Poet Of The Week

Philipe AbiYouness

     December 2–8, 2019

Philipe AbiYouness is a Lebanese-American poet and educator. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fugue, Muzzle, PANK, Tinderbox and Sukoon. This past summer, AbiYouness was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Hala Alyan’s Poetry as Truth Serum workshop. He is currently an MFA candidate at Emerson College.

On Sundays at Ikea We Watch the Airplanes


                                   Sandra and Nano and Noah and me,

running to get seats by the big window. And yes, our parents

are running too. And yes, our parents are the kind of immigrants

who leave the house at two for a one o’clock appointment,

but leave the house at three for a ten o’clock flight. I mean,

three a.m. for a ten p.m. flight. I mean, three a.m. two weeks before the flight.

I mean, we go to Ikea to watch the airplanes.

And maybe someone told us we could rebuild home here.

Or maybe, it is about the leaving, forgetting our small town

by way of 80 East, right past Newark airport, turn at Elizabeth

seaport and arrive at everything blue and yellow.

Sandra jokes but maybe she is not joking, take me with you,

as another plane asserts no homeland, roaring.

And we don’t know where any of them are going, but we know

our parents speak about Lebanon like the sun raves about morning

even behind the moon. We are young enough to know

how to map distance by the coffee our mothers drink and the hours

our fathers sleep. Remember when Lina and Habib spent their rent money

on plane tickets? We reinvent how to forfeit a country

again and again and again

and the voice of our God is our children claiming what we claim.

I bend my toes against the earth and my mom is her mom

yelling at her, yelling at me, sub7an’allah.

In Jbeil, after twenty years, my mom tells me,

these streets ate a lot from my feet and I think that means here

she can yell familiar names that leave the mouth a nest. This means

pitting fruit in the palm of her hand and war following. First time

in our parents’ country and we leave how they left, gathering

on the nose of the boat to watch the smoke carry on.

It is always about the leaving and we leave a way back

with every step forward. I mean, we still go to Ikea

and watch the airplanes. We still don’t know

where any of them are going,

                         but me and my mom and Sandra and Lina

stand at the parking lot’s edge, mouths open like a whole night,

running with the planes, almost dropping our bags of pillows,

laughing like we’ve never seen a hand-made thing defy before

and look look look

                         how easy they forget the ground.

From behind the chain link fence, the airport watches us back,

throws light like the young glow of a new sun. The plane gone somewhere.

My father’s cold hands, somewhere. With every fleeting thing maybe

we peel and forfeit by the earth’s accord. Like the massive metal planes

shrinking to small, blinking lights

inheriting the distance.


Tell us about the making of this poem.

My family has this weird fascination with airplanes. Anytime we see one relatively close to the ground, someone will inevitably point it out like the year isn’t 2019. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, so for fun we would do things like go to the Ikea in Elizabeth which is right next to Newark airport and spend our time there watching airplanes from the cafeteria window. This poem was inspired by a relatively recent trip with my mom, my aunt and my cousin to that same Ikea, where we stood in the parking lot for an extended period of time to gawk at the planes leaving and arriving. I had forgotten that this was a thing we did growing up and I was thinking about the way things change and don’t change. I think airplanes are significant for immigrant/first-gen people. Anyway, this poem is an ode to that Ikea and to Newark airport and to my family’s strange joys.

What are you working on right now?

Well, I just started an MFA program, so that plus two jobs is kicking my butt. I’m trying to find time to write and when that time appears these days I’m probably writing about joy in some way. I’m trying to let myself be funnier in my poems.

What’s a good day for you?

Oof, that’s tough because a good day can be so many things! I’m going to describe a great day because so many days are good: waking up kind of early, reading, writing, and then having coffee with my mom, THEN going somewhere new with friends, laughing a lot, being near the ocean, warm weather, and THEN a big family gathering at an aunt or uncle’s, laughing with the cousins, eating great food, sitting outside because it’s summer and the air is kind of cool but still friendly. I’m a simple boy!

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?

Right now I’m living in Boston for grad school and I just got here. I struggle to put my feelings about Boston into words. I keep comparing it to New York because that was the closest city growing up and I have to say, I think I like New York and all its wildness a little more (sorry, Boston). But home is in New Jersey! Northwestern Jersey, which I don’t think I’ll ever understand and where I don’t feel like I fit in, but I appreciate it the way one appreciates a strange uncle.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I haven’t spent too much time in Brooklyn, sadly, but it is home to a few fond memories including: pizza with my cousins in DUMBO, frequenting my good friend’s couch in Crown Heights, and talking endlessly about middle school on the rooftop of an old bar in Williamsburg with my oldest friend.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

For the longest time, poetry community meant reading my poems for friends and family, but I’ve been meeting a lot more poets lately so I think that community is expanding! I think a poetry community means people who will engage with your work earnestly. It also means people who will nerd out over poems with you.

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

I’m in workshop with Daniel Tobin right now and he’s from Brooklyn and he’s brilliant. Langston Hughes comes up when I Google “poets from Brooklyn” (Brooklyn, forgive me) though upon further research, I think that’s false, though I love Langston Hughes. I took workshops with both Shira Erlichman and Hala Alyan (through Brooklyn Poets!) and they were both so generous and insightful in really different ways. Shira gave me feedback on a poem that changed the way I think about revision. Hala was one of the first MENA poets whose work I fell in love with. Also, Angel Nafis writes poems that bring life alive in unforeseen ways. I’m always returning to her work.

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

I had a poetry teacher who told me poetry is meant to be memorized so it can keep you company if you’re ever in solitary confinement and God forbid but that stuck with me. Her name is Peggy Samuels and her contemporary American poetry class sort of started this whole thing for me. I had another professor in undergrad, Courtney Zoffness, who is a phenomenal fiction writer and whose passion for writing and support of my poetry was monumental for me.

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

I recently read Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia and can’t wait to go back to that one. I’ll also never be over Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

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

Well, I think I need to read everything else Aracelis Girmay has written now. Ross Gay, too. I’ve never read James Baldwin, which will change soon. Also, Etel Adnan.

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 try to stick to one or two books at a time because I know I will get carried away otherwise. I’m normally reading one novel and one book of poetry at a time. Sometimes it’s different, like sometimes I’m reading a play and a novel or a memoir and a book of poems. I plan in advance because I am a slow reader and there is truly so much to read, so I normally have an idea of what’s next when the time comes. Definitely physical books, partially for the smell.

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

I want to start playing with form more! I’ve never written a sonnet, so maybe that’s where I’ll start.

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

I read on the train or bus a lot. I’m also a sucker for a picturesque coffee shop. I love hanging out with friends and reading in the same room. I think my ideal place might be the kitchen table on a sunny or snowy day. I always like a hot drink when I’m reading.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Anywhere the city meets the water.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate rain steaming back alive

And what I lost on the hot concrete. You: cracking jokes

in the kitchen. For every crowded highway

remembers me as good as remembering you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn does community like no one else.