May 9–15, 2022
Seth Leeper is a queer poet. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Salamander, Hobart After Dark, Juked and Always Crashing. He holds an MA in special education from Pace University and a BA in creative writing and fashion journalism from San Francisco State University. Leeper was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow in the spring of 2022. He lives and teaches in Brooklyn, NY, and tweets @sethwleeper. On Thursday, May 12, he will read online as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.
Author photo by Megan Bayley
my father talks to me in the house we shared
for a stint in my youth and all the walls have
been replaced with stars and black emptiness
and in this iteration i can see past the bluster
to the man everyone knew as compassionate
and approachable and i can see what strangers
saw when they needed directions or a hello
yet still he taunts me because he knows he’s
the key and just when i’m about to grasp the
bronze trophy he jumps just out of my reach
and up to the moon where he places his hands
on his hips and looks down on me with the
bemusement reserved for reading a christmas
card with a misspelled name
—Originally published in Anti-Heroin Chic, May 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“moon jumper” is from the first half of an unpublished manuscript titled double feature: anatomy of a star | of men and monsters. In the first section, the speaker is in pursuit of his father across planes: physical, astral, celestial. “moon jumper” is written in a child’s voice and is one of many poems in which I was experimenting with form and space on the page. The writing process was more intuitive than deliberate. However, there are pieces of autobiography embedded. One Christmas, I think when I was five or seven, I gave my father a pair of socks as a gift. At the time, I wanted to be called Rosebud. I moved through the world with a very fluid, feminine sensibility, and I was in a phase I think all kids experience, where I wanted to change my name. When my dad opened the gift on Christmas morning, though, he looked at the gift tag, burst out laughing, and asked, “Who is Rosebutt?” I had signed the tag R-O-S-E-B-U-T-T, so that little story was what inspired the last line. A lot of the manuscript writes into the speaker’s desire to conjure moments to share with his father. Since there was a scarcity of concrete memories to draw on, he creates moments that exist outside of commonly shared consciousness. In “moon jumper,” he’s channeled this house, but he also chases his father through dreamscapes and dying stars. He doesn’t make it to the moon in this one, but he ends up quite relentless in his quest. One goal I usually have, particularly when a poem is personal, is to transcend the specific to offer some form of comfort or encouragement to the reader. I hope whoever reads this piece takes away a little tenderness.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently writing towards an undefined new manuscript and finding homes for the other poems from double feature. Right now the poems I’m writing are blending personal experiences and elements of myths, fables and fairy tales. I’m wrestling with a series of poems approaching Little Red Riding Hood from a different lens that will either become a poetic sequence, a pamphlet or a mini-chapbook. If all goes well!
I’m also exploring how we restore empathy to ourselves and those around us. The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, and as an educator, I believe our greatest asset is often our ability to empathize with our students. First we keep them safe, then we ensure they’re happy, and if those two conditions are present, then students will learn from us. But what happens when educators and students are drained of their emotional storehouses? How do they build back their reserves of compassion and empathy? It can sometimes feel like we’re sinking in a pit without a shovel and we have to dig ourselves out of our own graves by our nails. Finding community with our family and friends can help, but only we can save ourselves. I’ve written a lot of poems as a pep talk to myself and others, though I’m not sure how many of these will be published or find a place in a manuscript yet.
What’s a good day for you?
This could be so many things! As a teacher, a good day can be making one of my students laugh or smile. Especially those with whom I’ve fought to build a rapport. As a poet, few things rival the rush of writing something new that I believe in strongly. Any day I can have a glass of red wine with a friend is a good day, though I don’t drink alone as a rule. I need to spend more time by the water. I used to walk down to Ocean Beach and just gaze at the sea from the rocks. It’s been a while since I’ve visited the piers off Christopher St in the West Village, but when I first moved here, I used to love taking that stroll down the street and just being by the water.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
As a child, I knew I would either end up in Los Angeles or New York City. I spent an eight-year detour in San Francisco, but moved to Brooklyn in 2013. Part of moving here was fulfilling a lifelong dream, which I’m sure is true for a lot of people. I had assumed I’d settle in Manhattan, but I moved to Brooklyn first, and what kept me here was the familial feel that you don’t get in the more commercial areas of the city. I love Prospect Park. Central Park is beautiful as well, but its beauty is impersonal, whereas Prospect Park feels like it was designed to be lived in. I read somewhere that they were designed by the same person, and that he preferred Prospect Park, too.
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 twice, Greenpoint once, and I just spent the better part of six years in Flatbush. I live in Homecrest/Midwood now, depending on the map, or which real estate person you speak to. I’ve always lived on the cusp of neighborhoods for some reason, even in San Francisco. I’m still relatively new to my current area, but my location is advantageous, being across the street from an MTA station and walking distance to a lot of commercial shopping. I’m also a hop and a skip from Marine Park, which is beautiful, and I love the unique architecture of the area, which feels more suburban, almost rural, than like a big city. I do miss the proximity to Prospect Park I had living in Flatbush, but I’m a lot closer to work than I was before.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
The one recurring memory that keeps popping up for me here is from when I lived in Bed-Stuy. I would walk to the train, which was about a fifteen-minute walk to the A/C or the G train. I remember this crossing guard that I would pass every morning. We would say hello to each other, sometimes we’d have more in-depth conversations. I don’t remember the content of our conversations anymore, but the warmth that we shared between us stays with me. She had a lovely spirit and I remember vibing with that. I think this sticks out to me because New York City at large can be an anonymous city. It’s easy to disappear or just not see the person walking by you. Bed-Stuy always felt more intimate and personable, bucking that big-city stereotype.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I spent the better part of a decade away from poetry post-undergrad. I wrote here and there, but I started putting more focused energy into it just before we went remote during the pandemic. Writing can be a lonely craft that demands a certain amount of solitude in order to do it well, in my experience. That’s the dichotomy, though, because so much of poetry is about how one experiences the world, so at some point we have to poke our heads out of our little hermit huts and engage. (I’m thinking, now, of the collaborative poems that have been published of late, so I’m sure there are poets whose experiences are counter to what I’ve described.)
In some ways I feel like I tend to arrive after the party’s already wound down. I felt that way in San Francisco in the ’00s, and I became less party-oriented when I moved to Brooklyn. I found Brooklyn Poets during the first wave of the pandemic, when we were mostly still remote, and started participating in the monthly Yawps via Zoom. Before that I felt like I was writing in a vacuum, so it was a relief to find a community where everyone was into geeking out over poetry. I’ve been privileged to meet many wonderful people, and I’m grateful to have developed correspondences with poets whose work I admire such as Jo Blair, Stella Lee and Morgan Boyle.
I think the idea of community is evolving as the parameters around our daily lives continue to morph and shift. We’re privileged to live in a time when we’re able to connect across state lines and continents without being in the same room with someone. At the same time, using technology as a means for participating in society has impaired our social graces. I probably sound like a crotchety old man saying that, but it’s true. Still, it’s important we preserve the accessibility of community as it’s expanded to include virtual platforms so that people with disabilities and other concerns are able to continue to engage and be seen.
I also see the poetry community as a network of support. It’s both an ecosystem of poets supporting poets and also a mini-economy that is powered by that same system of support. One thing I think we avoid talking about is the competition embedded into the community because it’s such a niche circle, and it can feel like there aren’t enough spots for everyone. However, if we view our allies as threats, we’re never going to feel like we have enough. I don’t believe people who say they have no ambition. It’s okay to have desires, dreams and goals. It’s part of how we grow as humans. I try to reframe competition, for myself, from a zero-sum game, where only one person wins, to everyone striving and winning alongside each other. Rather than feeling threatened by my peers, I try to bring everyone forward with me: sharing resources and celebrating the successes of others. When my friend gets a win, I get a win, too, because I can celebrate them! hen one person wins, we all win! Sure, it can smart not to be chosen for a particular prize or journal, but rejection is protection. We’re all in the process of finding where we belong, where our work will resonate, and I like the idea of doing that together. We can show our support in so many ways, too, from buying each other’s books or journals to sharing someone’s poem by word of mouth or via tweet. We can all find a way to keep that momentum going as appropriate to our individual circumstances.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Casting the net wide, I actually wrote a paper on Walt Whitman in high school, though it wasn’t very good. I had wanted to write about Marilyn Monroe initially, but wasn’t allowed. (She married Arthur Miller, though, who grew up in Brooklyn!) Thus, I’m definitely not a Whitman scholar, but was encouraged by him as a queer forefather, though his sexuality is apparently disputed. Ada Limón lived in Brooklyn, so I’ll consider her a Brooklyn poet. I really love her work. I guess this is my tepid way of saying I need to read more poets from/of Brooklyn. I’ve had the privilege of encountering, or being witness to, incredible talent in Brooklyn Poets events and workshops.There are so many incredible poets and humans in each.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
There are layers to this. I would be remiss not to mention that I’m a Nichiren Buddhist. My faith mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, in addition to being an advocate for world peace, is also a poet. My personal belief in, and commitment to, this philosophy is where I derive my interest in humanism, which I had to learn. What I admire most about Ikeda’s writings is his clear love for people, in all their diverse expressions, and this is something I struggled with when I was younger. Queer people (in my experience) are often maligned and/or pushed to the outskirts of their communities of origin, and it’s there where queer communities are often formed as a reaction to, or a rejection of, mainstream society. One lesson I had to learn, and I’m still trying to put into practice, is how to love people who don’t necessarily love me back, or refuse to dignify and affirm my existence. In the philosophy I ascribe to, it’s embedded into the heart of our beliefs that everyone has a higher self, and is worthy of dignity and respect. When we deny this of others, we deny this of ourselves. Some of the work I write wrestles with this idea, and I’ve written into some projects that were meant to be socially restorative to return respect to overlooked or silenced people.
I owe a debt of gratitude to many people when it comes to craft. Truong Tran was the first person in undergrad to point out what he saw as rhythms embedded in my poems, which was so encouraging. I learned a lot from him, and his stamp of approval was life-sustaining. I took a class with Dodie Bellamy called Writing on the Body that was transformative and completely changed my approach to reading and creativity. Donna de la Perrière pushed me to be better in my craft and not rest on naked emotion, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m not sure if they would remember me, but I value the impact they had on my growth as a writer. I don’t think I had a lot to say in those days, and I think I was also too self-obsessed really to develop a more expansive perspective that I hope I’m beginning to shape now. In some ways I feel like I didn’t really learn to write well until a few years ago, when I’d had time for life experiences to settle in, which anchored me in a certain amount of authenticity.
I’ve also gained so much from finding the Brooklyn Poets community. I’ve been able to participate in a number of craft labs and workshops, and each has left its own impact. I’m indebted to Carlie Hoffman, with whom I’ve had the privilege of taking two workshops. She pushed me to approach line breaks with a level of intention I didn’t have before, which has totally changed how I write. I also deeply appreciate Rosebud Ben-Oni. Her feedback in workshop and on my manuscript helped me reach the core of the work and drastically improved its quality.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
So many! Mostly poetry. I haven’t been able to sustain my attention for fiction lately. I’m currently in the middle of Paul Tran’s All the Flowers Kneeling and every poem is amazing. There is literally no filler. Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets, of course. I love the subversion of the traditional form. Each sonnet is like its own portal into another world, but also like a painting? I’m really excited to read Ada Limón’s next collection, The Hurting Kind. The Carrying is one of my favorite books. I read it on the subway and I remember feeling like I was having this warm, intimate conversation with a friend. I left that collection feeling full. Mary Ruefle’s Dunce was really great, too. How she played with language was inspiring. In terms of standalone poems, I remember encountering Steven Espada Dawson’s “Elegy for the Four Chambers of my Mother’s Heart” in BOOTH, which really pulled me in, stopped my breath.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
One of my favorite books is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, but I haven’t read anything else of his, though I made it midway through his memoir. I keep meaning to pick up Haruki Murakami but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I have Joan Didion’s The White Album, the title essay of which we read in undergrad, but I haven’t read the full book. I (re)purchased several of her books when she passed. The Year of Magical Thinking helped me grieve my father, and it’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. I’m woefully behind on a lot of the classics and I’m not sure I have the head for them. I tried tackling Anna Karenina in my teens and it defeated me. There’s a British writer I love, Minette Walters, whose entire catalog I’ve read except her first novel, The Ice House. I’d like to read more Iris Murdoch at some point. I keep returning to Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child but haven’t been able to finish it. It’s dense but exquisitely written. And I’m so behind on poets! I need to invest in volumes by June Jordan, Anne Carson, Lucille Clifton and many others.
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?
Lately I’ve found it really difficult to read for long periods of time and my overall book consumption has decreased during the pandemic. I attribute part of that to the fact that I don’t ride the subway nearly as often as I used to, which is where I would get a lot of reading done. Generally, I have to finish a book before I start another, and this can apply to journals, too. Right now I’m kind of bucking that trait and reading bits and pieces of collections and periodicals, but usually I have to read one book at a time, and this is part of what propels me through a given work. That drive to read the next one, then the next. When it comes to fiction, I definitely operate that way. Poetry is a different beast because I’ll usually read a collection straight through, but poems also demand a different form of attention. They need to be read slowly and savored.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
This is hard to answer because I generally let the work determine what it’s going to be. I don’t believe we write entirely on our own. From the moment of inspiration, there is a nonsentient being or some kind of essence present that we’re transcribing for the most part. From there, revision is where we apply our own sensibilities and personal touches. I don’t really have a specific type of work I aspire to create beyond hopefully good work that resonates, and that can take many shapes.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’m kind of a failure at writing out in the world. I can’t focus enough in a coffee shop and I’m sensitive to noise, so most of my writing happens at home. I did try to write in Dolores Park once. I used to ride the SF MUNI around the city and look for places to write, but when I sat down somewhere to write, my stomach would growl, or I would be sleepy. In terms of physical writing, it generally just doesn’t happen for me in public. One of my favorite newer pieces, though, was written in my Notes app while walking to a friend’s place to feed her cat. I didn’t expect anything to come during the trip, but I was pleasantly surprised. I think I composed half of it en route on that walk, and the other half when I returned home. I’ve been writing a lot on my couch lately, and every blue moon I’ll actually write at my desk. In my old apartment, most of my writing was done in bed.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I really love the boathouse in Prospect Park and the surrounding area. If I’m going to leave my apartment for a reason other than work, I need to be in a park, or somewhere nature-adjacent. Karaoke and wine are great, too, and you can engage in both outdoors if you want to! (Just be respectful of the neighbors.)
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate authenticity,
And what I told you is a lie,
For every truth uttered by
[or to] me, [is] as good as
indigo in a pool of 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.
I don’t think I’m this cool.
Why not Brooklyn?