September 28–October 4, 2015
Stu Watson is a poet, musician and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is a founder and editor of Prelude, a journal of poetry and criticism. He teaches literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is a PhD Candidate in English and American Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
Author photo by Robb Stey
The Ostrich in the City
can’t be killed
not like this
in a line
or with a
face? A beak
is like a hand
neck is like
an arm but
I say these
as if it’s
tracks in snow
of a dying
I think to
in the courtyard
would be like
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “The Ostrich in the City” last March as part of a sequence of poems with the same title. Since high school I’ve been obsessed with the image of a bird as poetic emblem—Keats’s nightingale (which pops up again in Wallace Stevens and about which Borges wrote so movingly in Other Inquisitions), Whitman’s paired birds from “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking,” Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers,” even Poe’s “The Raven.” They are everywhere in post-Romantic poetry, and the reason is clear: birds can fly. But not the ostrich! This, I think is what drew me to this bird, specifically, as a subject/emblem—also that it is roughly the same size as a person.
Two influences in particular have shaped my approach in the sequence: James Merrill’s incredibly controlled early effort “The Black Swan” (the line “a private chaos warbling in its wake” often runs through my head unbidden) and the parrots in the work of the Australian poet John Kinsella. Kinsella’s poetics are concerned with what he calls rapacity—roughly defined as the damage human beings inflict upon the environment, and each other, in the name of capitalism or any other despoiling ideology. His poem “Parrot Deaths: Rites of Passage” has this image of a doomed parrot that haunts me:
Observing the rites of passage a regent
parrot plunges into the dead eyes of a semi,
eyes of silver nitrate, tarnished and stained
shadow black. The orange, golden and emerald
hearts of parrots litter the roads. I drive
slowly and whisper prayers of deflection.
In a sense, my poems about the ostrich are similar “prayers of deflection.” I’m interested in the ways in which we gain and lose registers of affect when we project ourselves, as writers, into a subject. I met Kinsella once when I was an undergrad, and he’s been kind enough to be a correspondent of mine over email for more than a decade now—his words and poems have been a real source of inspiration, particularly in times when I felt less connected to any poetry “scene” than I now do, but I digress.
I suspect I was reading a lot of Eileen Myles around the time this project began. She’s one of my favorite poets, and her approach—casual and confident, musical and direct—has helped me to interrogate some of my own weaknesses as a writer and as a person. Her compact, short lines have taught me to read in a new way, which is all one could hope to get out of poems, as far as I’m concerned.
I think this poem “The Ostrich in the City” is exploring the rather mundane subject of what might be called the “performativity” of life. As a queer person who is perhaps not always recognized as that (thanks, Calvinist upbringing!), the ostrich became for me a symbol for a (likely impossible) personhood that somehow exceeds the delimited roles society forces upon us (or that we feel forced into adopting). I feel like “imagination” and “empirical reality” are often treated as though they were completely separate operations of mind, as if to imagine something is always to flee from reality, when this is clearly not the case. Every act of imagination, however escapist or transcendentally focused it might seem, is simultaneously rooted in an empirical sense of the world, just as all of our perceptions are colored by the imagination. My hope is that this dialectical play of impression and projection is in some sense “captured,” however ephemerally, in my poems.
And the poem is also supposed to be funny. I find ostriches very amusing. I imagine they could even be quite ribald, should circumstance permit it! And I suppose the ending of the poem is sort of a send up of the ridiculous (but splendid!) grandeur at the close of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
What are you working on right now?
I am currently putting the final touches on the second print issue of Prelude, the poetry journal I edit with Robert C.L. Crawford (whose new poems are amazing, by the way). That will be out at the end of October—Brooklyn and Brooklyn Poets will be well represented!
I’m also working on my dissertation, which is focused on Wordsworth and Thoreau, the figure of “the Recluse,” theories of affect and perception, Paul de Man. I’m ABD at The Graduate Center–CUNY, working with the extremely brilliant and generous Joan Richardson.
There is a twelve-part long poem I’ve been working on for the last few months that is loosely patterned on Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender. It’s a dramatic monologue that chronicles the speaker’s cyclical mania and depression over the course of a year, with both metrical and non-metrical sections.
My band No Sky God will release our second full-length record, Infidel, on Shatter Your Leaves November 13, and we’ll have several Brooklyn shows to celebrate that release. I’m also producing a new album by Rachel Mason, resetting songs from her amazing film The Lives of Hamilton Fish, whose soundtrack I produced, for a live rock-opera context. We performed the songs at Joe’s Pub over the summer with a full band, and the record is going to knock people out when they hear it.
Oh and I’m teaching a section of Modern Literature at John Jay College, where I have been an adjunct since 2007. I’m really excited about the diverse syllabus I’ve created for this term, with writers from all six inhabited continents, with a majority of the authors being women and queer writers.
What’s a good day for you?
Teach two classes in the morning, spend the afternoon playing guitar or reading submissions to Prelude, see a friend/friends play music or read poems in the evening, maybe check out the NBA Injury Report podcast before bed.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I moved to Brooklyn in 2010 from East Harlem. I’ve lived on the very southern edge of Williamsburg, just across from the Marcy Houses since then. I like that I live where two cultures visibly intersect, with public housing on one side of the street and a large Hasidic community on the other. Though there may not be too much hybridity at play, there is a level of respect that I have noticed and appreciate.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I was once railing against James Franco’s poetry movies to a couple people outside of a bar that I had wandered into late one night. It was only after a few minutes that I realized that one of the people I was speaking to was, in the nature of things, James Franco. I think he found it pretty amusing.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Hart Crane. His poems testify to a queer existence to which I personally, and at times unfortunately, can relate.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Unnameable Books. We had a reading there over the summer and it was just a great vibe, and the staff are so friendly and helpful.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I often come up with things in my head while walking past venting laundry exhaust, for whatever reason.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Baby’s All Right to see Delicate Steve play. Or Celestial Shore, Cassandra Jenkins, Fasano, Creature Automatic. There are so many bands in Brooklyn I love right now.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
I love Angel Nafis’s BlackGirl Mansion. Her poems come back to me as I wander through life. They seem to resonate with reality. Recently, I reread Michael Robbins’s breakout Alien vs. Predator and found it still weird, deft and unnerving a few years later. Alina Gregorian’s Navigational Clouds is awesome—her work is so generous, humorous and intelligent.
Outside of poetry, I keep coming back to Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading, which contains perhaps my favorite sentence: “As a writer, Proust is the one who knows that the hour of truth, like the hour of death, never arrives on time, since what we call time is precisely truth’s inability to coincide with itself.” I’m also constantly rereading Thoreau’s Walden and Plato’s Republic.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate malaise,
And what I consume you shall abuse,
For every thought that dies in me as good lives on as scorn in 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.
The clemency of nature is your father
whose nurture clacks on stone like a dropped jack
beloved as the sidewalks here in Brooklyn.
To rob a street of poetry is sin
and grave sand is the only thing you rob—
fine grains blow off the parchment—lift the pen.
The staunching catch of narrative in Biggie,
his ballads lyrical as faded blood, as love,
show God is not a Yankee but a Dodger.
Ornette Coleman has an album called New York is Now. I like to think Brooklyn is now in the same way.