August 8–14, 2022
Stella Lee is a Puerto Rican mother, wife, teacher and Bedford-Stuyvesant resident. Her work appears in the My New York City volume edited by Amanda Deutch and SM Gray, and the spring 2022 issue of Pleiades, which features a special folio of Latinx LGBTQIA+ poets edited by Ruben Quesada. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and this past fall was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Rosebud Ben-Oni’s workshop on poetry and nightfall. Lee won Poem of the Month honors at the Brooklyn Poets Yawp in November 2020 for the poem below.
And I gave my love
Blue, I want you to be the longest color
to last me years every time I refuse travel
lock my heart in silver cages
and let sweet birds get in my limbs
this comb holds each corner of my memories of you
I rake my head, press you back in, and wait
count the folds as they form
each bulge pushing the edges of these jeans fuller
my eyes hold on and push back tears as I smile
ounce by ounce I grow
closer to what no one could ever want
I hang my head on sighs and grow wider
these walls breathe my sadness
collect dust in corners
cool my bed with ultraviolet
fill this desert oasis with moonless nights
my voice gasps for air
I want the feathers of songbirds to lighten my gait
but there are so many yous who come first
my heart pours on the ground to soften your steps
my fingers, restless as they tie strings to my breath
inside this house, I let sorrow in
give it respite, watch it smear the walls
let it hang its hat on my lamp
you walk in
cautious, my heart screams out
I don’t let anyone work in my kitchen
or clean the soles of my worn shoes
my steps sail closer
the ground pushes me back
I peel off the blue, arms wide open
touch down, kiss the ground
and hold in my chest, the longest wave of light
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was about putting on a persona and exploring the emotions of loss, love and sacrifice. It was inspired by an assignment in a Brooklyn Poets class led by Darrel Alejandro Holnes. After revisiting and revising the poem, I realized it was also a reflection of my own experiences.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on assembling my poems into a chapbook.
What’s a good day for you?
A day in Brooklyn where the sun is shining and it’s at least seventy-five degrees, with a slight breeze and low humidity. I go out with my family and walk from Bed-Stuy to Prospect Park, enjoying nature and the neighborhoods.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My parents moved here from Puerto Rico for me to go to high school in New York and I never left.
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?
Oh, Bed-Stuy! I have lived here since 1999. It was definitely different from what it is today. Back then, there were clear signs of neglect from the government. There were many abandoned buildings and empty lots, train station entrances were boarded up, and potholes took forever to be repaired. The people kept the neighborhood going. Bed-Stuy is so different now. I sometimes don’t recognize the neighborhood with all the new construction. I can still see parts that were here when I first came, like the community gardens and the parks. Not to mention that Brooklyn in general is very different from Puerto Rico! When I lived in Puerto Rico, it was in the countryside where we would collect rainwater for use, and across the street was a mountain with a cave where the bats lived. Living in the Caribbean and being so close to nature is another world compared to New York City and its concrete.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Brooklyn ushered me into adulthood. I went to high school and college here. I experienced heartbreak and sacrifice. Brooklyn gave me the time to prepare for finding love and building a family.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community means the world to me! I have loved poetry since I could read, which was at the age of two. It has continuously been a genre that I return to in order to recenter myself and discover new possibilities. There were many years when I felt very alone and alien. I didn’t feel like I fit into the poetry ideas circulating at my high school or college. I always felt odd and like an outsider. It was such an overwhelming feeling of isolation that I left poetry for almost twenty years! I reconnected with poetry during the pandemic, a time when so many of us were searching and grieving. It was a salve that helped heal and rekindle a part of me that I had abandoned.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Dead poets: Julia de Burgos, Federico García Lorca, Shakespeare, Julio Cortázar.
Living poets: Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Ada Limón, Tracy K. Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Elizabeth Acevedo, José Olivarez, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith—this list is much longer so I am giving just some highlights. Their revolutionary voices and expression, and a certain candor, vulnerability and humanity in their work touched my mind and my heart. Their craft and sophistication with the word on the page I admire deeply and hope to emulate.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong stood out to me. I was really taken with the honesty and vulnerability of the poem. There is something about how Vuong explores the tensions between love and self-resentment or self-hatred that really hit home for me. This poem highlights the difficulty of self-love with the violence that exists within the self and life.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I recently purchased these so I have to get to reading them: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, Olio by Tyehimba Jess and Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science by Jessica Hernandez.
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?
In a perfect world, I read multiple books all the time, but with all of my other responsibilities, I read one book at a time. I have always loved reading, and I love reading books cover to cover. I am a slow reader and prefer the sensory experience of a physical book. I take notes if it is not my own book or mark it up if it is. I like to live in a book and take my time to enjoy it. After I am done reading, a piece of the book’s message lives on in me.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I want to try to work more with form. I tend to have my poems be left-aligned and follow free verse lineation. I am interested in discovering how I can work with language in ways that transform my voice within poetry and I believe that working within constraints and also expanding the form of the poem on the page would be helpful.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I have always loved libraries! One of my favorite places in college was the library. I appreciate the quiet and good lighting. The park, if I am not taking my reading seriously, because it is a great place to watch time pass.
What are some Brooklyn space you love? Why?
There are so many! Prospect Park, Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Hattie Carthan Community Garden, and the lilypond near Brooklyn College’s library. Most of the places I have mentioned are outdoors. I believe this is the case because I love being in places where nature is a part of the urban landscape. I also have the library at Grand Army Plaza because I remember the first time I walked in when I was in high school. I felt empowered and in awe of the vastness of the library and its resources, and I still do today because it is a public space open to everyone.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this life,
And what I see in you: my future.
For every moment inside of me as good as the next with you.
I have history here. My parents met here and started a life together. Brooklyn is where I fell in love with my life partner and where I am raising my children. Simply put, it is home.