June 1–7, 2020
Robin Romeo calls Harlem home. He earned a BA from Vermont College, where he studied literature and creative writing. His poems are forthcoming in the Caribbean Writer and Curlew Quarterly. This past winter, Romeo was selected as a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jay Deshpande’s workshop on The Sonnet.
Author photo by Patty Romeo
Preparing for Church
… and polished my good shoes as well
Friday afternoons I polish our shoes
for next day’s church the way
my father taught me.
The brogues he favors seem
comforted by his feet—perfect
in size, leather through and through,
steel taps on the heels. During the brief
walk, they accentuate his rhythm which is
unlike any church song—more freedom-
bent, his jaw loosened the first time
The African will make
a drum of anything—every surface
a fabric; every fabric fashionable into
a vibratory membrane—anything that
triggers resonance in heart and tuned ear.
The taps draw attention
even from the crispness of his suit built
entirely by him with hard-earned
skill sharpened by patience.
Their time signature—especially
when we get to a particular section of cobblestone—
is 4/4 with an occasional scrape on the sixteenth
note immediately preceding the fourth beat;
a sort of andante carnival road march.
It’s the Friday following another whipping—
my rebellious nature tensed almost
to tearing. Another thing I
did triggered in him the compulsion
to remove his belt and raise
welts on my back.
I’ve grown immune to sting,
and burning that lasts a day
or two. I’ve lost immunity against
the feeling of brokenness associated with
polishing his shoes, hesitant about telling him.
I’m exposed in the quality of care I give them.
When he calls me to announce
he’ll polish his own shoes
going forward, he does it with a lower pitch—
without the glare against which
my chest is packed with insulation. He’s said
goodbye to something—some version of
his son—then ordered himself not to think of
the irrevocable jettisoning. I nearly miss the
difference, except I’m trained to be attentive to
his every word. It’s as if my hands are
unbound for the first time in a room
whose doors and windows are missing.
It may be too much to hope he won’t
beat me anymore.
Maybe I’ve already removed my shirt, forced
hands to my side, and submitted
for the last time.
I’ll never stop wondering though, whether
the fabric of my skin is uncovered to make
the slap of leather more painful, or
for the sake of commitment to
high quality in the form of purer sound.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The thing that stamped the biggest imprint on me upon reading “Those Winter Sundays” nearly forty years ago was the line about the “good shoes.” That poem is such a masterpiece that I could place myself in it, and experience the sense of good fortune and confidence that a place exists—even if only in memory—that gives me a form of immunity against the cruelty that defines the world sometimes. “Preparing for Church” is the poem I could never write before participating in a poetry workshop recently, taught by Emily Sernaker. “Those Winter Sundays” was one of the example poems. I ran with the prompt and wound up writing something I later realized was three different poems in one. (A choice of prompt often leaves me vacillating.) I mined the original for first drafts of the three separate poems. This poem results from the third. Hayden’s shoes, in their context, always stirred something in me. All my life I’ve given a wide berth to people who display even a hint of being domineering. This poem located the origin of that behavior for me.
What are you working on right now?
I recently completed a five-week Brooklyn Poets workshop with Jay Deshpande on the sonnet. One sonnet I’ve been working on revolves around the aphorism “You can’t go home again.” I haven’t read Thomas Wolfe’s book, though. I’m thinking of reading it and writing at least one poem that is a reflection of it.
What’s a good day for you?
I get up from bed with eagerness, shower and have coffee. I may or may not eat then. Depending on whether I feel eagerness to revise a particular poem or to make an entry in my journal (which often at least results in a free-write), or to read a poem or two from at least one author whose work I know will automatically teach something that is new for me, that good day will unfold in any of a few ways. The crucial ingredient is eagerness that I don’t find a way to squander.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My parents migrated here from Antigua when I was a teenager. My younger sister and I joined them some time after.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Comparisons would have to be made across decades. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I was a teenager in Williamsburg in the mid-seventies. It was a good environment for me. We had a basketball hoop and backboard nailed to a sycamore. We spent most of our summer days playing, then waiting our turns when we lost. We played stickball. Some Black people owned townhouses.
It would be an understatement to say that Williamsburg today is very different. I haven’t visited since we moved away after about a year. I haven’t visited any of the other Brooklyn neighborhoods that I’ve lived in. But Williamsburg caught me when I was more impressionable—just past puberty and a recent immigrant. But news coming out of Brooklyn and the way life has progressed there is impossible to miss. In terms of a place to live, no other borough provides as much opportunity for fulfillment as Brooklyn.
I could speak about Harlem where I’ve lived the past twelve years. When we moved here it was at an inflection point. From what I’m told, gangs dominated the course of life in Central Harlem. At the time we came, Harlem had the best undervalued real estate, probably, in the city. I would say the flood of people who had enough resources to purchase apartments and townhouses was ramping up, but nowhere near its peak. Brooklyn had begun going through the same experience when I lived there in the early nineties, if my assessment is correct. Once just about all the property available for purchase had been bought up, Harlem became the best deal in the city. About five years or so in, coffeeshops and bistros of high quality began to appear. Whole families—dogs and baby strollers—spilled onto the sidewalk on Sunday mornings. We had come to the end of the inflection period and the beginning of a trend upwards—at least for real estate prices.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Becoming a part of the Brooklyn Poets community is certainly a defining Brooklyn experience. Because Brooklyn is largely residential and about as diverse as it gets, there is a better opportunity for an organization to work with and attract the best of what Brooklyn has to offer. This is how I have found it to be. I encounter some of the best contemporary poets and professors of poetry at Brooklyn Poets. There is nothing like it in the five boroughs.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community provides me an environment that develops from a dedication to poetry first and foremost. That dedication is indispensable. If that exists, we all are motivated and act from the same territory, if not the same place. Standards and mood and efficacy have a support that allows them to thrive. Members of the community cannot but support each other, or be kind to each other at the very least, otherwise immediate disharmony results, and inspiration and creativity become reticent. I have found a very good version of it at Brooklyn Poets. It is the basis of my answer to the preceding question. I only needed to add a tint of idealization.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
That is not such an easy question to answer. In my younger years, I read “Howl” and “Kaddish.” I read a good portion of a collection of Frank O’Hara’s poems that I bought from a street vendor. I’ve only begun to read Whitman since coming into contact with Brooklyn Poets. I have neither read nor studied enough Brooklyn poets to claim influence.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I spent a lot of time around Steve Cannon on the Lower East Side in the early- to mid-nineties. I started reading to him on Saturdays. He asked me to read a New York Times article to him one day. Somehow that turned into reading whatever he needed read on Saturdays. He would tell first-hand stories of authors that gave real insight into their writing. I wanted to be as knowledgeable as he was. Sometimes he would ask me to read my poems. He might even comment on those once in a while.
He would become impatient at readings at the Nuyorican when writers’ introductions were too lengthy, and yell, “Read the goddamn poem.” I began to map that sentiment onto my poems and became less verbose as a result. I believe it was Natalie Diaz who recommended throwing out the first stanza and the last. The poem can be found somewhere in the middle.
Another from the nineties was Ernie Brill. He was one of my advisors at Vermont College. He gave me a list of books to read that was especially valuable for learning about writers outside the US. Etel Adnan, Manlio Argueta and Sembène Ousmane come immediately to mind. He also steered me toward lesser-exposed Native American writers like Paula Gunn Allen and Linda Hogan.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Few books have left as deep an impression as has Citizen by Claudia Rankine. The poems seem to be recorded while in meditation or lucid dreams. I see every image, feel every emotion expressed. It helps that I know the sound of her voice well from readings and interviews posted online.
Just about any Charles Wright poem. He is a master. I can learn anything from him—to choose the one word for which no other word could be substituted, how to balance sophistication and simplicity, etc.
Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance.” This ekphrastic poem blends the scene of a painting with research (at which she excels) and the resolution of a turbulent relationship, and does so with great skill.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s “Heart of Darkness.” She can make a single word encompass a concept as well as a personality, plus a critique and a style, etc. She does that to perfection with the word “blunting” in reference to Cecil Taylor’s music primarily. But anyone who knows even a little about Cecil Taylor immediately realizes it describes much more.
James Wright’s “By a Lake in Minnesota.” He’s devoted to simplicity. He leads the reader into his experiences with a fidelity and precision that leave us experiencing specific feelings.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
The Last Shift by Philip Levine comes to mind. Voyaging Portraits by Gustaf Sobin has been languishing on my shelf for almost thirty years, along with an issue of Talisman that features him.
Any volume of Denis Johnson’s poems.
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 ran-dom? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I tend to parse slowly. I’ve only ever read one book of poems in a single sitting: Ada Limón’s The Carrying. I’ve read very few books cover to cover before opening another one. Usually my mind wanders to another author or poem, and I’ll go find it.
Definitely, physical books are my preference. Design is a very important part of a book for me. There’s something about dark gray type on off-white paper laid out properly that enhances a poem.
I’m not much of a note-taker, except at lectures.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I think a lot about a series of poems that contrasts the love of the mother with the love of the father for their child. I’ve only managed the first poem so far. I found it led me to Oedipus. Since then, I’ve been wondering whether I should run with my own Oedipus complex as the catalyst for the sequence. I’m out of my depth with this undertaking. It’s obvious to me that I need to become better at writing first.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Anywhere there’s a large body of water is best. Holding a long gaze focused on an undefined horizon tames my mind. I speak into the vastness of it, and I can say anything, literally, into its voidness. I feel—when it works well—as though my feelings are the narrator, as opposed to my mind. I’ve been meaning to experiment with a recorder for my free-writes instead of pencil and paper. Other than that, any place can work if a poem is eager about coming into the realm of sound—subway trains, waiting rooms; coffeeshops not so much, because patrons find my presence strange when I’m searching for that perfect word or line (and I can’t blame them).
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The view always lifts me up.
The Brooklyn Public Library. The artistry and the scale of it in some of the rooms is astounding. It’s hard to think of something other than greatness. Nothing will ever be built again that comes close to it.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the fragile freedoms of existence,
And what I celebrate you may keep at bay with long poles,
For every freedom afforded me as good a freedom precedes you.
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.
Call it “jack”
Simplify to “rob”
Classify it “sin”
It’s a matter of the way you tilt the pen
They took his watch when they jumped my father
Stretching after the evening shift toward our love
Under the el in Brownsville way back in Brooklyn
Where, it seems, Jackie is the only Dodger
And the greatest rapper will never not be Biggie
The diversity in Brooklyn is unmatched, and that always makes for a better array of choices for whatever I might need—especially if it’s related to the arts.