September 19–25, 2022
Tawanda MulaluAuthor website opens in a new window was born in Gaborone, Botswana. His first full-length collection of poetry, Please make me pretty, I don’t want to dieBook link opens in a new window, was published this fall by Princeton University Press. His chapbook NearnessBook link opens in a new window was selected by Brandon Shimoda as the winner of the The New Delta Review 2020-21 Chapbook Contest and published earlier this year. Tawanda’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Lana Turner, Lolwe, New England Review, Paris Review, A Public Space and elsewhere. His writing has been supported by Brooklyn Poets, the Community of Writers, the New York State Summer Writers Institute and Tin House Books. Tawanda has also served as a Ledecky Fellow for Harvard Magazine and as the first Diversity and Inclusion Chair of the Harvard Advocate. He was recently awarded Denver Quarterly’s 2022 Bin Ramke Prize for Poetry. On Friday, September 30, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Wo Chan and Sarah Ruhl.
This morning this kitchen is problematic.
Every burner on the stove is a capitalist.
I want to sucker punch the Honey Nut
Cheerios but the chapel echoes. Instead
I invent a new pornography: it is soft,
embarrassing and difficult. New gestures
are required to teach it. But for myself,
every crucial fingering invites mothballs
from behind a Buddha. What comes first,
moth eggs or the statue inviting them?
You knew, but I swallowed you yesterday
with my palm. Sometimes I hear myself
suckling your toes, making oceans. O
tides, render me gently—desire cannot
make the world. Pure logic says this egg-
soaked bread frying here now is not
a paradox. Because past implies future:
the same egg to crack to soak to fry.
To mother me. And so Darwin purges
toast from his south of France (his anus:
I climb inside it in a dream). More grist
to mill, so Vaseline—hold me gentler
as silicon Epicureans garden on Mars,
quarter tubers on lunar plains … Whose
radishes ravish your teeth tonight?
You are too latent inside this spaceship,
exhausts gurgling like open balloons—
and I am air. How you will hear me
whistling while my mind jogs and
orbits Saturn’s rings, my palm burning
on my stovetop. The world does not
require you. It is busy and Buddhas you
into bad theories and my heels cannot
cynic for much longer. Plymouth looms
over Pluto. Someone’s skin shivers.
But it’s quarter to seven before light
reaches out, says, The question is how
the first molecule arose. No God accounts
for someone’s knowing it takes seven days
before our Earth says, with great feeling,
I just don’t want to be with you anymore.
—From Please make me pretty, I don’t want to dieBook link opens in a new window, Princeton University Press, 2022.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I worked on this poem when I was part of the inaugural cohort of the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program. Early on, before we all got busy, we hung out on Zoom sometimes to free-write poems together. In one session, one of my cohort-mates suggested a writing exercise where we take a random book on our shelves, flip through it, and pick the first word you see. Whatever word you picked, you had to use it in a line of a poem. The book I used was Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, which is about a curious young girl’s letter exchanges with a mysterious philosopher. I remember loving it in high school but never finishing it … Anyway, at the time of writing the poem I was down terribly bad after what, in retrospect, was a very normal post-college break-up. I think that’s how the tinges of feeling sorry for myself crept into what’s otherwise a very … erratic poem? It was a bit of a pain to edit, since it doesn’t have anything resembling a narrative through-line, so I had to instead just follow through on a series of imagistic associations that sometimes cohered, sometimes didn’t. Fun as all that was, I’m not sure it’s good for me to keep writing like that. I’m reaching the point where, rather boringly, I want to be able to “understand” my poems instead of just vibing through language. I do have a very strong soft spot for this poem, though. It helped me become a lot more adventurous in figuring out what kind of writing practices I could play around with.
What are you working on right now?
Nothing. I’m honestly too wiped out after finishing my first book, and otherwise working full-time, and dealing with the general deliriousness of living in New York City. I want to take a good long break and then learn how to read novels again instead of scrolling through the internet endlessly for essays to take my mind off wanting to sleep all the time.
What’s a good day for you?
Seeing friends. Listening to really good music. Going and watching a film in the cinema and letting my brain fizz with images. Walking around with sunlight.
What brought you to New York?
I came over last year because of a job. It’s actually based in Connecticut, but after being alone so much in the pandemic, I became pretty desperate to go out and “be in the world” and thought New York would be good for that.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Botswana. I was born and raised there, mostly in Gaborone, sometimes in Francistown and Tati Siding. I left when I was eighteen on a scholarship to a prep school in Connecticut and I’ve been in America since. I like Botswana for the same reasons that anyone tends to like where they were born: some irrational attachment to “being” from somewhere, my brain finding some profound comfort in being near people of or near my ethnicity, the pleasure of hearing languages I can’t actually speak but that feel so resonant in my body from having heard it in childhood from people in my family speaking to one another. I do also like how quiet Botswana tends to be, how slow people from there walk, the “things will happen when they happen” sort of approach to social events. Most of the stuff I’d like to do, for economic and sociological reasons, is in America—but when I’m home I feel surrounded by some thick, warm feeling of love. Or maybe that’s just the heat. I haven’t been back in three years so I couldn’t tell you how it’s changing, except that you can gesture towards that via however close you imagine the generic development story of any southern African nation is to the story that people actually living there would tell you instead. I mostly just miss rolling around in my cousin’s car with him and my sister, adventuring in the city, and seeing smiles and hearing music and wishing always that I could stay longer with them.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Yes, quite a bunch of time, since many of my friends from college live there, and because I attend quite a few Brooklyn Poets events. To be frank with you, I’m hesitant to say much about my time there because I’m mostly in Brooklyn from the perspective of hanging around with out-of-state college grads on some absurdly steep upward-mobility path that is likely leaving long-term residents behind. So, I don’t think I know anything about Brooklyn that isn’t distanced: I love the density of art, of gregarious people, of good food, etc. I can tell you specifically that I went to this year’s West Indian Day Parade and felt such a deep alleviation of my homesickness, even though Botswana is landlocked and is nowhere near any of the homelands of the majority of people who were walking in the parade. But part of the beauty of Blackness is that warm absurdness of identification across time and space. I was sad when the rain came and the parade ended. I ate a bunch of jerk chicken, then took a train back to Harlem.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
I don’t have a good answer to this, mostly because I’ve become unsure (again) of the value of poetry more generally, what it means to me, what I want to mean with other people when I’m with them, when they’re with me. I thought, not too long ago, that a poetry community just meant a place of love, where people saw grace in one another despite the difficulties of living. I still think that’s true, but love and grace also exist elsewhere. I’m sorry if that sounds obvious—but it wasn’t to me for a while. When writing my first book, I poured pretty much the entirety of my self-worth into poetry, into being around other poets, into reading and writing and living poetry. That’s something I always wanted, and it was beautiful. But I think I put too much of myself into that, and so lost a lot of perspective on other ways that I could be a meaningful person in the world. More importantly, I lost a lot of perspective in thinking about what kinds of communities I could be in, that would also be as kind to me as poetry was and is. Please pardon that this isn’t a direct answer to the question: I just haven’t had a reasonable relationship with this lately and I’m trying to figure it out better. I love y’all, though.
No, actually: the day after my book came out, I did a reading at Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA, with two former workshop-mates. So, “a poetry community” means to me seeing and hearing Darius Atefat-Peckham read his poems and falling in love with him all over again, then seeing and hearing Isabel Duarte-Gray read her poems and falling in love with her all over again. I know I’m the luckiest person in the world sometimes, because of people like them.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Morgan Parker (who Google says lived here once for a while) and Allen Ginsberg (who Google says taught at Brooklyn College later in his life until his death). Parker because There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé helped me want to be a person in the world during the excesses of my undergrad depression. Ginsberg because I like pulling up a long audio recording of him reading “Kaddish” and wandering slowly into sleep with him sometimes.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
During undergrad: Peter Sacks, Jesse McCarthy, Josh Bell and Jorie Graham. Peter because of the way he’d whisper the last lines of poems when he read them out loud to us in his Plath and Bishop seminar, Jesse because he opened up my lost mind to a tradition of poets who would love me back in his Introduction to Black Poetry class, Josh because he gave me the kindness that allowed me to honor my own words in the first poetry workshop I ever took, and Jorie because every workshop with her felt like a genuinely religious experience, as she made it seem like poetry was the most important thing in the world every single time. After graduating, Jay Deshpande as part of the Brooklyn Poets Mentorship Program: I’m not sure I’ve met a more tender critic of poems in my lifetime.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve been reading Ada Limón’s “The End of Poetry” in conjunction with Louise Glück’s “Poem” because of their last lines, respectively: “I am asking you to touch me” and “I touch your cheek to protect you—”.
Honestly, I resist being a corporeal person and mostly resist the fact of having a physical body—I’m always telling my friends that I’d instead like to be a floating consciousness … But the shock of a loving touch, the surprise and integrity of it: what stronger motivation for poetry exists?
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I really ought to read all of Robert Hayden given how badly “Middle Passage” knocked me over.
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 don’t have a discernible “process.” I used to read mostly cover to cover, but I’ve been scrolling through Twitter so much nowadays that I’ve destroyed my executive functioning (which was already bad) beyond recognition. I prefer physical books. I don’t take notes unless it’s for a class or a Q&A or something of that nature. Much of my reading experience nowadays is something awkward like getting a strong feeling of guilt over not having read enough whenever I encounter a really clever essay on the Point or n+1 or the London Review of Books or whatever.
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 good long poem.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I haven’t really enjoyed writing anywhere besides my bed. Otherwise, maybe on a long train ride in another country—but I end up just staring out the window watching the world go by …
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park because of how big and wide it is, and I associate it quite strongly with hanging out with people who make me feel like being alive.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate darkness.
And what I darken in you, you darken in me,
For every touch of me as good as touches of 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.
Father, stretch my hands further with love,
and crush the impotence of this pen.
See the singular white flare across the sky
at the Dodgers game: and feel robbed
at my own sense of gravity. Or the reality
of my mass. Then walk alone in Brooklyn:
amidst an ocean of jacks plugged into
speakers, with Biggie fizzing everywhere,
as common as any sin.
Because it’s the weekend and where else could I go?