Poet Of The Week

Rachel J. Bennett

     May 26–June 1, 2014

Rachel J. Bennett’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including elimae, inter|rupture, Permafrost, Salt Hill, Similar:Peaks::, Sixth Finch, Smartish Pace, Spittoon, Toad, Verse Daily and Vinyl. In 2013, she had the opportunity to study with poets Bob Hicok and Lynn Melnick through the 92nd Street Y. She has given readings in New York and Ireland, most recently through Cornelia Street Café, KGB Bar and the Mental Marginalia series at The West in Brooklyn. She grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, and studied English at Grinnell College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and had the good fortune to study literature and writing at Trinity College, Dublin, through the University of Iowa, and to spend a few months volunteering in a nursing home in Quito, Ecuador.

I Expect to Make a Complete Recovery

Tell me about your favorite soap,
I mean teacher. I mean tell me
where the hart got left behind,
as in deer. They dropped like flies
across. They were so cute
before that. Tell me what you think
he saw in you and I’ll tell you
my managerial style, I mean
claustrophobia, I mean finally
the color that’s yet to. I’ll clean
this hide. Again. Tell me why
it matters. I mean again. Tell me
why the antlers made us
fall, I mean didn’t. Teachers
have been. I’ll sit here, I’ll hear
finally, I won’t stay. Leaving is
another word. As in music, as in
bad ideas. Clean. Let’s drink and
shoot, I mean say what we really.
I mean field of mostly. Tell me
about the ghost of you, as in hunt.

—Originally published in Similar:Peaks::, January 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

Many of my poems—or at least the ones that seem to work best—take shape relatively quickly, though revisions can take a long time. This poem began in my head as a first imperative line and cascaded from there. When I sit down with a line or two and let my mind expand into the writing, many additional ideas emerge and coalesce into language. It’s alchemical. In Buddhism, there’s a notion of “not too loose, not too tight” when approaching meditation and life in general—that is, not trying to control an experience too much nor sitting back in indifference to its unfolding—and when working on poems I aspire to this principle. There’s a level of discipline required to create an integrated whole but also a necessary letting go and letting in of the unexpected.

Unless I’m traveling with no technology (which still happens!), I typically draft on my laptop. In this case, broken syntax was important for conveying the possibilities and limitations of language—and acting out the ongoing effort we make to be understood. “I mean” throughout puts the poem in a very palpable state of ongoing revision, of conversation. In this case, as in almost all cases for me, the title came last.

More than anything, I want my poems to carry emotional water. A good poem like a good forest can hold science and silence and faith and possibility, with a strange empathic light filtering through. Formally, enjambment is very important to me. Also anaphora and its repetitive cousins. I often tape myself reading my poems out loud, to understand them better.

What are you working on right now?

I’m shopping a chapbook manuscript, On Rand McNally’s World, that’s a kind of travelogue in verse for the past few years of my life. My active project is a full-length manuscript-in-progress whose poems take as their jumping-off point video game landscapes and programming, enabling me to explore big ideas like intimacy, volition, creativity, mortality and changing notions of reality. I grew up playing outside and playing video games like Zork, King’s Quest and the Zelda series (thanks in part to the excellent influence of my dad and little brother, Kyle), and the language and tropes of these worlds are proving valuable in contemplating loss and our attempts at connection. Books like Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason and Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development have been important resources. One poem from this project appeared (with gratitude) in Sixth Finch, and additional work will be out this spring/summer in Spittoon, Salt Hill and Vinyl.

What’s a good day for you?

You wake up in the room that you checked into the night before, maybe somewhere in the mountains or the desert, and maybe there are birds singing outside your window. You meditate and go for a run. Piling your few things back into the car—making sure your camera is at hand and a pen in the visor—you pull out of the motel lot, find some coffee, and invite the world in.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? Which neighborhood do you live in?

I moved to New York City almost 13 years ago, straight out of college. I’d come here on a bus trip with my grandparents when I was 10 and fallen in love with the anonymity and surprise of the place: a business-suited man dropped his paper bag of lunch into the lap of a homeless person in Midtown, a kid skateboarded over a row of broken glass–lined garbage bins in the Battery, Snapple cost $5 a bottle and several Midwesterners in our group exclaimed at it. So I knew I had to get back.

It took me six more years to land in Brooklyn, after stints in Marble Hill, Astoria, the Lower East Side, Sheepshead Bay, Lower Manhattan, and the Upper West Side. Today I live in multifaceted Bushwick. My corner of it lies in the predominantly Hispanic residential neighborhood between the M and L subway lines, near Maria Hernandez Park.

What do you like most about it?

Bushwick offers, for me, the perfect blend of grit and community and anonymity. My section of the neighborhood is roughly 80% Hispanic, with artists and youngsters sprinkled throughout. I lived in Ecuador for a little while in 2000, and sometimes it reminds me of Quito, minus the achingly clear Andean air shot through with diesel. Like many neighborhoods, it’s changing—and I’m a small, conflicted emblem of change—but I’m hoping its distance from Manhattan may slow development. I lived in Williamsburg for seven years and witnessed it morph dramatically, often heartbreakingly so, into a different kind of place. I’m bracing myself for these changes in Bushwick but also enjoying the blend of cultures, faiths, sounds and energies that the neighborhood currently roots.

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

In 2004 and 2005—or 2005 and 2006, I can’t remember—I took care of two cats of a friend of a friend in an old Williamsburg flat off the Lorimer stop, across the street from a Brooklyn red sauce institution, Bamonte’s. In both cases it was winter, and I remember sitting at the sewing table of the apartment’s tenant, working on poems, and thinking, If I could live here, I’d be happy. Fast-forward to early 2007, when I received a call from my friend, letting me know that the apartment’s tenant was moving to the Netherlands. I moved in that March, rescued two cats from Animal Control, and lived there happily—rather, grew up there—for seven years. It will always be a special chapter in my life.

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

A kid in her room somewhere in Cypress Hills or Seagate or Flatbush or Greenpoint thinking about words and somehow feeling compelled to string them into new life forms.

Also my two workshopping pals, Leila Ortiz and Alex Fong.

And this is a good time to mention that I’ve had a longstanding crush on the poem “Picnic by the Inland Sea” by D. Nurkse, which begins:

We understood we were hurtling into space
at eighteen miles per second, clouds of atoms
charged and polarized, each alone
in the abyss, and you wore your summer dress.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Well, I’m lucky to live just a few doors down from the small and generous Molasses Books. And I always find little treasures at Unnameable, introduced to me by someone I love dearly and who once gave me, as an introduction to the shop, David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries. I also recently had a charmed experience at Greenlight: I’d just come back from working on poems in Montreal, my hero Leonard Cohen’s original altar, and was attending a reading at Greenlight by an author who recently released a new biography on Mr. Cohen. Prior to catching the train to Montreal, I’d sent the book to my mom, who introduced me to the poet when I was a child, and, just back from Montreal, it was extra moving to watch Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, and to see Mount Royal and his other haunts as they’d looked in 1965—with their present-day trees and lights still fresh in my mind.

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

An old-style subway car with orange bucket seats, off-peak hours, facing backwards. Preferably we’re on our way to Coney Island, especially if it’s winter.

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

I’m a runner and get a lot of pleasure out of building endurance around the industrial areas of Bushwick and Greenpoint: the senses are continually surprised by open sky and vivid murals and aromatic bakeries. Speaking of murals, I take a lot of photographs of Brooklyn’s changing street art, and it never fails to amaze me how much effort can go into art on buildings whose days, in many cases, are numbered. I have some cherished shots of factories long since torn down in the Williamsburg area; often when I’m walking around there I remember those buildings and empty lots like old friends.

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

I like to supplement poetry reading with a pretty omnivorous array of novels and nonfiction, and recently read Out of Africa, The Big Sleep and The End of the Affair. Poetry-wise, I like seeing new work in journals and have on my night table as we speak issues of the Journal, Harvard Review, American Poets, Missouri Review, Bateau and Black Warrior Review. I love the chapbook form. I’m working non-consecutively through a big book of poetry by Latin American women, These Are Not Sweet Girls. And I’ve drawn recent inspiration from Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture and work by Ann Carson and Czesław Miłosz. Not having a television helps with all this!

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate every weather,
And what I carry across a distance you should carry like
     a question
For every broken glance in me as good is replenished by

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.

Original Dodger

        I’m the all-time heavyweight champion of flowers.
                —Jay Z

inspiration’s lucky—fa(r)ther—
an aspen-leafed encounter—can we—hold this jack-
ed up—love—
the size of brooklyn—as if brooklyn—
were—a breath?—no biggie—

each breath a-burning—verb—to rob
our garden of its green—our endless—apology—as in
infinitive?—these ribs—these galaxies—open

Why Brooklyn?

It always leaves a light on.