Poet Of The Week

R. A. Villanueva

     September 8–14, 2014

R. A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, his honors include the 2013 Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and fellowships from Kundiman and the Asian American Literary Review. His writing has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including AGNI, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in Brooklyn and is a lecturer at New York University. Villanueva will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series as part of a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event on Friday, September 19, at Dumbo Sky with Jericho Brown and Cathy Park Hong.


Because you will not talk
about your mother’s hands

or describe further the meat
of her left thumb almost gone

as if eaten down to the bone,
and because it is too early yet

to imagine your mother’s breast
brushed with prep gauze, held

in some nameless palm,
an attendant knuckle There

to mark just above her nipple, we run
along the piers, coughing

at the near-spectacle of Edgewater,
its lights adrift in the river

between here and New Jersey.
If only we could say something

about the beauty afforded to us
by distance and the prospect of loss

instead of spitting at pigeons
and kicking at wastebins. If only

there was something else but pictures
in my skull—these images of antibodies

and magnets in solution, a doctor’s vow
to take arms in the half-life

of whatever we have to finish it off.
When you gesture at a trash barge,

the seagulls in their furious circles, I see
a convocation above the heaps,

white cells gathering at the tips
of all her cooled syringes.

–From Reliquaria, University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Confluences” is a poem that seems, to me, to be one of the more raw, un-made, and unadorned poems in the book. It’s one that came out all Athena-like and hacking free. It was always couplets; it was always a trio of sustained “Because,” “If only,” and “When” sentences; it was always an attempt to capture a kind of serrated (un)certainty. Oddly enough, the only substantive change in the course of revision was a reversal of the verbs in this couplet: “instead of spitting at pigeons / and kicking at wastebins. If only.”

What are you working on right now?

I’m living in London for the time being, so I’m working on making sense of this new city on a river on an island.

Apart from that, I am
1. trying to survive the logistics of a Reliquaria-centric September
2. testing the ways in which Twitter’s formal limits can serve as an incubator for new kinds of poems, specifically feeds of couplets conspiring to live as sonnets (see: “Fossils,” for instance) and, as always, I am
3. forging forward through the production stages of Tongue. A new issue of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art is set to launch later this year.

What’s a good day for you?

It begins with coffee. There is the chance to laugh with / eat with / drink with / embrace someone who matters. There is no rain.

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

My wife and I have lived in Cobble Hill for just over 5 years. It feels like a real home—one that we’ve somehow earned. And from our roof we have sight of New Jersey.

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

This story is far too long to relate here and loses something in the printing. If I see you in person and you want to hear it, I promise to tell it in full. Promise.

It involves the dead of winter. It involves Lucali in Carroll Gardens. It involves eating a calzone and a fruit plate with* this young couple:
Jay Z and Beyonce


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

It changes. And a listing of living borough-favorites worth reading would inevitably leave someone out. So, for the moment, let’s go with Marianne Moore.

Because she defies all my attempts to understand her entirely. And because of this photo with W. H. Auden taken by Diane Arbus in 1964; and for this 1953 photo of Moore looming playful and threatening.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

BookCourt is the closest to home and they will special order anything and everything. I cannot count the number of their post-purchase bookmarks saving places in books on our shelves. Also, unlike most other stores, they keep their poetry section out of the hinterlands, offering poems the good sun right in front.

And you can’t speak of poems kept in the good sun and Brooklyn without mentioning Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. Events nearly every night of the week and its tables, walls stocked full to the rafters with pamphlets and broadsides and books.

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

If I could lay permanent claim to the counterspace at Ted & Honey, I would. I’ve spent many hours there hashing out and revising poems, evaluating student work, remaking syllabi, and reading.

At closing time, I’d head out past the park, make a right onto Congress, a left onto Court, and a right onto Bergen. Second shift happens at 61 Local, where the worktables are wide and the wi-fi is stalwart and true.

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

See the last question.

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

Reading some stunning first collections from UK poets right now. Two stand-outs: Terror by Toby Martinez de las Rivas and Bright Travellers by Fiona Benson.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Memorial by Alice Oswald
Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
The Highest Hiding Place by Lawrence Ypil

And these two poems inspire awe: “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph” by Anne Sexton; “Only until this cigarette has ended” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (bonus: a reading of Millay’s sonnet by Tyne Daly).

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the way a tube of metal is taken to air,
given lift over the gentle convex
of the earth. And what I remember
is the concave of sky, the hum of turbines
and vents, the sound of someone else’s music.
Bells, now. Now, knuckles. You should carry
less in your jaw. For every goodbye is a tooth
to grind in the nighttime. And as good as you
and I have it, you know there is more to lose.

Why Brooklyn?

Because of Vinny’s of Carroll Gardens and Hibino and Pacific Standard and D’Amico; because of Court St. Bagels and Cobble Hill Coffee Shop; because of Dumbo Sky; because of Kehinde Wiley at the Brooklyn Museum and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party on its 4th floor; because of Green-Wood Cemetery seen from the BQE; because of the Brooklyn Bridge and its caissons, its sandhogs, its boys selling water above the river; because of the Oratory Church of St. Boniface, its choirs and hymns; because of the Nethermead; because of Madiba.