Poet Of The Week

Sharon Mesmer

     September 21–27, 2015

Sharon Mesmer has a new poetry collection just out from Bloof Books, Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place. Her previous poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch, The Virgin Formica, Half Angel/Half Lunch and Vertigo Seeks Affinities (chapbook, Belladonna Books). Her first chapbook, Crossing Second Avenue, was published by ABJ Press, Tokyo, to coincide with a month of readings in Japan in 1997. Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013). She has also published three fiction collections, two from Brooklyn’s Hanging Loose Press, and one, Ma Vie à Yonago, from Hachette, in French translation by Daniel Bismuth. She has just finished a novel, The Starry Dynamos. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School. Her awards include a Fulbright Specialist grant, a Jerome Foundation mentoring award and two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships.

Author photo by Ian Bascetta

There Is Authority In My Frozen Frosty by Jeff Bezos

—after Christopher Smart

There is authority in my frozen frosty.

There is irony in my bee frenzy.

And once the blood grape razes my refrozen beef

There will be envy in my strep joy.

There are mute fish in my fop notes.

There are dark presets in my Celexa.

There is a “Befriended Joey Zone” in my breezy ferns.

My fez boasts a beer sty.

A bent ebony jester translates my charity

As I probe a soft fry inside the womb of Sarah.

In my hour of felicity I came upon a poser calf’s waggery

Preening a sporty boffo repose.

I should have availed myself of the poser calf’s waggery

But My Little Pony had toffeed my Fonzie.

I should have translated charity into the shadow of death

But God’s porny ozone presented some deep “Fey Spent Jezus” prose tropes.

And there is a zesty Pig Mister in my entropy Tony.

There is an entropy Tony in my obese butt homey.

My obese butt homey translates Steve Jobs into serf tranny ralphing.

My tranny serfs ralph a mean foyer spore.

And so I bless my zen goat as he pestos the vine.

I bless hookering for Jezus without going to Italy or France.

I rejoice like a Moabite worm at “Best New Jersey Pet-Off 2013”

For my jonezing is a jewel as pure and transparent as the name and number of starz.

–From Relentless by Jeff Bezos, Berfrois, 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

About a year ago, if I remember correctly, Russell Bennetts, the editor of Berfrois, had approached my fellow flarfist Drew Gardner about asking poets to contribute work for an ebook anthology of poems “by” Jeff Bezos—all poems, no matter who the poet was, would be “by” Jeff Bezos. (I think I might be wrong here, ’cause when I look at this review it seems like I might’ve been the only one to use his name in my title. Oh well!) The anthology was to be called Relentless by Jeff Bezos because JB had originally planned to call Amazon “Relentless.” I wanted to write something that wouldn’t be any kind of a comment on Amazon or Jeff Bezos, so I took all the letters of Jeff Bezos’s full name—Jeffrey Preston Bezos—and put them through anagram generator and just composed from the results. Of course I added a little something here and there to make it more cohesive.

What are you working on right now?

My new poetry collection, Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place, is just about to come out from fabulous Shanna Compton’s awesome Bloof Books. I’m excited beyond excitation about being a Bloofie, utterly delighted and proud to be among the innovative poets that Shanna publishes and supports. For her, the act of creating books, and promoting them, is all part of the art. She is a talented and innovative poet herself, and there seems to be a total through-line connecting everything she does, including her beliefs about and approach to food, eating and cooking. She created an unbelievably beautiful cover for my book, and working—collaborating, really—with her to bring it all together was an exhilarating, inspiring experience. I had a bad experience with a previous editor. When she sent my original manuscript back to me she “forgot” not to also send the three pages of snarky editorial comments—“What is this about? Seems pointless”—along with it, and while working on a subsequent book I “accidentally” saw a chart (it was on a counter between us) that contained snarky comments between herself and a 21-year-old intern: “Who does she think she is, Joni Mitchell?” I realize that all editors make snarky comments, and that’s okay, but to let authors see them? Twice?

I also just finished a novel, The Starry Dynamos, about three working class punk-poet girls of the late ‘70’s who decide to create a female Beat Generation . . . and fail spectacularly. I had worked on the book for a long, long time—had, in fact, sent earlier versions to agents—but it never really felt “right” that whole time ( = about 20 years, actually!). It finally coalesced in my mind last January, when I had a brainstorm while teaching my NYU class: the narrator, one of the three Starry Dynamos, writes the book “to” the other surviving Dynamo, as a gift of life to her because she’s dying. I finished it pretty quickly because the shift to second person allowed me to get rid of the connecting parts that seemed stilted and fake in the earlier version and just tell the girls’ story from the point of view of someone who had actually lived it. And through that second person narration I was able to filter and describe all the great details of the Chicago punk scene circa 1978-1980. The book totally kicks ass now. There are a lot of great songs referenced in it, too. (It really needs audio links.)

What’s a good day for you?

I wake up around 6, get a good couple of hours of writing in, go out and do whatever I need to do after that, and make it home without having gotten into an argument with somebody.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?

I moved here from Chicago in August 1988, to go to the Brooklyn College MFA program. I had a three-month sublet in Flatbush, and then I found a place in Park Slope where I lived for 23 years. I now either live in Ditmas Park or Kensington, depending on which realtor you talk to. Usually I say I live in Ditsington. I also like the sound of “Ditbushington.” (If you start seeing the name “Ditsington” used by realtors in reference to this neighborhood, you’ll know I thought of it first!)

Actually, the way I got here was kind of magical. After I got accepted to the BC MFA program, my therapist (!) told me I should call the school and visit the campus and talk to someone from the department about housing, teaching, loans, etc. So I flew out, met with the then-deputy chair of the BC English department, and during our meeting he asked me if I needed an apartment, because a faculty member who was going on sabbatical had just posted a notice about subletting her three-story brownstone. He also asked me if I wanted to meet with the chair about teaching, because she had just happened to come in that day. I remarked that this seemed like my lucky day, and plus I was going to be studying with John Ashbery . . . how great was that? He got this weird look on his face and said something like, “Oh, I’m sorry to have to tell you that John got a MacArthur and he’s no longer teaching.” I asked who was taking his place. “Allen Ginsberg. Is that okay?”

So, I scored my first apartment, teaching job and the opportunity to study with my first poetry idol, Allen Ginsberg, all in one day—my very first day in the borough of Brooklyn. Magical.

What do you like most about it?

Unfortunately, what I like(d) most about it seems to be disappearing, and this is an oft-told tale. When I first moved here, Park Slope was not what it is now. It was diverse, affordable and not glutted on weekends by “destination” seekers. My six-room apartment at 675 Degraw Street (with a backyard and a basement) was $500, and the rent never rose above $1,000 because I had an old-fashioned Brooklyn landlord who’d once lived in the building with his family. I drank with my downstairs neighbors and poet friends at an old man bar on 5th Avenue called O’Connor’s (it’s now a faux-Irish sports bar). In the summers we grilled in the backyard and had a view of clotheslines strung with old lady panties as far as the eye could see. Our landlord’s sister lived down the block, and we’d hang out on her stoop and shoot the breeze, and other people from the block would walk by and join in. What I like(d) most about all that was the feeling of kindness and true humanity, and that I was a part of that, and creating within the midst of it. But then in 2011 my landlord got a cancer diagnosis and had to sell the building. We then had to deal with a classic covetous real estate agent (who gleefully strode through my apartment before the landlord had even told us he needed to sell the place, crowing “Ooh, I wish I’d brought my kyaaamera!”). I’ve looked at the photos of the renovated 675 Degraw online—I hope the people who live there now feel at home in a place that reminds them of Cleveland.

Thankfully, the Ditsington apartment I’m in now (my third apartment in Brooklyn) is again a sanctuary, a great place to write. There are wild green parrots nesting in the trees along Ocean Parkway, and you can see them skimming the skies like little green airplanes. On one side of 18th Avenue is a Hasidic banquet hall, and across the street is Emir Palace. The bells of the church, which I can see from my writing room window, play “Ave Maria” on Sundays, and the church has Masses in English, Spanish, Polish and Urdu. Along Newkirk Avenue you can hear probably eight different languages spoken. Our new landlords, when we first moved in, gave us a card that said, “Welcome home,” a bottle of wine and a basket of Asian fruits. When the apricots on that tree directly in front of my writing room window became ripe, they shared them with us. Whenever they go to the market, they bring us back two dragon fruits. Our landlords are Chinese and don’t speak English. And THAT’S what I love about Brooklyn—the diversity and kindness. Greed may obscure it, but it’s there somewhere.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

What I’m going to describe is a “trajectory experience” that probably reflects many other people’s experience of Brooklyn. When I first moved here my first and second floor neighbors, an elderly Italian man named Al and a blind widow named Millie, treated me like I was their daughter. Al even sent my mother a beautiful note when I told him my father had passed. And when my dad passed, my landlord told me I could pay the rent whenever (I paid it on time, btw!). And he sent me a Mass card, though maybe only Catholics will know what that means! I feel like crying as I write this. When Al and Millie died, the new neighbors who moved in became, over the years, close friends—family, really. I collaborated on creative projects with my second floor neighbors, and my first floor neighbor and I supported each other through various health (and pet health) issues. I got through a nervous breakdown in 2011 because of their concern and care. However, when we had to move after our landlord got the cancer diagnosis we moved to our second apartment, in Windsor Terrace, with not-so-nice upstairs neighbors: a mother who allowed her two small children and their friends to run through the apartment as if they were on a playground. The sound they made was something like several elephants with beer steins on their feet falling down a wooden staircase in an echo chamber. My husband rigged up a set of jackhammer headphones with the ear pieces of an old Walkman stuffed inside, but even listening to Led Zeppelin at full blast and standing next to the fan above the stove (which sounded like a jet taking off) did nothing to soften the pounding that I could feel in my chest, coming up through my feet. At 7 AM when the kids would run through their bedroom directly over our heads, the two window fans going full blast and a recording of shamanic drumming that I listened to via the jackhammer headphones also did nothing to soften the storm trooper-like blows to the soul. (The building is a wood-frame and very acoustically “alive.” ) When I very politely explained to the mother that I have epilepsy and needed to get proper sleep so as not to have seizures, she said, “If you have an illness you don’t belong living near children.” My husband, who is a New Yorker cartoonist, turned this into a cartoon: a couple in a restaurant is appalled that their tablecloth has been set aflame by two kids. In the caption, the kids’ mother says, “Kids burn things. If you don’t like it, don’t go out.”

Thankfully, we only lived in that apartment two years, and then found ourselves here in quiet, sane Ditsington. Fingers crossed.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

So many of my friends are Brooklyn poets that if I mention some and not others I will be in deep shit. All dead Brooklyn poets are my favorites. Only the dead know Brooklyn.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Berl’s Poetry Shop!! And, OMG, Unnameable!!! And Book Court is beautiful, they have great stock and a great space for readings, too. Greenlight is awesome. I had a great moment at Greenlight: two kids came in during a Hanging Loose reading (while I was reading) and tried to disrupt the proceedings. I said to the kids, “Would you like to get up here and perform?” One kid, thinking he’d show off to his friend, said, “Yeah, I’ll get up there!” I stepped away from the mic, he took my place, then froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights and said, “Oh, no . . . you’re all looking at me!” and ran out of the store. Score one for poets!

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Yeah, home is it for me. It was hard-won. I wasn’t able to write for most of those two years in the Windsor Terrace elephant walk.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

1) Coney Island—after the Mermaid Parade one year we sat in Ruby’s Bar with “Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra playing on the jukebox. And this year I took my nephew and his girlfriend there for the day. No matter what they do, there’s something about it that never changes. Watch the 1953 movie Little Fugitive and see what I mean.

2) Kensington Stables—we used to go there on Wednesday nights during our “exile from comfort” in Windsor Terrace to draw the horses. It was very peaceful being with them.

3) Awash, the Ethiopian restaurant on Court Street. Amazing delicious food and great people.

4) A great restaurant that Joanna Fuhrman discovered that I’m not telling anyone about ’cause I don’t want it to get freaking RUINED!

5) The Avenue H subway station in Ditmas Park, with the rocking chairs out front. Also, I love walking around Ditmas, just meandering.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

One of my current projects is to review books in translation, because we get so few translations here, compared to what other countries translate of ours. It’s ridiculous, really. Our aesthetics would shift in interesting ways were we to be exposed to the work that’s being done elsewhere. Independent presses that publish translations are doing God’s work, I swear. I just read and reviewed a book called Bessarabian Stamps by Oleg Woolf, published by Phoneme Media—“Imagine a novel, written as a series of vignettes, where thirty-three characters come to life over the course of sixteen chapters. Not so out of the ordinary? It’s only eighty-five pages long.” Also the late Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio’s mytho-poetic The Fire’s Journey (in two parts, two separate books) is freaking amazing. She died in 1974. Her translator, Keith Ekiss, wrote in the intro to the first book, “Octavio Paz once told her that she was ‘of that line of poets who invent their own mythology, like Blake, like St.-John Perse . . . and they are rubbed out, because no one understands them until years or even centuries after their death.’” The first part was pub’d in 2013 by Tavern Books, and part two just came out from the same publisher. That’s my next review. I’m also doing a lot of reading of novels by/about working class writers/characters, for a course I’ll be teaching at the New School in the spring. One of those was a young adult novel called Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand, wherein a young female graffiti artist in 1978 “meets” Arthur Rimbaud. Just read it. Really.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate rt[]]]]lop4 (my cat just walked across the keyboard)
And what I had as tuna unlit, you — whoa — ya dun it.
For every goofy moo voyeurs me as good as fumey goo moos you.

(Thanks to Anagram Generator)

Why Brooklyn?

Because during my first week on Degraw Street I heard a guy say, “‘Incubus’? I thought she meant ‘cannabis.’”