb little smart girl
against a wall, all AWOL then slag. O the reticulate
bills of memory. O the prosthetic tongue I’ve lapped
up for my own tongue. My chatty hippocampus
gossips her way onto an actual llama so that I must now
slay the llama and eviscerate the image. I eviscerate
the image. Then several. I’m starved for cake and grid cells
but I want to stay 27 forever, have sent my measurements
for a mailorder casket but there are still no mailkeys,
no milky vertebrae to drip-calm my nerves. It’s not
that I’m afraid of confrontation, it’s just that I’m dead inside
and my hypoxia keeps on polishing her saddle.
I can’t jimmy the skull of this big man, can’t slurp
down his temporal lobe to remember again what was said
in that ongoing basement. Forgot to marry his kind
like I forgot to say No every time since then like I forgot
the money in my neurotic Jew box like I forgot to open
my legs like a cortex like what was I even doing with my time
like what in the actual fuck is kissing. Yesterday I stole
an antique horn so to squeeze it and hear nothing
but its inner rubber smacking. I felt so sorry
not for the obsolescent potential but for myself
feeling nothing. I can’t rip the mask off my history
so better to weep than swoon in a cab, better to muzzle
myself entirely in white. It’s not that I can’t remember it’s just that
—From And I Shall Again Be Virtuous., Big Lucks Books, 2014 (October).
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I don’t think it would strike anyone who has read my poems as surprising that I’m interested in etymology. But my obsession with etymology is also my obsession with personal history, our hesitations and joys and acrimonies engender themselves—whether we like it or not—to an origin point. I’m sick, though, of the immediate reference to Proust here, as if his prattling on about a madeleine or a violin invented 20th-century psychology. (I love Proust). Personal history has a charge to it, or used to; the glut of early 20th-century poets writing autobiographically became the weltanschauung of a new world order in poetry that we refer to constantly as “confession.” It’s a coinage I’ve always found patronizing at best; at worst, offensive rubbish. Anyway, my relationship with these terms is Cartesian: this is to say that I don’t believe one should ever divorce origins of language and origins of self, and to do so carries an imperialism I find alarming to unpack. On what planet is a poet ever not writing out of themselves and their experiences, even when they think they’re not. (Insert chortle about objective correlative here).
The Greek word “hippocampus” translates to “seahorse,” or more specifically, “horse sea monster,” because the hippocampus has the same fetal shape as a seahorse in the brain, or horse sea monster. I really like typing “horse sea monster.” I like saying it out loud because it sounds like a child saying “horsy monster.” Whatever. We store our memories in the hippocampus, and therefore, potentially, our lies. I think I learned this etymology a while ago and how I didn’t freak the fuck out about it then is beyond me, but I was probably wasted or starving myself at the time.
My grandma used to be by far the smartest human I knew—she was known at family gatherings to corner you and talk to you until your eyes lost focus and maybe you wondered if orange really was her natural hair color and how many hearts swooned over her as she talked their heads off about neurology or linguistics or fashion. She was an anatomy and physiology professor and loved to talk about death or near-death or her trips around the world and the people she learned about who survived Germany—her husband and my grandpa died when I was a baby of a sudden second heart attack, his first heart attack which occurred while he was lecturing (he was a child psychologist) and he finished up his lecture but after class while a student quibbled this or that with his stance on this or that Grandpa Leo kindly asked him to call an ambulance. After that she was quite alone. I mention my grandma and her intelligence because now her mind is mush. She sits at Passover Seder murmuring to herself. She wets herself and worse. Her hand-eye coordination is beyond repair, she has no center of gravity anymore, her short-term memory has dissolved, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in that decaying tunnel of being where there is no present tense, not really. But she still has her memories, disjointed though they are. I wondered about the status of her seahorse-shaped memory-engine. Did the curve of its intelligent tail puddle into an amoebic pool to drown? So I was thinking about that.
I do a lot of rambling thinking before I set out to write, so bear with me here. The shitstorm controversy surrounding Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen had hit the fan and hit the fan and hit the fan and I cared a lot about what aspersions were being flung at Dylan during her—and I’m being provocative when I use this word here—confession. I write a lot about sexual trauma, and have had to question my own traumatic history, revisit and intellectualize the memories of abuse, because our culture makes the facts of an event dangerous for the victim. Because there are even these outliers of victim/criminal, as if once something horrendous is done to you, you must possess its damage and be its sole owner and subsume all the helpless implications that come with the word “victim” forever. Anyway. Her memories were being challenged because her memories had the ability to implicate a man on criminal charges twenty years after the fact. As if time’s business of passing was but one condition of his innocence. It’s such bullshit. So I wrote a poem. Well, I wrote many things. But I wrote this poem, and used the anaphora of “Forgot” to disavow the fabrics of my whole life, starting with the everyday particulars of adult routine and ending in the childhood basement of sexual trauma. I’m fantasizing thoughts of aphasia in this poem, not to trivialize neurological dysfunction but to wrestle with the known particulars of what happened to us, and what continues to happen to us.
That was a really long answer. I just shrunk the font to make myself feel better.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on rewriting and revising poems in my forthcoming collection Swan Feast, due out with Coconut Books in Spring/Summer 2015. These poems engage the “Venus” of Willendorf, the 30–35,000- -year-old figurine found in Willendorf, Austria, over a century ago. Look her up if you don’t know her. Hundreds of these figurines, known as the “Venus” figurines, were found all throughout Europe and Asia, and many scientists theorize that nomadic tribes created them during the ice age in a phenomenon called Peak Shift Effect, in which a people creates art to exaggerate what they lack. Here, adequate fat storage and fertility and general human robustness. I’m interested in this, because I have a history of body dysmorphia and history of food issues. I just uncomfortably looked to my thighs and want to apologize but will continue sipping iced americano instead. Speaking of memory, so many of these poems were written over four years ago, which, I realize, is not a long stretch of time relatively speaking, but for my current aesthetics and bureau of ideas, feels eternal. Coincidentally, I’m facing these old poems as artifacts of neuroses. I’m about to start production on a chapbook from this collection called Conversation with the Stone Wife with Shanna Compton over at Bloof Books, and I’m so delighted.
The other thing I’m working on is a new manuscript, a chapbook of which is forthcoming with Big Lucks Books called And I Shall Again Be Virtuous., from which “Seahorse” is featured. It’s part sci-fi, part confession (for lack of better word), and sort of exploits the landscape of Ursula K LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness which I read a lot as a kid. This book contains a world without men and/but I miss them all, bored of the done patriarchy and the done misogyny and the done objectification of my sex. But it also focuses on one woman’s history of sexual abuse and trauma amid the racket of this dystopian future. So I guess it’s an examination of artifice, what details we choose to omit or contain in the layering of artistic ideas, and how, as I suggest above, we can ever separate ourselves from what we create. (Spoiler alert: I can’t).
What’s a good day for you?
This has been a pretty good day so far! I went for a four-mile run on the first hot day of May, ate kale salad and tempeh strips, drank too much coffee, read some stories from Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter that slay me and slay me and slay me. I also finally did laundry, which is a sentence the way a ray of light from the clouds is a sign of god’s nurturing all-knowing eye.
Other good days: I read a poetry collection that makes me want to impale myself with the honed sharpness of the human condition. I just finished Bough Down by Karen Green and holy fuck, run don’t walk. I also read slush all the livelong day for the Atlas Review, the literary magazine I founded and edit, so that when I come to a piece in there that ignites the torpor of such a task, I too ignite. That feels good because it’s been so damn cold so far this year.
Other other good days: I’m miserable enough to write something I can get behind. I’m never happy when I write and I’m usually unhappy with the product of my grievances. I’ll go ahead and take you behind the scenes and tell you there’s an endless stream of tears behind any given poem I write. That’s okay, though. Happiness, I hear, sounds awful.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
Let’s see. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for four years. Before that, Harlem, which I loved for the most part. Right now I’m in Greenpoint, and I plan to stay here until it looks too much like Chelsea. Then I’ll probably remain out of obstinance. Then I’ll probably become the proprietor of a boutique and live out my days fat off the land. No, no, that’s not it. I love Greenpoint, though it’s rapidly changing. I saw Christie Ann Reynolds on my run today, or she saw me. She lives down the street and we’re getting happy hour this week. Hi, Christie Ann. There are tons of writers and artists here, unsurprisingly, but they’re a more matured breed than the Williamsburg artists. Though maybe I’m just telling myself that. I probably am just telling myself that.
I love that there are tons of places I can write in. This café just opened up called Budin which boasts the most expensive latte in all of NYC, according to the Gothamist. I found out my brother got engaged there and I wrote an okay poem there about losing my virginity, so its bougie-ness is forgivable. There’s a great energy here: the East River stares me down every day on my walk home from work and sometimes I walk to the pier (though it collapsed during a ferry boarding on one of the coldest days of February or March, and is still sitting that catastrophe out); LIC stares me down too, the Citi Bank tower there a monolith of the not-too-distant suburbs of Long Island where I grew up; my favorite bar in the neighborhood, Oak & Iron, has prosecco on tap. Spellcheck wanted to make that word “process” and I agree that this is a process where my joy is concerned. There’s a lot of Polish apothecaries and butcher shops and delicatessens and restaurants here too; a lot of Polish women dressing nicely for Sunday church and traveling in fancy droves. I see Sean H. Doyle’s doppleganger more often than I see Sean though he lives on Noble. I like Peter Pan Bakery, where I eat approximately one hundred doughnuts each visit. There’s a man who owns property on Franklin but it’s just a strip of fenced-in land between buildings. It’s full of a life’s worth of stuff and there’s an old Cadillac where I presume he sleeps and seeks shelter. I don’t think he’s crazy, just has sculpted for himself the kind of providence we all think is impossible.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
There was this construction site on Kent Ave that I always got cat-called at. I hate them so much but I didn’t want to reroute myself lest it would be yet one more compromise a woman makes in the face of rape culture. So one morning, the cat-calling was more than I could bear—it was a bad morning where all my thoughts were razor-edged and god forbid you entered my thoughts at that moment there’d be blood on my hands—so I stopped and screamed. A big Munchian mouth, a big bloodcurdling scream you might call 911 if you heard. I screamed a long time. Then I spit at my own feet and stared at their petrified faces before storming to my train. They stopped bothering me after that. I don’t know if that’s good, bad, or in between. Maybe it’s all three.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Ah, jesus. Why you do this to me. This is like asking me to pick which cells in my blood function best. Maybe I should focus on the dead so that nobody feels left out. Marianne Moore lived here, and she was pretty influential. I keep Googling “history of Brooklyn poets” but the only immediate result is Brooklyn Poets, so good job. Obviously Hart Crane and Whitman are good dead poet dudes. It’s hard to really reconcile this question, because I keep thinking of the dead influential poets of my heart, and hoping they lived here at some point. Anne Sexton didn’t live here, but her Wikipedia page is remarkably short despite being such a fucking force.
Okay, I’ll go with the living. I’m woefully ill-prepared to think beyond my immediate realm. I love the poems of Ariana Reines, Jenny Zhang, Monica McClure, Morgan Parker, Ana Bozicevik, Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, Sampson Starkweather, Molly Rose Quinn, Emily Brandt, Allyson Paty, Dolan Morgan, Bianca Stone, Farrah Field, Jen Tamayo, Alexis Pope—tons and tons of tons. These are all writers who are still quite young and live in a very close sphere to mine. They all challenge status quo without forfeiting cultures both commercial and esoteric. They are funny or they give me panic attacks or they do both while being flames of furious intelligence. I’ve been lucky enough to call Timothy Donnelly and Monica Ferrell mentors in the past. Of course there is also Brenda Shaughnessy, Cathy Park Hong, Craig Morgan Teicher, etc. They all break my heart. They turn language upside down, take its lunch money, and don’t even need to run away to pull off the assault.
I ended up just name-dropping like crazy when I didn’t want to at all. I do this sort of overcompensation all the time. Sorry.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
I go to Word in Greenpoint at least once a weekend. There’s such a nice vibe there, and they do a great job representing small presses. Dolan has a small press book club he just started and which meets in the basement. (Next up is What Would Lynne Tillman Do? by Lynne Tillman.) I go to Spoonbill at least once a month. They have some great poetry collections and some awesome lit paraphernalia, plus your phone gets zero reception in there so you must exist under the spell of the books without taking a deceptive brain selfie of what you’re reading in the bookstore at that moment or whatever. BookCourt is great—surprisingly huge and sprawling. Tons of literary magazines to peruse. They’ve hosted our Atlas launch events, and I’m always so grateful to them for their generosity of space. I like the romance of Unnameable Books, which smells like wood pulp and stale beer and body odor, the proportions of which vary depending on the night. Berl’s is outrageous and I have an existential crisis about who I am versus what other people are doing and how beautifully said people have used their time. I discover like ten new poets and presses each time I go there for events. They do so much for the poetry community already, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. And of course, Mellow Pages Library, while not technically a bookstore, is my favorite hotspot for all things fabulous and renegade in the indie lit world.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I really love working at Swallow in Bushwick. I sit there for hours absorbing espresso scents and always leave with a new poem under my belt. The café Propeller in Greenpoint is pretty new and is so adorable. There used to be this coffeehouse called Café Royale, I believe, on Nassau, and I worked there often on weekdays. It is no longer there. I have in the past loved Café Grumpy—the scones are grandma-worthy and the coffee is a science of deliciousness—but it’s been so over-trodden ever since Girls took over town and claimed it the hangout spot. I used to go to El Beit on Bedford, mostly because it sort of looks like my last name and I wanted to form a semiotic relationship with it but it hasn’t worked out yet.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Can I say Yoga to the People on N11th and not be a douchebag for it? Eh, whatever. I do yoga a lot and love yoga. The Anjaneyasana pose is in the “Seahorse” poem, so it’s not as if you didn’t have yogi suspicions already. I love the restaurant Anella in Greenpoint—I go there a lot with Dolan, Joe, Molly, and Tom, and they have poor overhead ventilation in the kitchen so it’s always hamburger-smoky there. There’s this speakeasy in Bushwick but I won’t tell you the name or where it is because it’s too special and I want to selfishly keep it to myself. I went there with friends the day I learned that Coconut Books was picking up Swan Feast and it was such a perfect night. They make the most perfect bourbon cocktails I’ve ever had the pleasure to indulge.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
I already mentioned Bough Down by Karen Green and I’ll say it again. This book details the raw years of dealing with a loved one’s suicide in prose blocks that tear me apart. Here’s a great line: “There is a distance that will never measure up, a movement in its form that is not breath, not oxygen. I feel straw in my throat; I regret everything.” See what I mean? Danielle Pafunda’s Natural History Rape Museum is a gorgeous and forceful feminist collection which catalogues a history in time under the thrust of a character wonderfully named “the fuckwad.” I lent it someone so I can’t give you a line from it, though I will say rather nakedly that I wrote “Seahorse” right after I finished it. I’m sorry if I thieved away with her grammar at any point is I guess what I’m getting at. Monica McClure’s chapbook Mala shattered me and pissed on my pieces and I loved it. Ji Yoon Lee’s Foreigner’s Folly: A Tale of Attempted Project is ugh so good, and like nothing else I’ve ever read, at least where language and identity merge and divide. Is it clear I only read women yet?
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Rilo Kiley against the downpour,
And what I scream you should sleep off,
For every empty coffee cup surrounding me as good
must burden 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.
So what. We have been robbed of decency,
isn’t that the expression, so Father Biggie
stands in a threshold tapping his love
into a sin so small he can bite down
on Brooklyn’s bridges and taste nothing
but the agnostic tin of the shit pen.
In Friday’s fog, I think of Father’s happiness
the way I’ve never thought of a Dodger’s game.
The clean hurt of a jack pushes up my window. So what.
See above. See every Brooklyn Poet featured. See the cherry blossom petals all over the sidewalks in spring. See the beautiful people all season-round. See the fantastic array of readings and lit events every single night. See the champagne-sipping picnickers in the parks. See the dogs and the dogs and the dogs.