July 11–17, 2022
Tyler Mills is the author of City Scattered (Snowbound Chapbook Award, Tupelo Press, 2022), Hawk Parable (Akron Poetry Prize, University of Akron Press, 2019) and Tongue Lyre (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, Southern Illinois University Press, 2013), and coauthor with Kendra DeColo of Low Budget Movie (Diode Editions Chapbook Prize, Diode Editions, 2021). Her nonfiction manuscript-in-progress, The Bomb Cloud, recently received a literature grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation NYC. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the New Republic, the Believer and Poetry, and her essays in AGNI, Brevity, Copper Nickel, River Teeth and the Rumpus. She lived and taught in New Mexico for four years, most recently serving as a Burke Scholar at the Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos, NM. Currently she lives in Brooklyn and teaches for Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute as well as the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center’s 24PearlStreet, and she recently joined the Bridge as a poetry mentor.
Author photo by Arik Lubkin
I / Self / Woman in Berlin
If you ask me later if I knew
the city scattered its sequins
like starlight over the floors
of the clubs, if the city swallowed
death like the crescent of a melon,
if the city coughed out coal
powder in the swirling eddies
of the sky—the sunset like ostrich
feathers framing the face
of a movie star—I would say
no, no, but if you ask me
if I negotiated my wages
so my fingertips would not touch
the trolley floor when I dropped
my glove and saw the stretched
tongues of the shoes chewed
and stained and gapped at the heel,
so I could buy a hot-cross bun
at lunch though the marks shot up,
though the crust shone like a new coin
and could not be touched by the woman
with my face who waited until the line
brought her to the front, and the dough
smelled like saltwater and milk,
and her hands warmed the paper
worth the same as the dream she
whispered into the hair of her daughter
as she woke her in the lapis lazuli light
the night pulled into the room,
what would you want me
to say? I starched my blouse
and practiced the answers to all
the questions and ribboned my curls
and yes, I bought the knot of bread.
Her eyes tracked the curve
of the curb where pigeons gathered,
and I broke off pieces at my desk
while the sky swallowed everything whole.
—From City Scattered, Tupelo Press, 2022.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I was living in New Mexico and traveling back east to see a bunch of family for the holidays. On a long layover in NYC, I checked out the Neue Galerie’s Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933 exhibition, and I was in awe of the depth and breadth of it. I splurged on the exhibition catalogue, which is beautiful, and dove into reading more deeply about Weimar Berlin. In that catalogue, I came across Sigfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, an ethnographic study of wage laborers in Weimar Berlin. Kracauer was fascinated and troubled by what he witnessed. He eventually fled the Nazis and landed in New York. Fascinated by the scope of this study, by the fears that I could read into it—and his detached skepticism—and how working women’s voices were included, I was inspired to write poems that became the City Scattered chapbook out by Tupelo this year.
“I / Self / Woman in Berlin” (“If you ask me later if I knew”) is the poem that inspired the title of the collection (from the lines “the city scattered its sequins / like starlight over the floors / of the clubs”) and is one of several identically titled “I / Self / Woman in Berlin” persona poems in the book. When I think back to writing it, I remember reading a lot about cabaret culture, performance, hyperinflation in Berlin and also The Salaried Masses, and the voice sort of appeared to me one evening. I wrote the first draft of the poem in one sitting, I remember. The poem is in two sentences—one long question and then one sort-of answer. I remember stretching the first sentence as far as I could to get an almost cinematic effect (I hoped). I wanted place and perspective and feeling to all come together and kind of swirl through the speaker’s voice.
What are you working on right now?
I’m editing my nonfiction manuscript and starting to assemble my next book of poems to see what I have and where I’ll go with it. I also have ideas for something else, but I need to think more about what that something else is before running with it.
What’s a good day for you?
A cup of coffee, birds in the tree outside my apartment window, my daughter laughing and running around, a walk, jotting down notes for a poem in the park, thinking about some poems (mine or my students’), running into friends unexpectedly while I’m doing an errand or taking my daughter somewhere. Taking a walk by myself. Writing in a café.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how Brooklyn is on Lenape land, and how important this is to acknowledge and to remember the violence and loss that is part of this place. I am so glad that many museums now (like the Brooklyn Museum) engage directly with the erasures caused by settler colonial violence. And in this context, I think about how some of my ancestors came as immigrants to New York, not speaking English or having anything other than the clothes on their backs, and what this means given that all of this land was first stolen.
My family moved here right before the pandemic, and so the Brooklyn I first got to know was tough, grief-filled and, at times, seemed empty. Yet Prospect Park was packed with kids climbing trees in masks, musicians playing, and people on blankets everywhere, masked, distanced. Now that the city is opening up, I’m getting to know more of Brooklyn better. For a while, I stayed close to home, like everyone else. I came to New York a lot in my twenties and so I know it pretty well, but it took me a while longer to feel like I understood how to live here because I wasn’t riding the trains much. The subways used to be empty and now aren’t. I remember going to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, and we were the only people there. Just us, the waxed floors and giant dinosaur bones.
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 in Park Slope (first South Slope / Greenwood, then Center Slope) for coming on three years. I love how kind people are to one another, how anything goes, and how giving people are. Walking along and finding stoop giveaway treasures is fun. A bunch of pieces of furniture in my apartment came from our local Buy Nothing group. The wildlife in the park is special, too. I’ve seen hawks, cardinals, turtles, all kinds of insects (my daughter loves bugs) and a loon.
I love how when I walk out my door, I can hear people speaking in so many different languages.
Because I moved here shortly before the pandemic, I was just learning about the neighborhood when everything changed. I think I’m getting more of a sense of how it was before the pandemic, but of course, nothing is the same. I’m not sure if the way things are now is closer to how the neighborhood was before the pandemic or if the neighborhood is its own new thing. Or a mix of both? I’ve noticed lots of small restaurants and shops opening where empty storefronts used to be.
I’ve lived in different neighborhoods in the DC area, and also in Chicago, and then in rural New Mexico, and then in Santa Fe. So I guess I’ve had the suburban, urban, rural and tourist-area experiences. I’ve lived in the Midwest, in the Southwest and on the East Coast. I was born in Chicago and grew up there and upstate New York, close to the Canadian border. Each place is unique. Brooklyn has its own magic that I think I could start to describe in five years, maybe, but am just starting to understand.
There is a bodega cat that lives near my apartment. Her name is Victoria. I think she might be Queen Victoria, reincarnated as a bodega cat.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
My cat Friday is besties with Victoria and they visit each other through the window. But more Brooklyn than that is when I tell someone I live near Victoria, they know I mean the bodega cat, since she is a legend, and tell me a story about her.
Another is that I was trying to shove something into a box at the post office recently, and three people in line just started helping me figure out how to do it. One person held the flaps down, one person helped press the sides together, and I was able to tape it shut. Love NYC! This felt like a classic Brooklyn moment.
There’s a lot of difficulty, too. My first landlord was a nightmare, as were the roaches. And it’s so expensive. It’s exhausting sometimes. Don’t get me started on laundry. I have opinions! And there’s a lot I’ve seen I wish I hadn’t seen. But there’s also beauty and magic in the small interactions.
Yesterday, I was walking through a little public garden with my daughter, and we found some raspberries. Butterflies flew around us. It was so hot out, but we found a green and shaded pocket of nature in the city.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community means cheering on other poets, sitting down with them or texting them about their work, sharing your process and challenges with them, and just being there when you can. I’ve got a small, close-knit community here that I love, built on coffee and walks and friendship.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Whitman, of course. And Lynn Melnick and Leah Souffrant. I love Melnick’s Refusenik and Souffrant’s poetic visual works.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Shara McCallum was my professor when I was an undergraduate, and she pushed me and asked the tough questions I needed to think about. She is a dear mentor and now a friend. And the late Stanley Plumly was my mentor at Maryland when I was getting my MFA there. I’m so grateful for how much he pushed me to work harder and think more deeply about what the poem was telling me. Both showed me what it means to fully commit to the poem as a poem—to let it unfold, to wait until it is ready. To listen to what it is saying to you.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Cheswayo Mphanza’s The Rinehart Frames (University of Nebraska Press, 2021), and loved it for its formal imagination and lyric sensibility. And I am finishing Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath and really admire how the poems inhabit place.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
While it’s probably a common answer to this question, I’ll still say this: I want to finish Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I haven’t made it past the first seventy pages. But I really want to.
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 tend to read five or six books at once, dipping in and out of them. I’m finishing a mystery novel right now and am knee-deep in three nonfiction books. And I’m finishing Philomath. I gravitate toward physical books, but sometimes I’ll read a novel on a Kindle.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I never know what I want to try in a poem until I’m in the middle of trying it. I also feel superstitious—something came to mind for me, but if I say it, will that prohibit it from happening? But thank you for this question. It gave me an idea.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to write in cafés and read on the train. I like to read in parks, too, and in nice weather, also write poems outside. But when it’s cold and dark, there’s no better place for me than a café.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Prospect Park because of its colossal trees, its public green spaces, the way people gather and play there, and the wildlife you can find if you look closely. I love Coney Island, too. It’s great that you can take the F train there and not have to sit in traffic, and then the beach is right there! I also spend so much of my time in different playgrounds in Brooklyn and have to say that I love them, too. They’re filled with beautiful chaos and play. I also love the Brooklyn Public Library and how it smells like books. All libraries do, but the Brooklyn Public Library has its own special book smell. DUMBO is a new favorite. There’s nothing like a great carousel.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
How can I compete with Whitman on this one?
I celebrate you,
And what I wish you wish,
For every breath belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I keep using the word magic, and maybe that word is a placeholder for something more specific I’ll understand more fully later, but still, there’s a magic here that’s in the energy in small interactions, and each one happens around you and swirls into a beautiful chaos.
Also, the bagels.