Poet Of The Week

renee kay

January 3–9, 2022

renée kay (they/them) is a queer poet in Brooklyn by way of Appalachia and other beautiful, strange places. Their poems can be found in Copper Nickel, Catapult, Yes Poetry, Glass: A Journal of Poetry and elsewhere around the internet like depressed gay little easter eggs. They work at Brooklyn Poets, where they serve as development manager and help organize the Staff Picks Reading Series. You can find them on Twitter @reneekay__. They won Poem of the Month honors at the Brooklyn Poets Yawp in November 2020 for the poem below.

Author photo by Elle Mundy

after discovering my mother removed the razor blades from my bedroom while i was at school

 

i trace the lines

where i have adorned

& unadorned myself

 

bless the mederma

& its easy slumber

under my pillow

 

smudge a black veil atop

my eyes to dress them

for their sudden blooming

 

ponder what it would mean

to temple myself

something lasting

 

before i finger crimson

outline sharp in the velvet drawer

peonies carved into the lid

 

this jewelry box

once my great-grandmother’s

is what i chose from everything

 

with my two coin

-sized hands as she lay

dead in the next room

 

oh body,

i will miss the way

i scored my belonging

 

oh body,

what will i worship

when you’re gone?

 

Brooklyn Poets · renée kay, “after discovering my mother removed the razor blades from my bedroom … “

Tell us about the making of this poem.

As someone that reads answers to this question every week, you’d think I’d be better prepared to answer this. I often wish someone could make a version of that show How Stuff Works to explain what happens in my own brain to me. I do know that I, in a particularly non-unique trans and mentally-ill way, often think about myself and my body and the ways in which we belong to each other or not. I often think about violence and whether we belong to it or it belongs to us. I spend too much of my time on unanswerable questions—this poem is one answer I have for myself.

What are you working on right now?

Mostly, trying to survive an ongoing boss battle against a stack of -isms in a trench coat that calls itself American Society. Mostly, trying to love whom I love enough to provide, if not a shield, an umbrella or other soft barrier between them and harm.

Somehow, amidst it, I’ve managed to land on a version of my manuscript that feels right for now, so I’m also trying to rally my brain around the part of being a poet that comes least naturally to me—trying to find my poems homes out in the world.

What’s a good day for you?

I don’t know that I have a consistent definition, but at best my brain and body decide to play nice and are both pain-free at once. I’m able to do whatever feels most aligned with how I want to exist in the world that day. Maybe I play with my power tools and build something. Maybe I spend hours talking with a beloved, really catching up. Maybe I hide from the world with coffee and a book. Maybe I spend more time with my own words. Or maybe, I sit on the couch doing nothing except bearing witness to the improbable existence of someone I love sitting next to me.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I have moved to Brooklyn multiple times. The first time I moved here impulsively while otherwise living out of a suitcase and crashing on couches or doing sublets in many places but mostly the Bay Area. I wanted to come to New York—ending up in Brooklyn itself was in many ways just a coincidence of that impulsivity. I didn’t have anyone to crash with here so I crawled Craigslist postings for a sublet and rented one sight unseen from a person I decided to trust solely because they were from a part of the Netherlands I’d spent time in before. I can’t say I knew much about the boroughs at the time and was really just trying to find something I could afford. The other answer, which is why I felt pulled here in the first place, was the feeling that if I really wanted to be the person I thought I wanted to be and live the life I wanted to live—this was the place to do it. That has remained true.

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

A defining experience is a lot of pressure … so I will instead give a defining trifecta. Thinking back to the summer—I don’t think there’s anywhere else I could stumble upon boxes of advanced reader copies of books and poetry collections I’ve been searching for, have strangers help me carry furniture discovered on the curb multiple blocks and up my walk-up, and be able to bear witness to and participate in an action like the Brooklyn Liberation march and rally all within the same month. I think, in many ways, it is a great underestimation of many elsewheres to believe the experiences I value don’t happen there—but I think the overlapping of those experiences is something unique to here.

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

As someone that unfortunately thinks too much about words, I think about the difference (for me) between communing with others and being in community with others. I think of community as a superset, a space where belonging and communion can occur because there is some ascription to a shared identity or belief. To commune, however, requires intention—and that’s holy. That is to be seen and cared for and held to your growth. I’m lucky enough to have both.

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

I must, of course, start with Brooklyn’s most famous poetry power couple—Shira Erlichman and Angel Nafis. I first knew of each by their work, which on its own has been revelatory in my life, but because I must be god’s favorite I have also gotten to witness the ways they each (differently but with the same ferocious care) approach the page, their days and the incredibly important act of love as neverending monument-building. Hala Alyan is another poet / writer / creative (is there anything she can’t do?) that inspires me with her work and with her capacity for care and community. Of course—Jason Koo, who created this org and community that allowed me to find and connect with poetry here and who is one of the best champions of individual poets I know. I’m afraid of finishing this answer, there’s too much bounty here.

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

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to take many workshops and study under many brilliant folks, but truly who comes to mind are those who engage with their work and community from a basis of care because they point me toward new ways to do so. In addition to those mentioned above, I’m thinking of beloveds and people I admire such as Cea, Anthony Lombardi, Alexis Aceves Garcia, Bernard Ferguson, danilo machado, Orchid Cugini, Dante Clark and Alex Watson. There are so many people and books that can help you learn how to write poems—I’m most interested in learning better ways of showing up and creating spaces for others to do so as well.

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

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse is an incredible collection and might be the first I’ve encountered that overlaps concepts around disability, transness, sexuality and violence that feels so personally resonant. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan, Inheritance by Taylor Johnson, Villainy by Andrea Abi-Karam, War of the Foxes by Richard Siken and The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi in the last few weeks—they’re all independently brilliant and the moderately chaotic way I’m approaching reading right now has created a delightfully weird poetry chorus in my head.

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

I hope I don’t get fired for this, but I’ve never read the entirety of Leaves of Grass.

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 multiple books at a time, but I do try to spread them across genre or subject or at the very least, writing style. The chemicals in my particular brain can be finicky about showing up to do anything, so I like to try to build a book buffet where at least something has to look good. Also, some books are better for reading on the subway when you’re going to need to stop or be interrupted frequently and some books are better to read in bed. I am a physical-book person, and while I do dog-ear pretty heavily I won’t mark up a book until my third or fourth read which might be controversial. I want to see what parts continue to strike me over time. Relatedly, I tend to read books pretty quickly my first time through as a vibe read, where I’m only interested in what I feel reading it, before reading and digging into craft or otherwise slowing down. I frequently fall into mini-obsessions which dictate my next read more than anything, unless I’ve been waiting for the book to be released.

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

I am a person of many attempts and immoderate patience, so once I get the idea to try something I generally do so fairly quickly. That being said, there are many things I’d like to try and succeed at.

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

A true introvert’s introvert—I love to be at home. I put a lot of time into my space and it is probably my favorite place to write. Even if it’s impossible for anyone to see what I’m doing, I tend to feel fairly vulnerable writing in public—though I’m often writing fragments or thoughts down. There is something particularly blissful about reading on the subway, train or in the park. Whatever I’m reading usually puts me in my feelings and to experience that in places of pseudo-anonymity creates a surreal double world.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I haven’t spent much time in spaces outside of my apartment for the last (checks notes) almost two years, but a few things come to mind. I have a deep love of all the parks, but also the weird assortment of mini-parks and bench areas on street corners and in medians. The Brooklyn Museum is one of my favorite museums both for its curation and because I love a cool building with lots of free benches outside. I love the HVK dog park because there are dogs, obviously, but also because the dogs play so excitedly that the surrounding area (including the docked Citibikes) gets covered in a layer of dog-park dust. I am also famously a fan of weird liminal spaces, like the pile of concrete off the water in Williamsburg where I sometimes used to sit and write even though I knew if I stopped paying attention the path to get back would be consumed by water.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate this bouquet of words I’ve been given

to break, and what I want to change for you

is only the world, for everything

that came before me as good isn’t

good enough to be here,

in the place I said

I’d build for

you.

Why Brooklyn?

I don’t feel as possible anywhere else.