August 10–16, 2020
Sally Familia (she/they) is a queer, immigrant poet and editor from the Dominican Republic based in New York City. She holds a BA in creative writing with a focus in poetry from the State University of New York at Oswego. Her work can be found in the BX Writers Anthology and Genre: Urban Arts. She has been awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize for her poem “The Trouble with Reminiscing” (2019). This past spring, Familia was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Cynthia Cruz’s Beauty and Truth workshop.
Esperanza, Republica Dominicana
Something good must have happened here,
is what I like to tell myself.
Here, the fields are filled to the brim with sugarcane;
not a single one has been seized by bleeding palms.
Not a single body split open.
Instead, the sun rests on the glistening green
of the leaves. The sunbaked soil is still
and untouched. The skirt of an awakening body
billows in the wind as the day begins to warm.
The neighbor is offering ginger tea with milk;
this morning is like any other.
Everyone is welcome, she says. Everyone is welcome.
So the women and men who shimmer
under the sun gather in the shade
of a limoncillo tree. Those who know,
pull their palms apart and witness liberation.
A bouncing quenepa in communion with the living.
The ovoid fruit settling carefully into drying hands,
almost like an offering;
its soft orange of a retiring sky
engulfed in green.
And yes, they are rejoicing in all of its different names.
And yes, their skin is golden now.
The sun is navigating through the coils of their hair
and onto the back of their necks.
It doesn’t know anything about concealment.
About flinching from shadows.
The squelch of bare feet fleeing
up the callus mountains until all they have
left is the faking of their deaths again
and again. Only the weeping trees in sight
as the leaves
onto their backs
until the ground swallows them whole.
This is what forgetting is like:
getting lost somewhere in the earth
until someone builds a small bridge over the pit.
Maybe a yellow house with a guinep tree nearby
to announce that something here is still living,
and offering tea with milk, like any other morning.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
My hometown and home for the first six years of my life is the small municipality of Esperanza in Valverde, Dominican Republic. My home is also home to 47% of the Haitian immigrants that live in bateyes and work the sugarcane fields. Before our time, enslaved Africans worked the land and lived in bateyes as well—this poem is for them. This poem is about the island’s collective African ancestry that has carried both countries on their backs. It’s about the pain they never got a chance to escape.
In spite of the cruel irony of the name Esperanza tied to such a turbulent past, this poem is about the acknowledgement of their sacrifice for our livelihood. It’s about the resilience of the people on our land and the small joys that remind them that because of our ancestors, we are still living.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently not working on any specific projects. My biggest priority is producing as much as I can in order to start working on my first manuscript in the upcoming year.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me starts with meditation and my morning pages. On that good day, I don’t miss any meals because of laziness, and I take all of my vitamins. Good days mean that I have read from at least two books in rotation, I have written a poem, edited another, and I’ve found new songs for my playlist. My good days end with a poetry book on hand, sleeping pills already ingested, and the smell of palo santo burning beside me.
What brought you to New York?
An airplane jejeje.
Also, the fact that all of my family had already immigrated to New York before my mother. Out of six siblings and her parents, my mother was the last to leave the Dominican Republic, which makes my brother and I the only young immigrants in the family.
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?
Home for me is Esperanza. But home is also Washington Heights, aka the Heights—NOT WAHI. I now live in Inwood (just a few blocks up), but the Heights will always be home. I lived there for fourteen years. My favorite thing about it is the fact that I never truly left D.R. Bachata is blasting 24/7, Spanish filters through the windows like wind, the bodegueros are everyone’s primos and the food is elite, as one can imagine. Living in Inwood is no different.
Something else the Heights and Inwood have in common is the gentrification that worsens every year. Our small businesses are being run out due to the increase in rent. Our people are being disregarded. Just recently it was decided that the city can continue with Inwood’s rezoning plan, which will allow for new large-scale residential buildings that will ultimately affect the Black and Latinx community living here already. Our neighborhoods are changing. 181st has demolished our beautiful Coliseum Theatre where I watched my first American movie. I see less street vendors every time I visit and more commercial businesses opening where my family used to shop for cheap clothing. It’s truly disheartening. Our magic is being sucked away.
As you can assume, living in the Heights and Inwood does not compare to the only other place I’ve lived in, Oswego, New York, where I completed my BA. All I will say is that the largest ethnic group there is 90.3% White (non-Hispanic).
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I tend to spend half of every month in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where my partner lives. Most times, we are visiting fire vegan eats like Loving Hut and Mesa Azteca. Being there brings the same sentiments as being in my own home. Bushwick is far from what it used to be. Just like any other neighborhood that is largely inhabited by Black and Latinx peoples, Bushwick is becoming unrecognizable due to gentrification. I did not get the chance to experience Bushwick the way my partner did, but I live through her stories and her memories growing up there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community to me means a group of people who regard poetry with the highest esteem. People who not only see the beauty in poetry, but also see its necessity. People who are aware of its impact. People who utilize their time to bring forth work that serves a purpose. These groups of people are in communion with each other, uplift each other, respect and value each other’s work. They treat the work and the people who have brought this work into fruition with care. They put each other on to other amazing writers and to opportunities that can push them as artists.
Unfortunately, I have not found a poetry community of my own. I believe I haven’t found a community because I am very specific about the community I require—my community has to consist of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ poets. Until that community has manifested, I will continue searching.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I will reserve this space for the brilliant Elisabet Velasquez. I have been a part of her poetry journey for only a few years, but her artistry, her being, is extraordinary. It is rare to find an honest embodiment of what it means to be alive, and I believe she does that extremely well. I had the pleasure of taking a workshop with her in the beginning of the year. The workshop opened me up to what I was missing and for that I am very grateful.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
To my understanding of what a mentor is, I can say that I have yet to find one—I’m always on the lookout for one, though. My biggest priority for a mentor is that they are a part of the BIPOC community. Therefore, the only poetry community I’ve been a part of, the writing community at SUNY–Oswego, did not meet my requirements, which made it difficult to find a mentor.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Willie Perdomo’s The Crazy Bunch really did it for me. His poem “That’s My Heart Right There” stood out to me the most despite all of the other beautiful poems in the book. The way Perdomo transforms a well-known phrase used in Black neighborhoods into a breathtaking poem proves the validity of the words birthed there. This gorgeous sixteen-line poem is one of my favorite love poems to date.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve been feening to read: Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien by Alan Pelaez Lopez, Ugly Music by Diannely Antigua, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, The Tradition by Jericho Brown, Sana Sana by Ariana Brown and A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship by Ariel Francisco.
The only reason I haven’t read them is because I have a TBR list of almost 150 books. And yes, I am excessive, but I’m a Sagittarius and my moon is in the ninth house so there is no surprise there.
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 multiple books at once, each a different subject matter. The categories are usually poetry/craft, spirituality, self-help, and sociology or philosophy. I never discover my next read at random because my TBR list is extremely long and I want to get through the list before I discover more books that I want to read. I personally cannot download information without the physical book on hand and a pencil nearby for annotating. Because I annotate on the book itself—I know I’m a monster to many—I don’t take separate notes unless I’m reading sociology, philosophy or spiritual books.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve been meaning to try a contrapuntal poem for a very long time. Soon come though.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I am a homebody, always have been, so home is usually where it’s at. Reading outside is very distracting to me.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
McCarren Park, Marsha P. Johnson State Park and more. The spaces that I love in Brooklyn are so because of the moments I’ve shared with my partner.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate healing,
And what I learn you will learn too,
For every hurt that still remains knows me as good as it does you.
Because it welcomes me with the same love as my own neighborhood.