February 22–28, 2016
Rachael Lynn Nevins is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Her poetry has appeared in Rattle, Literary Mama, the Comstock Review, Kindred and elsewhere, and her book reviews have appeared in such publications as Publishers Weekly. She blogs at The Variegated Life and teaches Online Intermediate Poetry with the Writers Studio.
Well, kiddo, we’re the only parents you’ll ever have, I’m sorry
to say: your father, the artist, and me, the poet
and oft-enraged student of Zen, sitting up in bed and yelling
at your father, “Nirvana is not somewhere else!”
An hour later you were conceived. And now, just look
at the mess we’ve gotten you into!
Clumps of cat fur drift along the edges
of the hallway, and drippings from last month’s tomato sauce
turn black on top of the stove. Again, your father
has left the dish towel on the kitchen counter, and again
I am picking it up, throwing it at him, and wondering,
Who am I? What do I think I am doing?
Mice scurry in the walls, and last week
a chunk of the living room ceiling fell
onto the living room floor. I tell you,
things fall apart, and then they fall apart
some more, and there are days
when the very thought of the boxes still unpacked
a year and a half after our move is enough
to get my tears going. But I’m not talking only about our apartment,
your father’s bad back and bum knee, how all my new hair
is growing in gray, the boarded-up shops around the corner,
or the plastic bags blowing down Ocean Avenue and out
to the Texas-sized pile of junk
collecting in the middle of the sea. We are all
heading toward a future of white dwarves and black holes,
and goodness knows even your cells
have plans of their own. I’m sorry, kiddo,
we’ve got nothing else to give you.
Just this cold and falling-apart universe, this cat
sleeping with his face tucked in my sneaker, and your disheveled
father and me, sitting on the bedroom floor and trying to sort
the laundry in heaps all around us, while merrily
you pick up your socks and toss them
onto the wrong pile.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’m a longtime student and teacher at the Writers Studio, and one of our big ideas is that creating a persona narrator who both is and is not the self is the key to creating an entertaining or moving work of literature. To learn how to create a persona narrator, we look to models, and we see what happens when we “borrow” the narrator in another story, novel or poem for our own purposes. I wrote “Housekeeping” several springs ago, when I wrote a series of exercises based on Lorrie Moore’s narrator in Birds of America. She has this lively third-person narrator whose aim is mainly to entertain the reader, even as she’s telling stories about desperate people. “Housekeeping” has a first-person narrator, obviously, but I hooked into the narrator’s light, wryly jokey tone by following the model of Lorrie Moore.
What are you working on right now?
Lately I’ve been working on a series of poems that come out of my experiences and frustrations as a woman who’s trying to make her art (poetry) while also being the mom of two young kids and the wife of an artist. I’ve also been writing on the theme of housekeeping, actually, at my blog, a project that arose after I reread Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping this summer.
What’s a good day for you?
In my family, weekdays are like Groundhog Day—every day a variation of the previous one. Weekends and holidays, on the other hand, can be total chaos. A good day is one in which the chaos is minimized, and in which I get the time I need to meditate and write.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn in 2002 after nearly three years in Marble Hill, the neighborhood that’s technically part of Manhattan but is really in the Bronx. I loved my Marble Hill apartment, which was big, relatively inexpensive and right on the Harlem River, but I felt so far away from everything else when I lived up there. Just about all of my friends were in Brooklyn, so I came here when I got the chance to do so.
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?
My husband and I moved to Ditmas Park nearly eight years ago, when I was pregnant with our older son. We had been living in an apartment in Park Slope that was poorly maintained and completely unsuitable for a baby, and we wanted an apartment within walking distance of Prospect Park and a short trip to my husband’s studio on Dean Street in Prospect Heights. Like everywhere else in the city, it seems, the neighborhood is gentrifying. In a local blog, I recently read an article (by a local real estate agent) cheerfully proclaiming that at under $3 million, the homes in our neighborhood are undervalued. Who’s going to live here if and when the houses cost that much? In the meantime, this neighborhood is the first in New York City that I really feel a part of. I work at home, so I’m generally around, and my kids go to schools in the neighborhood. So everywhere we go, we’re always meeting folks we know.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
The boardwalk at Coney Island. All of Brooklyn is there—with our garbage and our love of the sky and the sea.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
My writing community includes both poets and fiction writers and is based at the Writers Studio, where I started taking classes in 2002. I’ve found both friendship and essential encouragement in my workshops there.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
A particular poem comes to mind: “The Long Meadow” by Vijay Seshadri. It’s the last poem in his collection of the same name and was an early model for me. The poem is full of energy and pleasure, and the narrator brings all of this energy and a vast, cosmic perspective to his love for his dog, running on the Long Meadow in Prospect Park. I love this juxtaposition of the cosmic and the ordinary.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been working with Philip Schultz, the founder of the Writers Studio, for a decade now. His guidance and encouragement have been invaluable to me in learning to be emotionally vulnerable in my work.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Recent favorites are Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians, Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I want to go back and reread the English Romantics more deeply—Blake and Keats in particular. Also, Whitman and Dickinson. But I have to be careful with Dickinson! The only two wake-up-screaming nightmares I’ve ever had as an adult were both triggered by reading Dickinson at bedtime.
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 usually reading more than one book at a time—one book of fiction, plus one or two or more books of poetry. I wish that my reading of poetry weren’t so scattered. I read poetry slowly and like to spend a lot of time on one book, but I also tend to be impatient about getting to the next book, so I often start something new before I’ve finished what I’m already reading. I almost never read literature in a digital format. For one thing, I can feel my mind jumping around when I’m looking at a screen. And for another thing, I simply take great pleasure in the physical heft of books. I like their covers, their bindings and their paper, and I especially like carrying them around in my bag, which is often overfull.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I do nearly all of my writing at home, either on the dining table or at my desk. Reading, though, I do everywhere, including at the playground or on the subway.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden—I try to go at least once a week from about now through mid-to-late May, so that I can watch spring unfold, beginning with the daffodils and concluding with the bluebells, my favorite.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the end of winter,
And what I had forgotten it brings for us, you will remember too,
For every new color that warms me as good as blooms for you.
Everything I want most is here.