Poet Of The Week

Patricia Spears Jones

     November 10–16, 2014

Patricia Spears Jones is the award-winning author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press), and four chapbooks, including Living in the Love Economy (Overpass Books, 2014), and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the acclaimed experimental theater company. Her poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry; broken land: Poems of Brooklyn; Best American Poetry 2000 and elsewhere. She edited Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women, and she serves as a contributing editor for BOMB Magazine as well as a Senior Fellow at the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank. The recipient of awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the NY Community Trust and the Goethe Institute, and grants from the NEA and NYFA, she participated as a mentor in the first year of Emerge-Surface-Be, a new fellowship program at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she was the Program Coordinator from 1984-86. She has taught poetry workshops for Cave Canem, the Poetry Project and Poets House and is currently a lecturer at LaGuardia Community College.

Patato y Totico chant “Ya Yo E”

In this short film, a young man in Havana
Carries two buckets of water
Up and down three flights of stairs
Three times each day.

This is not a ritual but his daily ration
If he does not go at a certain time,
He will not bathe
He will not wash his floors
His t shirts will stay musty

His legs are long and his thighs
Are the thick thighs of a young man
Healthy enough to walk up and down
Three flights of stairs carrying two
Large buckets of water.
Three times a day

Of course this an artistic rendering of
The crisis in Cuba—the masses carry their
Water. But then the masses always carry water

In North America they stand
In early daylight outside the Dunkin Donut
Their daily ration, talking shit
And praying the padrone pay them at day’s end.

“Ya Yo E” is a ritual song to demonstrate virility sung by Africans brought as slaves to Cuba.

–Originally published on The Rumpus, April 2010.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Patato y Totico chant ‘Ya Yo E’” is a poem from a series (actually an unpublished chapbook) called Beneath the 49th Parallel. That line separates Canada and the United States. Each poem is the name of a singer or musician and a song. The first poem was “Leontyne Price sings ‘Un Bel Di’ from Madame Butterfly,” so you can see my musical interests are quite wide. This poem comes from the chant that the great Afro-Cuban musicians perform on a CD that I found after lending the album I bought in the late 1970s to someone who never returned it. I learned about them through my relationship with Victor Rosa, who was deeply versed in Afro-Latino music/culture with a particular love for those wonderful Cubans. Besides having heard this music over several decades, a few years ago there was a Caribbean Art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. There were few works in it that captured my attention, save one—a video of a young man walking up and down stairs carrying buckets of water. The video showed the difficulties of getting the most basic things in Cuban society and it also showed the determination of Cubans. Up and down the stairs the young man went. The rumba, salsa—these are working people’s musical delights—the stuff you do on that day off and when the rum flows.

Carlos “Patato” Valdes was a great conga player and Eugenio Arango, “Totico” was a major rumbero—a master singer. I had never heard of the rumba or Afro-Cuban music before coming to New York. Their album Patato y Totico represents a moment of high education to me. That this chant demonstrates virility is apparent, but in that it also shows a recognition of conflict, an understanding of suffering and a way to ask the Gods for help. Of course, it provides the opportunity to test one’s power in the face of opposition, suffering and the need to fight daily just for the basics. Enslaved Africans deeply examined and sustained their humanity as they fought daily for the basics. The Cuban people continue to struggle daily against an absurd U.S. embargo. I thank Victor and others for introducing me to these sounds and rhythms that I only knew from the watered-down versions offered by Desi Arnaz’s Orchestra. I am also glad I went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw that show.

What are you working on right now?

I recently pulled together about four decades of work—poems that will populate A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems forthcoming from White Pine Press. It’s been interesting, especially identifying non-collected or only recently published poems for the book. I was not published for a very long time—my first full-length book, The Weather That Kills, came out in 1995 and my second book, Femme du Monde, which was the runner-up or rejected for years did not come out until 2006. But all the other books have been accepted and published in rapid succession: Painkiller (2010), Respuestas (2010), Swimming to America (2011) and Living in the Love Economy (this year). So I am writing lyric or lyric narratives that discuss topics ranging from the swift loss of nomadic life for Mongolians to my angry response to extra-judicial killings, mostly of young Black men, done by police departments across this nation. While the topics look at the current world and the currents within the world, the poems are lyric—I think I have to have some kind of song, no matter the topic. At heart, I am someone who is making her own version of the blues.

I am also working on prose—pulling together materials for a memoir of being a Black woman poet/artist in the East Village in the 1970s. There were many Black artists and writers in the Village, not as many as in Harlem or in Brooklyn, but we were there. Moreover, I was in the thick of experimental theater, the Loft Jazz scene (the musicians hated that phrase, by the way) and the heady days of SoHo. So while the little gray cells are working I have to keep at it.

What’s a good day for you?

One with little physical pain; some good conversation with good friends, hopefully over a tasty meal and nice glass of wine; a moment where I find myself in a circle of art—music, film, theater, a painting or installation; a chance to do some good or learn something new.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

How long? Too long? Ha. I moved to Prospect Heights in 1990 when I returned from living in Boston where I worked for the Mass Council on the Arts and ran the New Works Program. That was defunded and so after weathering that storm, I did what people rarely do—I returned to New York City. Already the East Village, et al. was too expensive and I did not want to return there anyway. But a New York Times ad brought me to a duplex on Sterling Place and a roommate situation which at first seemed difficult, but it was great. Lots of stories on Sterling Place and I wrote the play Mother there along with my first two books. And the affair that led to Painkiller all happened there. I loved Prospect Heights. It was the only really truly integrated neighborhood I’ve ever seen in all of New York City. There was a Cub Scout troop at the church on Underwood and Sterling; there were drag queens around the corner. Tom’s Diner was half the size and the meals half the price as now. Gus and his family lived in the brownstone across the street. I remember visiting a couple of times and seeing his garden—a wonderful riot of plants and flowers. He was Greek and his garden reminded me of the ones I saw while growing up in Arkansas. Just heard of his passing, a wonderful man who helped make Prospect Heights a true community. There were many folks from the South; from the West Indies; a few White Ethnics like Gus and several of the brownstones were intergenerational—so grandparents and their grandchildren around. For a while a Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church lived next door to me, so I had roses anytime I wanted. It was also dangerous—this is Brooklyn. Washington Ave. was ugly (other than Tom’s) and many shops were so run down you didn’t even want to go there. Now it is wall-to-wall restaurants and yuppies.

When my landlady decided to take back her apartment, I went into high gear and ran all over the place searching for an alternative in the neighborhood, but the rents were escalating. Saw an advert for my current apartment on Craigslist. By the time I got here, that was gone, but one flight up was another one and I’ve been on Macon Street ever since. Who knew that Bed-Stuy would become the “it” neighborhood? I love my block—love the street from Nostrand to Stuyvesant—it’s a lovely walk. Good people here—quiet for the most part. There’s everyone from Mother Teresa nuns to the guys on the corner who are always the guys (dudes, homeys, etc.) on the corner. There are families who have worked to make the city better: teachers, nurses, police officers, soldiers, many retired. They own their homes. They create these little front-yard gardens. They watch out for the children and the pets and keep as much of the riffraff off the block. There are now many Europeans who are annoying. There are great coffee shops from Common Grounds on Tompkins, developed by Tremaine Wright who has grown up in the hood, to Dakar on Nostrand owned by a lovely family from Senegal and I am always grateful that Alicia Blegen helped make Peaches HotHouse a place to hang. She doesn’t work there anymore, but she helped create a space for all kinds of people to eat, drink and mingle with little tension. Because there is much tension in Bed-Stuy as moneyed people (those annoying Europeans and others) move, shoving the teachers, nurses and other middle-income people out. We shall see if I can stay. Rents no longer escalate, they ROCKET. And unthinking, not particularly courteous people moving in make the place less appealing. Brooklyn survived Sandy, not sure it can survive wealthification.

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

I don’t know what a defining Brooklyn experience is, so that question will have to be answered by someone else. Let’s just say, I live in central Brooklyn—Hurricane Sandy was a light rain for me.

Or there’s the reading I did for BOMB Magazine in Fort Greene Park near the Prisons Ship Martyrs Monument. It was pouring rain, so we moved into the Park Ranger’s office, four poets and about 20-30 attendees and the rain kept pouring and as it did, the light became green, a steady pouring green. Maybe that was my defining Brooklyn experience. Or it could be when I realized the 25 bus goes from Bed-Stuy to DUMBO!

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Walt Whitman; June Jordan, whose humongous apartment on 8th Avenue in Park Slope was my entrée into the world of Brooklyn; Carl Reznikoff; Maurice Kenny (he lived in Brooklyn Heights for decades); Harvey Shapiro; the lovely people who ran Home Planet News, and many more, but these encompass both the living and the dead. I also love my contemporaries D. Nurkse, Janet Kaplan, Greg Pardlo, Rachel Levitsky, Linda Susan Jackson, Michael Broder, Kristin Prevallet (although she has decamped to upstate), Tyehimba Jess, Thomas Sayers Ellis (by way of D.C. and the Mothership), Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Renato Rosaldo (by way of anthropology), Kimberly Lyons, Tai Allen and Bob Hershon.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Berl’s Poetry Shop, Greenlight Bookstore, Unnameable and back in the day the Community Bookstore in Park Slope. For history’s sake, Nkiru, long gone, but well remembered.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I write at home. I rarely write anywhere else except occasionally on the subway.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I love the Botanic Garden even though I hate the new visitors’ entrance on Washington. I think walking the boardwalk at Coney Island is a treat and the Brooklyn Heights promenade at twilight—the city becomes suddenly soft, mutable. I love to walk about neighborhoods—those I live in and those not known to me like Kensington or Parkside. I have my hangs about central Brooklyn: Calabar Imports; the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch; the farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza; Five Myles, where my buddy Carl E. Hazlewood often works with the founder to produce really important and innovative contemporary arts programs. I love that Betsy Sussler brought BOMB Magazine to Brooklyn just ahead of the curve. It is fun to visit the office where everyone is intently looking at screens.

BAM Café when it does its music nights is fun. I’ve seen folk dancing and it is where I try to go for the winter solstice because they feature music from Arabia and belly dancing and that is where I found out that the leading belly dancing teacher is Black! I also love Roulette. Every once in a while I get to St. Ann’s Warehouse for something different in theater. While there are many venues for theater and performance, most of them are either uninteresting or I watch young people do stuff I saw people do like 30 years ago. I was hopeful that a troupe in Bed-Stuy would get it together, but I fear they have great dreams, but little in the way of production skills.

When I feel middle class (not that often anymore) I go to Café Lafayette in Fort Greene and drink strong French coffee and eat banana walnut pancakes without shame. That section of Fort Greene has changed so drastically—I wish the Senegalese restaurant was still there, but am happy that Greenlight Bookstore is there. There’s a really good Thai restaurant on Washington that was there before the restaurant eruption—it is good. Occasionally friends take me to the swell restaurants in Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, but I only go with them.

In Bed-Stuy, I hang out at Peaches HotHouse when I am feeling middle class and can afford a drink. Sometimes at the original Peaches on Stuyvesant, but that is rare. So for crepes it’s Dakar on Nostrand. For regular good coffee and run into friends, it’s Common Grounds. I also love the BLTs at the bodega at Hancock and Tompkins. Get there before 1 PM when they turn off the grill. I like that I live in a neighborhood where I can be a creature of habit.

I love the walk from Saint John’s Episcopal Church on St. John’s Place in Park Slope towards the Brooklyn Museum or towards Fifth Avenue and back downtown to central Brooklyn. Either way, the cityscape changes and then it is fun to enter the Brooklyn Museum and find or not find something of interest. The Museum has done the city and the world a great service by focusing on a range of artists from the African Diaspora, thus expanding our knowledge of art and who makes it—the shows by Mickalene Thomas, El Anatsui, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Yinka Shonibare were fascinating and totally different from each other. And I love the recreated rooms.

Sometimes I get rides to parts of Brooklyn that I would never see—Midwood or Flatlands. I once visited Bay Ridge and that was fun. I had a job that sent me all over the city and I still remember the gloomiest school building ever in Red Hook and the surprisingly cheerful neighborhood near the one in Sheepshead Bay.

I hate the Barclays Center and pretty much everything it stands for. It is ugly. It does not support “local businesses” since most of its vendors are inside/nearby. And where is that affordable housing they talked about? I hate the Barclays Center.

And the strangest part of Brooklyn to me is Williamsburg. Not the hipster Williamsburg (boring) but the old-school Puerto Rican Williamsburg, which hangs on somehow, and the Hasidic Williamsburg. The Hasids are like the most exotic of all the Brooklyn tribes—why are these families walking about at midnight? Where are they going? And why do they not follow the traffic rules? Anarchy favors black clothing. Walking around is like being not in another country or century but another state of mind.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Many wonderful books out this year, as you know. Greg Pardlo’s Digest from Four Ways is brilliant because Greg is. There are others, but for right now I’ll just add one that’s not by a Brooklyn-based poet—All Night It Is Morning by Andy Young. She’s a New Orleans–based poet.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate my complexity and my love of laughter
And when I talk you should listen
For every spark that shocks me as good as the one
     that shocks

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.

Ink on hand

He wanted to be a Brooklyn Dodger
That is what he wrote by pen
But years young, he lost his sad father
And found his life engulfed in sin
How that hurt—the hard slap Jack
On his palm, inked Brooklyn
Meant to startle the one called Biggie
Not easy, when for bread you rob
From the smallest hands the possibility of love

Why Brooklyn?

I moved here in the early 1990s because it was affordable and there was more space and air and sky. The first couple of years on Sterling Place, very few Manhattan-based friends visited, but slowly that changed. When I wrote “The Brooklyn Song” for Song for New York: What Women Do When Men Sit Knitting, I found myself returning again to the sky, to air. The “Bloomburgs,” as the Brooklyn Rail managing editor calls all of the super tall condos that sprout like bad mushrooms throughout central Brooklyn, disrupt that sense of sky and air for all of us. I know the views are awesome. But the views from the roof of my four-floor tenement apartment house are awesome too. The unfettered development of downtown and central Brooklyn is remaking what was a most liveable, walkable area. The subways are too crowded. The bars are too noisy. The brushes of conflict that erupt when dogs get more love than children—that is not the Brooklyn I care to see. But I live on a lovely, mostly safe block in a great neighborhood that was almost left to die by successive city administrations. The residents of Bed-Stuy—not the underground drug economy that Jay Z and others touted—are tough and tenacious. They did not give up and the losses to that drug economy were many, but those who are still here or nearby, who do the political work, the cultural work, the daily survival work, are admirable, sometimes heroic. You could not pay me to live in the East Village now. Or most of Manhattan. Too boring. But Brooklyn despite wealthification remains gleefully vulgar, aspirational and somewhat awkward. I love that.