December 3–9, 2018
S. Erin Batiste is a poet. In 2018, she was a finalist for the Furious Flower Poetry Prize and the New Guard Knightville Poetry Contest, a semifinalist for 92Y’s Discovery Contest, and made the longlist for the Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize and the Peach Gold in Poetry. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo and Atlantic Center for the Arts. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Wildness, Cosmonauts Avenue, the New Guard, Peach Mag, Haunt Journal of Art and the Puerto del Sol Black Voices Series. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in JP Howard’s Poetry and Memoir workshop.
The Yellow Jackets
after Natasha Trethewey
The yellow jackets have returned. Each morning since May
I’ve awakened to their black and neon limbs building a nest.
Stung by childhood memory, I set out to sabotage their attempts:
use sticks, hoses, poisonous sprays but my drugstore weapons
are not enough to keep them from hovering above my awning at dawn.
My landlord intervenes, says they have never been this persistent,
insists my sweetness draws them here this season. I shake my head,
knowing the wasps and I are a kind of honeyless colony.
The oaks and palms grip Pasadena sidewalks, sluggish with the last
of summer when all traces of the muddy dens disappear.
Their departure reminds me of my own parents. Who spent a decade
trying to make a family. How nothing stuck: The glassy condos
that confettied the Pacific coastline, the Spanish duplexes in Los Angeles.
Seattle, San Diego, Tucson, Tempe, Burlingame. The Spokane bungalow
reduced to ash and snow. I picture the wasps sweeping sunrise in cursive,
they treaded air for weeks determined to shelter their young.
My parents’ failures took years. But they gave up and vanished too,
leaving me to search for papery wings scattered in the Santa Ana
Winds, which simmer like an oven cradling dinner, finally call me home.
—Originally published in Wildness, Issue 16, October 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Two summers ago at my last home in Los Angeles, a family of wasps began building a nest above my front door. For months my landlord and I tried everything to discourage them and drive them away. Nothing worked. And so my morning routine became rising and rushing to see them circling. Finally in September, right after the Santa Ana winds had returned, they just disappeared. In the weeks which followed I searched for signs of them and remember scoffing to myself, “Well, I guess they made their home elsewhere.” It was strange because in that moment I remember feeling a loss. We moved often during my childhood and it struck me that, much like the wasps, all the houses we lived in never lasted. For me home was temporary.
The experience also reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Carpenter Bee,” which is also centered around essentially a pest, but also a quite magnificent being who is trying to make a home for herself. The line “how nothing stuck” revealed itself to me and from there, the poem took hold.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on my first collection, titled Hoard. My father died suddenly when I was only twenty, and by the time I was thirty, half of both sides of my family were gone. That decade nearly defeated me, nearly took me out of this world.
I am investigating what it means to be Black and middle class. I am tracing my own matrilineage to try and understand what happened to the sisters, mamas, wives, women survivors of the ’80s and ’90s Huxtable era. Its devastating domestic failure. What Black feminism and femininity means. What I’ve inherited, kept, and chosen to give away. What life I’ve made for myself after nearly four decades.
What’s a good day for you?
Rising before the sun to write, making it in time for early morning yoga, some “bread” work from home, hearty lunch, a long walk followed by tea and/or beer with a friend, ending it in silence and candlelight with a home-cooked dinner, hot shower, and good book in my soft bed.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I wanted to be closer to the heart of poetry. On any given day, there are countless readings, workshops, festivals and just gatherings of friends. I felt really isolated living in Los Angeles; despite it being a “big city,” its vastness can often lend itself to loneliness. I had been on the Brooklyn Poets mailing list and wanted to take classes for years. Same with Cave Canem, along with Poets House and the Poetry Project across the river.
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?
I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy for almost six months now. I’ve experienced Brooklyn and New York many, many times on vacation but this neighborhood is especially suited for me. Gorgeous brownstones. Just enough sky. A little Southern in the sense that everyone speaks and knows your business in a good way, and may even have you over to share tea or a meal.
It is visually opposite in the way of the West. All the buildings are touching. My New York friends find this description hilarious. But I do like that it is thick with families and homes and history and trees and stores and stories. Within a one-block radius on any side, I can do my laundry, grab a slice, have proper tea service, pick up groceries, print, buy a bouquet of flowers, find a wrench, get papers notarized, enjoy a cold beer on tap, or just walk around and feed my imagination.
I don’t know that I can personally speak to how Bed-Stuy is changing, except through the voice of my neighbor-friends. Many of the folks on my block have lived there for thirty-plus years. They have raised entire generations, and from what they’ve told me, many of the newer residents are not interested in being “neighborly” if you get my drift. They have been called “undesirables” for sitting out on the stoop, playing dominoes, enjoying a small beer and basically living their lives the way they have in their historically Black neighborhood for decades. This makes me sad and furious, especially since the neighbors deemed as “undesirable” are the same friends who have embraced me and helped soften my transition here.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
A couple of weeks after I moved here my street had a block party. I’d never heard of such of thing. People set up all-day barbecues on the sidewalk, there were domino tournaments, a DJ booth which played all the good Black-oldies-wedding-reception music, a cotton candy machine, free Slurpees, a bounce house and full-on waterslide for the kids, even a “Good Neighbor” awards ceremony. I only knew two people but by the end of the night most of the block had introduced themselves and fed me, which was of course the best part. It was magical.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Community to me means having people who can tell you the truth about yourself and your work, even when it’s hard to say and harder to hear. Having folks who consistently show up for and with you to write, give feedback, eat, laugh, and sometimes to scream and cry with. We are all in a small, competitive circle and are often up for the same things, so community to me means when someone is lifted up, everyone is being lifted up, even if it isn’t me individually.
I feel like I am fortunate because I arrived here with a built-in community since many of my Callaloo and Cave Canem cohort were already living here. I’ve also continued building and adding many new friends to my poetry tribe by taking classes and being in fellowship with poets from Brooklyn Poets, of course, as well as the Poetry Project and JP Howard’s wondrous Women Writers in Bloom salon.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Countless beloveds, teachers and poet-friends-in-my-head: Malcolm Tariq, Bernard Ferguson, I.S. Jones, Rico Frederick, Brionne Janae, Angel Nafis, Morgan Parker (formerly of Brooklyn), Candace Williams, JP Howard, Aracelis Girmay and Gregory Pardlo—just to name a few.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve not had any certified mentors yet, but I’ve been fortunate to come across several teachers and poets who were kind and unexpectedly generous to me. Douglas Kearney comes to mind. We met at AWP about ten years ago when I had no business being at AWP. Anyway, I watched him read in his very DK-way and could not explain what happened to me. I had never experienced poetry in that way before. So I headed over to his publisher’s booth and he walked up smiling just as I’d picked up his book The Black Automaton, which is a wonder in and of itself. I questioned him in awe about how he’d made these poems and how he workshopped them (this was after having a particularly nasty workshop exchange of my own over a “text staircase”). He simply said “I don’t” and named five poets/books that I should look at if I was interested in doing that kind of work. He also gave me his business card and throughout the years he has continued giving me his time and reading and encouragement. Recently our poems appeared in a journal together and that was really a surreal moment for me because I still look up to him and his quiet commitment to and confidence in his craft more than he may ever know.
Vievee Francis, who was my teacher at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, is another teacher-friend. I’d applied to Callaloo five times because I specifically wanted to work with her after reading Horse in the Dark. She and my grandmother, who was also the realest and my best friend, have similar sensibilities and Southernness and I’d never seen anyone rendering Texas and the Southwest on the page like that. I had resigned myself that it was the last time I would apply to Callaloo and if I didn’t get in, I would make peace with that and move on. I got in and working with her has permanently altered my poetry and the ways in which I show up in the world. She has helped lead me to my first collection. To looking at the work in a critical way, as a poet. To looking in the mirror and admitting my own complicity. To telling the truth about my family and myself. Also, no one in my life (including outside of poetry) has ever been as honest with me as her; at the time it seemed harrowing but also loving and necessary. I respect and appreciate her most for always speaking and living her truth.
Vievee talks in detail about identifying and knowing your “poetry lineage.” My poetry lineage or “mentors” whom I feel like I’ve apprenticed under (and continue to learn from) by immersing myself in their work include Natasha Trethewey, Harryette Mullen, Wanda Coleman, Mary Ruefle, Tracy K. Smith and C.D. Wright.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Chase Berggrun’s R E D, a book-length erasure of Bram Stroker’s Dracula which explores the expectations and performative aspects of being a “wife” or woman in relationship. The silent and not-so-silent dynamics of domestic violence. Berggrun’s language which remains from the original text breaks open all the notions of having a female or femme body.
I was also lucky enough to read my friend Malcolm Tariq’s manuscript, which won the 2018 Cave Cavem Poetry Prize, and let me say we should all be shook. I can’t reveal anything, but it is truly stunning.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Sheeeeesh, I have an entire Safari window open right now with at least thirty tabs. Also, Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulattica, Patricia Smith’s Teahouse of the Almighty (the name alone takes my breath away), Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Jorie Graham as a whole, always more Dickinson.
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 tend to read a couple poetry collections and a craft book all at the same time. Typically one them is a more intense reread which allows me to make notes and marginalia. The first read, much like the first write, is always only for me. The following reads are for looking at the poems as a poet, to see what I am responding to, and taking them apart to see how they’ve been made. I try to select my craft readings purposefully but my poetry and prose reading is usually random, sometimes from a friends’ recommendations, other times from wandering the aisles of bookstores. I am hopelessly old fashioned and these days savor the realness and the quietness of books, especially old or used ones. The smell and touch of pages is unparalleled. Save for online journals, I have only ever read one book digitally and it is not an experience I would like to try again.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d love to try a hybrid remix collaging erasure from Grimms’ Fairy Tales with my own original text, à la Anne Sexton’s Transformations but Blacker and witchier.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My yoga studio also has a café and I like to revise there in the chill, peaceful vibe. The Brooklyn libraries are nice spaces in which to hunker down a while, especially the one near me which is more like a technology center with its fancy color printer (they even loan out laptops!). The parks. Poets House in Manhattan.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
There’s a little secret teashop near me that I like to sneak away to, which has the most bizarre, wondrous, whimsical, wallpapered decor. My yoga studio which I’m scared to name because the early morning classes are still pretty empty and sacred for me. Trader Joe’s (the fussy, beautiful one on Court), Greenlight Books, the library at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the eclectic mix of shops on Tompkins Ave, Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum, which I’ve been taken with for years, first as a visitor. I’m also loving being a new resident and discovering the spaces which beckon me.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the curls of steam rising from chamomile,
And what I savor over pastel silence of dawn
You spill in whispers and wishes from leftover dreams,
For every morning that greets me as good,
pray that it meets the good in you.
Its brownstones and Black faces.