Poet Of The Week

Raisa Tolchinsky

     June 24–30, 2019

Raisa Tolchinsky grew up in Chicago. She earned a BA from Bowdoin College, where she was a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Colette Inez Poetry Prize. In 2016, she studied Italian literature with a concentration on Dante’s Inferno at the University of Bologna. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Muzzle, Blood Orange Review and Kenyon Review. In 2018, she was a resident at the Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Laugarvatn, Iceland, studying the effects of living in darkness. Tolchinsky is a founding editor of SIREN Magazine, and starting this fall she will be an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Virginia. When she is not writing, she’s boxing or dancing like a weirdo on her roof. She was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow this past spring for study in Cynthia Cruz’s Writing from the Disaster workshop.

What are men to rocks and mountains


It seems relevant to say once I paid a shaman

to tell me in the dark of a saged room that in my past life

I was a damsel in distress. This is what I think about

when upper cut when jab jab cross, my fists spinning

and spinning the heavy bag as the music blares loudly,

each song like a little punch in the face as the coach

pushes me to the ground with his voice then his hands

then his voice again as the song sings if I fuck three times

I’ma wife her and Snapchat me that pussy, mood pussy

pussy pussy as Coach tells me to punch like I’m pouring

a pitcher of water down the drain and I do, I punch until I

feel muscles in my hands I didn’t know I had. It is difficult

to practice hitting away an enemy whose face you’ve never

seen before, no, that is a lie, it is more difficult to make-believe

you are bloodless do you ever love something so much you

become it writes Morgan Parker and maybe I am trying to

love something so violently it gets out of me. I keep asking

how far can you go up the mountain without running out of air,

keep asking, girl are you the train or are you the tracks? I don’t

have an answer but I wrap my hands and when I unwrap them

my whole hand is a bruise. There is a tree burning up in me,

its roots are everywhere they all have different faces,

his asks, why are you so angry, girl, why you so angry?

Fighting a ghost is how I’ve learned the square of an elastic cage

is the safest place to bleed and it disarms me to say I am hurling punches

only within his hypothetical clause                     “if the opponent comes towards you…”

but if the opponent comes toward me all that is keeping blood inside

my body is chance. I dream I die and I am not afraid: splinters of fragmented

light, fractal and I am moving through the dying. He is showing me how to do it,

or maybe he is carrying me and then the dream switches and my heart is magnified,

enormous, on a shore near no signs of water but still a kind of lighthouse,

pink and throbbing with warning. Most would not call it fighting if one

opponent is untouchable. I should tell you he smells of dirt, mouthwash, rum.

The dark curls at the nape of his neck are not a handhold or a door or a target.

Still, I take them as such. Ben Lerner says poems are always a record of failing

so it should come as no surprise that it is in his bed I am forced to finally

meet my gaze. In the movie Sylvester Stallone batters the meat until he is unrecognizable,

frenzied, his fists covered with animal blood, and still we believe Rocky is a kind man,

a good man, running up the stairs, arms thrown up, the curve of his back a reminder

of his upcoming failure & everyone loves that movie because for a second you think

he might win

let me say I’m stronger than I once was

let me say I am ashamed I fucked a man whose job is to punch me

and maybe love is a man screaming your name Ay/ driii/ annnn over and over again

but I know now: if you look over your shoulder to see something coming for you

it’s better to be nothing at all

it’s better to lift yourself into a purple dusk & rinse yourself of any threatening aftertaste

the most dangerous bombs know when to be tissue paper, burning bright & floating through a

hollowed wind. if you can do this, this pretending, you realize

men watch paper lanterns so wistfully they don’t realize their feet are puddled

in gasoline. Ain’t gonna be no rematch screamed Apollo Creed

but if you hammer long enough, everything becomes a nail

if you punch hard enough inside the ring

everyone you love lives inside it, too


Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this piece on a six-hour bus ride from Portland, Maine, back to New York. It was pitch black, and I was the annoying human with the glowing laptop frantically typing while everyone around me was passed out. At the time, I was boxing two to three hours a day, though I never had any real plans to fight. During this period, I spent a lot of time interviewing fighters, especially women, about the different dynamics that play out within a traditionally masculine space. When I wrote the poem, I was thinking a lot about power and strength, how power is transferred between people, and how narratives from outside the gym reveal themselves inside the ring. To fight and to spar is to make yourself vulnerable, because it’s almost impossible to hide. Or perhaps it’s the best way of hiding; I’m not sure which, yet.

When I wrote this poem, I had also just recently watched Rocky for the first time, and was curious about Adrian’s perspective, what it was like to be the partner of someone who spent so much time training to fight. Rocky is gentle—the scene with the turtle always gets me. But when Rocky fights, he transforms. Watching others in the ring, I witnessed this transformation over and over again, and also witnessed it in myself as well. I wanted to give myself the same permission in this poem as I give myself in the ring.

What are you working on right now?

A collection of poems about a group of women boxers, an essay that is an expanded version of the poem included here, and being a better person in general. Also, I’ve got big plans to learn how to change a tire on a car and keep an orchid alive.

What’s a good day for you?

I love this question because I have a quote by Annie Dillard hanging above my bed: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. I’m tempted to answer this question by talking about early mornings, boxing, poems, lots of coffee, and the people I love. And while most of my good days do include those things, the really good days are the days I simply feel able to pay attention to both myself and whoever & whatever I encounter. There’s a GIF of a cat with weird rainbow spiraling eyes typing frantically on a keyboard, and I have to work really hard not to be that cat.

What brought you to New York?

I moved to the city because, if I’m being completely honest, I like bagels and pizza and gruff people. I love being unable to sleep and looking out my window to see the warmth of other lit windows. And I love how this city can start to feel small, until you take a new route or go to a new neighborhood, and then it feels ginormous again. I moved to NYC right after college because one of my best friends, the poet Marie Scarles, was also living here, so I figured it was a good time—any place she lives is a good place. I should also say the reasons I stayed in NYC are very different from the reasons I arrived, but that is a much longer story.

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?

I’ve lived in Astoria, Queens, the entire two years I’ve been in New York. I live right next to a dentist office (best dentist in all of New York, shoutout to Dr. Leibowitz) and a Neapolitan pizza shop. There is amazing seafood, Socrates Sculpture Park, Greek elderly ladies who either wink or scowl at me depending on the day, and a lot of babies. Once, I kid you not, I saw a baby on 31st Ave chewing on an octopus tentacle.

In general, this neighborhood is a place where I feel both known and anonymous.

I’ve lived in Illinois, Spain, Maine, Italy and Oregon. Of all these places, New York has taught me the most in the shortest amount of time. It feels like I’ve lived multiple lifetimes in the span of two years.

I should say the word “home” feels particularly charged to me right now—I’m moving to Virginia this fall to start an MFA program! I’m so excited, but it’s bittersweet. I made sure New York would at least be a train ride away.

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

I’ve worked at Brooklyn Herborium for the past two years, which is this magical shop in Windsor Terrace. I love how close it is to the bandshell in Prospect Park. One of my first Brooklyn memories is getting caught in a thunderstorm while seeing Neutral Milk Hotel. The sky actually turned purple, and the thunder drowned out even the (very loud) accordion. Everyone was sharing umbrellas.

One of my favorite books is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I love the description of how the tree refuses to die: “But this tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down … this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived!”

Brooklyn feels like that quote to me. Something persistent running underneath the surface, something growing towards the sky.

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

A poetry community, to me, means the same thing as looking out the window in the middle of the night and seeing those other lit windows. It’s the people who are excited to talk about semicolons at a bar. It’s the writers who hold space for you when your poem is a distant, safe thing until you read it aloud.

I’ve absolutely found that community here. I remember one time, Marie and I went to see Danez Smith read at Poets House, and we were so blown away and had so much to discuss we just stood on the subway platform missing train after train. And of course, I feel super lucky to be part of Brooklyn Poets. I feel lucky and grateful in general.

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

Morgan Parker, Aracelis Girmay, Tracy K. Smith, Dorothea Lasky, Kim Addonizio. Tommy Pico. Ana Božičević and Cynthia Cruz, who both taught fantastic workshops and pushed my work in class and by example. Tina Chang’s poems. My poet friends, Marie Scarles, Alison McLaughlin, Tracy May Fuad. The list is endless, I could go on.

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

My third grade teacher, Pat Cleveland, is the first person who ever asked me to write a poem. I think of her and my third grade poems when I get stuck in my head, or unsure about what a poem should be or do.

Rachel DeWoskin, who believed in my thirteen-year-old writer self and who introduced me to Anne Carson. Her most recent novels have reminded me to be brave.

Brock Clarke, who taught me about poetry though his witty, rollicking fiction and his careful attention to my short stories.

Arielle Saiber, who is a beam of light and who not only taught me to speak Italian but also supported my work on St. Catherine of Siena, Dante and the medieval mystics.

The mentors for my work are also the mentors for my whole life, because they remind me to continue telling the truth, even when it’s hard or just plain weird.

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

I just read Heavy by Kiese Laymon and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and I can’t stop thinking about either. Both are brave, urgent, honest. Also, Whip Smart by Melissa Febos. I’m currently carrying around Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic. Also, “The Rules” by Leila Chatti.

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

This is embarrassing but I have never read anything by Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. I truly keep meaning to, but every time I go to a bookstore I see something that feels like it requires immediate action. Maybe reading them is my new summer plan.

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 am always carrying at least two books in my bag at any given moment, even going out to bars or a concert. I’ve been doing this since I was twelve and it always makes me feel like I have a backup plan. Like, if the night gets too weird, I’ll just sit in the corner and read. I don’t actually ever do this, but I like the feeling. Reading on an app makes my eyes hurt and makes me kinda sad. I’m usually reading three to four books at a time of all different genres, which might be a problem, but I can’t stop. I also write in the margins of my books, a lot of curse words, which means I can only share them with people I know really well.

In sum: I wish I had two lives, one spent entirely reading.

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

I think Ai’s first-person monologues are absolutely brilliant. I’d also like to write a series of sonnets. Mostly, I’d like to stick with a project until a manuscript is finished, instead of jumping around so much.

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

Airplanes. I hate flying, and reading and writing makes me feel like I’m somewhere else. I love cafés that are particularly family friendly (like the ones in Windsor Terrace) because sometimes I’ll get that scrunched-up writer face from staring at a poem too long and then a random three-year-old will escape their parent, approach and offer me a wet piece of muffin. This reminds me to relax. After politely refusing the wet muffin, the poem has often solved itself.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Brooklyn Herborium, Coney Island in the winter, Prospect Park, Berl’s Poetry Shop, Terrace Books, walking the Brooklyn Promenade. Sitting on a bench literally anywhere. Instead of explaining why I love them, I urge you instead to go if you haven’t been.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate each edge

and what I pass through,

you turn towards.

For every doorway is not just a doorway

but a me as good as Brooklyn

knocking down the day around

someone once called


Why Brooklyn?

Sue me, but I don’t like sleep.