Poet Of The Week

Obi Taswell

     December 19–25, 2022

Obi Taswell (they/them) is an avid reader, writer, teacher and learner based in New York City. They are committed to decolonizing education and believe in the power of literature to affirm a person’s sense of self and commitment to community. Obi received their BA in English and psychology from Barnard College and their MS in education from Bank Street College of Education. This past spring they were named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Bernard Ferguson’s workshop on the poetics of climate change. In their free time, Obi enjoys climbing mountains, cooking meals and jumping in puddles. Their work was recently featured in Third Iris. Find them on Twitter @obi_reads and IG @was.a.bel.

on hearing o salutaris hostia again

 

we are sitting on the floor of my galley kitchen

between drawers of corks and cabinets

too tired to boast of china teacups

while whitacre or esenvalds or elder breaks and mends

and breaks again the atoms between our dandelion toes

i remember then i love you was silent

we felt it between our ribs

this is memory, and this and this

i have fallen in love before, with you,

and the rattle of fate between subway cars,

and the melon i grew in my garden

that tasted of water and prayer but did not

taste of memory, and once i fell in love

with a corner of the sky that was bounded

by faith or at least by feathers that knew

a separate canvas but still painted blue-gold here

is this vitam sine termino, a sliver of my thumb

on each curve of the world, a constellation

i crack with my knuckles and pull

from my lungs to trace the stories that pass me by?

when we grow we forget to be linear:

we are coy with the dimension of desire,

we tease time, we sleep with wildness

or wilderness and lie naked

in the arms of absence or maybe lust

till our pruned skin sends us crawling

back to the comfort of wool

and my galley kitchen where we don’t fit now

i imagine the tendons in your wrists,

your nostrils glowing, the ridge

that defines the helix of your ear:

these things are beautiful

now i know: there are galaxies in my rib cage;

i can sing the names of the stars

 

—Originally published in Third Iris, September 2022.

Brooklyn Poets · Obi Taswell, "on hearing o salutaris hostia again"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem at three o’clock in the morning on the Notes app on my phone while lying hopelessly awake in my bed. It was about a year and a half into the pandemic and I had been living at home with my parents—from whom I was, at the time, still closeted. This poem spilled out of me in what I now recognize as the final stanza of a too-long, too-straight love and the first stanza of a risk.
 
What are you working on right now?

Picking up a pencil. Writing about the way the still-standing scorched trees in the Great Smoky Mountains look like the saguaros in southern Arizona, and about how I butter my anger with guilt, and about how we twist language to trace the places where trans bodies meet the earth and collide with systems of oppression. Editing, always.
 
What’s a good day for you?

Waking up with the sun. Earl Grey tea and a good book. Soft scrambled eggs with fresh herbs and toast. A walk in the park. Smiling at strangers; strangers smiling back. Mostly classical music. The trains arrive when I do. If it’s raining, jumping in puddles. Cooking dinner for my friends. A goodnight kiss.
 
What brought you to Brooklyn?

I’ve always wanted to live alone, but for a long time I was nervous. As a young person, I questioned whether I truly wanted to—or was capable of—living alone. After reading Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids by Susan Cain, I developed language to affirm my introverted tendencies and decided not only did I want to live alone but I felt like I could live alone. From there, the truths and logistics of capitalism brought me to the depths of Brooklyn.
 
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I moved to Brooklyn about six months ago—deep enough into Brooklyn that I now pack for the day when I leave my home. So far, I like listening to the crickets chirping outside my third-story window when I fall asleep at night; I like the way my neighbors sat on their stoops in the dog days of summer to suffer from heatstroke together; I like the house a few blocks away from me that’s so covered in plants you have to wonder if it wasn’t built from spores and seeds itself; I like the golden blanket of ginkgo leaves that’s been hugging each street in my neighborhood since September.

I used to live steps away from Chinatown, where I could wander outside and find fresh ginger root, black radishes, dried mushrooms, kombu, or fifteen just-steamed dumplings for three dollars within minutes. Now, every bodega around me has all the halvah, feta, baklava, smoked fish, kefir, shelled nuts and sardines I could dream of. No matter where I am, I keep finding myself falling in love with the way I learn the city with my tongue, and the way my kitchen, wherever it is, always smells like home.
 
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Racing from the train to my friend’s apartment during the first hurricane last year. We stopped at a bodega to get an umbrella that was so flimsy the rain poured right through it. By the time we got to their apartment, we were soaked to the bone and full of laughter.
 
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

When I think about a poetry community, I think about people who support each other as writers: who sit and write together, who share work and offer feedback, who push each other to take risks and who celebrate each other’s minds. Preferably there’s food involved, or at least coffee. I have one friend in this city with whom I regularly write and one friend in a different city with whom I regularly exchange work, but I’m always looking to expand my poetry community. The combination of navigating a pandemic-ridden world, never having attended school for writing, and being both shy-ish and busy have all made it rather challenging to grow my poetry community—but hey, if you’re reading this and want to write together, hi, I’d love to meet you. 🙂
 
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

A non-exhaustive amalgamation of born-in, live(d)-in, wrote/write-in, read(s)-in and visited: Mahogany L. Browne, Candice Iloh, R. A. Villanueva, Noah Arhm Choi, Aracelis Girmay, Jacqueline Woodson, Jive Poetic, Bernard Ferguson, Adam Falkner, John Murillo, Audre Lorde, does Ross Gay count?, Sarah Kay, Ocean Vuong, Jon Sands, Ada Límon, June Jordan … should I keep going?
 
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
 
When I was eighteen months old, the people I’d come to think of as my second parents gifted me a book written by Joanne Oppenheim and illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng called Have You Seen Trees? The book is now out of print, but one of my favorite pages—with an eggshell and auburn watercolor of an old oak and a young birch—reads:

Cold tree, old tree,

planted-long-ago tree.

Holes in the bole

of a dark cold tree!

Wrinkled bark, rough bark,

twisted, corky, cracked bark.

White bark, smooth bark,

slick-without-a-groove bark.

As soon as I could form these words, I fell in love with their flavor and rhythm, the way they’d wrap around my mouth like a breeze.

Since then, every poet I’ve read has played a role in mentoring me, from Lewis Carroll to Naomi Shihab Nye to Cameron Awkward-Rich. Devin Kelly’s weekly newsletter, Ordinary Plots: Meditations on Poems + Verse, has made him feel like a mentor to me. My friend and colleague R. A. Villanueva is a wonderful mentor who has invited me in with open arms to the both vast and small world of poetry. Bernard Ferguson, who led a Brooklyn Poets workshop on the poetics of climate change which I joined as a fellow, helped me nuance my thinking—and therefore my writing—about the climate crisis and about the ways our bodies interact with our environment.

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

Recently I read Me (Moth) by Amber McBride. The story, which follows two teens on their search for ghosts, roots and love, is song, sonnet and sanctuary. Never before has my breath caught in my throat at a plot twist; the volta in this melodic and powerful novel-in-verse for young adults is the volta to end all voltas.

I regularly read “Pluto Shits on the Universe” by Fatimah Asghar out loud to no one in particular and to anyone who will listen and to myself. Reading it feels akin to doing a power-stance to Beyoncé before a test. I mean, “I chaos like a motherfucker”? Scripture.

I’m currently reading Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead. When Ellen Bass wrote “The World Has Need of You,” I’m convinced she was talking about this book. This book is everything.
 
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I have a TBR pile that could wrap around all of Brooklyn. Some that stand out are: Seeing Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza.
 
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’m a definitive co-reader: I typically have one book of poems that I like to read before bed and another non-poetry book that I mostly read on the train. I’m a middle- and upper-school ethics teacher and a writer for We Need Diverse Books, so in addition to memoirs, fiction and nonfiction, I tend to read a lot of literature for children and young adults. A few years ago, I decided to make a habit of putting down books that I wasn’t enjoying, which felt both like a gift and a release. I love consuming my literature on paper, where I can feel it and smell it and write notes to it in the margins.
 
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

R. A. Villanueva describes a poem in which the title serves as the first line as a cephalophore. He has a knack for taking the final line of one poem and using it as the title for the subsequent cephalophore. I’m interested in constructing a series of poems that are connected not only in subject but in title and final line such that each poem can be read either distinctly or as a part of a larger work. I’m also in awe of everyone who has written a contrapuntal or who has used the word “things” in a poem. I aspire to this level of talent and tact.
 
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

On the train, at the library, in big-branched trees, on top of mountains. I have a particular knack for navigating city streets with my nose in a book, and for writing notes on my knees when I don’t have paper.
 
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The rooftop farm at the Brooklyn Grange in the Navy Yard, where I used to teach children and feed chickens. Four and Twenty Blackbirds, where I discovered honey pie. The Prospect Park Audubon Center, where I like to hold the Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The Williamsburg waterfront, where I like to watch my boyfriend watch the sunset.
 
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate knowing the way you like to eat an apple,

that you trust me to remember,

And what I carve in crescents, you savor:

sweet moons between your teeth—

For every slice I make, all of me as good will care for you.

Why Brooklyn?

Why not?