October 26–November 1, 2020
Safia Jama was born to a Somali father and an Irish American mother in Queens, New York. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, she has published poetry in Ploughshares, RHINO, Cagibi, Boston Review, Spoken Black Girl and No, Dear. Her poetry has also been featured on WNYC’s Morning Edition and CUNY TV’s Shades of US series. Jama is the author of Notes on Resilience, which was selected for the New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set series (Akashic Books, 2020). On Thursday, October 29, Jama will read online as part of our inaugural Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks event.
Author photo by Jess X. Snow
Agnes Martin Retrospective
After the show at the Guggenheim, I decide that I am a walking
Agnes Martin painting.
Not unlike walking pneumonia, I walk around with this condition,
just as, passing through the halls of the museum, I wear a faded grey
coat that somehow evokes the surface of her canvas.
People stare in disbelief, back and forth, between me
and the paintings, unable to distinguish the two of us.
Like the Agnes Martin, I have sharp lines
that blur and we both feel a sense of vertigo looking down.
Later in life, I am black and blacker, much like the black pyramids
that appear in her otherwise European geo-space territories.
Like an Agnes Martin, people think of me as calm and serene
while inside, I rail and rage.
So I make my sharp angles more and more soft
like a kid’s new eraser.
I want to clothe myself constantly in Agnes Martins,
and always be that safe and serene
and carry little cards that say
—From Notes on Resilience, Akashic Books, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
The Agnes Martin retrospective was in the fall of 2016 and it closed January 11th, 2017. That explains a lot about how I was feeling. I remember waiting in line out in the cold to get a free ticket in. Seeing that show felt consequential in a way I couldn’t pinpoint. And that indescribable feeling led to the writing.
I wrote it out on a scrap of paper while riding the subway back from the Guggenheim. I hung up the draft, and subsequent versions of the poem, on the refrigerator. It’s a great way to edit. Does anyone else do that?
What are you working on right now?
I’m keeping a journal now. Occasionally, a poem creeps in to the mundane entries. For example, I wrote a poem while trying to extract what I believed to be a splinter that was in my foot. I thought, “Well, this is gonna hurt so at least let me write a poem about loss.” Sometimes I’m a method actor, if that’s the right analogy. I don’t think of writing poetry as work, I think of it as play.
What’s a good day for you?
I idealize Saturday mornings when I wake up early and do my laundry. At a place that takes quarters. And if you don’t have enough quarters, there’s a coin machine that’s very forgiving of wrinkled bills. And afterwards, you have clean clothes and clean sheets. There’s nothing better!
What brought you to Brooklyn?
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’m a transplant from Queens. So Brooklyn in my imagination always had this patina of leisure and romance that feels vaguely escapist to me. I mean, Prospect Park? That is so unfair.
If Queens is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Brooklyn is the Land of Make-Believe. I would also venture to say that the dogs are friendlier in Brooklyn. Shout out to my canine friend Linus!
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Last year on Boxing Day, I was about to pass the YMCA and had a funny feeling. Like a portal opening.
Then I saw Mayor de Blasio slip out through the doors, into an idling black car. He was kinda sweaty from his workout.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Well, you found me, Brooklyn Poets. Thank you.
My poetry community has moved online, given the pandemic, so the reality of geography is all akimbo. A zillion writers live in Brooklyn, but we’re all in our little rabbit warrens right now, feathering our nests for the winter ahead.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Recently, I stumbled onto the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park. Marianne Moore wrote a poem about this tree in 1966 or 1967. Apparently, the tree fell on hard times and was in danger of dying. But thanks in part to the poem, “It is still leafing; / still there,” as Moore writes. I just love those lines.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My first poetry mentor was my mother, who loves poetry more than anyone I know.
My second poetry mentor was my middle school English teacher Susan O’Neil. I had just written a poem from the point of view of Harriet Tubman and she leaned over my paper and whispered, “You’re a poet.”
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I can’t help it, I rescue books off the sidewalk. The last three finds: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a children’s book called Rats on the Roof and a gigantic American Heritage dictionary, illustrated. I also found a rain-drenched NY Department of Education literature textbook from 1947 that’s full of short stories like “Rip Van Winkle.” I dried it out on the floor and now it’s on my shelf. But I confess, I left the Coleridge on a bench after reading for a while.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
That’s classified information.
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?
My reading process? Pure chaos. Over the summer, I read, or reread, two Jane Austen novels. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Isn’t it funny how those two titles mirror each other? I like how Austen explores her value systems in a very decisive and overt way. She was a Sagittarius, like me.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I used to like writing in vegan restaurants. I’m not a vegan, but being in a vegan restaurant felt inspiring for some odd reason. By the time I got my carrot cake, I’d have an idea.
More recently, I’ve been writing outdoors. In the park or at Green-Wood Cemetery. Poetry al fresco!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
All the secret waterfalls in Prospect Park. And Grand Army Plaza feels like Paris. I like the spacious green benches. But I dislike the low-flying helicopters.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this mask and sing through this mask,
And what I distance you shall distance,
For every hug embracing me as good embraces 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.
Note: I wrote a poem using all the words in the list plus the question itself.
Nine-line poem from Brooklyn
If you have time,
jack a Dodger,
rob Jay Z’s “Go Hard,”
sin (in whatever order)
using these end
words: pen, love,
It’s been too long. I missed you.