Poet Of The Week

Stephen Motika

     September 23–29, 2019

Stephen Motika was born in Santa Monica, California. His first book of poems, Western Practice, was published in 2012 by Alice James Books. He is also the author of the chapbooks Arrival and at Mono (2007), In the Madrones (2011) and Private Archive (2016). He is the editor of Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman (2009) and coeditor of Dear Kathleen: On the Occasion of Kathleen Fraser’s 80th Birthday (2017). His articles and poems have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, At Length, BOMB, the Brooklyn Review, the Constant Critic, Eleven Eleven, Maggy, the Poetry Project Newsletter, Poets.org and Vanitas, among other publications. His collaboration with artist Dianna Frid, “The Field,” was on view at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 2003. He has held residencies at the Lannan Foundation, Marfa, TX; Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace; Millay Colony for the Arts; and ZK/U in Berlin. He has taught at the Indiana University Writer’s Conference, Lehman College of the City University of New York, Naropa University and the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He is the publisher of Nightboat Books in Brooklyn, New York.

Texas Office

                    near Marfa

When did you look out at the trees? A missive in yellow, but not for capture, the dove the constant, mostly in sun, feeding after the rain. Not a remove—this reality.

I had long dreamed of a Texas office, today there were clouds, cumulus, like a parade, a pathway to gold. The water is one gold, the oil the other. They live beneath the edge of the basin, some necessity met by metal.

The metaphor of the tank holds something for us, held in the tight hands of the railroad and pipelines. This was Tank Town. We have new tanks now. 21st century tanks.

Joan Didion: “The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches.” Thoughts of holy water are never far, the calculation of aquifer and spring and Topo Chico.

In Shafter, lightning striking vertically into the Chinati mountains, air filled with rain, creosote aromatic, acrid, the scene as if backlit, a small box building, unstaffed museum for this lost town, where silver was struck, photos of the dead. Ruined adobe, cottonwoods, creek.

The ephemera of lives, from earlier photos, tacked to the board, framed in wooden chests. “To meditate in a closet … or trunk … to meditate in trunks or closets.”

Photos of a red stamped oak, date and time in leaves. The 42 species of oaks in Texas, the pinions, the juniper.

In the aspects of the “field season,” so as to investigate. What has been allowed to erode in the office of fallow space, after cavalry but before industry.

In the sky island, a dry rock-bottomed watershed with desiccated pinion and dwarf oak. The heat of the day, a contraction of activity. A moment to pull things inwards, together, in an isolated activity, between the coming monsoon and the fire’s dance. A desiccation of preservation, varnished volcanic debris, the twists of branches.

How does art make society, the question is often asked. How to love making space(s) in the age of diminished resources? Lucy Lippard speaks of intimacy, with sites, and contexts.

There are many properties to behold, but only some can be seen. Like the honchos before him, Donald Judd acquired the ranches. To be here is to ranch, the transit of this word across the Rio Grande.

I drove down to look for the wall and found the curving, geologically contorted landscape of time. Mud of the absinthe river, coyote tracks, cattle grazing. Salt cedars in a maze, walk waters to cross.

Edmond Jabès’s “nakedness” “a transparency of the word we have to record each time if we are to preserve the hope of speaking.” This seems impossible now, but determined the possibility in his exile. To be expelled before you are forced to flee.

I had dreamt of billowing clouds, concertina wire, fortifications, but found metamorphic scraps, desert heat, the river so long a fluid boundary, taxed in every extremis.


Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem comes from writing I did while I was in Marfa, in Southwest Texas, on a residency last year. I had visited Marfa a decade before, but hadn’t been aware of the border being so close then. This time, the border was like an agony offstage. Awareness of the camps was just building. Marfa is an hour north of the border and a couple of hours to the east of the detention camp at Tornillo, which has since closed.

While there, I spent a fair amount of time trying to comprehend the artist Donald Judd’s relationship to West Texas, which was both brilliant and ruthless. He saw the power and the beauty of the landscape and the ranch buildings on these vast plots. He bought up a lot of acreage south of Marfa, much of which the Judd Foundation has put in conservation easements. But the land is right on the border, which has gone from porous to well-guarded by the Border Patrol. The conditions for any migrant are brutal; it’s a desert and much of it is open park and ranch land, so there are no resources and no cover. The scale and difficulty of the geography really scuttles the whole idea of a border in the Big Bend region; it makes all of our human projects seem so irrelevant and misguided.

While in Texas, I was also taken with the natural history of the vast plain and surrounding mountains that circle Marfa, which is a tiny town of 2,000 people, and the century-plus effort to develop (read colonize) the region, which was difficult to do because of the lack of water and its relative isolation. The poem tries to get at the tension between a certain desire for a place like Marfa and a landscape that seems far from the technologized west, although it is, in fact, at the center of this country’s most destructive behavior and impulses. I tried to get at the loss that I felt being there, but also the loss the region’s history carries.

What are you working on right now?

I’m trying to finish a manuscript that seems to be comprised of elegies and my obsession with thinking about personal spaces, houses for one, in relation to the lived life, mostly of artists and the relics they leave behind.

What’s a good day for you?

A long walk and time spent with books.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I came to Brooklyn when I got my first job in New York in early 2000. I had lived for a summer in Manhattan a couple of years before and was looking for something different. I moved to Fort Greene because a cute guy in my office lived there and I think my crush on that guy transferred to be a crush on the borough.

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 here for fifteen years. I remember coming to Williamsburg in the 1990s and walking along the abandoned lots on the East River. The neighborhood has changed as much as any other in Brooklyn; towers have risen along the water and many a corporate store has arrived. My street used to have few traffic lights and now has a traffic light at every corner. It’s filled with tourists and people from all over the world. A handful of good cafés and several bookstores persist, so I get by. I always thought Williamsburg was sort of ugly, but now I understand that it was a working class community with lots of industrial operations and not the homes of Civil War officers like Park Slope. So much history has been covered over, replaced by shiny new construction, but that’s true of so many cities—I think of new towers replacing older, mixed-use neighborhoods in Toronto, Denver and Seattle. I appreciate the great park near me and the WPA-era investment like the large swimming pool. We need to keep pushing for more public amenities, from parks and libraries to bike lanes and improved public transportation. Affordable housing and the casual public spaces created by small business are quickly disappearing; we need to work on preserving those things too. And the water will come up and cover this neighborhood before too long!

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

Walking around in Prospect Park with my friend intending to show him the Camperdown Elm and not being able to find it, lost in the circling roads and mist. The famous tree, saved by Marianne Moore, was elusively outside my grasp. I feel like Brooklyn has many hidden treasures and stories that invite returning again and again.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I worked at Poets House for fourteen years, so intersected with many poetry communities, from the local to the national and international, while there. When I first worked at Poets House, the organization was in SoHo, and there were still some poets who lived within walking distance. There were no poets in Battery Park City, where the organization moved in 2009. Williamsburg was full of poets when I first moved here; now most have left. I run Nightboat Books full time, so am busy with the communities around the press, which are local, national and international. I dream of having a space where poets and artists could cook together and share work, talk about books, and engage each other. Someday, I hope.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I’ll start with Marianne Moore, of course, and Walt Whitman. Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen lived for many years in Brooklyn Heights. Akilah Oliver lived in Fort Greene in the last years of her life. Some of my authors, all of whose work is important to me, live or have lived in Brooklyn: Jen Bervin, Brian Blanchfield, Melissa Buzzeo, Allison Cobb, Andrew Durbin, Jasmine Gibson, Ariel Goldberg, E. Tracy Grinnell, Marwa Helal, Erica Hunt, Brenda Iijima, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Rosamond S. King, Gracie Leavitt, Jill Magi, Bernadette Mayer, Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas A. Martin, Trace Peterson, Christopher Soto, Stacy Szymaszek, Monica de le Torre, Aldrin Valdez and Asiya Wadud. E. Tracy Grinnell, Rachel Levitsky and Matvei Yankelevich for their work as poets and publishers.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I went to Brooklyn College and remember Marjorie Welish telling me to “defend every move you make.” She had a great acuity and intelligence. Julie Agoos, Lisa Jarnot and Akilah Oliver pushed me towards poetry and poetics in ways I didn’t know existed. Jill Magi was my first publisher and encouraged me early on. My dear friend Kathleen Fraser died in February; she never lived in Brooklyn, but her fearless example has never been far from my thinking or creative output.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I read Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which offered a fascinating glimpse into the life of a polyglot autodidact who walked across Europe and wrote three books about his journey nearly half a century later. I love how the subconscious folktale emerges in the monologues in Rachel Cusk’s Outline and the brilliance of the embedded essay in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I’m floored by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s SLINGSHOT, a book that I was lucky enough to publish and that uses formal prosodic strategies to address sex work, revolution, queer/trans desire and afrofuturism.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I have hundreds of books on my shelves I’d love to read; I think I mean to read them all. I am thinking about reading Ocean Vuong’s novel, a new book about the domestic life of Jess and Robert Duncan, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (after reading Hilton Als’s recent Baldwin essay in the New York Times) and, when I retire, Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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?

On vacation, I like to read prose—fiction and biographies. At home, I vacillate between books, submissions, manuscripts-under-contract, and poems/texts online and in magazines. I will dip into reference books and anthologies. I vastly prefer physical books and have purchased a hard copy of a book I happened to read in electronic format so I can have it in my library. I make many plans for what to read next and often get distracted.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’m eager to write a book-length poem, which would probably be a sequence of parts. Echoing Kathleen Fraser, I’d like to write some epistolary poems.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I enjoy the local library, art museum libraries, cafés and, when I had one, a dedicated writing desk at Paragraph.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers, Unnameable Books, Allswell.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the books on the street,

And what I gift you each evening,

For every yellowed page does me as good as it does you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because I left once for a brief spell and then came back and stayed. Now it’s my home.