Poet Of The Week

Suzanne Highland

     October 8–14, 2018

Suzanne Highland is a queer writer and teacher from Florida currently living in New York. She has a BA in English from Florida State University and an MFA from Hunter College, where she won the 2016 Miriam Weinberg Richter Memorial Award. She has also been awarded prizes and fellowships from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Vermont Studio Center, and this past summer was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in the Poetics of Space workshop led by Emily Skillings and Simone Kearney. Highland teaches critical writing and social emotional wellness to high school students as well as composition at Hunter College, and is a mentor and teaching artist with Urban Word NYC.

Sometimes an Orange Tree

My best friend once told me that in order for my body to have been born women for years bore bodies without even a hospital and that was his argument for sticking with it

Not to be thrown out with the bathwater

Not to be sent downstream in a basket

When I walk the bridge I look down on the snow and ice and picture bodies falling and then making angels with their arms and legs

In the middle of the bridge there’s a statue of a stooped over young man and an older man pinching his cheek

There are signs: Is it nice to be walking on a bridge? Have you eaten anything today?

Living inside my body is like living inside an eyelid glued shut

Even now the air around me is close and ribbed with veins

My ears are full of cotton humming making it hard to hear

My mouth is full of sand ticking making it hard to speak

If I concentrate hard enough I can see past detritus and into a black future

In the cities the rich buy apartments in tall buildings and then don’t live in them

There are glass rooms full of white furniture and blank air towering over the masses navigating the streets

In the country there’s a lack of oxygenating trees

The eyelid closes tighter as if trying to protect me

I feel a wishing well inside my body shrink into a tight well of knots

Begging is unseemly considering the collection of star dust that comprises me, flung from the far universe in colors that burst from a black past

I picture an eye opening up and letting in all the light like a slow exposure camera or a torn piece of lace

The black future whitens and whitens until it feels like a dream

Then my stomach growls I’m hungry

In my body there’s a settlement and that settlement is made up of the wishing well a hospital where women have their babies a great many bars and sometimes an orange tree

The orange tree is best in winter when fruit orbits the trunk

Then little animals come and then little bugs

Even now I’m trying to control the outcome

My nose needs to be smoother I think so I pull on it creating gullies of oil letting blackheads clear the surface disengaging flakes of skin

My hair needs to be smoother I think so I pull on it until it starts falling out in the shower in the morning

This is what happens to a body in the finite economy

I don’t want to stick with it I want to expand and expand until I become nothing

As I walk from one end of the bridge to the other the signs become increasingly more insistent

Isn’t it nice to be walking on a bridge?

Why don’t you go eat something?

Upon suggestion I take a breath and my stardust rattles in its glass jar and some spills out and I start to wheeze and it becomes a thin dust on the railing in front of me

There are photographs of children taped here, on this bridge that rises now in a golden light

I will miss the capybara and the elephant

I will miss the tulip and the changing leaves

And even though I have the right equipment I’ve decided to miss the experience of pregnancy

I will not give this world my baby

I will not give up my baby so easily

—Originally appeared in glitterMOB Issue 11, July 2018.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I went to my first residency this year, and while the experience was extremely rewarding, it was also lonely: rural Vermont in the middle of winter. I was also reading Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human at the time, drawn to his use of long lines, and the book—which is brilliant—almost aggressively entered my private space, as Joan Didion would put it. I started “Sometimes an Orange Tree” with what’s still the first line—something a good friend of mine said to me during a conversation about having kids in the era of climate change—and I filled the poem out after reading an article about the Mapo Bridge in South Korea. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling great at the time. But more important, maybe, is that I couldn’t feel out how to express that feeling of not feeling great. The long line freed me, allowed me to shut off my cognitive coping mechanisms for two and a half whole seconds, and once I got rolling, the poem happened really, really quickly.

What are you working on right now?

I have a manuscript I’ve been working on for four years, so: that. I’m obsessed with it and repulsed by it, but it’s funny to see four years of work coalesce—you realize that you have no choice, basically, about what you’re obsessed and repulsed by. Right now, to be honest, writing is a bit of a struggle. I did write a happy sex poem the other day, which in my book (and considering my book-to-be) is a success. It also takes place in outer space!

What’s a good day for you?

A good day is when I don’t have to rush out of the door first thing in the morning. When I can read and write in no specific direction because I know I have the time to explore. When I get to be with my friends in their homes sharing a joint, a bottle of wine, listening to records, talking trash. When I get to go outside and watch a bird do its thing. A truly good day for me is any day my personhood, queerness, gender and material conditions aren’t policed or trivialized by the US government. I can’t remember my last truly good day. But I’m optimistic, or trying to be—this world makes some days really, really good, after all, even still.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

When I was nineteen and living in Florida, I visited my then-recent ex-boyfriend, who lived in Brooklyn. It was a trillion degrees in the middle of August and I remember getting off the Q train and some kids had pulled the cap off of a fire hydrant—it sounds trite, but that joy, that resourcefulness, that maintained and instantaneous community, it stuck with me. For the first four years I lived in New York I lived in Queens, but as chance would have it I recently uprooted and landed right back at the same Q stop. The short answer is that I moved to Brooklyn to be closer to work. The long answer is that I moved to Brooklyn because my people—writers, artists, musicians, activists—are in Brooklyn, and a little part of me has been, too, for ten years.

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 spent so much time walking my dog-niece around Prospect Lefferts and just staring at these incredible old houses and overflowing gardens in awe. And people take such good care of their blocks—there’s a lot of caretaking and attention paid in this neighborhood in ways I don’t see many other places in the city. It’s changed a lot since I first visited ten years ago, but its character is the same.

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

Down the street from me on Flatbush there’s a business that’s in the process of closing—there’s been a For Rent sign in the window for a while. The store is full of wild stuff: clothes, books, small paintings of houses on the beach, a Donald Trump Halloween mask … Right next door, there’s a business that clearly just opened, and it, too, is full of wild stuff: baby onesies that say “No sleep till Brooklyn” on them, plates of Prince’s face, extremely expensive Brooklyn-themed pens, kids’ books about hip hop—and I have only ever seen white people inside. It’s like if Muji and Flying Tiger Copenhagen had a baby. It’s not enough to know that that store isn’t getting any of my money—it’s the fact that I / my culture / whiteness is responsible for it being there at all. I want to shake everyone I see inside.

On the flip side, have you ever been to Prospect Park on the first cool Saturday in the fall?

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

Literally what matters to me most. The best part about getting an MFA, to me, the part that makes the MFA worth it, is the answer to this question. I went to Hunter College for mine, and I met some of my best friends in the world there—Ben Wright, Holli Carrell, James Fujinami Moore and Meagan Washington—all of whom have been deeply, deeply supportive of my work since we graduated, and all of whom are making seriously important work themselves. Since graduating, my poetry community has both expanded and become more intimate, and it has always felt good, safe, challenging and compassionate. That’s not always the case for folks, so I feel really lucky.

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

Marianne Moore—I just visited her Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park last spring. “It is still leafing; / still there. Mortal though. We must save it.” Ugh. Just kill me now. Bianca Stone is one of my favorite poets of this decade and I keep trying to run into her here. I will always be grateful to Brooklyn for being Angel Nafis’s residence and thus the residence of Nafis’s poem “When I Realize I’m Wearing My Girlfriend’s Ex-Girlfriend’s Panties.” Donna Masini, without whom I might not be a poet, was born and raised here.

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

Oh, man. Most recently, I got the pleasure of spending some time and talking poetry with Brenda Shaughnessy, who read my work (and read me!) with such a keen eye, and gave me bubble bath for my birthday. Her advice to keep a slush pile of total nonsense writing—a “side document” she called it—has been really influential on me: a massive perfectionist. I’m really thankful for our time together. Donna I mentioned; Catherine Barnett was also a professor of mine at Hunter who once asked us to tie our wrists together with string and do a free-write—I still have the string. She tacitly asked all of us to let go of our desired outcomes for our poems, and that has really influenced my work for the better.

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

Sandra Simonds’s Further Problems with Pleasure is so incredible—playful and prescient and rigorous and relevant. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women blew my world open. “On World-Making” by Nomi Stone was in the September issue of POETRY and I’ve been thinking about that poem at least once a day since I read it. Same with these lines from one of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin: “You are beautiful because of your sadness, / but you would be more beautiful without your fear.” There are so many moments in my life that call those lines forward.

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

I bought Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters years ago, and … eh.

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?

I usually start by getting a stack of books together, poetry but maybe nonfiction too, and my notebook, and I’ll sit in my old-man armchair or in bed and kind of move between and through books until my attention crystallizes on something, then I’ll read more closely or linearly—whatever whatever is grabbing me wants. Always, I’m jotting phrases or images down, trying to catch the self-made stuff swimming through the undercurrent of my mind as it processes what I’m reading. If I’m lucky enough to have the time, I’ll eventually stop altogether and start writing into something I’ve caught. Those are the best days.

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 write a long poem. I have a short attention span, and while I tend to generate material pretty prolifically, I revise that material less consistently, and long poems are a challenge for me. I also get ideas for things to try from being a grammar teacher—among other things, that job means I’ve spent a lot of time trying to articulate why one might need two different verb tenses to indicate two actions even if both actions will be occurring in the future, and thus I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the literal / figurative / poetic / human / alien / real / unreal differences between Future #1 and Future #2, and all that thinking makes me want to write a poem entirely in “future of the future” verb tense, for example. Seems like a hopeful one.

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

I love being home. But there are a couple of good reading / writing cafés near my house: The Chameleon BK on Flatbush and Lincoln (hard shout out to their jalapeño cheddar biscuits!) and PLG on Rogers and Midwood. I’ve also been known to read at a bar or two, at least until someone decides that I must only be scanning my book, waiting to be hit on.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The botanic garden has always been a favorite of mine, as well as the walk you take from Grand Army Plaza up Vanderbilt, ideally to Sharlene’s or Soda Bar. But honestly, when I think about this question, I mostly think about my friends’ apartments. One is a studio next to the park with an entire grand piano inside. One has been the scene of many a vinyl session and boozy dinner. One, in Crown Heights, has piglet curtains in the kitchen windows. I love where I feel at home—that can be public spaces, and New York is a great place to practice making public spaces home, but it’s most often when I’m with people I care about.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate severance,
And what I hold for you, you shall also hold,
For every tether to me is as good as the weather to you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because Brooklyn is a microcosm of this world, in struggle and in beauty, and it should be celebrated every day.