August 16–22, 2021
Valentine Conaty is a writer, editor and literary worker from Birmingham, Alabama, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. They founded Bomb Cyclone, a journal of ecopoetics and mixed media, in 2018. This past spring, Conaty was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Emily Skillings’s Poetics Lab.
Author photo by Allya Yourish
After moving in
The drift from thunder
to dusting rain
having already occurred
we endure in morning
a potent torpor
day’s steaming thread
our odors tangling
with soaked oak’s musk
adorned the sill by dawn
a first shift’s grating lifted
after yesterday’s exertion
of my suddenly
my body before belonging
studying the nude
room and his body in bed
both another kind of nude
and a needed
nodding his forehead
on my shoulder
and eddying for gratification
he groans against me
steam sated greening
hissing in wind
Each represents a continuum
a life hypothetical until
sprouting in exile
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem emerged pretty organically from the experience it describes as I was in the process of waking up in a new room. I actually wrote the first draft on my phone as I was waking up after moving my partner into a new apartment in Astoria near Broadway in 2019, but its context has since changed in some small but meaningful ways as we’ve moved into new apartments together a few times now. It’s about the strangeness of waking up in an empty room, and how in that relative absence, external details like “a first shift’s grating lifted” and “soaked oak’s musk” inflate with significance. It’s almost like waking up outside, or in a room without walls. Anyway, I got interested in that erosion of the private sphere and in the possibilities of such a porous relationship to lived space, and wrote away from the room itself, toward things that are typically thought of as “natural” as opposed to human (though I refute such a distinction), that disrupt divisions between public and private space, like weeds, by sprouting where it seems like they don’t belong. In that sense, weeds growing in concrete became a metaphor for queer belonging.
What are you working on right now?
I’m compiling a manuscript out of the past five years of poems and longer projects and starting to fill in the gaps. And I’ve begun plotting something that might become a novel, but is still mostly just a fun thing to play around with as a break from poetry.
What’s a good day for you?
I wake up around 9 AM, make breakfast, pick through the news, then go for a long walk. I eat a small lunch around 1 PM, then spend the afternoon reading poetry or nonfiction or exploring the neighborhood. Around 5 I pull out a few cookbooks and my partner and I decide what to make for dinner, then I go shopping for ingredients we’re missing. We start cooking by 7, eat by 8. I spend what’s left of the evening engrossed in a novel or watching something.
A more exciting idealized day would involve renting a car and hiking in the Delaware Water Gap or apple-picking upstate, getting dinner at a diner, checking out some local bookstores and coming home tired.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
It just kind of happened, honestly. My partner and I had decided during the early pandemic that access to outdoor space was a priority for us, but we also wanted to be a bit closer to the center of things than we ended up being in Ditmars, where we were living before moving. We were initially looking on the Upper West Side, saw a place in Park Slope on a whim, and it ended up being everything we wanted.
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 New York City for almost five years, but I moved to Park Slope in mid-June, just a little under two months ago. In many ways Brooklyn is a new city for me. I hadn’t spent much time here before moving, outside of a brief sublet last summer in Crown Heights, so I won’t pretend to have been here long enough to notice changes in the neighborhood—if anything I feel like I’m noticing changes in myself as I react to a new environment. But I will say that I love how green the streets are in Park Slope, how close we are to farmers markets and secondhand stores like Housing Works and Big Reuse, and that there are some hills; in those ways it reminds me of parts of Birmingham, where I’m from.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Again, I don’t really know what to call a defining experience. I’m still getting used to just, like, running into people I know in the surrounding neighborhoods. That never used to happen in any of the Queens neighborhoods I lived in, or if it did, it was people that I already knew as neighbors, rather than from my larger community. I like that about living in Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, poetry community is about exchange, about readers who are also writers and the conversations that happen in person and intertextually between friends who love words. And sometimes it doesn’t even have to be words, sometimes it’s artists with other creative practices that challenge and invigorate each other in ways that can be read across their various media.
In some ways I feel like living in Queens, as opposed to Manhattan or Brooklyn, gives you a choice between playing an active role in building a literary community from the ground up (as so many brilliant Queens poets do) or kind of living on the periphery, being an intentional outsider. Because I worked in literary spaces, I welcomed that sense of separation, of being on the periphery—and especially during the pandemic when life was more or less confined to the neighborhood. Having some distance from the poetry community I worked in helped me find my own identity as a writer.
Living in Brooklyn now feels like an opportunity to be a bit more involved and strengthen some of the friendships I’ve made with people who, until recently, lived an hour on the train away and were inaccessible for much of the last year and a half.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” and Rachel Levitsky’s Neighbor have both had a big influence on how I think about place, community and coliving. Emily Skillings, Asiya Wadud and Katy Lederer have all written poems or books that have expanded my understanding of the possibilities of the form. And my friends—Zefyr Lisowski, Kinsey Cantrell, Gia Gonzales and others equally deserving of mention that I may have forgotten—are also some of my favorite poets that I see expanding the boundaries of the genre.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’m glad to count both Emily and Asiya as mentors and friends. Also Michael Tod Edgerton and Margaret Konkol, two professors who took an interest in my work when I was an undergrad and whom I’ve kept in touch with since. Tod has been one of my most consistent and astute readers—and patient with me as I take months to make progress on individual poems. He still gives me deadlines knowing that I never meet them! Margaret was the poet and professor who introduced me to ecopoetics and, more than anyone else, shaped my taste for poetry and curiosity about form.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just finished Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Listen My Friend, This Is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, which is a long hybrid work that explores the entire scope of human history, evolution, the evolutionary pressures we place on other species, the destruction of ecosystems, technological progress, social life, death and love through everything they read over the course of the year leading up to and into the beginning of the pandemic. There’s a line about “how hard it is to conceive of geological time,” but they’re the only writer I’ve read who comes close to being able to formalize that scale of expanse in a poem.
I’ve also been reading Moheb Soliman’s HOMES, part of an interdisciplinary travelogue through the Great Lakes region across borders and cultures, examining the watersheds and regional identity formation from different vantages. The collection is both a book of poems and a record of a much larger transnational investigation into how people relate to their environments—incorporating photography, poetry and social research. I love how expansive both books are in their respective scopes of interest.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I have a stack of collected and selected works on my shelf by poets whose work I turn to periodically for inspiration (especially George Oppen, Amiri Baraka and Jackson Mac Low, among others), but I’ve never managed to finish any of them. I don’t think I have the attention span to fully digest the entire span of an author’s work in one read-through, so mostly I leave them for reference.
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?
My process has changed a lot since I began working remotely. I’ve always read many books at once, but I started setting monthly goals or “assignments” for myself to provide some additional structure for my days, and planning out what I’m going to read in a spreadsheet. I read widely across genres, so it’s been useful to be able to refer to something outside of my memory while deciding what to read between poetry, novels, essay collections, and history, sociology, philosophy, etc. I prefer physical books for the tactility of them. I take notes in different ways for different genres, but the most common thing I do is highlight passages, because I actually love rereading and I find it enhances future read-throughs.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to create a research-based project. I feel like so often my poems are trapped in the cycles of my own experience, which is necessarily pretty limiting, and I’m not really sure how writing about something larger would change my work. Some of the best books I’ve ever read (including Cody-Rose’s Listen My Friend) have tapped into the long feed of history in incredible ways. I want to do that.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing outdoors in parks. Until recently, that would have been Astoria Park, and I still love the intimacy you can feel with the waterfront there. In Brooklyn, so far I’d have to say my roof. None of my previous apartments had rooftop access, and even though I only live about ten minutes from Prospect Park, there’s no beating that convenience of having an outdoor space up one flight of stairs. I like being able to observe the rhythms of the street from above without being seen by others, which lends itself to the bird’s-eye headspace I need to be in when I read or write. It’s also nice because I live on a hill, so I can see all the way to the Port of New Jersey, which reminds me that New York is just a tiny shard of a much larger world.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch, the Grand Army Plaza farmers market (and GrowNYC’s programs more broadly), Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, Unnameable Books, Café con Libros, Big Reuse, etc. I love Brooklyn’s spaces that are points of convergence between different communities, and especially those that expand access to food, knowledge and green spaces. I also love that these spaces enable more ecologically sustainable practices like buying local produce and sharing or reusing cultural resources.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate our animal lives,
And what I hunger for you sustain in me,
For every four-legged instinct in me as good excites you.
Because it’s dense with people and history and we’re social beings and brushing up against each other’s lives is good for us.