A literary and photo journal of New York City neighborhoods. Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018. Liz Adams . Abigail Conklin . AnaÃ¯s Duplan . Emily Fishman Dale Kaplan . Adrian Moens . Isaac Myers III . Andy Watson
â€œEach bird was alone in a gusty white world of its own, unseen and unseeing, but the quavering chatter of flight notes was a nexus that held them together.â€? Fred Bosworth - Last of the Curlews.
CURLEW QUARTERLY. Issue No. 4 – Summer 2018.
Dumbo Market Report ............................................................................................................11. “Prospectus - Issue No. 4 - Spring 2018” - Isaac Myers III ......................................................16 “In order to understand anyone it helps to know what he dreams about. Robert Moses is no exception. The fifth section (“The Love of Power”) and twenty-fifth chapter (“Changing”) of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker - Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) states, without any hedging, that the West Side Improvement was more than just another construction project for Moses.” “New Black Music is This” - Anais Duplan....................................................................................28. “I had a conversation with Fred Moten earlier this summer where we talked about individuation,” I said. “Fred was talking about how individuation imposes upon the black body.” I recalled anxiously meandering around suburban Ithaca with my cell phone against my ear, trying to keep my nervousness about talking to Moten in check.” Profile - “Ringolevio - 68 Jay Street” - Isaac Myers III - Dale Kaplan in Dumbo ....................72. “Let’s say the weather is crisp and clear. It’s the middle of October, and Halloween is two weeks away. You’re not sure what you’d like to dress as for Halloween, or whether you’ll dress up at all. If you have children, you’re not sure what they’ll want to be for the holiday, or how much time and energy you’d like to expend to help them prepare.” Fiction – Andy Watson - “The Edge of Time.”.....................................................................106. “How long’s it been since we’ve been living here, on the edge of time? I think it’s been some billion years upon the craters along the edge of time.” Poetry – Elizabeth Adams - “Self-Portrait as a Still Life”........................................................140. “Linens”...................................................................................................................................141. Poetry – Abigail Conklin - “I Think it Would’ve Made You Happy......................................164 “Seasonal Social Events”.........................................................................................................165. Interviews. Anais Duplan............................................................................................................................41. Andy Watson .........................................................................................................................120. Liz Adams................................................................................................................................145. Abigail Conklin......................................................................................................................172. Photography. Emily Fishman............................................................................................... Cover-105;138-160 Adrian Moens....................................................................................................106-137;161-End.
CURLEW QUARTERLY www.CurlewQuarterly.com Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018 Published 2018. Editor: Isaac Myers III, Esq. Contributors: Liz Adams Abigail Conklin Anais Duplan Emily Fishman Dale Kaplan Adrian Moens Andy Watson Cover Image: Emily Fishman Printed by: Instant Publisher P.O. Box 340 410 Highway 72 W Collerville, TN 38027 Curlew New York 68 Jay Street, Suite 503 Brooklyn, NY 11201 212 - 804 - 8655 www.CurlewNewYork.com Info@CurlewNewYork.com
Curlew Quarterly is available for purchase at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, New York City’s only all poetry bookstore, located at 141 Front Street (take the F train to York Street). For a complete list of bookstores and venues where Curlew Quarterly can be purchased, please visit our website at www.CurlewQuarterly.com. Submissions and inquiries may be mailed to 68 Jay Street, Suite 503, Brooklyn, NY 11201, or e-mailed to Info@ CurlewQuarterly.com. All rights reserved. 8
DOWN UNDER THE MANHATTAN BRIDGE OVERPASS - SALES. Total Number of Apartments for Sale -Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, as of September Twenty-second, 2018*: 24. STUDIOS: 1. Average Price of Studio: $999,000 ONE BEDROOMS: 8. Average Price of One Bedroom: $1,087,875 Average Price Per Square Foot for One Bedrooms: $1,284 TWO BEDROOMS: 10. Average Price of Two Bedrooms: $1,443,500 Average Price Per Square Foot for Two Bedrooms: $1,375 THREE BEDROOMS: 2. Average Price of Three Bedrooms: $4,747,500 Average Price Per Square Foot for Three Bedrooms: $1,367 FOUR BEDROOMS: 3. Average Price of Four Bedrooms: $4,995,000 Average Price Per Square Foot for Four Bedrooms: $1,736
*Brownstoner as of September Twenty-second, 2018. _________________________________________________________________
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PROSPECTUS - ISSUE NO. 4 - SUMMER 2018. Isaac Myers III “Prospectus: A printed document that advertises or describes a school, commercial enterprise, forthcoming book, etc.”
We’ve released Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018 at the close of summer, and at the start
of autumn. This issue represents a look back at what we were up to over the summer; and as a result, at first glance, using the term “prospectus,” feels at odds. What is that we’re looking forward to, what’s forthcoming? The idea behind titling this piece prospectus is simple: if each issue of Curlew Quarterly is a look back at what happened within the issue’s season, then the prospectus is a look forward, not toward the contents of each issue, but toward what the city looks like at the time, and what it could be in the future. I think of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry:” “Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore, Others will watch the run of the flood-tide, Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east, Others will see the islands large and small; Fifty years hence others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, A hundred years hence, or even so many hundred years hence, others will see them, Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”
The New York that Whitman observed and wrote about as he wrote “Crossing the
Brooklyn Ferry,” in 1856 is a different city than we live in today, but what makes Whitman’s work great is its ability to capture specific moments. Each line reads as if to say, This is exactly what I see today, and right now, and I know that it will change, but this is what I see now.
Prospectus: Fifty years hence, or a hundred years hence, who knows what will be-
come of the Henry Hudson Parkway, Riverside Park, the West Side Improvement, and the Upper West Side, collectively. Perhaps it won’t be possible then to detect any changes to these spaces. All day and all night cars and trucks will still be moving up and down the highway, no matter how slowly during rush hour. 16
And on Sunday mornings, girls youth soccer will still be played on two of the three
soccer fields of Riverside Park. The promenade at the Park’s northern end will still be as immaculate, inviting, and awe-inspiring as it was when I walked down it that last Sunday morning of 2018.
It’s reasonable to infer that these spaces and places one hundred years hence will
remain unchanged; however, it’s just as possible that some significant event could occur, or decisions could be made that forever alter the West Side Improvement.
In 1856 Walt Whitman did not know and could not have known that Robert Mo-
ses would take the helm as the New York City’s Parks Commissioner, and would upend and forever change the city’s highway system and public housing stock. All Whitman could do was observe and document what he saw. So the prospectus is a look forward in the only way that’s physically possible, by way of a close look at the present.
And right now, Anaïs Duplan has offered an essay, “New Black Music is This,” which
examines how the racially devise classification of “race music,” has impacted the music industry across the board.
In “Ringolevio - 68 Jay Street,” I’ve written of Dale Kaplan, the Mayor of 68 Jay
Street, and what it’s like to prepare to take on and revitalize Dumbo Direct. Andy Watson’s short story, “The Edge of Time,” recalls a simpler and all-be-it almost mythological time, when time doesn’t quite stop, but extends out into the effervescent and infinite now. We travel there briefly with Jack Rabbit Jones, and as a result and without a doubt, are better for having gone.
Liz Adams’ poems “Self Portrait as a Still Life,” and “Linens” give us a look into
how she translates paintings to poems and poems to paintings, and as she spoke with Tom Davidson and Emily Fishman in her studio space in Harlem, Adams described how the two mediums have a certain ability to hold each other close, and dance together in a manner that promises and delivers unending truth, and enjoyment.
And on Saturday, June 24th, 2018, three days after this year’s Summer Solstice, this
issue began when Adrian Moens headed up to Washington Heights to photograph and chat with Abigail Conklin. In the introduction to the Conklin interview Moens mentions that following the interview his face hurt from laughing, and that Conklin’s work is the direct result of the “humility in her process, and within that humility Abby plays both an outgoing, exuberant
and charismatic optimist as well as an insightful, curious, internalizing artist.” Her poems that we’ve published here, “I Think it Would’ve Made You Happy,” and “Seasonal Social Events,” make this evident.
Here, in this moment, and within our fourth issue, you have a look at New York
City’s present, a look at each of our contributor’s newly-formed and very recent past, and through this prospectus, the invitation to imagination and to gradually help create and shape the city’s future. ______________________________________ ROBERT MOSES’ DREAM OF THE GREAT HIGHWAY.. ______________________________________
In order to understand anyone it helps to know what he dreams about. Robert Moses
is no exception. The fifth section (“The Love of Power”) and twenty-fifth chapter (“Changing”) of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974) states, without any hedging, that the West Side Improvement was more than just another construction project for Moses. “Of all the hundreds of public works that Robert Moses was building in New York City during the 1930’s, the one whose creation most clearly manifested the same extraordinary capacities he had displayed on Long Island was the project that arose from the first and longest-held of his dreams, the dream of the ‘great highway that went uptown along the water’ and of the great park alongside that had made him explain to Francis Perkins in 1914, staring from the roof deck of a Hudson River ferryboat at the muddy wasteland below Riverside Drive: ‘Couldn’t this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world?’”
The subtitle of The Power Broker, “The Fall of New York,” clearly depicts the lens
through which Caro wrote the book. The Power Broker isn’t celebrating Moses’ work ––– the highways and expressways and parkways and housing projects; however, it’s not condemning his work either. Within the book’s introduction, “Wait Until the Evening,” Caro proposes what could be described as the central question of The Power Broker: “Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? Would it have been better if the man who shaped it had never lived?”
More specifically, in detailing Moses’ impact in over forty years of being in pow-
er ––– most notably as New York City’s Parks Commissioner for twenty-six years (January of 18
1934 through May of 1960), but also holding positions as the head of the State Parks Council, head of State Power Commission, and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority –––– Caro’s introduction to The Power Broker states: “’One must wait until the evening . . . [To see how splendid the day has been.]’ [Sophocles] In the evening of Robert Moses’ forty-four years of power, New York, so bright with promise forty-four years before, was a city in chaos and despair. His highways and bridges and tunnels were awesome ––– taken as a whole the most awesome urban improvement in the history of mankind ––– but no aspect of those highways and bridges and tunnels was as awesome as the congestion on them. He had built more housing than any public official in history, but the city was starved for housing, more starved, if possible, than when he had started building, and the people who lived in that housing hated it ––– hated it. James Baldwin could write, ‘almost as much as policeman, and this is saying a great deal.’ He had built great monuments and great parks, but people were afraid to travel to or walk around them.” For all these reasons, this book attempts to tell two stories at once: how New York, forty years ago a very different city from the city it is today [in 1974], became what it has become; and how the idealistic Robert Moses became what he has become. It must be a book about what happened to the city and what happened to the man. For, to an extent few people have really understood, these two stories are one story.”
With this weight and impact in mind, on the last Sunday of summer, September 26th,
2018, at the intersection of Seventy-second street and Riverside Drive, I started my walk. Yet as I prepared for the walk, and had already been reading Caro’s description of what it took in order for Moses to created the West Side Improvement, the lens through which I looked at the steps that I was about to take was slightly filtered. The dream that Moses had for the Upper West Side and his dream of the “‘great highway that went uptown along the water’ and of the great park alongside,’ had become a reality for the city and its people, and had been for over a half century. And so as I began moving down toward the Hudson and also north, toward the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin, I thought of a specific passage within The Power Broker, concerning the source of Moses’ dream. “What lay between the two young reformers [Bill Exton and Bob Weinberg who opposed Moses’ plans for the West Side Improvement] and Moses was a partly a question of values. Moses’ had been formed in a different age, the age, twenty years and more in the past, when he had been a young reformer. To understand his dream for the West Side Improvement, one had to understand the age in which he dreamed it. 19
In that age, parks had been for the upper and ‘comfortable middle’ classes and one of the things those classes wanted to do in parks was to drive through them ––– at the slow, leisurely speed of the era ––– and enjoy their scenery. In that age, therefor, it made sense for a road through a park to be placed at its most scenic location ––– in the case of Riverside Park, at the river’s edge. But things had changed. There had been 125,101 motor vehicles in New York City in 1914; there were 804,620 in New York City in 1934. Heavy traffic on Moses’ Long Island Parkways was already beginning to make driving on them less and less a source of pleasure and more and more a source of pain ––– or at least irritation; their value as a source of beauty and pleasure in themselves was already clearly diminishing.”
With this idea in mind, I thought of a film that I first watched nearly eight years ago,
when I hadn’t moved to New York, and was only dreaming about what it would feel like, to at last move here, and live here: Manhattan (1979). In Woody’s Allen’s film, this dream of driving along a “great highway [that goes] uptown along the water” is brought to life, wherein, a little over the halfway point in the film, two members of the ‘comfortable middle class’ that Caro describes return to New York after a weekend away, as the screenplay states: The screen abruptly leaves the dark stars of the planetarium and cuts to an off-ramp of the George Washington Bridge. Yale and Emily are driving down the Henry Hudson Parkway, the back of Yale’s convertible to the camera. Yale (laughing) Well, your parents were in a good mood. I almost had a good time. Emily: (laughing) Who was that you called after dinner? Yale: Oh, uh, uh, Da-David Cohen. He wants me to review the new book on Virginia Wolf. He’s written another one. Can you believe it?
Emily: Are you okay?
Yale: Yeah, I’m fine. What do you mean?
Yale: Nah, I’m not. I feel good. I was gonna . . . ask you–-
Emily: (interrupting) No, I’m okay.
Yale: -how you felt. You seemed a little strange at dinner.
Emily: Well, you seem sort of nervous.
Emily: Well, I just . . . more thoughts about kids.
Of course the drive, as depicted on film, looks grand, and has a certain way of captur-
ing the imagination, and of course, it wasn’t David Cohen who Yale called during dinner; but the woman who he was having an affair, and as he and his wife, Emily, were driving back to New York, he had to make up something on the spot in order to explain the mysterious phone call.
Looking at the Henry Hudson Parkway, and Riverside Park, and the West Side Im-
provement from Seventy-second Street to One-hundred-and-tenth Street objectively, as Caro does within the Power Broker, it’s difficult to deny that taking the Henry Hudson Parkway into the city created and still creates a certain drama, beauty, and dignity. Caro describes the Henry Hudson Parkway through the lens of the reporters who were tasked with writing about the project upon its completion. “First there was a steelwork and concrete in the sky, immense towers, thick cables, a roadbed above the water ––– the George Washington Bridge, looming about the leaves, casting a dark shadow over the parkway so that the reporters’ limousine rolled across it as if it were a gigantic welcome mat to a gigantic city. Then, above the parkway to the left, there were apartment houses behind the leaves. And suddenly the city was beside the reporters, looming over them; atop the great cliffs of rock were cliffs of brick, the massed apartment houses of Riverside Drive. Far away to the left, there were the spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, their very visibility at such a distance an evocation of the immensity of the canyons of skyscrapers toward which the limousine was headed. Ahead of the reporters was the panorama of the harbor, serene water turned busy, churned by the giant screws of giant ships, dented by piers jutting out from shore.”
This was the dramatic and grand entrance to New York City that Moses had dreamt
of. So when I decided to walk down toward the river, and north toward the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of my depths. I was a pedestrian. This was a walk, and not a drive. There would be no grand entrance or dramatic views, but even so, I knew that still there would be something, and ideally, some beauty and enjoyment, to experience.
One thing that building the Henry Hudson Parkway so close to the shore, and placing
Riverside Park further inland creates is the necessity of choice for pedestrians who make their way up and down the shoreline. You can walk through the park, or you can walk by the water, but you can’t do both. The pedestrian paths that are stitched in the spaces between the park 21
and the water make this obvious. And often, the choice is presented to you by way of large underpasses above staircases that lead to and away from the water.
As I approached Seventy-ninth street, I chose walking along the water, and as a result,
walked beneath one of these underpasses. Only a few steps later, I found myself the Seventy-ninth Street Boat Basin, which Caro describes as one of the most prized segments of Moses’ dream of ‘the great highway that went up along the water.” “The Seventy-Ninth Street Boat Basin was, of course, the magnificent structure Moses had envisioned for Riverside Park years before ––– a combination marina, riverside restaurant and pedestrian promenade. In the plans that Moses finally approved, throwing his arms around chief architectural engineer Clinton Lloyd in joy, the top level was a large traffic circle that allowed cars coming from the city’s interior access to the ‘great highway along the water.’ The center of the circle was hollow. Down inside it, on the middle level, was a cool, shadowy interior courtyard. The center of the courtyard was the fountain, its murmur just loud enough to drown out the noise of cars and city above it. Around the fountain was a low marble bench for passers-by to sit on. On the river side of the courtyard were three high, wide arches. Beyond them was a broad outdoor terrace, overlooking the marina below it and the river beyond, designed to hold both the gaily canopied tables of the riverside restaurant and the broad, tree-shaded pedestrian promenade.”
As I began my walk at nine in the morning, I arrived at the Seventy-ninth Street Boat
Basin early in the day, especially for a Sunday. So down below, as cars were moving around the rotunda above me, the Boat Basin was desolate. There was one man behind a bar to the west who appeared to be setting up for the day. A sign in the middle of the Basin read “private event, Donald and Eliat,” though I couldn’t tell whether the event had taken place the evening before, or would take place that afternoon. I moved closer to the water, and found a way through the dozens of tables and chairs that were set up in front of the bar. It felt quiet down there. I could only hear a feint sound from the highway above. As I reached the edge of the Boat Basin, just past the bar where the man behind the counter was setting up, I looked down and saw an seemingly endless procession of cyclist and runners move along the path down below, the Hudson River Greenway. Further out, I observed the Boat Basin Dock and thought to myself, What would it feel like to own a boat in New York City? I wanted to get closer to the water. I kept moving.
Only a few steps later, and a few feet away from the Boat Basin, I heard the sound
of traffic moving along the highway, loud and clear once more. I chose to walk along the very 22
narrow bike path that runs alongside the water, and also decided to do everything that I could to stay to the right, and not get run over. I wondered where I could go if I wanted to sit and observe the water down there. Everything about the path felt like, Do not stop, Keep moving, so I did.
The bicycles were sneaking up behind me and passing me by, and despite their speed,
on occasion, I would look up and over at Manhattan, and could feel the grand scale of the apartments that line Riverside Drive that Caro describes. Unquestionably, they’re tall, grand, and beautiful buildings, and this scale is exaggerated by the fact that they stand on an embankment which is high up above the biking and running path that I was moving along. The fact that I felt hurried as I walked along the narrow path made me think of the hurried pace at which Moses passed and began work on the plans for his West Side Improvement, as Caro describes. If there was any desire for second thought, there wasn’t time for them. The very day after approval was given, huge pile drivers were hammering bulkheads into the Hudson River off the shore of Riverside Park. Within a week, convoys of dump trucks ––– five hundred a day ––– were rumbling over the dirt roads leading into the park. Six thousand WPA-paid laborers were shoveling into place the rock and earth the trucks were delivering, and pouring over them cement that would harden into a new shoreline for Manhattan Island.
As I kept walking the path remained narrow, and I continued bracing myself, staying
as far to the right as humanely possible, and looking over my left shoulder in a cautionary fashion, just to assure that I wasn’t in anyone’s way. A few feet further, I came upon a portion of the pathway that caught my interest, a very small crest of space between the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Greenway. At one point it felt as though I could literally reach over the small set of shrubs and bushes that occupied the space between the Parkway and the Greenway, and if I wanted, could touch the cars that were racing by me to my right. The cars felt that close. The bicycles moved by me to my left and the cars sprinted by me to my right, and so the safest thing for me to do was to either stand still, so as to not get in anyone’s way, or to quickly keep moving north, so as to find a safer, quieter, and more serene place to sit and think. Caro so accurately, and heartbreakingly describes the dilemma that I found myself within. If Moses had built the road where other planners and young reformers like Bill Exton and
Robert Weinberg had wanted it built ––– atop the New York Central tracks, at the edge of Riverside Park close to the steep slope below Riverside Drive ––– the city’s people would, after strolling down from the drive and crossing the road on easy overpasses, have found themselves in a park whose tree-shaded lawns, playing fields and esplanades swept hundreds of yards down to the river’s edge unbroken by the concrete of a highway or the rush and smell of automobiles. Because the park would have extended to the Hudson’s edge, they would have been able to picnic or play, or simply sit on benches and think, at the very edge of a broad and beautiful river. They would have been able, on the very rim of the city, to escape the city ––– and to escape it completely.
Seeking this place to sit and think, I kept moving north and eventually the benches
along the Henry Hudson Greenway returned. In fact a few steps further north, there were lush greens, and benches galore. Here, there was another chance to move inland, toward Riverside Park again, but I wanted to give walking along the water another chance, so I continued moving up the Greenway. Although there were benches here, and the Greenway was wider than the very narrow segment that I had just walked along, the hum of the traffic, and the literal feeling of having cars sprint by directly behind you made for a space, even with the benches, that couldn’t reasonably be used as a place to sit and think. I continued my search for such space, and I kept walking north along the Henry Hudson River in order to do so.
Perhaps a quarter mile further up, I came upon the Oscar Hijuelos City Tennis
Courts; ten clay courts in all, and each one of them were being used. I noted the time as a quarter before ten in the morning. Still the sun was out, and high and bright, and the tranquility and beauty of the morning couldn’t be ignored. I thought again of Caro’s book, and to his description of the young reformers, Bill Exton and Bob Weinberg, who knew that the highway should have been built where Riverside Park lies, and that Riverside Park should have been where I was walking, and where the cars were sprinting by only ten or fifteen feet away from me. And as Exton and Weinberg proceeded with their study, they realized that there was yet another, vastly more important, natural asset that was going to be lost to the city: its waterfront. ‘It didn’t require much brains to see that running the highway in Riverside Park along the water would have the effect of making sure the waterfront itself could never be used for a park,’ Weinberg was to recall. It ‘would forever eliminate for recreational purposes several miles of the most beautiful waterfront in the world.’ Except at scattered, difficult-to-reach locations, 24
people would no longer be able to stroll beside the broad river, play beside it, fish in it or picnic beside it. They would no longer be able even to look at it in peace; there would be a massive barrier of steel and concrete ––– and the roar of the motors of countless cars ––– between the watcher and the water. There should be a highway through Riverside Park ––– agreed. But why could the highway not run where every other planner wanted it to run ––– atop the New York Central tracks that ran either up the center of the park or close to the slopes leading up to Riverside Drive. That would leave the rest of the park free for recreation –– all the way down to the waterfront ––– as well as free from automobiles, and overpasses or underpasses could easily allow pedestrians to cross the highway to get to it.
At Ninety-fifth Street, just north east of the tennis courts, I noticed a construction
site. It’s Sunday morning so no one was working there. There was one bulldozer and a plot of dirt that’s been left unattended. There wasn’t any fencing, so I could walk toward the dirt, and closer and closer to the expressway. The construction site’s presence, just alongside the highway, now over a half-century after the completion of the West Side Improvement, reinforced in my mind the idea that the space and the park that I’m moving through represents the culmination of decisions that were made; a fight over plans that was won by Moses, and lost by those who understood the value of quiet, peace, and serenity alongside the water.
As I continued north and leave the tennis courts I walked through a small parking
lot, designated specifically for those who wish to use Riverside Park and the Hudson River Greenway. The sign, “Riverside Park – 96th Street Parking Lot” at the entrance of the parking lot makes one thing clear: “Parking lot for park users only. Three hour limit strictly enforced.”
I entered Riverside Park after walking beneath an underpass near One-hundred-and-
fourth Street. It felt nice to be amongst trees and leaves again, although the constant hum of traffic moving along the highway remains. The promenade which begins at this portion of Riverside Park is undeniably beautiful.
It’s a grand space, and one that’s on equal footing with the grand scale of the parkway
which runs down below, and just west of Riverside Park. I walked along the promenade, and after having ducked and dodged my way up the narrow Henry Hudson Greenway, making sure to avoid being run over by cyclists, it felt lovely to walk up here, amongst the trees and leaves, and with ample space to move and not just walk, but to actually stroll around.
As I moved through the park, I notice three soccer fields down below, two which
feature girls youth soccer games. And at one point, I was lucky enough to see Eva score a goal.
Further down, a boys baseball game takes place, and I looked on from Riverside Park, at the field down below. Up there, I could stop, write, consider, think, and enjoy myself.
Despite the peace and quiet, from where I sat, it was obvious that one cannot throw a
stone into the water from there. For in order to do so, literally, the stone would have to travel across a soccer field; over the fence that separates the field from the Henry Hudson Expressway; across two lanes of north-bound traffic; across two lanes of south-bound traffic; over the divider; over the grass between the divider and the running and cycling path; then over the running and cycling path, and then into the water. I think of Caro’s description of Riverside Park again. “Riverside Park was a beautiful park. But it was not a ‘riverside park.’ For all the use it made of the six miles of adjoining water, it might, except for a very few points, have been located in the middle of Brooklyn. “
At least from up there, even if the water was in the distance, I could look at it and can
think: What must it have been like to walk through these same physical spaces before the West Side Improvement? What as a city have we lost from the improvement, and what have we gained? Caro’s book helps answer these questions. “The Improvement had simply provided New York with two congested thoroughfares where only one had existed before ––– and, of course, had given the motorists using the new congested thoroughfare a nicer view. And, in fact, the drivers on the new thoroughfare were hardly in a position to enjoy the view. Following another car bumper-to-bumper required the focusing of a driver’s eyes not on “the Hudson Waterfront celebrated by Masefield and O’Neill” or “the matchless, unspoiled Palisades,” but on a bumper. How about drivers using the Henry Hudson Parkway during off hours? Year by year ––– the situation would not change until 1956, when the opening of the parallel Major Deegan Expressway and the southward extension of the parallel Bronx River Parkway cut traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway in half ––– the number of “off hours” on the Henry Hudson Parkway grew smaller and smaller. During daylight, in fact, there was hardly an hour in which traffic on that parkway was not generally heavy. Passengers could enjoy the view, of course. But Saturday and Sunday traffic was heaviest of all. And there must be some doubt whether many passengers were prepared to enjoy the view for as long as it took, stopping and starting, braking and accelerating, sweating under their car’s hot tin roof, to negotiate the parkway on those days.”
Moreover, Caro goes on to describe the economic burden and the great sums of
money that the West Side Improvement caused New York City to undertake. “Robert Moses had spent $109,000,000 of the public’s money on the West Side Improvement. 26
Counting the money expended on his advice by other city agencies on the portion of the Improvement south of Seventy-second Street, the Improvement had cost the public more than $2,000,000,000. But the total cost of the Improvement cannot be reckoned merely in dollars. The West Side Improvement also cost the people of New York City their most majestic waterfront, their most majestic forest, a unique residential community, and their last fresh-water marsh. When the Improvement finished, all these things were gone forever. Adding them to the cost of the West Side Improvement, one might wonder if the Improvement had not cost New York City more than it was worth. Adding them into the cost, one might wonder if the West Side Improvement was really, on its total balance sheet, an “improvement” at all. One might wonder if it was not, on balance, a tragic and irremediable loss. But, with a few lonely and unheard exceptions, at the time the Improvement was built, no one was adding.”
As I made my way out of Riverside Park, at One-hundred-and-tenth Street, well away
from the Henry Hudson Park, and also, well away from Hudson River, a heard the sound of birds chirping, the sound of leaves crackling as a squirrel moved above them, and the sound of those same leaves ruffling gently against the late-summer wind. I felt as though I were inside of not just a man-made park, but actually in nature.
I remembered looking further north at Riverside Park, at the end of the promenade
where I stood, just a few minutes before. Despite its location ––– away from the water ––– the beauty of Riverside Park is apparent. As I reached the end of the promenade, I decided that for “Prospectus – Issue No. 5 – Autumn 2018,” I’d walk farther along Riverside Park, and that I’d incorporate segments, thoughts, and observations from Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) into my examination of the more northern portions of the West Side Improvement. Yet, even before I continued my walk, I thought back to the Power Broker, and how Caro makes it clear that if I had gone any further, that the beauty and elegance of Riverside Park would soon come to a halt. Robert Moses built seventeen playgrounds as part of the West Side Improvement. He built one playground in the Harlem section of the Improvement. He built five football fields as part of the Improvement. He built one in the Harlem section. He built eighteen horseshoe courts, twenty-two tennis courts, half a mile of roller-skating paths and a mile of bicycle paths in the rest of the Improvement. He did not build a single horseshoe or tennis court or a foot of roller-skating or bicycle path in the Harlem portion. When the Improvement first opened, in fact, there was not a single recreational facility of any type in the entire “Harlem section”––– not so much as a stanchion with a basketball hoop attached.
NEW BLACK MUSIC IS THIS. AnaÃ¯s Duplan Photography: Emily Fishman
“I had a conversation with Fred Moten earlier this summer where we talked about in-
dividuation,” I said. “Fred was talking about how individuation imposes upon the black body.” I recalled anxiously meandering around suburban Ithaca with my cell phone against my ear, trying to keep my nervousness about talking to Moten in check. That scene was not unlike the current one, in which I alternated between trying to sit still and pacing around my apartment, Nathaniel Mackey on the other line.
“In the preface to Blue Fasa,” I said, “you talk about Baraka’s liner notes for The New
Wave in Jazz, where he writes: New Black Music is this: Find the self then kill it. Where do we find the black self and then how do we kill it?”
Mackey is one of Moten’s mentors. On the phone Moten insisted, after I told him that
I planned to interview Mackey next, that Nate could say everything he could say, only better. Given the sizeable followings each of these figures has developed over the years––both of them scholars as much as they are poets––it’s powerful to think of the intimacy between them. Nate answered me slowly and steadily.
“In the course of getting to the point where you can play free music, you have to find
yourself. You have to find out what your sound is.” For Mackey, self and sound are analogous–– one the internal counterpart to the external other. For each self, there is a particular sound, which each person has to practice discovering on the way to discovering oneself. “You have to find what it is, where it is, and how to get it out, and how to translate it through a horn or a piano or a bass––whatever––which you likely call ‘technology,’” he explained.
What are the uses of technology when trying to articulate a self, given that that self
is in some ways, impossible to render fully in any verbal or musical language? Or, as Mackey states this question, “How do you technologize yourself ? How do you get out a version that at least approximates that self and, at the same time, registers your refusal to be satisfied that you have properly and authoritatively, or with some finality, articulated that self ?” The inability of language to fully speak to the intricacies of any given self are part and parcel of the process of trying to use that same language to give sound to that self. The inherent incapacity of language, then, is a tool with which to also register a refusal to be articulated. Trying to articulate, while also refusing to articulate, is that two-part and paradoxical process that results from Baraka’s call to find the self, then kill it. 30
“There was tumult among black folks during that period––this is around the mid-six-
ties––that had come out of the Civil Rights Movement,” continued Mackey. “One of the things that that involved was looking at the self that you had and coming to see that it had been fashioned by social relations that we wanted to obliterate. The whole regime of white supremacy and the social mores and instructions and folkways that kept that in place. You had to look at the extent to which you were compliant with that shaping. The self that you had found yourself to be was, in some way, a creation of that regime. Killing it would mean fashioning a new self that would be in conflict with that regime and that wants to bring about the destruction of that regime.”
In The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George writes about the question of as-
similation versus self-sufficiency as a primary strategy for empowerment for American blacks. For George, both are necessary, “but only assimilation, the strategy that dilutes the racial power bloc in exchange for an American identity of dubious rewards, has dominated the thinking of most black Americans.” If this is true, it’s worth asking why––just as it’s worth asking whether things have changed since George made this assessment in 1988, sixteen years before the advent of Facebook.
New technologies, like social media, purport to help us better apprehend and navigate
our environments, expand the range and depth of both our sensory and social experiences, exert force, execute tasks. “Every technological change begins with a spiritual revelation,” said Nate. “It seems to me that one of the questions that you’re asking is: what are the spiritual revelations brought out by the technologies that we’re dealing with?”
On the one hand, social media affords everyone a sympathetic audience. For many
disenfranchised people, this may be an entirely novel experience, allowing new kinds of communications, admissions, confessions, and catharses for those who have been societally silenced. These novel utterances increase the possibility for communication within communities in the way that encoded lyrics and songs have served as a way for black people to safely communicate with each other in hostile surroundings. What these communications on their own can’t prevent, however, is the way that they are decoded and categorized by other agents in those hostile surroundings.
The music industry’s categorization of black music as “race music,” for instance, de-
risively emphasized the differences between black and white musicians’ work. The term was replaced by an alternate classification, “rhythm and blues,” between 1948-49 by major labels such as Billboard, after independent labels had already begun to make the switch. By the time that large music industry players revisited their language, however, “the idea of segregating the music of black performers had become well ingrained within the American psyche,” writes Lawrence Redd in “Rock! It’s Still Rhythm and Blues.”
The matter of whether historic segregation of black and white cultural production is
a result of––or whether it’s led to––continuing xenophobia is a frustrating chicken-or-the-egg question. As the musician Mal Devisa said to me over Skype in the winter of 2014, “We are socialized and brought up in ways that reinforce that our way of life is the right way and we should be afraid of anything else.” She was in Amherst and I was in Iceland. She continued: We should fear being alone. We should fear god. Those ideas tie into why it’s easier for us to reject people that don’t look like us [. . .] I think of the fear of losing control to someone else and why that is, in particular, a fear that some people of color, women, and people with disabilities harbor, sometimes for life. I think of the restriction one feels when they are given options to reach and expand out of their comfort zone and the crippling fear that they will be rejected or confused or embarrassed, so they don’t budge. The fear of the unknown can be a big part of life and can either propel you forward or absolutely tie you down [. . .] When music is involved, this idea of not knowing is incredible [. . .] Music is a vessel in which we reconstruct ourselves and are able to see ourselves as something more than afraid, more than a human in danger of losing control.
To this day, the music industry’s classification schema carries on the practical segrega-
tion of musics, done today more covertly than in the 1960s and 70s through ‘deracialized’ genre classifications. What remains the same is an ongoing felt need amongst white cultural agents to negotiate the presence of black artists in a largely white cultural framework. This has led to conflict between black and white cultural producers in the competition over large-scale institutional and corporate recognition. Protesting the music industry’s genre classification system, for example, a group of black recording artists left the 1972 Grammy Awards ceremony. They felt that white artists were receiving awards that would have been given to black artists were not pop and rock de facto white genres and soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues de facto black genres. 32
Despite ongoing conflict, black cultural workers have continued to fight for recognition
on and through mainstream broadcast and entertainment media. Martin Luther King was speaking to a society that had begun to accept black radio disc jockeys’ presence in popular broadcast media when he addressed the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers in 1967, eighteen years after the start of the first black-owned radio station, WERD, on which the first words spoken were, “Good morning, Atlanta. We’re here.” King states: . . . and in a real sense you [black radio announcers] have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white. School integration is much easier now that they [pupils] share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances. You introduced youth to that music and created the language of soul and promoted the dance which now sweeps across race, class and nation. It is quite amazing to me to hear the joyful rhythms, which I found time to enjoy as a youth here in Atlanta years ago, coming back across the Atlantic with an English accent, or to see the Senator Javits and the Senators Kennedy lost in the dances which we created. Yes, you have taken the power which Old Sam has buried deep in his soul and through amazing technology have performed a cultural conquest that surpasses even that of Alexander the Great and culture of classical Greece.
Notwithstanding King’s optimism about the overall cultural impact of black radio, the
racialized categorization of black and white––or more broadly, insider and outsider––cultural production has caused many contemporary black artists to show an aversion to classification in general. In his interview with DAZED reporter Chal Ravens, electronic musician Actress describes his love of dancing to music that had an ‘in-betweenness’ to it as a young boy. “The music I was into was new jack swing, music where you really had to break your body. So (clicks fingers) I just feel that, you know, and the sort of in-between-ness of it. I’m never (clicks fingers steadily). I’m always finding those gaps that are in between.”
In the same interview, Actress also details his interest in the ‘outsider artist’ James
Hampton and the artwork that Hampton created privately in a rented carriage house over the course of fourteen years, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. “I think black people are much more protective about what they do than other artists, and I definitely feel that way,” said Cunningham on Hampton, who died of stomach cancer in 1964. Shortly after his death, Meyer Wertlieb, Hampton’s landlord, found the Throne in his ga33
rage. Wertleib also found Hampton’s notebooks and the notes he’d written on the walls of the garage. Eventually, Wertlieb remitted the sculpture to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it remains today, in the Folk and Self-Taught Art collection.
Artistic classifications form a part of the larger battle over popular language, which is
itself part of a battle over who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside.’ One difference between outsider and insider artists (though no one ever calls them “insider artists”) is that cultural writers tend to talk about outsider artists’ handling of and access to their materials with a certain amount of bewilderment. Indeed, the creative processes of outsider artists can be surprising, but only if compared to the behaviors of a relatively normative non-artist human beings––not so much if compared those processes of traditionally skilled, professional artists.
Cultural critic Casey Cep, whose writing on bigotry in the Deep South in the time of
Harper Lee appears in the New Yorker and in a forthcoming book for Knopf, creates a picturesque story about Hampton’s life and the construction of the Throne: The ebullient, elaborate sculpture is made from aluminum foil and light bulbs, cardboard boxes and coffee cans, jelly jars and wood scraps. Hampton scavenged some materials from the trash bins of the G.S.A. and salvaged others from around the city, hauling discarded furniture in a child’s wagon and collecting foil anywhere he could, including the wine bottles and cigarette packs of strangers. When the night was as deep as a well, Hampton would go to the garage to glue, staple, tape, and tack his treasures together. A few 500-watt bulbs hung from the ceiling, bringing light to the darkness of his workspace, and, piece-by-piece, the 180 objects of Hampton’s masterpiece came to occupy almost 300 square feet. The center throne itself is seven-feet tall, its foundation an old armchair with a red cushion. Flanking it are dozens of ambos and altars, crowns, lecterns, tablets, and winged pulpits—like Isaiah’s vision of the Lord enthroned, even the wings have wings.
Cep’s description has, to my ear, an undertone of exploitation. Beginning with a literary
cliché––the deep and dark night––as the setting, Cep evokes a harried and maniacal Hampton who works to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord. The unnecessarily superlative rhetoric of the “masterpiece” in Cep’s reconstruction dramatizes the existential conditions of both the Throne and its maker. Cultural critics often portray outsider artists as extreme figures in this manner, as if their informal and yet dedicated participation in artistic creation constituted an extenuating circumstance. 34
As Cep notes in her article, “Cracking the Code of James Hampton’s Private Language,”
art writers have struggled with how to interpret the works of outsider artists, whose capacity to carry out artistic intentions is fundamentally called into question. Hampton’s Throne wasn’t “a work of symbolism, but a literal readying for the Second Coming,” writes Cep. “Hampton’s work exists in that ambiguous category of outsider art, a comfortable term for collectors and curators, but an uncomfortable one for many who believe these artists are either deranged or devout. What little we know about Hampton’s sense of vocation is known only through his writings, most of which are written in a private language.” Cep stops short of questioning whether collectors’ and curators’ own private language is causing at least some of the discomfort she points out.
The impoverishment of the art establishment and its language is a function of its fail-
ure to speak gracefully about outsider figures. In a more general sense, it illustrates the inability of the common language to conceive of outsiders as equals. This is demonstrated most acutely in the social lexicon surrounding “the black body.” The necessity for such a dehumanized phrasing is, to my mind, a sign of severe structural turbulence in the common language and imagination. In The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool, Brenda Dixon Gottschild writes: We have created constructs that subliminally or consciously [ . . .] drive our actions and reactions along racialized pathways. Black dance is one of these constructs. Taking this line of thinking a step further, the black dancing body exists as a social construct, not a scientific fact. However, this phantom body, just like the phantom concept of a black or white race, has been effective in shaking and moving, shaping and reshaping, American (and now global) cultural production for centuries. It has been courted and scorned, an object of criticism and ridicule as well as a subject of praise and envy.
The black body dancing, singing, moving is and isn’t a social construct––and when
dancer Niv Acosta twerks once for each death of a black person at the hands of police in 2015 in the performance, “One Thousand Twerks.” The black body shaking and thriving is a reality to dwell in—a reality that is neither present nor past, but one that comes about by way of the performance of a future-point when that body is beyond both construction and abstraction. In order to experience such a future, you must go with the black body/artwork to the realm into which it is attempting to project you. You must leave your present self and take up your future self, which has always been you. office being “closed.”
I saw Anaïs Duplan read as part of Brooklyn Poets reading series last November.
What caught my attention right away was that they didn’t pause in between their poems. Duplan read from their 2017 chapbook, Mount Caramel & The Blood of Panassus, which opens with an essay: “A Love Song to Dean Blunt in Three Parts.”
Although I heard Duplan read that night, I didn’t introduce myself. I wasn’t ready.
Their reading style and work and confidence behind a microphone and in front of an audience impressed me, as there was an innate bravado that was balanced by an honesty and humility, which drew me in. Why pause in between poems if you don’t want to? Why explain where each poem that you present came from if you’d rather not?
Although I didn’t hear Duplan read “A Love Song to David Blunt in Three Parts that
evening,” I purchased their chapbook a few months later, and the essay pulled me in right away. One passage in particular I would have underlined again and again, save the fact that the essay appears on black paper, and is made up of white words, which is a statement in and of itself, and also prevents an underline. Even so: “If, as a person of color, you say yes to the projections of white culture, then you negate your self worth, even your existence. If you say no, then you exist as an oppositional idea, yo become the “no.” This is as opposed to the situation where, if you were to say yes, you would affirm your self worth and if you said no, deny it . . . [I]n a world where, as a marginalized person, I must choose self-worth by saying no rather than yes, there is always somewhere else –––– the majority of social spaces, in fact ––– where I exist as the antithesis of who I claim to be. As such, we have to look at the extent to which it’s possible to oppose white culture from inside of it, given that one’s participation in it is demanded, at least in part, in order to obtain and maintain one’s citizenship in society.
One month later and in response to Duplan’s invitation, I found myself seated in the
front row of a talk on Afrosurealism at Independent Curators International, on Broadway in Manhattan, just north of Canal Street. That evening with a clarity and certainty that I had not experienced before, I felt my sense of self expand, and came across answers to questions that I hadn’t even asked myself about the African American experience in this country. Following the talk, without a doubt, I knew that it would truly be an honor to publish Duplan’s work within these pages.
“New Black Music is This” in some ways is an extension of “A Love Song to Da-
vid Blunt in Three Parts,” which you should read. And while both hold more than their own 41
weight, and capture the heart and mind of their readers in unique ways; neither essay exists completely on its own, and separate from the work of the great minds of black artists and writers and musicians who have come before.
So when Emily Fishman and I sat down with Duplan this past July, it just made sense
that we would move toward and away, and toward once more the idea and the fact that the creative process cannot and does not exist in a vacuum; where one artist, and specifically, one artist of color, is entirely separate from all other work that has come before.
That afternoon I asked Duplan about the word Legacy, and she responded by intro-
ducing and suggesting the word Lineage. “In the context of black cultural production, there’s a premium placed on the idea that a work must be totally original and novel, and unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. But really, who holds themselves to that standard? It relates with the misconception that black people are supposed to be the factory of the new, all of the time ––– new new, new ––– cool, cool, cool cool, cool. And so I think it would be meaningful to consider lineage and legacy more often. We don’t have to start from scratch every time.” -Isaac Myers III
PHOTOGRAPHY - EMILY FISHMAN. 42
Isaac: When did you start playing tennis? Anaïs: I started playing tennis when I was ten. Then I kept going through middle school and high school, then I stopped. I don’t play anymore, but it’s a great sport. I still maintain that tennis is the only sport that I’ll happily watch, and play. Isaac: What do you like about it? Anaïs: I like that you can be on a team, but the individual game is up to you, or you and your partner if you’re playing doubles. You still get to be an individual, but your success is not solitary. It matters along with other successes or failures, and so you can have a cumulative victory. Isaac: I get that. Anaïs: But my roommate was just playing FIFA, so I’ve been thinking about soccer. On a soccer team, for example, it’s not that way necessarily, because as an individual you could succeed, or play quite well, but you couldn’t have what would constitute as an individual win. Isaac: So you appreciate the clear demarcations of who won and lost. Anaïs: Yes! I won. Isaac: And you guys lost, right? Anaïs: And yet you still get to be on a team, it’s amazing. Isaac: I played briefly, in middle school, but it’s a great game, mostly because so much of it is mental. Anaïs: Totally. I found that the hardest part for me was always keeping my mind in check. Isaac: Sure. Anaïs: If your mind is like, “Oh, I need to win it. Don’t fuck it up,” then it’s over.
Isaac: Has playing tennis informed your work in anyway, or have you seen any connections? Anaïs: That’s a great question. I’ve never thought about this. I was more intense about tennis when I was in elementary school than when I was in high school. When I was younger I would play in tournaments. And at one point I had this coach who I would train with individually, even when I wasn’t part of a team, and he would say, “What you learn well, you never forget.” I think that has stuck with me more than anything . . . and maybe this is larger than writing, but I think a lot about what it means to acquire something, in terms of knowledge or skill, and what it means to do something well, so that it becomes a part of you. Isaac: So that it’s always yours. Anaïs: So that it’s always yours. Sometimes you read something and it sticks for a long time, and you keep thinking about over and over. And then there’s plenty of other work that you read, but then afterwards it’s totally gone. Maybe it’s still there, and percolating, but it’s not on your conscious mind. It’s fascinating. There are a lot of situations that you go into where you’re expecting to learn, for instance, when you go to a class, or when you’re at your job and your boss is explaining something to you -––– situations where you’re in a state of mind where you’re willing to take in new knowledge. I think a lot about what it would mean to walk around all of the time expecting to learn, and what that would look like or feel like internally for me. Isaac: I think it could be a little exhausting. Anaïs: Exhausting, right. And there would be a hard limit to how far you could go with it, or else you would overload, and you wouldn’t be able to actually sustain it. Emily: You’ve heard of the concept of beginner’s mind, in Buddhism? Where, essentially to me, it’s as if you think of everything as if you’re just a child seeing it for the first time.
And that can take a little bit of the edge off of the overwhelm, but it would still be you walking outside, looking at everything, and just imagining what the possibilities are. Anaïs: Exactly. And could you do that even, and what would that look like? Now I’m going on a mega mental tangent ––– now I’m thinking about parallel universes.
Anaïs: It was definitely the beginning of conscious poetry for me. Before that I had had a blog that I would write notes on, which retrospectively could have been poems. Isaac: Is it still up?
Isaac: How so?
Anaïs: If it is then it needs to not be.
Anaïs: The idea of other possible worlds, and an infinite number of other possible worlds. For instance, in another possible world, everything is exactly the same, but you’re holding that cup in your left hand instead of your right. And that in another possible world, Emily is interviewing me, and you’re taking pictures, but everything else is the same.
Isaac: How old were you, when was this?
Isaac: And these things are happening now? Anaïs: Yes. Simultaneously with what’s happening now ––– I’m just thinking about the idea that all of these other possibility realms exist parallel to our present reality. Isaac: What made you think of that? Anaïs: Something about the idea of walking around and imagining all of the possibilities, and thinking about Beginner’s Mind and the overwhelm. [Isaac switches the cup in his right hand from his right to his left.] Anaïs: Exactly! And in another world, you have two cups! Isaac: That’s funny. So just to move away from parallel universes for now ––– we can always go back to them, you had mentioned in a different interview that when you were first getting into poetry, there was a poetry class that you wanted to get in to, and you didn’t have anything, so you went home and threw some work together and just submitted it, and then found out that you got in. What was that like? Or what was the beginning of 44
your relationship with poetry like for you?
Anaïs: Maybe from sixteen onwards. But essentially, before I took that first poetry class, I was a visual arts person. I had gone to art school, and had dropped out of art school, and then gone back to school, but still as a visual arts major at a different school, but just felt like it wasn’t the right fit, and I wanted to try something else. I went through these notes that I had, and put them together in such a way that seemed to reflect what I thought a poem was at the time. It’s funny to think about what I thought a poem was, because the pieces that I was working from were probably already poems, but then I reworked them into what I thought would be considered “real” poems. When I moved to Vermont one of my neighbors was the poet Mary Ruefle but I had no idea who she was. She was just this nice neighbor who I would hang out with. Later on, as I continued writing, eventually I showed some of my work to Mary, and asked her whether she could write me a letter of recommendation. Isaac: This was after you found out that she was a poet? Anaïs: After, yes. But we had been friends for a half-a-year at this point. She would buy my dog Chester stuffed animals every week and bring them for him to play with in this little creek in the backyard there. I showed her a few poems, and she said,
“Holy shit, these are really good. They’re baby poems.” I think she said something like, “I’m looking forward to when you let go of what you think poems should do.”
Bennington College. And so I had started at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) I left RISD, took a year off, and went to Bennington. I liked Bennington because it didn’t have majors, which was in a lot of ways the opposite of RISD.
A BELL GOES OFF.
What I got out of getting into the ring at Gleason’s. Story: Ashley Glass Anaïs: Exactly. It was as if she were saying, At Bennington, even though they don’t “This is good, but youPhotography: don’t have to wor- Emily forceFishman you to pick a major, they give you Isaac: That has a way of sticking with you.
ry about ‘poetry,’ just relax into it.” Which I think was the greatest advice that I ever receive about poetry.
Isaac: And then how much longer was it that you were teaching poetry classes at Columbia? Anaïs: About two and a half years later. Isaac: That’s pretty quickly then, in the big scheme of things? Anaïs: I’ve actually never thought about those two points connecting with each other. Isaac: So eventually, you must have sold yourself to yourself as a poet? Anaïs: I did. And I think that had first of all to do with the fact that the feeling that I got while writing a poem was the feeling that I had always been searching for in arts school, with creating. When I wrote a poem I felt this rush and connection with what I was doing, and this sense of expansion, and I would think, “This is amazing! I’ve always wanted to feel this way.” Shortly after that first poetry workshop at Bennington, I went to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, which I think they’ve since changed the name of, and I was in a cohort of other people who had been calling themselves poets, and who were already in that world. Just being among them did that for me -–– it allowed me to think, “I’m quite like these other people, and we share this thing, so I might as well be a poet.” Isaac: What were you doing in Vermont? Anaïs: I was going to college. I went to 48
lots of support, and they give you three or four faculty members who stay with you the whole time. They make sure that you’re on track, but you’re really guiding what you’d like to study––and if you go off track then they’ll just say, “No, reconsider.” Isaac: “You could do that but it would be wrong.” Anaïs: Yes. Or more like, “You could try to study that, but we don’t offer that here, and you’d have to transfer.” People would think things like, “I’d like to study astronauts and dance.” And they would just kindly say, “Reel it in. How about earth dance?” Isaac: That’s funny, because it says a lot about creativity ––– and this idea of putting things together that would seem “creative,” and fun to put together, but might not be all that useful. Anaïs: I’m interested in systems, and art work that emerges out of very systematic processes. You have to be connected with the actual act of creating. You can’t just set up a machine and let it go. For instance, this past weekend at Pioneer Works they had a conference, “Software for Artists,” and the keynote speaker was this artist/technologist who had set up a system where she was behind a surveillance camera that she had installed in your home, as an alternate form of the smart home bot –––– so not Alexa, but “Lauren.” Lauren is a real person who is watching you through a camera. You would ask her, “Did you see me take my meds this morning?” And she might say, “Hold on.
Let me watch the footage.”
really want to be followed?”
Isaac: So if you asked her something then she would Google things for you?
Anaïs: Exactly. Do you want me to follow you? Here I go! I’m behind you!
Anaïs: She could Google things, but she could also help people make lunch. I find that fascinating ––– as an art piece.
Isaac: Right. Because now the term is used so casually, “Follow me on so and so” but with that piece it sounds more like, “Well, if you really want that, we can make it happen.”
Isaac: It is. And it makes me think of creative and forms, as you were saying, because we need the forms, in some ways, in order to be creative, and so with that art piece, clearly it’s someone who is drawing from a technology that already exists, but it’s made interesting because the same form is being carried out by an actual human being. But the whole thing exists because Alexa is a thing, and there’s a form that people already recognize, and then it becomes its own creation, because there’s a literal real human being behind it. Anaïs: She had this other piece, called “Follower,” ––– it’s intensely creepy, and I’m still trying to process how I feel about it. , You would download this app and you would answer two questions: (1) Why do you want to be followed; and (2) Why should I follow you? You wait an indeterminate period of time, and then one day you receive an alert that says, “You are now being followed.” And Lauren is surreptitiously just out of your view, but is following you all day. She walks a little behind you on your way to work, and she’ll take pictures of you . . .
________________________ [We pause. Water break.] ________________________ Isaac: So what’s been on your mind, what have you been thinking about? Anaïs: Well, I guess I was talking about Blackspace, right. Isaac: A little bit. Anaïs: A little bit. At this point, the manuscript is done and is now going through the revision process. I started out with this very ambitious project of writing about liberation ––– the idea of liberation from an individual point of view, from a societal point of view, and also from a universal or existential point of view. But then I thought that would be a tome, and I couldn’t really write that book. I had to narrow the idea down, and I thought, What are the aspects of this question that I’m actually interested in? Isaac: In terms of the question of liberation?
Anaïs: I think you can sign up for this still. Then at the end of the day you would get a picture of you that she had taken, and a note that would say, “You are no longer being followed.”
Anaïs: Yes. And what it means from those three perspectives. Specifically interested in this idea of praxis, whether you could establish a praxis of liberation for yourself, and what that would look like on a daily basis. I was specifically interested in black artists doing this.
Isaac: Nice. It’s taking this concept “follow,” that social media has in some ways hijacked, and is allowing you to think, “Well, actually, do you really want that? Do you
I thought that finishing the book would equal me feeling more free, but it actually led to me thinking, Now I know what I need to do in order to get there. And it will probably take
Emily: That’s awesome.
me many years, but I see the path now. Isaac: Seeing the path is powerful though, right? Anaïs: Yes. Definitely. Isaac: So what are some of the steps? If you don’t mind sharing. Anaïs: I’ve definitely been thinking about gender, transitioning, and gender queerness. I’ve been thinking dysfunction within family systems.. I’ve been thinking about some of the ideas that we were talking about at the event at the Independent Curators International on Afrosurealism that I invited you to. In particular, the idea that you and I were talking about afterwards: How, as black artists making work, you can go about making work that is interested in opposition, but is not defined by that opposition. It doesn’t need that opposition in order for it to be meaningful. Personally I’ve been thinking about recovering my memories. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience of recovering a lot of memories all at once, but this has been happening to me for the past couple of years, but very intensely in the past few months ––– a flash of a point of my life that I had totally forgotten will come back to me. The way that I feel after recovering a memory is slightly more integrated than I felt before. Emily: You hope for it, too ––– you hope that the memory will somehow make you feel more whole again too . . . Anaïs: Exactly. There’s something about my life and my experience that I understand more consciously than I did before I recovered the memory. Sometimes this is very painful. A lot of these memories I wasn’t remembering for a good reason. It’s very empowering to feel like I’m in such a place in my life now that even these more traumatic memories are able to resurface, because I can handle them. They come up
and I think, Oh fuck that’s really awful, but also, I’m okay. I can integrate this information now and not have it fuck me up. The first essay in Blackspace is thinking through and trying to remember back to certain liberation movements that have happened in history, thinking about this idea of a global memory and whether recovering some of these memories can then, in our present moment, make us feel more integrated as a people. The thought being, We’re going through this right now, it’s quite awful, but remember back to when this other thing happened? If recovering those memories is powerful enough of an experience for you, and if you can make a powerful enough connection, then maybe that can mirror that personal experience of the memory recovery, and we can grow together as a result. Isaac: Exactly, maybe. Anaïs: Right, maybe. Emily: That somehow . . . the flow of time is the same as the flow of life experience. Anaïs: Yes, exactly. Emily: If you were like, put it all on a continuum, then it would all form the same kind of ... Anaïs: Exactly. And I think that’s the kind of endeavor that I’m making, in trying to write Blackspace. At certain points, I’ve been thinking, this is a history text, and then at other point’s I’ve thought it’s an academic text –––– at one point I was very deep into Leibniz and Spinoza. Then at other points I’ve thought, maybe it’s an art text. I’m not sure where it lands now, but my hope is that it’s somewhere where, as a reader you’re open to an idea but you also have access to your analytic mind. Emily: It’s investigative in nature, right? Anaïs: Yes, exactly. Isaac: Wow. That’s a lot to be thinking about. 51
I guess I’m tempted to go back to what you said earlier about how the tennis team works, there’s the individual who might win his or her match, but even if the one person wins, then that doesn’t mean that the team wins. So how do you get the entire like culture or society to win as well? Anaïs: I love that, actually. Isaac: I did my part, but you guys . . . Anaïs, Right! Or, conversely, maybe I had a bad day ––– I didn’t win, but my team still wins. Can I experience that as a victory? Isaac: I hope so. Anaïs: I would hope so. Otherwise what’s the point of being on the team? That analogy makes me think of the saying, No one can be free until everyone’s free. Isaac: Or, Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Anaïs: Yes. That the idea of justice, or liberation, or freedom is intimately connected with the question, what does individual liberation mean if I’m surrounded by conditions of oppression and strife? Can I experience my individual freedom as a win, even if my team has lost? Isaac: I was reading through your essay, “A Love Song to Dean Blunt in Three Parts” again last night, and there was one particular passage that stuck out, and seemed quite relevant: “Having obligations to other people is part of the beauty of being human, there is no way to be fully human in isolation from other humanity.” Do you remember when you had that epiphany, or first had that thought? Maybe it wasn’t just one moment . . . Anaïs: That’s something I think about a lot. I was thinking about it five minutes ago, in response to something you said, but I don’t 52
remember why. Sometimes we talk about ethics as things you’re supposed to do or ways you’re supposed to act. For instance, don’t eat meat, or don’t do this, and refrain from that –––– different restraints and constraints. Or alternatively, things that you should do ––– always say hello, for instance. But I’m also interested in a version of ethics that is more freeing than that. In order to articulate this in the way that I want to, I have to take a slight detour, and then hopefully bring things back around again. There are all types of connections ––– for instance, and most immediately, the three of us have a connection because we’re all occupying this space, and working on this interview and photo shoot together. But we could also enumerate the more obvious and physical connections: we all have noses, we all have eyes, and we all have homes, presumably, yes? Emily: Yes. Isaac: Check. Anaïs: But then there are also some things that make us the same that would be harder for us to articulate, right? And that if we took away our noses and our eyes and our love of poetry, then there would still be something that would connect us, and maybe that would be consciousness ––– or something like consciousness.. I’m interested in a sort of ethics that comes without effort, by virtue of being aware of the things that are the same between us. Isaac: So what do you do with that awareness? Anaïs: Well, that’s the thing. It’s not a doing. The awareness itself is the thing that unifies us. It requires this sense of trust, or faith that the awareness is enough. Emily: It’s almost like everybody makes the agreement that we’re going to take away
the noses and the arms and the legs and just look at this core component and the similarities, and not have to wade through the superficial, or the surface level comparisons.
and that no effort can still somehow lead to this very wonderful conversation.
Anaïs: Right. And if you’re in this place of awareness, and I’m in this place of awareness, then trust feels like the wrong word too because that’s a doing. It’s more like . . .
Anaïs: Right. And maybe the words are some of the surface level bit that we were talking about, right? Which is not bad at all, it’s quite wonderful, but then it’s all also . . .
Isaac: It doesn’t show itself until it’s needed.
Emily: It’s a means to an end if you wanted to call it anything.
Anaïs: Until it’s manifest, yes, exactly. I’ve always been really interested in this idea of doing and not doing ––– as a way of life, as a place to be. To consistently be thinking, what does not doing look like now?
Anaïs: Yes. And it’s all part of the phenomenal world.
Emily: When are you not doing? Anaïs: Exactly. When am I not doing? I’m trying to do not doing all the time, even if it’s paradoxical. For instance, what is it that I’m doing right now? I’m talking and I’m doing, but I’m trying to at the same time have doing, or whatever is done come from a place of allowing whatever is going to happen to happen. So the trust aspect relates with not doing, and still trusting that it’s going to be ok. Trust is just being there ––– you need the trust to get there. Once you’re there, there’s no trust or not trust between you and the other person, because you’re already in that space that’s been created by trust. Emily: It’s like the conversations that just kind of flow in a way . . . Anaïs: Exactly. Emily: You don’t have to put any effort in. Anaïs: Yes. Emily: And you can just connect on a very base level. Anaïs: Totally. The feeling of no effort,
Emily: Because it’s not about the words sometimes, right?
Isaac: So how do you know something has worked, or when a connection has been made? Anaïs: What do you mean? Isaac: If we’re existing in this space ––– this space of not doing, and it’s not about what’s said on the surface, but it’s about something deeper, then what happens when we exchange things, create things, and these things get judged and evaluated on their merit –––– whether it’s poetry, art, or a story. And some are judged as better than others, or some work and some don’t work, but how do you know when they’re working, and why is that? Anaïs: I want to answer this in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m copping out of an answer, but I think if something is working, then it had to have come from me successfully not doing it. For instance, when I’m writing a poem, I can always tell when I’m forcing and when I’m allowing. I’ll sit here with a notebook and with my pen and just wait. I wait for an indeterminate period of time, and then a line happens. Things are working when I’m sitting here, and before I’m even conscious of writing a line down I’ve written a line. Especially in moments when a poem starts flowing, and I feel as though I could take it in all of these 53
different directions, I start to imagine, What kind of poem is this going to be? If I know what kind of poem it’s going to be, or if I have a preconceived idea, then I lose interest in the poem. I just don’t want to write it anymore. So instead, I just wait, and I know that it’s working if I can truthfully reflect in on myself and say that I didn’t force the poem. Isaac: You don’t want to get too far out in front of yourself. Anaïs: Exactly. And this happens to me not just writing but also walking around or talking or doing anything. I want to avoid those moments when I can see myself acting. For instance, right now you’re aware that it’s Isaac who is sitting there, you’re also aware of yourself and your body and space, and you can see me, but you also have a sense of yourself as well. And perhaps in your imagination and at the same time, you can also see yourself later today, eating something or talking to someone in an hour or something like that, right? Your possible future selves, to an extent, are available to you right now. And you, as your current self, could choose to actualize any number of those selves. For instance, you could think, I’m going to be Isaac who talks to my friend Lisa in an hour, as opposed to Isaac who eats pizza in an hour. As your current Isaac self, you have a chance to decide. In essence you’re extending whatever your needs and desires and motives are in this moment into the future. None of this is good or bad, I’m just interested in what these ideas mean. Isaac: Yes, in some ways. It makes me think about what athletes would call in the zone, and being locked in in that way, right? And I’m tempted to compare that idea, the idea of being in the zone with where we started, concerning cultivating beginner’s mind. So my question would be, how can you be in beginner’s mind and also in the zone at the same time? And what would that feel like? 56
Anaïs: I think those things are the same, no? Isaac: You think so? Anaïs: I think so. If they’re not the same, then they feel very related to me, as though one would bring about the other. Isaac: I was looking at being in the zone and having Beginner’s Mind as being two different states, but I’m interested to hear how you think they’re the same? Maybe you’re right. Anaïs: Well, now I want to hear about why you think they’re different. I promise to tell you how I think they’re the same. Isaac: Well, to me, when you’re in the zone, you’re acting on and with what’s already known, usually through the intuition. Anaïs: In the zone. Isaac: Right. Whereas, when you’re walking around with your brain activated in the learning and receptive mode, then you’re moving through the world with this sense that something is going to inform you, and give you something new that you don’t have. So those seem like different ways of moving through the world, at least to me. Anaïs: Totally, I feel that. I think the way that I have understood or experienced beginner’s mind is that because you’re a beginner, you don’t know what to tune out and what not to tune out, right? And everything is equally important, because you don’t know that strategically you should be paying attention to only a few select things, right? It’s more beginner’s mind because you’re not being selective about anything, you’re allowing everything the same weight as everything else. Isaac: That’s true. It’s a little abstract, so difficult to articulate. Anaïs: It’s extremely abstract.
Isaac: I think if we’re talking about being locked in the zone, then we’re also talking about winning or losing, so you’re blocking out things are not to your advantage to winning, right? So the question would be, what does being in the zone mean if you’re not actually competing? Because you can’t be competing all of the time, or can you?
listening to when I was much younger. You start thinking about the fact that all of the different versions of yourself that you have been in the past are here and with you now. This is still the same body that you had ten years ago.
Anaïs: Well there are many ways to be in competition. And this goes back to ––– believe it or not, tennis ––– and the mental aspect of the game. For instance, let’s say it’s the last point of the game, and you’re about to win, and so in your mind you could be thinking, Ok this is the last point of the game, I’m about to win. For me, if I’m in that state, I’m going to fucking lose. Because there’s too much happening.
Anaïs: I have found that idea very painful until recently, because I didn’t want to be still connected to my thirteen-year-old self, or to think that this body that I have is that same body. But it’s not as painful anymore and it feels as though something has opened up. So to circle back around to your question –––– it’s exciting for me to hear Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” now, and I’m able to think, This is a dope song, I love this song.
__________________________ [We pause. Water break.] __________________________ Isaac: Do you want to chat about music? Anaïs: Sure. Isaac: What was the first song you really remember liking? Anaïs: It’s very embarrassing. Isaac: Ok. Anaïs: But I will still tell you. Isaac: Ok. Anaïs: The Alien Ant Farm cover of “Smooth Criminal.” Isaac: Ok. Emily: I was hoping it was going to be Michael Jackson related. Anaïs: Maybe it’s related to the memories that I have been recovering, but more recently I have found this new really exciting enjoyment in a lot of the music that I was
Isaac: I’ve thought of that.
Isaac: I’m trying to think about where I was when I heard that song for the first time, and also just trying to remember what it feels like to be so young in that way that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next ––– you don’t know where you’re going to end up and you’re not thinking much about it, because you are where you are. Then for better or for worse, eventually the introspection comes, and you start asking more questions. So it’s nice to be able to go back to that time where you weren’t really thinking about where is this all going, but instead, could just listen to Alien Ant Farm and think, This is just a dope song. Anaïs: When I was younger I was actually more concerned with where things were going. Isaac: Really? Anaïs: Yes. Because I was so unhappy with what was happening in my life, and I hated everything. I was very preoccupied with a future point where it wouldn’t be like this. I spent a lot of mental energy –––– especially before I would go to bed or while in school ––– projecting myself out of the present situation, and disassociating into possible future
places that I could be in. I was thinking a lot about those future places. Isaac: So not just an hour from now, but seven years from now. Anaïs: Totally, yes. Whereas now, I’m increasingly comfortable with where I’m at now, with who I am now, and how I feel now, and I’m not so concerned with where things are going. Maybe I thought a lot about the future because I was worried about it, and now I’m not that worried about it. Although I feel excited and hopeful for it, but that’s enough for me –––– I don’t have to pin it down in a way. Isaac: Nice. I guess that allows you to exert your energy on other things. Anaïs: Yes, like eating ice cream. Actually, I’m lactose intolerant, I can’t eat ice cream. I just wanted to say that. Isaac: We’ll be sure to get that in. It is a fun note. Anaïs: Anaïs Duplan is lactose intolerant. Isaac: Do you remember when you first wanted to write about music? Anaïs: What made me think that I wanted to write about music? Surprisingly, I actually don’t really like reading music journalism. I find it kind of boring. Isaac: Why do you think that is? Anaïs: Because often times you read a review of an album and the person is trying to put words to the way the album sounded and unless this person is a very particular kind of writer, I can’t really hear it. Reading about music is the equivalent of watching Food Network. That looks tasty, but I would rather just eat the thing or listen to the album. I started writing about music as a way of learning about music, and as a way to face the challenge of trying to hear a thing and break it down. How would I speak about this particular sound? 58
Isaac: It’s an interesting thing to do, to make an argument as to why a song is good, as opposed to just playing the song for them. Anaïs: I always prefer to interview the artist, rather than writing reviews. That’s intel that you can’t get by just listening to the album. Isaac: Well that then raises the question, in order to write well about music, do you have to be a musician? Anaïs: I hope not! But it’s an interesting question. As part of this class that I taught last semester at Columbia we read Art as Experience. There’s a section in that book that talks about art and criticism, and this idea that each genre and medium within art has a unique vocabulary, and a unique set of challenges that the artist is working through in order to bring about a piece of work. As a critic of a painting you need to have a set of knowledge that’s different from a critic of music because you need to be somewhat tapped into what that language is. Is it possible as a journalist of music to be familiar enough with what musicians are thinking about as they’re making music, without still being a musician, to write about it? I think so. Isaac: I think about this with coaching, where some of the best coaches aren’t the best players, but they do something else. Anaïs: Right. Isaac: Or how Michael Jordan would be a terrible coach, because he would just say, Dude, just do it like me. Anaïs: I do think it helps that I make other things. I don’t think that I would enjoy music writing if I didn’t write poems or make videos or do some kind of creative thing. That allows me to make analogies and then we have a place to start the conversation. I always like to have one pursuit, or even a few different pursuits that I feel
like I’m really bad at, or like I don’t know anything about them and I need to learn more about. Isaac: Which one would you say that is for you at the present moment? Anaïs: Definitely video. I made this short film during my last few months in Iowa. I took this film class and I had this idea for a short film that I really wanted to make. And in my mind I could see the film, but I literally I did not know how to shoot a movie. That excites me because there are real stakes to this process of creation. Isaac: So what was the film? Anaïs: I should show it to you sometime. It’s called Cocaine Barbara. Isaac: So tell us about Cocaine Barbara.
sode? Or at least potentially. Anaïs: That’s interesting. I don’t know. We’ll see. Of course there are ways that that project failed, but there are also ways that it was sort of a successful experiment, and I like that. I like that I made a short film called Cocaine Barbara and that it’s sort of weird and that you can see me filming in the reflection of the car ––– and I really need to shoot that scene again ––– but I like that space of knowing whether I’m not sure if this is working actually. __________________________ [We pause. Water break.] __________________________ Isaac: So why does it feel natural to want to be stable?
Anaïs: I had this dream one time––does that ever happen to you where a poem happens to you in your sleep?
Anaïs: For the lady in the mirror?
Isaac: A poem? In my sleep?
Anaïs: It actually doesn’t anymore. I was definitely pre-transition when I created, “Why Does it Feel Natural to Want to be Stable for the Lady in the Mirror?” When I say pre-transition I mean that I started transitioning hormonally a year ago, even though transition doesn’t really have a start or end date.
Anaïs: Yes. Isaac: Not yet. Anaïs: Well, I had this poem about this figure, Cocaine Barbara.
Isaac: For the lady in the mirror.
Anaïs: Yes, for real. I had this dream about a poem titled Cocaine Barbara. Various things happened to Cocaine Barbara over the course of her day. I woke up and I wrote that poem down. Then I started thinking, What if Cocaine Barbara was a person? Could I ask my friend Elyse to be Cocaine Barbara? And could I get a whole cast and crew? So I did.
But with that video poem, I think I was thinking about the idea that you’re generally supposed to have some kind of connection to the person you see in the mirror. However; as I’ve transitioned and as my features have changed, even incrementally, I’ve noticed that I’ve started looking at and thinking about myself differently. For instance, the other day I was looking at my arm and the muscle structure of my arm, and I noticed how it looks different now than it was before.
Isaac: How long is it?
Emily: It’s radical.
Anaïs: It’s about twenty minutes.
Anaïs: It is. Your reflection starts changing a little bit as you look at it every day.
Isaac: She has had a tough life.
Isaac: So maybe this film was a pilot epi-
Isaac: How did you find the footage for the video that appears alongside the poem? Anaïs: It was on the internet. It’s public domain footage. Isaac: It’s nice to read a poem line by, or to have a poem presented to you line by line. Anaïs: I’m interested in duration in that way. When you’re watching the video ––– assuming that you’re not scrolling forward or backward on your own –––– then the timing is embedded in the poem. And it’s embedded within the poem in a way that can’t exactly be presented on the page. Isaac: That’s a good point. That’s part of what’s fun about poetry readings –––– you have an audience who, for lack of a better term, is trapped. Anaïs: Yes. A captive audience. Isaac: And you can start reading your first poem, and you can read the first line, and then, if you want you can stand up there for forty-five seconds, or a minute, or however long you want before you read or say anything else. Anaïs: This is what I like about video in general –––– the hand that has made the thing is somewhere else, in a different time and place. There’s the time that it was made and then the time that’s inscribed within, and then the time that you’re watching it in. And the person who created the piece is gone, but their sense of timing is still there, and you have to deal with that. Isaac: Good point. Anaïs: Because if I were at a reading, sure, I could stand there and I could wait to read the next line, but it would always be tied back to my physical presence. Isaac: Right, because it’s a shared moment then, between the poet and the audience. Anaïs: Right. And then with the video, it’s a 60
little like that, but I’m not there anymore and it’s just you, the viewer. Maybe that’s sad. Isaac: Why? Anaïs: The lack of shared space in the moment of experiencing the poem, although that’s what reading a book of poems is like too. The poet isn’t there as you’re reading the poems on your own. Isaac: That’s true. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re doing now? You’re at the Studio Museum in Harlem, correct? Anaïs: Yes. Isaac: But your time there is almost over? Anaïs: Yes and no. It’s a two year fellowship, and I spend the first year at Studio Museum in Harlem. So my year at Studio is almost over, and then I’ll go to the Museum of Modern Art starting in September, and spend another year there and do essentially the same position but within MoMA’s structure. Isaac: That’s interesting. And what’s the position that you’re in? Anaïs: I’m a public programs fellow. There are a total of six of us and four of us are curatorial fellows and two of us are public programs fellows. At Studio Museum I work in their Public Programs and Community Engagement department. A lot of my work there deals with considering ways to activate the exhibitions or artists who are tied to the museum through programs, events, screenings, workshops, and other happenings. Isaac: You have similar experience with this sort of work, in Iowa, but also in Iceland? How long did you live over there? Anaïs: Not that long, just two months. I fuck with Brooklyn and New York City
in general because I like the idea of public anonymity. The city can be very leveling, in terms of the sense that you or I could go outside and start screaming and yelling, and people might look at us, but no one would be perturbed to their core about it. Isaac: That’s definitely a good point. Anaïs: Whereas in Iowa ––– and maybe this was just a projection of how I experienced things there ––– a lot of the time I felt like there were things I wanted to do or ways I wanted to carry myself that were sort of disruptive to the social fabric. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do those things, but just that if I did them I would garner a kind of attention that I wasn’t that interested in receiving. I wanted to be doing those things and also going about my life. I just wanted to go outside. One of the first things I did when I moved to New York was start to transition because I felt like I could do that and nothing bad would happen ––– no-one would even bat an eyelash; no-one would even notice if I transitioned in New York. There are things that I liked about Iowa––for instance, it’s nice for it to be quiet. It’s also nice to not have to traverse as many crowds, and to enjoy spaces that bring you into a peaceful state of mind, which isn’t as accessible, or possible in New York. There’s a different kind of peace I get in New York though. Isaac: Where would you say you’re from? Anaïs: I’m from Haiti. Even though most of my interaction with Haiti and with Haitian culture has been outside of Haiti, these interactions have felt significant enough for me to say, and actually feel like I’m from Haiti.
I got an American passport recently ––– I think it was two or three years ago. This was after a lifetime of thinking, I’ll never do it, but then I thought . . . I would like to travel and not have to apply for visas every time. An American passport is an amazing gift; it gives you tremendous mobility. I got to a place within myself where I didn’t feel like I would
be sacrificing any part of my identity if I had an American passport. Isaac: So when did you move to the States then? Anaïs: When I was about two and a half. I spoke French before I spoke English. Now my French isn’t so great, but it’s always an interesting question: where are you from? I think it used to give me a lot more anxiety ––– people would ask me that and I would gasp ––– what do I say? Relatedly, someone recently asked me, What do you do when you’re not trying to make money? Isaac: That’s not a bad question. Anaïs: I’ve given up this idea that I will have work/life separation. I do want to feel like I have some control over when I’m producing and when I’m not, but that really lies with me. It sounds silly, at least to me when I say it but I’ve had to consciously kind of think, Do not create now ––– no creation now, this is non-creative time. I’ve literally been saying to myself, Just watch Netflix. Do not think about how to make a film. Isaac: This is nice . . . good movie . . . Anaïs: I like it, yeah. Isaac: Very enjoyable film. That’s funny. So what do you tell people, when people ask, What do you do? Anaïs: I guess I normally say that I’m a writer. And then I make lots of modifications and additions afterwards. It depends on the context as well. I’ll also say that I’m an arts administrator or something like that, because that is a fair amount of what I do as well. Also, this is very morbid for me, and I don’t like saying this, but sometimes I will say that I’m a cultural worker. I find that deadening.
Isaac: When do you say that? Anaïs: In very professional contexts; for instance, when I’m talking to a donor or when I’m working on an application for a grant, I’ll say I’m like a cultural worker. I don’t know why I don’t like it. It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. Isaac: Do you want to read a few paragraphs of the essay as a way to talk about that a little bit and then maybe we can ask a couple more questions... Anaïs: Sure. Isaac: There’s a section in here, which deals with a frustrating chicken-or-the-egg question. Maybe you can start from around there, and read a few paragraphs down? Anaïs: That works. -- - “The matter of whether historic segregation of black and white cultural production is a result of––or whether it’s led to––continuing xenophobia is a frustrating chicken-or-the-egg question. As the musician Mal Devisa said to me over Skype in the winter of 2014, “We are socialized and brought up in ways that reinforce that our way of life is the right way and we should be afraid of anything else.” She was in Amherst and I was in Iceland. She continued: We should fear being alone. We should fear god. Those ideas tie into why it’s easier for us to reject people that don’t look like us [. . .] I think of the fear of losing control to someone else and why that is, in particular, a fear that some people of color, women, and people with disabilities harbor, sometimes for life. I think of the restriction one feels when they are given options to reach and expand out of their comfort zone and the crippling fear that
they will be rejected or confused or embarrassed, so they don’t budge. The fear of the unknown can be a big part of life and can either propel you forward or absolutely tie you down [. . .] When music is involved, this idea of not knowing is incredible [. . .] Music is a vessel in which we reconstruct ourselves and are able to see ourselves as something more than afraid, more than a human in danger of losing control. To this day, the music industry’s classification schema carries on the practical segregation of musics, done today more covertly than in the 1960s and 70s through ‘deracialized’ genre classifications. What remains the same is an ongoing felt need amongst white cultural agents to negotiate the presence of black artists in a largely white cultural framework. This has led to conflict between black and white cultural producers in the competition over large-scale institutional and corporate recognition. Protesting the music industry’s genre classification system, for example, a group of black recording artists left the 1972 Grammy Awards ceremony. They felt that white artists were receiving awards that would have been given to black artists were not pop and rock de facto white genres and soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues de facto black genres. Despite ongoing conflict, black cultural workers have continued to fight for recognition on and through mainstream broadcast and entertainment media. Martin Luther King was speaking to a society that had begun to accept black radio disc jockeys’ presence in popular broadcast media when he addressed the National Association of Televi63
sion and Radio Announcers in 1967, eighteen years after the start of the first black-owned radio station, WERD, on which the first words spoken were, “Good morning, Atlanta. We’re here.” King states: . . . and in a real sense you [black radio announcers] have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white. School integration is much easier now that they [pupils] share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances. You introduced youth to that music and created the language of soul and promoted the dance which now sweeps across race, class and nation. It is quite amazing to me to hear the joyful rhythms, which I found time to enjoy as a youth here in Atlanta years ago, coming back across the Atlantic with an English accent, or to see the Senator Javits and the Senators Kennedy lost in the dances which we created. Yes, you have taken the power which Old Sam has buried deep in his soul and through amazing technology have performed a cultural conquest that surpasses even that of Alexander the Great and culture of classical Greece. Notwithstanding King’s optimism about the overall cultural impact of black radio, the racialized categorization of black and white––or more broadly, insider and outsider––cultural production has caused many contemporary black artists to show an aversion to classification in general. In his interview with DAZED reporter Chal Ravens, electronic musician Actress describes his love of dancing to music that had an ‘in-betweenness’ to it as a young boy. “The music I was 64
into was new jack swing, music where you really had to break your body. So (clicks fingers) I just feel that, you know, and the sort of in-between-ness of it. I’m never (clicks fingers steadily). I’m always finding those gaps that are in between.” -- -Isaac: Thank you. It’s good to just be within the space created by those words. Anaïs: I’m glad to hear that. I like this Martin Luther King quote a lot because I never think about him and radio announcers in the same thought. It’s nice to hear how excited he was for the black disc jockeys. And I don’t know what his vision was for them and whether that panned out or not, but I just love his optimism. Isaac: He’s elevating radio. Anaïs: Yes. Totally. In a way that is not at all done today. It’s a real question, Who still listens to radio? But I love radio. I definitely like radio more than television. Isaac: What do you like about it? Anaïs: I like that there’s still so much space for the imagination in radio. I like that you are a necessary component of listening to the radio, and that you have to lend your faculties to it in a way. Isaac: I feel like radio is educational in a way that television can’t be. Anaïs: It is. And maybe this goes back to the thing about education and beginner’s mind, and how we learn. I learn the best from videos; for instance, if I want to learn a specific skill or if I want to learn about a specific period of time, then I’ll watch a video. But with radio I go on more of a journey, and I experience more emotions, and I find myself invested in a different way than I do if I’m just trying to pick something up by watching a video.
Emily: I remember as a radio listener in the nineties, you had a relationship with the DJs, and you wanted to hear what they had to say about the music they were playing, or their opinion about other things that were going on in the country and in the world. Anaïs: Right. And maybe you appreciate their taste or what they play, right? Whereas that person is kind of invisible on Netflix.
don’t have to start from scratch every time. I have been trying to write about black art, trying to tie historical artists in with contemporary artists, and trying to make connections across different mediums, musicians, painters, poets. I’m interested in whether there are ways that the literal mental and emotional well being of black artists can be, rather than kept in the background, brought to the foreground more.
Isaac: Just one more question for you. Anaïs: Okay, I’m ready. Isaac: What do you think about the word Legacy? Anaïs: I like the idea of legacy a lot, and I also like another L word ––– lineage. I will only use legacy in very specific contexts, when I want to elevate a particular lineage I guess. I think more about lineage than legacy. But I wrote something recently, which dealt with how interested I am in preserving the legacies of black artists. I think the black avant garde suffers in not claiming more of a legacy or a lineage. Black avant garde artists have been working across mediums for a long period of time. When legacy and lineage are left out of the picture, every new artist is in a vacuum, and every experiment they do is sort of a new, novel experiment that lives and dies by its own hand; as opposed to being an extension of previous experimentations. In the context of black cultural production, there’s a premium placed on the idea that a work must be totally original and novel, and unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. But really, who else holds themselves to that standard? It relates with the misconception that black people are supposed to be the factory of the new, all of the time –––– new new new –––– cool, cool, cool, cool cool cool. And so I think it would be meaningful to consider lineage and legacy more often. We
RINGOLEVIO - 68 JAY STREET. As Dale Kaplan prepares to take the helm of Dumbo Direct, she looks back on her twenty-four years in the neighborhood. Profile: Isaac Myers III - Photography: Emily Fishman.
Let’s say the weather is crisp and clear. It’s the middle of October, and Halloween is
two weeks away. You’re not sure what you’d like to dress as for Halloween, or whether you’ll dress up at all. If you have children, you’re not sure what they’ll want to be for the holiday, or how much time and energy you’d like to expend to help them prepare.
You’re in a house on Fire Island and alone for a long weekend, and although it’s no
longer peak season, you’re happy to be there, near the beach; and with the window near your bed slightly open, you can feel a soft breeze move across the island and into your bedroom. Outside the leaves have already started to change and fall, and although they’re not quite in the full stunning hues of red and orange, you know that those mornings are only a few weeks, if not days away.
It’s early, a few minutes before six, and the sun hasn’t quite found its place in the sky,
though it will soon. And although you don’t have to be up and at a desk at any particular time today, you’d like to get up, and have a coffee, and take a look through the novella that you’ve been leafing through since you checked into the house two afternoons ago. But right now it’s Saturday, and more than anything, you’d like to blend the experience of being outside in the crisp and cool autumn air with the feeling of being inside and cozy, resting well and sipping coffee and reading while still in bed.
If the year were 1996, and if you had ever received or looked through a copy of Gar-
net Hill’s catalog, you would have noticed a solution to your slight quandary ––– wanting to be in bed and inside, while at the same time outside and amongst the trees and leaves. As you flipped through the catalog, Dale Kaplan’s work would have caught your interest. “I was the first person to use heat sublimation on sheeting,” Kaplan says, “and it made it look like somebody opened the window, and leaves and flowers fell onto the bed. It was a very new look.” 72
Heat sublimation, or heat transfers, is a straightforward process. Kaplan would take
leaves and flowers and bring them into her studio, and place them in a color copier machine. At one point when we were sitting in Kaplan’s studio on the ninth floor of 68 Jay Street, I asked her what object she most enjoyed placing within her color copier machine. She told me that she loved to copy everything and anything. “I loved copying grass, all kinds of seeds, and leaves, and flowers. I loved copying thread, vintage textiles. Words. I made collages with words. I put everything in that machine. I put fruit in that machine.”
Although Garnet Hill was years away from being purchased by Home Shopping
Network, by the mid-nineties the company had already gained a reputation as one of the premier curators and distributors of bedding, home furnishings, and sleepwear. Kaplan’s sister, Barbara, had been receiving Garnet Hill’s catalog at the time, and one day she approach Dale, and suggested that she show Garnet Hill some of her work. Kaplan liked the idea, and she sent her work to Garnet Hill in 1994. Not long thereafter, a representative reached out to her, and a few months later, she received her first order.
The order was for seventy-two thousand dollars, but in order to secure the work, a
representative from Garnet Hill wanted to meet Kaplan, and to confirm that her production and manufacturing process could support a seventy-two thousand dollar order. “I told them that I had facilities in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey. I didn’t tell them that that these facilities were my apartment, my friend’s apartment, and the back of a tacky t-shirt store.” Kaplan invited the representative to meet her at her facilities in Manhattan, at Twenty-sixth Street and Sixth Avenue. “The owner of the store was a guy named David Louse. He let me do all of the production in the back of his store, and he called my sheets vegetarian sheets, because they looked very natural.”
Kaplan received the first order in September, and completed the work by that Decem-
ber. Overall, 1994 was a year that she’ll always remember, not just because it was the year that she received her first order from Garnet Hill, and truly began gaining traction with her textile business, but even more so, because it was the year that she started working in Dumbo, and in 73
the same building where she still works today, 68 Jay Street.
Before she moved to Dumbo the first color copier machine that Kaplan worked with
was located in Park Slope; specifically, it was inside of Park Slope Copy Shop on Seventh Avenue. Each morning Kaplan would have a coffee and go over to Park Slope Copy. “I would go over there everyday, and eventually they even gave me my own section to work out of. I would spend hours there.” She was living in Park Slope at the time, so the location was convenient. I asked her how she found her first studio in 68 Jay Street.
“The Park Slope Co-op had a listing that said there was studio space available in
Dumbo, but I had never heard of Dumbo, so I said, Dumbo, what’s that?” Kaplan called the number on the listing and Heather Hutchinson, a visual artist who pays very close attention to natural light, answered. Hutchinson’s studio was on the fifth floor.
“She’s a really good artist. She showed me a lot, and when I asked her how to get
to Dumbo, she told me, ‘Well, you get off of the F Train and you walk toward the river.” Hutchinson is from Arizona and was working with beeswax at the time that Kaplan moved in to the shared studio. “The studio always smelled so good,” Kaplan recalled. I asked here where people went for lunch in Dumbo in 1994. Her answer was that basically, they went to Brooklyn Heights. “I used to go up to Henry Street. Or I would go to the Clark Street Diner, or Cranberry’s.”
I asked Kaplan what Dumbo felt like in 1994, when she stepped off of the F train
for the first time at York Street, and started walking toward the East River. “I loved it. I fell so in love with it. It was so quiet and felt like the urban wilderness. It was so quiet and so raw and the views were beautiful.” __________________
Kaplan has an inclination to tell stories in a matter of fact fashion, and without exag-
geration, though not without enthusiasm. Her enthusiasm for storytelling, art-making, and for life are obvious. On a hot and humid afternoon in late August, I spoke with Shelley Goodman, who Kaplan calls her best friend of over thirty years. Goodman was making jewelry 76
when she met Kaplan, and has been involved with either creating or teaching art since then. They met at a share house in Fire Island in 1985. “Dale has a joy for life. She’s very up. She’s open to things, and she’s quirky, and she’s not a run-of-the-mill person. She’s her own person, and she’s not trying to be like anyone else,” Goodman offered.
Goodman knew that she had met a friend for life when she met Kaplan at the shared
house party in Manhattan, which also served as a chance for the house owners to interview potential house guests. “People would rent a house and offer shares to people,” Goodman explained, “So they would have a party in a bar, and then anyone who was interested would show up, and you would meet the people who were running the house, and they would kind of interview you, to see if you would fit in.” Goodman had no problem recalling her first interaction with Kaplan.
“When I went to this party, there was Dale, and I’ll tell you why I fell in love with
Dale,” Goodman offered, “Dale said, ‘I don’t have an air conditioner, but what I do is, I put my sheets in the freezer about three hours before I go to bed, and then I put them in front of the fan with me while I sleep.’ And I just thought, that’s it, and I was hooked on Dale. And then when I found out that Dale was in the house, I was so happy.” __________________
Kaplan’s love for the her color copier machine is unfailing. I asked her how the love
affair began. “I leased one for many years, and then my favorite machine finally broke. It was a Cannon, but I had so much luck, because someone actually gave me a machine that I could use as a replacement,” she explained. “One evening when I was at a party, on the fifth floor of 68 Jay Street, this guy who was leasing color copiers walked in, and we met. He said he wanted to get rid of this old machine, and I told him about my work, and he just offered it to me. It was a few years old at that point, but it was probably a thirty thousand dollar machine when it was brand new.”
She first came across the idea of working solely with a color copier machine, and
without a computer when she was working within the architecture and interior design field. 78
She started in 1985. “I was working at this company called Bonsignore, Brignati and Mazzota. It was a really great place, and it was where I got my design education. I was in charge of a library that had all of the materials that you put into a building: wood, marble, textiles, furniture. So then when the architects and the interior designers were putting together a space, I would recommend certain materials, and I would help them with the color scheme. I used to write a newsletter about all of the different materials in the architecture and design industry.”
Kaplan remembers being impressed right away by the work of Lesley Schiff, who she
met while working at Bonsignore, Brignati, and Mazzota. “There were people from all around the world there. And part of my job there was to meet artists, who would show me their work and see if there was a way for the firm to work with them. I met with Lesley one day, and she showed me how she worked with a color copier. And I liked her, and I liked her work.” A few years later Kaplan would leave the firm, and when she began working with textiles again, and doing illustrative work, she thought of Schiff. “I just started putting all of this stuff into the color copier. But it was really Lesley who inspired me to do this. I’d slice up bananas and put them on the color copier, vegetables, tin-foil. I put everything in the color copier.” __________________
Dale Kaplan is sixty-two. She stands at five feet two inches, and often wears her sandy
and wavy blonde hair above her, or pulled back behind her with a sizable red or yellow clip (made by Goodman), a habit that’s an outgrowth of not wanting to have her locks obstruct the heat transfers and color copies that’s she’s spent the last twenty-five years working with. Her father served in World War II, and she grew up in Midwood Brooklyn –––– less than a block away from Brooklyn College.
Her sister, Barbara, is two years and three days older than her, and was there as a help-
less on-looker when Kaplan nearly lost her life. Kaplan was eight months old at the time. “My mother took me to a little park near Brooklyn College, and my sister was two and a half, and she was playing outside the park,” Kaplan recalled.
“My mother was outside of the gate with me in a carriage, and it got very windy, so 79
she went to get my sister and to take her home. And the breaks from my carriage unlocked, and the carriage rolled into the middle of Bedford Avenue,” Kaplan recounted the details, as her mother must have told her throughout the years. “My mother was behind the gate and as she was seeing all of this, she was frantic. And then a college student ran into the middle of the street and saved my life.” After Kaplan shared this story with me, she spoke with a grin and a shrug: “And that’s how I started my life on Bedford Avenue.”
Her family lived in a seven bedroom apartment off of Kings Highway, near East
Thirty-fifth Street and Avenue M. The dining room, living room and kitchen were all connected, and you could stretch out within them. There were three bedrooms, a finished basement, and a backyard with three cherry-trees. The place had its own two car garage, and as their landlord didn’t drive, Kaplan’s parents could make use of both parking spots. The house had a porch that looked out over the Kings Highway circle. “There would always be traffic accidents, and we’d be in the house and hear the crashes, and then in the summer –––– with my father, we used to barbecue on the front porch, and everybody in the neighborhood would sit on the stoop. It was real old-school Brooklyn.”
The rent was one-hundred and thirty dollars a month, and didn’t change for the entire
twenty-three years that her parents lived there, from 1959 through 1982. Their landlord’s son in law was the owner of Jennifer Dale’s, the clothing and sleepwear company. “Every year for my birthday I would get the most amazing gifts from our landlord, Mr. Judeleson. Sleeping bags, and nightgowns, and pajamas.” Perhaps these gifts were her first introduction to what it means and feels like to sleep comfortably, and eventually, paved the way for her interest in textiles. __________________
Kaplan went to college four hours away from Brooklyn, at SUNY Oneonta. “Some-
times I would dream about Flatbush Avenue while I was up there. I wouldn’t be homesick while I was there, but when I would be driving on Sunday and heading back to school, that’s when I would get homesick, and it would take me a couple of days to get over it.” She ma80
jored in art history, and she remembers enjoying living out in the country, and away from the city. “I had a friend who was already at Oneonta, and she really liked it. I didn’t have any place that I knew where I really wanted to go for school, so I went there.”
One afternoon in the spring semester of her sophomore year she went over to One-
onta’s fine art department, where she met Peter Stokolosa, who was majoring in art. Kaplan recalled that Stokolosa would always be talking to a group of nuns who used to frequent the same building. “They were very nice nuns, and he was a real character. He was studying French, and he had a terrible crush on me, and he kept telling me, ‘I think that I love you,’ in French. And I would just think, He’s crazy. And then one day he said, ‘Will you sign this paper to be my girlfriend for one week?’ And so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ And that was it.”
They would go on walks through the hills and country roads and trails of Oneonta,
discussing art and art history, and gradually growing closer to each other as the semester and the school year drew to its close. “One day I went to a party out in the country at Oneonta,” Kaplan remembered, “And my friends had kind of left me alone, and I ended up twisting my ankle. And so he called me up, and he said, ‘I’ll come over. Let’s go take a walk or something.” They went walking toward a park toward the top of hill with a clear view of the night’s sky. There was a lunar eclipse that evening, and the moon turned red. “That was the first time he kissed me. He took me home, and he was a real gentleman. He didn’t even want to stay over, which was good. And then from then on we fell in love, and we were together.” Although they’re no longer together, and haven’t been since 1991, Kaplan thinks of Stokolosa as the love of her life. “He changed my life. He got me into art. He got me into film. We were a cute couple. I was Jewish and from Brooklyn, and he was Italian and from Queens.”
Kaplan was candid when she spoke about what it was like seeing him for the first
time at a mutual friend’s funeral, over twenty years after they had broken up. “It was the saddest day for me, because I had lost my best friend, but also because for twenty years I was fantasizing that I was going to see my big love, and I saw him at this funeral.” For months and weeks leading up to the funeral in Westchester, Kaplan started having a recurring dream. 84
“I kept dreaming that I was going to see him, with his wife, and that it was going to be a dark place, and that he was going to mostly ignore me, and it pretty much came true.” Within the German psychologist and philosopher’s Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm puts forth an idea that Kaplan can relate to, when describing her love for and with Stokolosa. “If one is not productive in other spheres, one is not productive in love either.”
She offered that after she saw Stokolosa at the funeral, her interest in her textile busi-
ness began to wane. “I started my textile business after a big break-up in love. I think all of the creative energy that I expressed with the textiles was an expression of love that I couldn’t express because Peter had left. It was just that I had all of this love, and this was how I expressed it. And then after I saw him at the funeral, I started to lose interest in my work, and eventually I felt as though I had said all that I needed to say about textiles.” ____________________ The New York Times wrote about Kaplan as part of their Personal Shopper column in May of 2001, “Dumbo Stands for Offbeat Furniture Heaven.” “Kaplan Text, 68 Jay Street, Room 608 . . . Dale Kaplan creates cotton bedding and curtain panels patterned with multicolor photo transfers, many from nature. Some patterns reproduce 18th-century graphics. Her work is in the Garnet Hill catalog and ABC Carpet & Home. A cottonqueen-size sheeet is $200 to $250; a baby duvet cover and pillowcase, $99; curtain panels, $65 to $80. Custom work available.A sample sale is set for this weekend.”
Approximately four decades before the Times article, Kaplan’s sixth grade teacher,
Mrs. Fishman, told Kaplan’s mother that Dale would be up the creek by junior high. When I asked Kaplan what it felt like, for her work to be featured in the Times, she thought back to Mrs. Fishman. “It made me feel really good, because I was never artistic. I always wanted to be an artist, but I never really developed my artistic ability until I was twenty years old. And when I read the New York Times article, it felt great ––– it just felt like, This one is for my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Fishman, who told me I would never amount to anything.”
Kaplan resists referring to herself as an artist, and instead, leans toward the “creative
worker” moniker. “I don’t consider my work fine art, because I haven’t had the training in art.” 85
When you ask her to describe her work with textiles she keeps it simple. “Basically my art is a color copier, scissors, glue, and a heat transfer machine. And that’s the only medium that I’ve been using for the last twenty-five years.”
Kaplan spoke about the excitement that she felt when she would step off of the
2 train at Clark Street, head North down Henry Street, and make her way to Dumbo in the mornings. “I just couldn’t wait to get to work, and to experiment with new ideas. There wasn’t one day where I had a creative lull.”
Goodman describes Kaplan’s work as layered, or not quite as simple as the untrained
eye might assume. “Dale’s work is very sophisticated. Although some of the work is made for children, it appeals to their parents because of its sophistication.” _____________________
No one else in the nineties and the aughts was designing linens quite like Kaplan’s.
“Garnet Hill loved my work because I was revolutionizing bed linens, because no one else was using heat transfers on bed linens. Everyone else was using heat transfers on t-shirts, so it was a completely new look.” Even with a new look and a unique product, Kaplan knew that she needed a business partner and an investor to help her with production costs. “I was running a manufacturing business without financing, so I was living hand to mouth.”
In order to run a successful textile design business, in addition to the costs of manu-
facturing, you also have to factor in the costs of getting your work in front of people. Garnet Hill and ABC Carpet & Home jump-started Kaplan’s career and brought the level of acclaim and notoriety that lead to the piece in Times in 2001; however, by the time the aughts had arrived, Kaplan’s business, along with the textiles industry across the board was changing. “I did okay until 2001. And then right after 9/11, I met with a representative of ABC Carpet to show some of my work, and she said, ‘Dale, your stuff is too happy,’” Kaplan recalled, “I felt bad. I can’t do unhappy stuff. My stuff is about happiness, hope, beauty, joy, and love. I’m a hippie. I’ll always be a hippie at heart.”
If she couldn’t depend on Garnet Hill, ABC Carpet, or other catalogs and show 87
rooms who wanted to show her work, she always felt that she could rely on her extended family for support. She had an uncle, who she asked that I refer to as Uncle Y, who had loaned her five thousand dollars to start her business in 1994, and had previously promised to help her with the business if things ever slowed down.
After the initial five-thousand-dollar loan, Kaplan paid him back within six months,
with interest. “Every time I would see him –––– at weddings or bar mitzvahs, he would always say, ‘Your credit is good with me.’ It’s kind of a sad story. And then my mother got sick, and he told my mother, ‘Don’t worry, I’m doing to help Dale’. And I was really glad to hear that, because this was right after 9/11, when things were getting really difficult for me.”
Uncle Y was living with his daughter, who was living in the Upper East Side, on Park
Avenue near Ninety-third Street. Kaplan remembered going up to their apartment on a spring afternoon in 2002, to ask him for the help that he had already promised. “I go up there, all optimistic, and I get up there, and the daughter had a maid, and the maid was ironing my cousin’s husband’s underwear, and I just thought, Shit, this is crazy, right?” The image has a way of sticking with you. “I just remember thinking, They must really have a lot of money if they get their underwear ironed,” Kaplan recalled, “It was just a weird visual.”
Once she started talking with Uncle Y, she didn’t hear what she thought she would
hear. “I had hardly opened my mouth when he said, ‘Your business isn’t going anywhere, I’m not giving you any money,’” Kaplan recalled, “And I was shocked. He had told my mother ––– who was sick, and who had had a stroke ––– that she was going to help me, and then when I actually needed help, he just completely shut me down.”
With almost twenty years of hindsight from that afternoon, Kaplan was able to make
connections and see things that hadn’t crossed her mind at that time. “I think it goes back to the fact that I was a woman. I think that mattered a lot more in those days. If I were a male cousin, or a nephew, it might have been different.”
Even with seeing that afternoon and Uncle Y’s ruthlessness through a different lens,
she was forthright when I asked her about what it felt like to hear those words from fami88
ly. “It took me years to get over it. I might have gone into shock. Because I was under this impression that I was surrounded by a lot of love, and that I had a big family who cared about me, and who would always help me, or anyone else within the family who needed support.” Although she was surprised by Uncle Y’s decision, she offered that through the years she did have cousins and other extended family members who helped her here and there. Most notably, she offered that her sister, Barbara, was always there for her.
If you can’t rely on the help of family, then you start looking other places. Daniel Ga-
bay owned a artisanal sheets store in Soho. One afternoon in 2004 Kaplan walked by the store, and the two started talking. “I was telling him about what I do, and he said, ‘You should really tell people about it.’ And he always loved my work.”
Gabay offered to help, and to make an initial investment of six thousand dollars. He
didn’t offer a contract. And as the weeks and months passed without Gabay actually sending the initial investment to Kaplan, it became clear that something was off. “It was horrible, because I didn’t have enough to money to make the merchandise,” Kaplan recalled, “But I went to talk with my sister, and she said, ‘Go get the money, so that you can feel relaxed, and continue with your business.’” Finally, after six months, Gabay gave Kaplan the investment money ––– in all cash. “He gave me six thousand dollars in cash. And I hid it in the back of my color copy machine. That was probably a big mistake ––– what if the machine caught fire? But I just left it there.” She remembers telling herself not to accept the money from Gabay, as there wasn’t a contract, and because he had kept stringing her along. “But I was so stressed out, and my mother had just died. I needed the cash.”
Less than six months later the partnership that Kaplan and Gabay had formed had
ended. They met at Pearl River Café, which stood at the corner of Canal and Broadway back then. “He cut the contract short, even though we didn’t have a contract,” Kaplan recalled, “That’s when he threatened me, and said that if I didn’t give him money from one of the orders, I would never work again.”
I asked Kaplan whether she remembered specifically what she did after she met with 89
Gabay at Pearl River for the last time. “Every time I had a problem in business the first thing I did was call my sister, Barbara” she offered. Kaplan started working on her own again. And with enough faith and determination she was sure that she could make it work. “No matter how bad it got, the thought of giving it up or doing something else never occurred to me. It just wasn’t going through my head.” ____________________
Kaplan has friends of all ages, many of whom live all around the world –––Italy,
France; England, Hungary, Greece, Mexico, Spain, Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Canada, Israel, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine, and Trinidad, nearly all of whom she met in Dumbo in the nineties and early aughts, and who at one point or another worked within 68 Jay Street. When I asked Kaplan what it felt like to belong to a community of artists who were working within 68 Jay Street in the nineties and early aughts, she told me an anecdote about how she met the Italian artist Federico Solmi. “He had come from Bologna, and his father was working as butcher back home, but his father had passed away, and Federico moved to New York. He had a roommate at the time, and the roommate was hitting on him, although Federico wasn’t gay, and he was having a lot of problems, he was really a wreck,” Kaplan recalled.
She remembered meeting him in front of 68 Jay Street. “I said, ‘Just wait here, don’t
leave. In an hour I’m going to find you a studio and a place to live.’” Solmi didn’t move, and then an hour later, Kaplan returned. “I found him a studio –––– 1001, with a great view, and he lived and worked there for years.” Solmi’s work has been shown all around the world: Beijing, Frankfurt, Spain, Israel, Chile, and of course, Italy and the United States. It’s difficult to say what would have happened if he had not met Kaplan. Even if Kaplan had trouble finding a business partner, or a place to show her work, since 1994, she’s always had a place to work, and that place has always been 68 Jay Street. “It was really a struggle. I was very naïve about people and money, and generosity” Kaplan explained, “But I found so much generosity in this building. This was really where the generosity came from. Everybody in this building took me in.” 90
Ringolevio is a children’s game, the rules of which vary from neighborhood
to neighborhood. It’s best described by comparing it to Capture the Flag. All of those kids are on one team (the hunters), and all of the other kids are on the other team (the hunted), though sometimes both teams can be hunters at the same time. When one of the hunters catches one of the hunted, the hunter has to grab hold of the hunter and cry out, “Ringolevio 1-2-3!” in order to cement the capture.
The idea is for one team to catch all of the members of the other team; however,
unlike Capture the Flag, wherein the games would start and end over one afternoon, Ringolevio is unique, as the games would be played over multiple days, and weeks –––– and at times, over distances and between neighborhoods spanning several miles. If you started a game on a Sunday afternoon and a winner hadn’t been declared by sunset, often the game would pick up again (right where it had left off) after you returned home from school the next day.
One of the reasons why the games would have trouble drawing themselves to a close
related to the fact that even if you were caught by a member of the other team, and brought into their jail, someone from your own team could still find a way to distract, demystify, and wriggle around the person guarding the opposing team’s fort ––– infiltrate the opposing fort, and then set you free again by tagging you back in. “All of the kids in my neighborhood would play, and it would be groups of all ages, say seven-year-olds up to fourteen-year-olds,” Kaplan explained.
Success at Ringolevio requires a certain intuitiveness. If you’ve been caught and you’re
in the opposing team’s jail, waiting for someone to tag you back in, then you have to know how to bide your time while your teammates make their way toward you. And if you’ve already been tagged back in, or even better yet, haven’t been caught yet, then you have to know when it makes more sense to try to capture members of the other team, or instead, to expend more efforts trying to tag your own teammates back in.
It’s a kids game and like any kids game that’s worth playing, it carries real life implica91
tions, as it helps build life-skills that come in handy as children move into adulthood. It helps to be quick, agile, and light on your feet, so that you can avoid being captured, and also in order to successfully infiltrate the other team’s jail. But even more important than those physical attributes, in order for a team to succeed at Ringolevio, each individual player has to be able to strategize, to know their teammates, and to figure out ways to keep the game going.
Working as an artist in Dumbo and particularly in 68 Jay Street in the aughts required
not only intuition, but also ––– meeting and knowing people. “In those days everybody in the building knew each other. By the time I got to my studio, after I got off of the subway I would kiss four people, including the UPS man,” Kaplan recalled. “People really knew each other.” Kaplan met a Mexican photographer when she was working in her studio on the sixth floor of 68 Jay Street. His name was Pedro Rosenbluth, and he had an idea for a directory, a hub, a central space online and also in print, where those who were working in the neighborhood could find, support and collaborate with each other. Rosenbluth’s manifesto for the project is still online.
“Dumb. . .art?
A neighborhood that’s filled with artists is bound to be the least common of communities – considering that, even though the arts are all about communication or at least some sort of self-expression, the ways, pace and ideas behind each individual approach are –by need or at least attitude-meant to be rather unique, self-contained, and even mutually exclusive. Actually, being so close to the next artist will most likely propel one to emphasize those differences and distances. So why would artists choose to end up living so close to each other –I mean beside the obvious financial considerations? Maybe the subtly rebellious reassurance which one gets as that scary sculptor or that prowling painter greet us grouchily if not groucholy across the street. Maybe the warming sense of shared isolation as we cross each other’s path quickly and silently... Yes, an artists community is that unique kind of a collective where the parts are more important the whole and where groupiness and sociability are not necessarily the most desirable traits. An area where the fervently freaky or the coolly collected may find themselves without being found out and where they may drift now freely and now fully... charged. A place where the absent-minded can present themselves without being either minded nor misrepresented, that is an art community that is worth its canvases –and brushes... with anything it chooses... to convey –with or without pay... or uses. That’s not so dumb... eh?” 92
Rosenbluth named the project the Dumbo Direct, and almost immediately it took off.
Perhaps its success lies within the fact that it was a hub created by artists, but that it wasn’t just for artists. Rosenbluth’s Dumbo Direct features listings for one hundred and seven different business categories, which are arranged alphabetically, with the most categories appearing within the letter C: Cafes, Car Services, Caterers, Ceramics, Check Cashing, Chocolate, Churches, Cigars, Cleaners (Dry Cleaners), Closets, Clubs, Comics, Commercial Sculptors, Communications, Community, Computer, Convenience Stores, Costume, Curators; though my favorite is the collection of categories within the letter L: Laundromats, Lighting, Locksmiths, Lomography, Lounges.
Rosenbluth started Dumbo Direct out of his studio on the sixth floor of 68 Jay Street.
Kaplan first met Rosenbluth when she was working out of her studio on the same floor. And as she was continuing to figure out how to maintain her textile business, and looking for other sources of income in between orders, she benefited directly from Rosenbluth’s Dumbo Direct. “I got a job with my sister at the 9/11 Environmental Action Outreach program, which was helping everyone who was in Dumbo in 2001,” Kaplan explained, “And the only reason that I got that job was because I had a copy of the Dumbo Direct.”
Even if she wasn’t aware of it, the day that Kaplan moved into 68 Jay Street in 1994,
and began working alongside Heather Hutchinson, she began her own game of Ringolevio. Except the course wasn’t the entire neighborhood of Dumbo, but instead, was only played within the confines of 68 Jay Street.
From 1994 through the present date the mortgage for 68 Jay Street has been assigned
or refinanced upwards of ten times, with the leases and corresponding rents transferred almost as often. As the neighborhood changed, the value that the owners of the building placed upon its studio spaces fluctuated accordingly –––– and as the years passed ––– only went up. Then in August of 2009, the City Counsel, approved a plan to rezone a portion of Dumbo spanning twelve blocks (along Jay and Bridge Street).
City Planning officials at the time estimated that the rezoning would bring around 93
nine hundred new residential apartments to the neighborhood, as the blocks were converted from industry, manufacturing, and commercial use to mixed-use, which allows for residential buildings. These changes to the neighborhood and to the value that was placed on offices and art studios within 68 Jay Street often made it difficult for tenants within 68 Jay Street to keep up, including Kaplan. In Ringolevio, if you’re caught and can’t escape your opponent’s grasp within the time that he or she calls out, “Ringolevio 1-2-3!,” then you’re brought into their jail.
In Dumbo, and more specifically, in 68 Jay Street in the late nineties and aughts, if
you were leasing an arts studio, office, or commercial space, and your rent became slightly too steep as your production costs and sales leveled off, then you were caught if you had to look at the numbers, and decide to look for a space somewhere else. Even after twenty-four years, Dale Kaplan has never been caught, and by the kindness and generosity of the people she has met, friendships she has made, and relationships that she has built within 68 Jay Street, even when she’s been brought into the other team’s jail, someone has always infiltrated, and tagged her back in.
I asked her to take me through each of the spaces that she’s worked out of within the
building, after leaving the first studio that she shared with Heather Hutchinson. “I had a huge studio on the sixth floor,” she recalled, “Suite 608. I was there from 1995 through 2010.” I asked her why she moved out of the studio that she shared with Hutchinson. “My business was doing well. I was doing hand-printed duvet covers and curtains, and so I needed big tables. I was doing manufacturing, and at one point I had seven part-time people working for me,” she recalled.
From 1994, when she received her first order from Garnet Hill, through 2010, she
was consistently earning six figures annually from her textile business, with the worst year floating around one-hundred-thousand dollars, and the best closer to the two-hundred-andfifty-thousand dollar range. In addition to having Garnet Hill as her main client, she also placed her work with ABC Carpet & Home, Bloomingdales, Barney’s, Land of Nod, various small boutiques across the United States, as well as places in Canada and Japan. More locally, 94
she had placed her work with retailers in Dumbo, including, though not limited to, Mel en Stel, Modern Anthology, and Stewart Stand. However, in 2010, things changed when Garnet Hill asked her for the exclusive right to market and sell a collection of pillows that Kaplan had created, with words and phrases stitched upon them such as “Sunshine,” “Peanut,” and “Sweetpea.” This was Kaplan’s best selling work at the time.
The Garnet Hill representative who Kaplan was working and speaking with at the
time requested the exclusive in April of 2010 –––– Kaplan agreed to the proposal, and shortly thereafter began work on the pillow collection. By June 2010, she hadn’t heard anything from the representative, and followed-up with Garnet Hill. “They told me everything was solid, and that the agreement was still in place, and set in stone.” By September she still hadn’t heard anything, and she grew more concerned, as for the previous seventeen years, she had confirmed her order with Garnet Hill before the end of September.
When she contacted Garnet Hill again, their representative told her that they wouldn’t
be moving forward with her work that year. “They were my biggest customer for seventeen years. I depended on them, and they asked me for an exclusive, so I wasn’t looking for any other customers. I trusted them. It really made things difficult.”
A few months later, Kaplan was looking through the Garnet Hill catalog for the Au-
tumn 2010 season and noticed a pillow collection that looked eerily similar to her own work. “Even the description was almost the same as how they had previously described my work; except the artist was ‘Made in India.”
Garnet Hill’s request of an exclusive, failure to follow through, and then subsequent
severing of their working relationship with Kaplan changed everything with her business, and made it difficult for her to stay within her own studio within 68 Jay Street. “This was happening with a lot of people in the textile business at the time. Companies and catalogs were sending a lot of working overseas, things that were previously made locally,” Kaplan explained. “Also, Garnet Hill started out as a small company, but when they were bought by Home Shopping Network, a lot of things changed there, and the way that they did business and worked 95
with artists took a turn for the worst,” Kaplan explained. “When the suits take over, it’s time to run.”
I asked Kaplan where she went when she realized that she’d have to give up her own
studio, and who tagged her back in, so as to allow her to keep working out of 68 Jay Street. “There was film maker named Daniel Kenneth, who also had a studio on the sixth floor. He had a big space, and het let me work out of there for a while.” While Kaplan was working out of Kenneth’s studio, she made a man from Trinidad named Junior, who manufactured ties, and they decided to give it a go together, and to share a studio space within the building. “He was the greatest guy. He had a tie factory, and he never charged enough, and he always had a good heart. He would always have a little cart that he would push around the building with his ties,” Kaplan remembered. “He made ties for the Gap and Banana Republic.”
Kaplan and Junior worked out of the same studio for a little less than a year, and
it helped that the both were in the textile and manufacturing industry, and specifically for Kaplan, it helped that Junior was often able to help with repairs to her color copier machine. Just before 2011, Junior’s business faced the same fate that had recently befallen Kaplan’s, and although he wanted to continue to share a space with Kaplan, he had to give up his space.
I asked Kaplan where she went next, and who tagged her back in. “Allan Hagdad,”
she recalled, “He had a company called Debi-Belt, and he was a master designer of leather accessories. He did work for Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Derrick Lam, Jill Sander, and other top notch designers; the top of the top.”
Eventually Hagdad’s work slowed down, and he too had to decide to move away from
68 Jay Street, and find a different space. “A lot of the work that he was doing was being sent to China,” Kaplan recalled, “He had a lot of materials, and maybe seven or eight workers, and huge machinery, tons of leather and fabrics.”
I asked Kaplan how she met Hagdad. “Everybody knew each other in this building,
people would meet in the elevator, or in 68 Jay Street Bar, we all just knew each other,” she explained, “And in those days it was mostly one person per studio, so it was easier to see who 96
was going in and coming out, and who was working where.”
I asked Kaplan where she went next, and who tagged her back in. “I moved to the
Chabad House, and the rabbi there let me work out of a space on the second floor,” Kaplan recalled, “This was in 2014, and I think I was there for two years.” I asked her what made her leave the Chabad house, and begin looking for space again. “It was just difficult, because I had my sheets and curtains and everything, and there wasn’t quite enough space for me.”
I asked Kaplan where she went next, and who tagged her back in. “Jason Stevens,
the owner of Rebar,” she recalled, “It’s a sad story, they did weddings there, and he ended up going to jail for tax fraud, but even he gave me a space to work out of, in the employee lunch room.” Rebar closed in a dramatic, sudden, and lamentable fashion, though Kaplan remembers leaving the space before that happened. “I just felt like I didn’t want to bug him anymore.”
I asked Kaplan where she went next, and who tagged her back in. “Josh Wolfe,”
Kaplan recalled, “he was working as climate change photographer at the time, and he had this huge space on the fifth floor, Suite 516.” She told me about her time working out of Wolfe’s studio with striking detail. “This was around the holidays when I met Josh, and I asked him, ‘Can I leave my stuff with you through Thanksgiving and New Years, and then start looking for a space?’ And he said, ‘Yes, just bring your things in.” The holidays passed, and Kaplan recalled planning to ask Wolfe for a few more weeks to find a new space. “I said to Josh, ‘I think a need another week because nobody is around. And he said to me, ‘Oh, Dale, forget it. You’ll be our artist in residence. Just stay here and I’m not going to charge you.” Kaplan stayed there for two and half years. “He was so generous. I couldn’t believe it.”
I asked her where she went next, and even though she wasn’t exactly out, whether
there was anyone who tagged her back in. “This was when I met my husband, Allen Klayminc, who is my patron of the arts,” she offered. This was in June of 2011. “He knows nothing about art, but he wants to see me succeed, and he wants to help me continue my creative work.” She met Klayminc through a mutual friend who she went to high school with, Dar97
lene Ozeri, who thought that Kaplan and Klayminc should meet. “We met at a party in Mill Basin and Allen was quite eccentric. And I thought he was very friendly, but not my type at all.” Kaplan offered. “We were just from two completely different worlds.” Klayminc is a retired teacher who taught junior high school in Midwood, Brooklyn for over twenty-five years. He taught math, but when people ask him what teaches, or taught, he always would say and still says, Love and understanding.
I asked Kaplan how they found common ground, and what eventually drew them
together. “We’re both very passionate and we actually have a very similar sense of humor. ” Kaplan offered. “And we both like to discuss the absurdity of life.” One thing that Kaplan emphasized was that she could and still can always trust Klaymnic, and that he’s always on her side. “I needed him, as a grounding force. Both of my parents had passed, and he’s really helped me.”
With a newfound resiliency, and the support of Klayminc, she stared looking for her
own space again. “One day I was coming into the building and I saw that on the fifth floor, they were making the tiniest little space available, right off of the elevator,” Kaplan recalled. “This space was so tiny, it was sixty-six square feet, but I knew that I need my own space again, and so I moved into there.”
This is where I met Dale, in the fall of 2015. A few months later Kaplan moved out
of this small space on the fifth floor, as she had trouble concentrating in a space that was only a little larger than her color copier machine. “All I did was drink coffee and go get snacks. I couldn’t do anything in there.” The space is now used for storage.
I asked her where she went next. “That’s when I asked our landlord about this space
where I am now, on the ninth floor.” Nearly every time we spoke, Kaplan mentioned the generosity and sprit of the people who she’s met within 68 Jay Street. “It’s just interesting how, by some miracle of the universe, I’ve been able to stay in this neighborhood.” __________________ 98
One afternoon in March of 2017 Kaplan was walking out of 68 Jay when she was
stopped dead in her tracks. She couldn’t believe it. Pedro Rosenbluth was standing right in front of her. “I feel like there’s a reason why I was able to get through all of those hardships and hard times, and people being really generous, because out of nowhere, I ran into Pedro, and he told me, ‘You have to bring back Dumbo Direct. You’re the right person to do it,” Kaplan recalled. Although she was interested, and flattered by the idea and the offer, she wasn’t completely certain that she was the right person to re-light the Dumbo Direct torch. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had already been wanting to try something new. “For the last year, as my interest in textiles was waning, I had been thinking that I wanted to document the history of artists who have worked in Dumbo, so my passion was already leading me toward that direction,” Kaplan explained. “So when I saw Rosenbluth again, it made me realize that bringing back the Dumbo Direct would be a way that I could connect the old with the new.”
Once Kaplan realized that re-launching Dumbo Direct was the next logical step in her
career, she realized that she couldn’t take on the project alone, as she had mostly been working analog and without a computer while within the textile industry. She had already known the graphic designer, Joseph Setton, who was born in Paris, and moved to New York in 1995. They had met in 2014 on the fifth floor of 68 Jay Street, when Kaplan was working as the artist in residence with Josh Wolfe, whose office was also on the fifth floor. One afternoon Kaplan asked Joseph whether he was interested in helping her with Dumbo Direct. “I told him the idea, but I said that I needed a designer,” Kaplan explained. “He just said, ‘I’m in.’ He didn’t even have to think about it.”
Presently the Dumbo Direct re-launch website describes the endeavor as an “engaging
platform and comprehensive directory designed to empower creatives and companies alike in connecting, collaborating, and showcasing the products, projects, and services of Dumbo’s thriving community.” When I asked Kaplan how to summarize this mission she offered something slightly more succinct. “There’s a lot of creative people doing interesting things in Dumbo, and they should know each other.” Presently Kaplan and Setton have one hundred 99
and four businesses signed up for the new Dumbo Direct. They expect to launch in October.
Kaplan and Setton decided to shake on the deal for working together on Dumbo
Direct on the day of the solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017. They finalized their agreement on the ninth floor roof of 68 Jay Street.
A few weeks before Kaplan and Setton had finalized how they’d work together, Ka-
plan had taken a ferry from Williamsburg back to Dumbo.
“A long time ago I went to a psychic ––– after my big love affair –––– and she read
my cards, and she said, ‘You’re going to be very successful, you’re going to have diamonds in the sky.’ And so it never happened –––– I had good years, bad years, and some years where I really struggled. Then one day I took a ferry from Williamsburg right up to Dumbo, and I’m not usually on that side of Dumbo, where you can see all of the development. But then as I was walking down Front Street, and heading toward Jay, and noticing all of the changes to the neighborhood, I was looking up, and I started to remember the psychic who was talking about ‘diamonds in the sky,’ and I said to myself, ‘These are my diamonds. Dumbo is my diamond.’”
THE EDGE OF TIME. Andy Watson Photography: Adrian Moens
How long’s it been since we’ve been living here, on the edge of time? I think it’s been some billion years upon the craters along the edge of time. A slew billion years in the rocky pools and green moss between, below shaggy spilling trees and swirling noonday suns. I read you clear and assent your view, that we few, our merry trooping band, have some billion years ranged and roamed along this hollowed curve where time’s breeze fades away. But I add a chip, red plastic round, flat in the center but mostly ridged. I chip your wager; I wonder you: what’s been the haul? Where’s the glory? What use to God or man? Can we happy few, our lively crew, claim as us and ours? How long we’ve trasped, talked, schooled, played in this cooldown quiet spot. Bodies lithe, faces smooth, passions free but tamed. How much we’ve laughed! How long we’ve dreamed beside our easy sea—thinking much, though vaguely. Yes, how grand it’s been! I’m so grateful to this calm spot beyond timespace. Glad beyond glad of good friends on our grand observation deck. But now the ten million strands within my watching, moving being line up and point as one toward the boundless depths, into participation. I must now go down, down to the sea I must go for a swim, and come back again.
_________________ I’m going down, down to the sea. Heading for a swim and won’t be back again. Grateful to this calm spot beyond timespace. Glad of good friends on our grand observation deck. But now the ten million strands within my watching, moving being line up and point as one toward the boundless depths, into participation. ________________ Jack Rabbit Jones, of the Blessed Broke-Out Bunch, donned her dark blue Olympicstyle swimming suit, complete with light blue hair cap and hundred dollar goggles, hugged, with a swimmer’s wingspan-lats and wide sloping shoulders, her fellows farewell, and waded into the softly lapping sea of time until, chest-deep, she, without so much as a backward twist of her enplasticked head, leaned, arms outstretched like a somnambulist, into the warm green waves.
At first the sea pushed against on her like a firm parent, willing her back to shore’s
safety; but soon enough the waves lost direction, sloshing lamely a little this way then that, unable to make up their minds; and so the sea as a whole stood still. Though, naturally, the further she moved from time’s edge, the more definite, willful, relentless, know-it-all grew 107
time’s arrow; soon enough Jack Rabbit Jones found herself once again walking dusty trails through the beige-grassed foothills that lump around the edge of town. ________________ Her mother scolded her as late. Her father, in crisp Saturday jeans and a shortsleeved plaid button-up—likewise sitting up straight at the hardwood kitchen table with white morning light streaming through thin runny windows and effortlessly overtaking everything— set his paper to one side and opined:
“This is this greatest thing that’s ever happened here.”
Her mother, in crisp Saturday jeans and a light blue sleeveless blouse with large half-
pearl buttons, set her small white wide-mouthed coffee-cup into its saucer and pushed away from the table. Both parents were yet trim and their movements deft.
“Yes, you’re right. In light of this miraculous return and the great joy it occasions, we
have to suspend protocol.”
And so saying she approached her daughter, now grown nineteen and leaning, in crisp
Saturday jeans and a square cut button-up khaki shirt, her cheeks red and mouth parted in embarrassed confusion, against the square oak kitchen door frame. Seeing that her mother— who’d spent her distant youth in tragic friendships with short-lived cuttlefish while she with her parents roamed seven seas studying mollusks and other backboneless creatures with no capacity for childish games—intended to embrace her with those robot-moves-boxes arms, and reading in nervously squiqqled lips and forehead around wide worried eyes the desire to dote, Jack Rabbit tossed herself upright and flung her arms around her mom. “Oh Mom! So good to see you!”
“So good to see you!”
And her father, who had met his wife through his admiration for her parent’s amazing
insights into the ideas and passions of cuttlefish, stood slowly up and joined the group hug, reflecting, as he often did when events flustered his space’s peace, that eucoelomates may not think as sharp or feel as deep as a human, but an eucoelomate—with a few exceptions from 108
the simplest phyla—sees a situation and, within its limited but generally task-relevant powers, grasps always a straight line forward; whereas people meander hopelessly, “homo-wallowers” would’ve been perhaps the better name.
Chuckling then, at his favorite private joke, and also marveling at the incredible resto-
ration of his child, now a healthy and stately young woman, Mr. Jones hug-patted his wife and daughter, going so far as to let his chest rest lightly on their enmeshed shoulders. ________________ On Sunday Jack Rabbit Jones rode her bike to Turtle Shell Smith’s house: down a few streets and around a couple bends in a shady old-tree neighborhood next to the petering-out foothills; this neighborhood a little eastward a ten-block, brick and stone, three-story, sunlit downtown; that commercial center itself bordered by a wide sparkling river above whose riverstone-strewed sandbars I once saw, clumped in one barren winter rivertree, a hundred ravens slouching suspiciously, ballcap-heads scrunched deep into their blackfeather overcoats.
Turtle Shell Smith came flying down the wooden steps of her front porch, skinny
arms open: “Jack Rabbit!!” And the two girls, Jack Rabbit a bit shorter and considerably more powerfully built, and Turtle Shell a long vine of a person, embraced on the white shining walkway between neatly trimmed richgreen grass. “I can’t believe it!”, said Turtle Shell, leaning back, one hand on Jack Rabbit’s shoulder, the other plucking, in one tweezering motion, teariness from her own eyes. “Where have you been?!” And then, both long narrow hands on her friend’s muscular shoulders, and with a slight nick of the head for a direct eye-in-eye:
“We had a funeral.”
As they had since second grade, the two bosom friends through thick and thin and
with “best friend” half-heart necklaces drawered since junior high but not therefore voided, rocked gently back and forth on the old natural-finish porch swing.
“So, I don’t understand: in the last three years you’ve been away over two billion
years? How does that work?”
“On the edge of time and space, time basically stops. Like in a black hole. But a black 109
hole tears you apart. The edge of time doesn’t. It washes you up on a curve of ancient black stone pocked with craters, but craters somehow hardened and smoothed as if the whole thing had superheated and melted into a near-glass. All over the stones break and through the breaks mosses, shrubs and trees sprout.
The climate and fauna are somewhere between Mediterranean and tropical. Small
animals from our world, other words, and from different eras in our world and other worlds fly, swim, and dart about. Earthlings and intelligent aliens live there together, observing the universe’s two hundred million living worlds from the beginning to the end of time.
It isn’t the edge of all existing spacetime: just the spacetime that begins and ends
with our universe. Beyond the edge of time lies the Creator—or Really Real—aspect of God, whereas timespace contains the creation—or kind of real but basically illusionary aspect of God. So the edge of time’s more than just an observation deck into timespace; one also feels quite strongly the mirthful kindness of God giggling through, surging into, exploring within, and in the deepest sense being all particular things. … It’s really really cool on the edge of time and space.”
“It sounds really cool. … So are you like—I mean do you know everything now? And
are you like –––– enlightened, or something?”
“I don’t know what all I knew and what all I was then and there, but now those 2.6
billion years feel like a dream and I feel like a kid waking up from the most fantastic, most improbable, most wonderful dream. I hope; I hope there’s muscle-memory and with some effort I’ll regain some portion of my now over-hazed knowledges, skills, and insights.”
“I don’t suppose—I mean could it’ve been a dream?”
“A three year dream? Anyway, it feels like a dream like being seven feels like a dream:
not so much like a dream that you seriously doubt you were ever seven.”
“I see what you mean. I’m sure I was seven. … I’m just about positive I was once
seven years old.” ________________ 110
On the night of the seventh day after her now-famous return to life, Jack Rabbit Jones was visited in a dream by her old friend The Standard Bearer, floating in in its true form, a small lion’s mane jellyfish like you might see hopelessly washed up into some spiteful depression on a white-sand Connecticut beach; but now bobbing free in an ethereal facsimile of its natural habitat, and so looking like a short gelatinous undulating mushroom with pillowy sides, cloudily translucent except for a light orange core (shading to orange-red at the core’s edges) from which descends a short stalk of tubular orange-tinted clear tentacles.
“Howdy, mighty, all-too-privileged human! Taking sentience for granted again, I see!”
“Well now, puny squishy blob I’ve watched dry-out into a few thin tatters upon a play-
ful indifferent beach—how’d you get so lucky as to fathom the concept of sentience?”
“What is the rhythm? What is the revelry by which one washes up upon our sacred
shore? And who’s the luckiest? The one showing up tall, fit, coordinated and aware, or the one drifting in haphazard, gushy, slightly stingy, trapped inside a lifelong stupor of the most transient and fleeting awareness? What is better, to mosey in after lazing through a mostly-forgotten sixteen years of growing awareness, or to start from scratch and so learn every gradient from the foggiest slightest presence within oneself up to this bright, clear, watching, infinitely-informed light?”
“Yes, what’s better? To grow into the illusion as a humanchild, quick-limbed and -wit-
ted, climbing trees, dancing, dressing-up, chasing dragonflies, marching in the parade; chatting and playing with friends, cuddling with your parents beside a bedtime story, learning your times tables …”
The two of them, walking, The Standard Bearer as a soft-faced college kid, though
with a jellyfish’s coloring (inner pigmentation flowing foggily into the outer translucence of gelatinous skin) and jellyfish tentacles dreadlocking down over the shoulders of a shortsleeved white dress-shirt; and Jack Rabbit Jones in her present form, wearing a flowing floral-print cotton dress—through a hedged-in rose garden a magnificent lawn away from an ancient red-stone make-believe campus. The day clear, bright, cool-summer. 111
“How’s it going?”
“Good. My parents are happy like I’ve never seen them before. My dad’s begun
research for an article about the extent to which insects experience joy, and the topic gets both him and my mom teary-eyed most dinner times; damp eyes shut, pinching the bridges of their noses, they nod and agree that the topic is as interesting as it is important.
“My friends have been super supportive. It’s weird that so many of them will be go-
ing off for their second year of college in the summer, but a few will be studying or working in town. My parents are putting together a course of study and a, as they like to say, ‘tutor dream team’ to get me ready for the GED and SAT—that’s their other favorite topic.
“Besides reassuring my parents and catching up with my friends, I’ve been doing a lot
of hiking, reading, praying. I started brushing up on math. As you know, it took a thousand years, but the beauty of math has really impressed itself upon my mind.”
“I can’t imagine leaving all this math behind!”, blurted out her friend, the realization
of how much intricately perfect necessity she’d given up suddenly hitting him like a sidearmed asteroid, which he instantiated in dreamspace by flying, as if struck sideways by a great comet, off out of sight, then looping back around to land again on the other side of Jack Rabbit Jones. His tentacles whipped around and up, then plopped back down en masse about his shoulders. He brushed them back as Jack Rabbit—who had paused her response awaiting his return—picked up the word.
“Yeah, but I think math connected to and effectively influencing minds and bodies in
timespace will be different—perhaps even worth the sacrifice of the boundless math I used to roam. Anyway, soon enough—though hopefully not too soon, as I’d like to experience a full human life—I’ll be on the other side of things, restored to the boundless mathematics of immortals.” ________________ “I’ll never forget the day, when newly lost from rocky dusty trails in brown-bounding foothills, washed up on the bright clear beach where time standstills, I tried to rescue a 112
jellyfish caught by a little depression in the soft white sand. How shocking when the little squishy hubcap seized me by the mind and said: “Stop! A jellyfish caught in the deadly sun upon the edge of time does not die! One only dies in the deadly sun if time’s moving. Caught by a deadly sun just beyond time’s malicious arrow, the most wonderful evolution takes place and a jellyfish learns to know itself, other, and the great God within and between everything and everyone, shining kindly through as bright summer sun shines through a trembling water droplet.”
Everything I know about Andy Watson I know from meeting him at Tea and Poetry,
a meet-up group that I carried the torch for, for over two-and-a-half years. He likes poetry because it become a part of you in a way that fiction can’t ––– you perform poetry, you read fiction. He likes poetry because it has certain forms that you can write within, these forms help with maintaining discipline, and creating stronger work. His favorite form is the sonnet.
When I met Watson at Tea and Poetry in January of 2015, early on, he said that he
was working on a book about love; how we evaluate its authenticity, how we measure it; and come to find it or lose it between and amongst ourselves. He didn’t put it this way, and still might not, but from what I heard, I gathered that he was writing a book about the human condition, which is no small topic to take on. It helps that he had already thought of a way in: Something Deeperism. On the Satuday afternoon in July when we met for this interview, I asked him to define Something Deeperism. “It’s the general world view that’s pretty common that there is a truth, a true goodness, but you can’t quite catch it in words, so the various religions, when done well, can all lead you to the true good, so Something Deeperism is just a general religiosity, but more mystical than dogmatic. There is a truth, but you can’t catch it in words, you have to experience it, and be working constantly to experience it better and translate it better into your life.”
What catches my attention most as I think back to that afternoon; glance once more
at Watson’s definition of Something Deeperism, and consider what defines Watson’s dedication to his craft (whether poetry, fiction, or non-fiction) is the idea that you have to be constantly working to experience a certain truth of life, and that this constant work inevitably leads to being able to translate this same truth better into your life.
Over the thirty months that I organized Tea and Poetry, Watson attended everyone
of our almost monthly gatherings, and actually covered for me when I either didn’t feel like putting one together, or couldn’t manage to fit one into my schedule. He believes in and carries out the idea of constantly working toward something meaningful, and that writing is one of the most noble journeys to travel toward the truth that’s implicit within Something Deeperism. You might not ever get there ––– arriving exactly at a place where you understand and can define that truth ––– but if you ask Watson about the journey, I’m almost certain that he would offer that it’s always a journey worth taking. 120
PHOTOGRAPHY - ADRIAN MOENS.
- Isaac Myers III
Andy: I didn’t realize how nice it was to have an apartment for a little while. But now I do. Now I’m all into it.
Andy: I had to rush to try and clean this place, so ok I guess. I’m trying to be more efficient with time.
Isaac: Do you remember when you realized how much you enjoyed having your own place?
Isaac: How is that going?
Andy: Not exactly. It was a slow impact realization. But it’s nice, and I can only say great things about the location. The Brooklyn Museum’s not far, although I don’t go to it much, but am just glad to have it there. And then the library, and also the park. Isaac: And you walk to work every day, right? Andy: Correct. Thirty-five minutes. It’s very nice. It’s much better, because if you take the train, you just wake up and almost the first thing you feel is just the trauma of having to go to work ––– that’s all that you experience. You get up and you don’t have any time to get ready, so you just have to rush out the door to catch the train. And it’s loud and it’s yellow, the lighting, and there are all of these people there but nobody to talk to, and then the next thing you know you’re at work –––– and it just feels like, Fuck, I have to do my work now. But if you walk to work, it’s just a nice and relaxing entry. And when you start the day that way, it’s a lot easier to think, Work isn’t so bad ––– it gets me up, it gets me to take an early morning walk. Isaac: How long is the train compared to the walk? Andy: The train is shorter. The walk is about thirty-five minutes. If I take the train it’s around twenty minutes, if everything goes perfect. Isaac: So not that much shorter then. Andy: No. Isaac: How are you feeling?
Andy: Well, not too great. I just made the decision this morning. So I’m just starting this. Maybe I can keep a journal of how much I use time each day, or something like that. Isaac: So you’ve been thinking a lot about time, just as of this morning? Andy: I’ve always thought about it often. And I’m always trying to get more accountable about it, but this time feels real –––it’s being recorded. Isaac: So what’s the plan? Andy: The plan is ten to fifteen hours of work after work every week. I was at my brother’s apartment the other day, in Staten Island, and I took a car home with a lawyer friend of his, and I was chatting with him, and it turns out that he’s working from ten in the morning until nine in the evening every night, and then reading on the weekends, as though it were a second job ––– so in total he’s working sixty hours a week. When I heard that, I thought, Alright, I can do more, I have twenty more hours that I could be working. So my plan is to just start with ten more hours per week, at least for now. Isaac: Do you count reading as working? Andy: Maybe I should, especially since I can’t finish anything either. I’ve been trying to get through Wuthering Heights, and Fear and Trembling for two weeks now. They’re both on the floor like, Psst, psst. Isaac: Why those two? Andy: They’re just the ones that I picked up, two or three weeks ago. Isaac: Would you rather tell us about your book, Love at a Reasonable Price, or about Something Deeperism first?
Andy: Well, Love at a Reasonable Price has a lot of Something Deeperism in it, so why don’t I just talk about the book? Isaac: Sounds like a plan.
Andy: Not as small as my brother thinks they should be. It was originally going to be two books.
Andy: Most of the book was written about seven years ago. I was living with my parents at the time, and was walking around and talking to myself, and I couldn’t find a job particularly ––– so I thought, Okay, I’m going to write six hours a day, five days a week, and that will at least be something. that’ll just be like, something. And then it evolved that it wouldn’t actually be me writing, but Bartleby Willard, who is a fictional being, and he would walk into my brother’s publishing house, Wandering Albatross Press, located in somewhere and sometime in Wall Street, and plop himself down on a desk and start writing. And then everybody would tolerate him because it’s a relaxed publishing house, and I would be his editor. And before that, in this account, I had been a sailor.
Isaac: What was the title of the other book?
Isaac: And by “I,” you mean Andy Watson?
Isaac: Maybe we can start there and you can tell us about Something Deeperism?
Andy: Yes. Andy Watson had been a sailor. He’d been a part-time sailor, part-time editor, but he hadn’t caught his fire. But then when Bartleby Willard comes into town, I’m there and I’m assigned to him, and we have good chemistry and we start making this project. And he has this idea that he’s going to produce, manufacture, advertise, and sell pure love in a fictional reality. Because you can do that in a fictional reality. And then he eventually decides that he’s going to sneak it out into the real world, so he’s going to actually start selling pure love in the real world. So many of the stories in Love at a Reasonable Price are about manufacturing pure love, and advertising and selling it, or the pure love customer’s reaction, when, for example, it didn’t really work. Isaac: So it’s a series of short stories and vignettes? Andy: Short stories and small essays. 122
Isaac: Small essays.
Andy: First Essays. Because this one is actually titled Love at a Reasonable Price: First Loves. So First Essays was going to be a companion piece for the book. But I think I’m still maybe going to make that book, since I have the book basically written but it was just a process of trying to figure out what to, which ones to keep and how to clean them up. Part of the reason for having First Essays was so that I could have more space to clarify Something Deeperism, because it’s mentioned a lot, and I don’t want to release a book which covers Something Deeperism without having it clearly explained.
Andy: I think I’m the only one out there peddling Something Deeperism, although it’s a pretty common worldview, it’s just that I made up the words Something Deeperism, as far as I know. Isaac: Trademark. Andy: TM. When I was a kid I thought TM owned everything, I think at one point I said to my dad, Who is this company TM that has everything? Isaac: Is the essay “Pure Love for Sale,” from the Love at a Reasonable Price website, the first time that Something Deeperism is defined in the book? Andy: So there’s an essay on the website that’s also an ad, or it’s an ad that’s also an essay, and it’s getting at how advertising tricks you into buying things, but also comparing the trick of advertising versus the
trick of just saying that you’re selling pure love. For instance, with advertising, the idea is that there’s this part in you that has a vague longing for more, which you can never quite define or satisfy. And I don’t know the reason why it’s there, but in many ways it is the most fundamental desire, and it keeps you strung along forever. It’s just this thing that you can’t quite define that you need deep inside. Isaac: What is the most fundamental desire? Andy: The vague longing. Isaac: The vague longing in and of itself is a desire? Andy: Yes. It’s a desire without a definition, it’s just like give me, give me, give me ––– I need something. You can’t quite figure out what it wants or why it needs it, but it just needs it. Isaac: So you want that longing? Andy: No, you don’t want it, it’s longing. There’s a longing inside of you that’s not defined, a vague longing that’s your core, which can’t be defined. So, all of your other specific desires feel like, I can see what I want here; for instance, a girl, that’s the longing, that’s the thing that would fix everything. Or going out tonight and getting drunk, that’ll do it, that’ll get us there. So everything presents itself as the solution to this underlying solution-less longing. In some ways it makes sense as an animal that you shouldn’t really know what you want, because then you would be done. This way you’re sort of strung along forever, so it can be useful to keep you trying to get things. So my point with this essay is that advertising acts like also like it plays into that idea. It makes you think, Oh that vague thing that you need, that’s coolness; it’s a set of cool friends; or a happy home life. It’s all of these things that you think it might be, and then advertising steps in and
says, Yes, in fact it is that thing, and you know what, our detergent is the thing that will tie everything together for you. So it’s saying that it can satisfy the vague longing. But of course only pure love could satisfy the vague longing, because it’s also vague and it’s also infinite. The vague longing is infinitely longing, and pure love is infinitely giving, so they kind of can work together. Isaac: Are they perpendicular or parallel? Andy: The vague longing is probably an animal thing and pure love is probably divine if it exists. But the thing is that by selling pure love, then we’re selling the one thing that could actually fill the vague longing, so we’re not lying to you on that front, instead, the lie is that we could sell you pure love. So then the joke of this advertisement essay is who’s worse? The ones who act like they’re just selling you detergent but are actually pretending to sell you the answer to the vague longing, or us, who are selling you pure love, which is of course the answer to the vague longing, or at least the thing that would make it not be a problem in your life. Is it worse to be the one who lies about being able to give you pure love or the one who lies about what you actually need? Isaac: So how does Something Deeperism fit in? Or better yet, first, could you please define Something Deeperism as you understand it? Andy: Well, it’s the general world view that’s pretty common that there is a truth, a true goodness, but you can’t quite catch it in words, so the various religions, when done well, can all lead you to the true good, so Something Deeperism is just a general religiosity, but more mystical than dogmatic. There is a truth, but you can’t catch it in words, you have to experience it, and be working constantly to experience it better and translate it better into your life. It’s basically a liberal religious view, I think, and would fit with almost any liberal religion.
It’s pretty much how I was raised. It reminds me of some of the people I met when I was growing up in Boise, Idaho who were Mormon ––– you’re raised a Mormon, and then you have your phase of smoking pot and goofing off and not particularly believing in Mormonism, and then you find out that Mormonism was the true path all along. Likewise, I rebelled against my parent’s religion when I was very young, but in the end it caught up with me and dragged me back, wrapped, as it was all along, about my ankles, up perhaps as high as my shins. I think that it was about a decade ago that I started, more and more, to think, “Belief actually works, it doesn’t actually make sense to doubt forever.” I realized that I was just doubting because I wanted accuracy, but accuracy only matters if something like truth matters. So in that way, infinite skepticism is self-defeating. But then at the same time, if you want to know God, it’s self-defeating if what you know is only an idea about God. Both skepticism and faith are useful tools only insofar as they help us organize our ideas and feelings better and better around the Truth within; which alone has the ability to adequately guide us to real accuracy and holiness. When, through over-zealous skepticism or faith, we put more emphasis on ideas than on that organizational process around that inner Truth, we self-defeat. Anyway, a long time ago I started to think that constantly, self-awaredly, and self-critically seeking spiritual insight was actually a much more coherent approach than either giving up on spiritual insight or declaring xyz dogma ––– which of course you can’t really fathom, understand, or care about anyway –––– as the one True spiritual insight. And so I gradually became more and more enamored of Something Deeperism, and somewhere along the way came up with the phrase. Isaac: Maybe we can start with, or go, into something a little more concrete. Where were you born? 124
Andy: Connecticut. My dad was in the Coast Guard. I grew up mostly in Erie, Pennsylvania, by the lake ––– actually not Lake Erie, but a little town called Lawrence Park, which is next to Erie. Isaac: Lawrence Park? Andy: It was built by General Electric as a factory town. That’s where they make all their locomotives, though now they’re starting to make some in Texas. Isaac: When did your family make their way to Boise? Andy: That was when I was going into eleventh grade. They lived there for ten years, but I was in college for the bulk of that time. I went to school in Oklahoma, and studied abroad in Germany. I was a Sooner. I guess I still am. Isaac: And then you moved to Connecticut, after studying abroad? Andy: No, I lived in Boise after, I lived in Boise for a bit and then Milwaukee for a bit, or near Milwaukee, and then back to Erie, Pennsylvania for a little bit. And then I wandered into here. My brother was cat-sitting in the Upper West Side and I just asked, Can I just stay here, and he said, You better. Actually, he said, Sure. Things have worked out well so far. Andy: Yeah it was one of the two thousands. When was it? It was the Summer of 2012. Isaac: You said it was about a decade ago when you started formulating thoughts that led to Love at a Reasonable Price, do you remember where you were when you first started thinking about those things? Andy: That’s when I was in Erie, Pennsylvania. I had the idea one day, and it evolved. I’ve also written a lot that didn’t make it into the book. The problem is that I feel like I never really set out the
ideas behind Something Deeperisms well enough. So I have a few short essays that I’m going to put at the end of the book, which will just have to be close enough. Isaac: If your brother hadn’t been living in the Upper West, do you think you would have checked out New York eventually? Andy: I never once thought about New York City. Even though my brother lived here for a long time, even before he was living in the Upper West Side, I never seriously considered moving here ––– or maybe once, it was his idea, and I think I just said, Okay, maybe. But nothing came of it. Isaac: Do you recall your first impressions of New York City? Andy: At first nothing fits together. You show up one place and you show up another place and you can’t really discern how they’re connected. I remember the first time I visited Tom he was living in Carroll Gardens, but before that he was living in Park Slope, and before Park Slope he was living in Red Hook ––– so I would just go to those isolated neighborhoods. But I was never somebody who would think, Whoa, New York. I think I just thought, That’s where Tom lives. But now I’m more inclined to think, Whoa, New York ––– it just has so much. It’s infinite, and there are all of these different people moving around, and doing things, and knowing each other, kind of. Isaac: Knowing each other, kind of, Hey man, I kind of know you. Andy: Right, I know you, kind of. You bring the FedEx package to work every day. We kind of know each other. Isaac: What was it like when you decided to start writing for six hours a day? Andy: I did that for several months and that was the bulk of what I now have, the
first stories came during that time. I would get up and meditate and then write for a couple hours. It usually took the entire day, because it would just be two hours here, then two hours there. And I would also count editing and reading what I had written part of writing, so I would usually do that for least an hour or two. So by the end of the day it would usually add up to about six hours. Sometimes I would write little responses, small essays about how good it was or bad it was. Isaac: You were critiquing your own work. Andy: Yes. I had time. Isaac: Would you say that was when you became a writer? Andy: I always had this notion that I wanted to be a writer. I still have that notion, but it’s been forever. When I was a little kid I would write stories and draw pictures to appear alongside them. I did a collaboration with my best friend in second grade. We had a series about Supermonkey, who was a monkey who had super powers. I think we were creating Superman as a monkey. Isaac: Was there a cape? Andy: Yes. A monkey Superman. It’s been a long time since I’ve read those stories. It’s just been a long time of trying to become more serious about writing, and doing it consistently, and actually finishing pieces. I would call Love at a Reasonable Price the first thing that I’ve ever finished. Isaac: Well, that’s exciting ––– cause for celebration. Andy: It is. It just took so long, but it’s good to finish something. ___________________ Isaac: What would you say is the best book you’ve ever read? Andy: I like Melville. Moby Dick is pretty
great and I also liked his shorter novellas, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd. I like Thomas Mann but I’ve only read Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice and a few shorter things. I don’t know the very best book. It’s probably Moby Dick, but I don’t know what my favorite book that I’ve ever read would be. I haven’t read as many books as I would like to have read, but I’ve read a lot of foreign works, mostly because I’ve studied a lot of foreign languages, so I’ve read a lot of short stories and similar smaller works in different languages. Isaac: What languages have you studied? I know German is one of them. Andy: German, French, and Spanish. German is my best, French is medium, and Spanish is still terrible, it’s been terrible for twenty years. But it’s time to pull it together. For twenty years I’ve been kind of speaking Spanish. Isaac: So what’s the next step? Andy: The next step would be to just read it regularly and also go to Meet-Ups, probably a couple of times a month, and then I could probably be there. [We pause for portraits.] Andy: Are you getting the Magic Tumblebus shirt? Adrian: Oh fuck yeah I am. That’s really the subject of the photograph to be honest. Andy: That’s the best part of the apartment.
Boise, and Tom was running a congressional campaign, so I was there for six months in 2006. I was wearing this shirt around town and a few people asked me, Oh you used to work on the Magic Tumblebus? And I would say, No what is the Magic Tumblebus? I had no idea, I just had this t-shirt. But apparently years ago in Boise they had this old school van that had been repurposed into a Magic Tumblebus. It was full of cushions and gymnastic equipment, and they would drive it to like kids’ parties and kids would tumble in it. I think that kind of thing lost it’s fervor. Kind of the same way that McDonald’s used to have cool playground equipment? Isaac: Right. We talked about that, how there are just certain things that you really can’t build anymore. Would you mind reading “Prelude to a Con”? Andy: Not at all. This is the version from my website, well from Bartleby’s website ––– a different version of this piece appears within Love at a Reasonable Price. No longer content to discontentedly fidget within the bounds of all reason and decency, Bartleby Willard and Andy Watson have overflowed those bounds and created this advertisement, this offer, this daydream, this lark, this connivement: An advertisement for Pure Love. We quote: “Another product for now: PureLove. You heard that right: we don’t want to just think about manufacturing, advertising, and selling Pure Love; we want to manufacture, advertise, and sell Pure Love.”
Andy: It’s from a Boise, Idaho thrift store. I don’t know if I bought it. I think one of my brothers bought it, back in the nineties.
What are we about to do? We are about to be an advertiser: to paint a wondrous picture and, without quite claiming as much, stir up the daydream that our product will grant you that picture, along with all your daydreams about what such a picture would mean to your life; and then grab for your money and run.
Actually, a number of years ago I was in
What is the product we’re hawking? Pure
Isaac: Tell us about the t-shirt.
Love. Unlike other industries, our product actually is the salvation you long for. Our trick is that of course we can’t sell Pure Love and so we say that we can’t sell Pure Love, but just by talking about the possibility of selling Pure Love, we open up the old wounds and the old hope-hope motors; and then we gently offer to take your money, allowing the vague confused longings to come to one point and tempt you with the mad idea of a solution, a victory, a salvation that could be knowingly won with one clear and simple action: handing us money. That’s how we con you: with the thrill of a fuzzy dream of salvation. Advertisers more typically offer you this differently convoluted but essentially identical fraud: Some piece of physical or intellectual property (or service), which, according to the subtle suggestion made to your deep dark longings, will somehow magically, maybe, worth-a-shot, may-aswell-give-into-the-heady-hoping-lustingrush provide you with what only Pure Love can give:a consciously-experienced whole-being salvation. Such is the typical routes to the same diabolical end we purpose with the strategy laid out above. So! The victims have glimpsed their fate: let the snaking snake-charming slither-slather pitter-patter salesmanship-isconmanship begin! Andy: Then the next section is “The Con: Sung with Chest Out, at Full Canto,” not the word, just the way it sounds. Isaac: So it’s on. Andy: The scam, yes. I wrote this about five or six years ago, and most recently revised it in early November of 2015, and then again this past May. Adrian: That’s the face that I like. Deep, contemplative, thoughtful. Andy: I’m just trying to remember something, but it’s not coming. I’m glad that the
book is done, and excited to be finished with it. Isaac: I hear that. It’s good to finish things. How would you define serious writing? Andy: For me, to count one’s self as a serious writer, I think you would have to be writing every day for some chunk of time, and you would have to have some vision that you’re going to execute. And then you’d have to edit it. And if you’re a serious writer you finish things. And you’re also pursuing beauty and truth and goodness, all of those things. It’s art. You do it every day, and you think about it ahead of time, and you think about it while you’re doing it. These are all things that I’m working toward. It’s easier when you don’t have a job, and you can set aside six hours a day. Isaac: But you’re still finding the time. Andy: It comes and goes. I’ll go in spurts. Isaac: So Jack Rabbit Jones, where did your idea for her come from? Andy: I’m not sure. I just got up one Saturday morning and started to write. Isaac: Did you know that it would be titled “The Edge of Time”? Andy: I didn’t pick a title before I started writing it. I just started free writing. But the idea of the edge of time sounds neat, and it sounds fun, but really they’re just goofing off. It’s not terrible though, I would love to go to the edge of time and spend a thousand years studying math. Also, I’m always taking walks and thinking, Now, if I could go back to Heidelberg when I was twenty-one and start over, would I study math? But in order to study math I would also have to change my brain so that I could be a math genius. Isaac: A math genius? Andy: Yes. It would be work, but it would mostly just be making beauty in this abstract
way. And nobody would bother you, though you might receive awards once and a while. I studied math for a while, but I could never really get into it. I could never get to the point where I was moving, discovering the beauty within the equations and numbers, even though I had this idea that it would be neat to get there. Isaac: You had mentioned that your parents live in Connecticut now, in New London, do you walk the beach there, is there a beach? Andy: Well my parents live close to a beach. But it’s a private beach. So, I walk along the water because I usually don’t want to start anything. But sometimes we take the dog for a walk on the public beach, a short drive away. That is particularly nice in the nonbeach season ––– you almost have the beach all to yourself and the dog runs around. It’s also nice for me to go to back to that area because I kind of grew up there. I went there for two weeks every year my whole life. So it’s like a hometown in a sense. And I’ve known those beaches for my entire life. Isaac: Is that where your dad is from? Andy: My dad was raised in Arizona. Isaac: Ok, what tied you back to Connecticut? Andy: My mom was raised there. And my parents met on a blind date in Phoenix, because my mom’s cousin’s husband was pals with my dad. So they met, but then it was nearing the end of my mom’s time in Phoenix, and so that was going to be the end of it. But then my dad got stationed in New London with the Coast Guard, so he looked her up. And that, him signing up for the Coast Guard, was caused by liking Moby Dick so much. He was going to have this life where he lived on the sea and also be a writer. He was going to be a merchant marine, because then he would be at sea half the year, and then he was going to write during the other half of the year. But it turned out he was seasick all the 132
time, so he decided to become an engineer. Isaac: That’s interesting. I understand your enjoyment of Moby Dick more clearly now. What would you say is the responsibility of a writer? Andy: Obviously it varies for different writers, in different times or places. I don’t have the sense that I’m supposed to be writing social justice pieces, and I don’t feel like anyone has to do that, or that it’s a part of the responsibility of being a writer. But I think you do have to think that truth equals goodness equals beauty and justice. There’s something to that ––– that sense within, where all of those things are real and they’re all one thing. I just think that if you’re going to make art, then you should, for your own sake, want to stay in touch with those ideas, and you would want to only release things that at least don’t harm people’s relationship with those ideas. You don’t know what’s going to come out when you’re writing, so you shouldn’t just give everybody everything. I think you have to try to have it be something that’s meaningful to you, because it’s helping you to meditate within that space between spiritual and non-spiritual elements. A human conscious moment is structured something like this: It starts out with the soul, however you understand it, then there’s feelings and notions and ideas, and the world outside, and other people. So as a human being you’re trying to bridge that gap, trying to translate the spiritual into everyday life. And then as a writer, you’re meditating on the whole space of human consciousness; from the spirit out, through ideas and feelings and into words and deeds. So I think what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to be in your whole moment, and then you’re sharing that with yourself and then also with other people. I think
good art is the full moment, the whole thing, sort of captured –– not perfectly, but I think that publicly shared meditation upon a whole human conscious moment’s the point of all art. Though at the same time, you can’t drive yourself crazy; so you just sit down and you do the best you can and you hope it’s good and you read it and make sure it’s not terrible or something that will lead people astray, and then you release it, and figure that’s that, you’re doing the best you can, you’re just a person. Isaac: I’d say that’s a solid answer. Andy: Ok let’s go with it. Isaac: This is something I try to ask every time, and it’s something you sort of already talked about, but I’ll ask it in three parts: Where is this all going, what’s the future hold for you, and what do you want to do with your life? Andy: This as in the universe or my life? Isaac: Both. Andy: I go to that Buddhist place ––– The Won Buddhist Temple in Manhattan ––– and they have this idea that for material growth to be sustainable it has to be paired with spiritual growth, and that right now the world is at a real deficit in the spiritual part so the material is crushing us ––– we need to bring the spiritual growth up higher so that we can be better in control of our creations. So I think I share that sort of sentiment that it just feels sort of out of control, the world, maybe it’ll work out, because people have been thinking the world’s about to end forever and it hasn’t. But the future is hard to guess but hopefully it’s not terrible. But I’m guessing that spiritual existence is more real than this one, so this isn’t the end no matter what for anybody ––– that’s my guess. It just doesn’t seem likely to me that this is all there is. 134
But then as far as what do I want to do with my life, I want to know that I’m doing something that is uniquely me, something that isn’t exchangeable with anybody else ––– just to be able to say, this is what I can bring, something that’s fulfilling and meaningful to me. But it’s also being a part of moving things in a better direction as a whole. It’s not pushing things in the wrong way, or just standing off to the side. I think you have to look for a way to be both who you want to be, and also able to be decent and happy at the same time. That’s what I’m still trying to figure out how to move toward. Isaac: Decency paired with happiness. Andy: Right. You want to be able to do both. And it seems neither is really sustainable without the other. There are people who are just working all the time to make the world better, but I don’t seem to want to do that. So I’m thinking, maybe I can still be a writer, and do something that’s fun but still good. Isaac: That’s an interesting idea, right? How to actually know how to make things better. Andy: Right. That’s another thing. You have to be wise in order to know how to move in such a way as to make things better. So then there’s the question of how much time you’re supposed to spend becoming wiser, versus how much time you’re supposed to be trying to live wisdom. These are many of the ideas that I was exploring through Something Deeperism. But as for the future? That may be to some degree up to us. We have to try our best and assume that we’re part of the future, and that our actions matter. And then, what do I want to do? I think everybody wants to live in this way wherein at the end when you die you can think, That wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t a total waste, and I gave a
reasonable effort. So how do you do that? I’m not sure. I know that I should meditate more. And use my days more wisely. Isaac: Why more meditation? Andy: I think if you start out with meditating in the morning it just helps to set the pace or the tone for the day. I think what’s hard is to really believe that life is spiritual, and it matters what you do for real, in this deep eternal sense. And I think if you start the day by doing things like praying and meditating, it has a way of convincing you of those things, and it also gives you more of a sense of what it means to live as though what you do really does matter. You have to be working at it, or else the days just slip by and you weren’t very aware. But if you start out purposely being aware, then it’s easier to be aware of yourself.
Self Portrait as a Still Life Liz Adams I’ll be the robin’s-egg blue pitcher in my mother’s pantry –– Where I would search for silver and linens on fine Sundays. Or, given the choice, a pink peony flush with a whorl of nowness. I’ll speak to you boldly with my hues: titanium white, quinacridone rose. One hundred petals of a story –– each ruffled and veined, Leading to my egg-yolk center of golden ocassions. Cup me in your hands, bury your face in my perfumed core Where the colors congregate before fading at the edges. Set me in the blue pitcher, let the right light catch.
Linens Liz Adams I have taken to stealing napkins at bars Those French country accents Very chic and understated A wishful me Dab at the corners of my mouth Wipe away words I didn’t mean to say I’ll clean the sullied cotton with its Periwinkle striped border I’ll wash it by hand Let it air dry Pressed to a warm window The way my grandmother showed me to Wash a handkerchief I carried hers Down the aisle With its goassamer lace The color of sky, of possibility, of first love Nothing lasts but her cloth of delicate grace To wipe away the loss I still have linens to wash Squeezing out the water Each time remembering her worn hands
“(i do not know what it is about you that closes and opens; only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)” somewhere i have never travelled gladly beyond (excerpt) -E.E. Cummings
Liz has an object in mind: a stalk of broccoli, a subject for a still-life. It’s all set-up, but
some instinct prevents Liz from making a start on a painting. Instead she grabs a notebook and writes “Meditation on a Broccoli Stalk”, one of her earliest poems. Writing disrupts painting. Perhaps in the moment she’s certain of the object, its broccoli-ness – so confident that if she were to delve below the surface she will always emerge with her vision intact. As it happened, she did paint the broccoli stalk, but not before penning a poem. The poem ushered the painting.
In another of her poems, “A Love Song in Four Parts”, the speaker says: ‘nature will
not be hidden / and I will not be hushed.’ The voice will be heard, will be expressed. This insistent drive to be heard is today more vital than ever in the modern era. Liz says, “it’s a good time to be asserting myself as a female artist,” in the context of the current political climate. In a series of paintings of women, we see figures unraveling themselves from ropes and ties – strictures of culture, possibly both, familial and global. The women emerge to a new state in a similar spirit to Liz’s flourishing poetic output. In her words, “the way I’m writing I think is a constant progression and exploration.”
Originally from Marietta, Georgia, Liz lives and works in Harlem, New York. We first
met at a Gotham Writers’ Workshop taught by the poet Kate Angus, the first year Liz began her exploration of poetry. We bonded over an appreciation for the wealth of poetic voices on this planet of ours. Every week we’d talk about a new poet we’d discovered, or a reading or book launch we intended to go to, ever thankful for living in a city that offers up its poetic richness so willingly.
I spent some time with Liz this summer at her Harlem studio (my first visit!). We talk-
ed about her poetry, art, and the relationship between the two mediums; her current trajectory; the places she’s traveled and lived. We talked about getting lost in paint, the merits of writing on the subway, and what might possibly be the “greatest experience” she ever had.
PHOTOGRAPHY - EMILY FISHMAN.
- Tom Davidson
Tom: Hi Liz. Liz: Hi Tom! Tom: How’s it going? Liz: It’s going quite well, I’m happy to have you here in my studio. Tom: Well, I’m happy to be here, and we’re also here with Emily, who is sitting atop her photographer’s perch, the official perch, for this interview. But because I haven’t seen you for a few months now, I just wanted to get a sense of how you’re doing, and what’s been on your mind lately. Liz: I’ve been doing well, thank you. I’ve had a couple of things on my mind. And I guess if I think about it they tie in together. One is that I’ve just come up on my one year anniversary of writing poetry, and so I’m very excited about that, and I feel like a lot of changes have happened in my life, and that poetry has coincided with that, so I feel that I’m very much in a new place in my life creatively. And I also just moved to Harlem, although my studio has been here for a few years, but I just moved to this neighborhood. So I’m in a new building. So I’m feeling a lot of beginnings.
I’m also changing the direction of some of my paintings. I’m not working any part-time jobs outside of my paintings as well as teaching art, so that’s been a new kind of scary limb to go out on, but I’m excited about it. And so I’m feeling really inspired and motivated. And with that, the flip side of that is that I am feeling the pressures and sadness of the current administration, and a lot of my work deals with themes about feminism, and women ––– I paint a lot of women and right now I have two particular muses who I’m working with. And to have a president with the negativity toward so many groups of people, but certainly toward women makes me feel like it’s a good time to be asserting myself a female artist. So it seems like these things are tying together, new energies, inspiration, and pushing back against some of
the things that are happening in the world today. Tom: It’s interesting that you say all of these things. When I came into the studio I was looking around at the walls and noticing some of your paintings, and I was particularly drawn to some of these paintings of women. Could you talk about some of these? Liz: Yes. My current series that I’m developing is dealing a bit with censorship. So these women have something that is either imposed on them, or wrapped around them. So the woman with the flower, it’s covering her mouth. The name of this painting is “Her Mouth is Stopped with Flowers.” And I wanted to deal with this fact that yes, we are feeling a lot of oppression and a lot of censorship, but at the same time this woman is emerging from that, and she’s becoming a powerful figure, and she does not look like she’s being gagged or that she can’t speak. She’s in a place of resilience, and that’s kind of what I’m trying to convey with that piece, as well as the ones that have ribbons and other things that are placed on or around the female form. Tom: There are a few other ones that we were looking at before we started where there were women who were sort of entangled, or I think you said that they were emerging from entanglement or constraint in some way. Liz: Yes! That’s another thing that I’m dealing with. These women are kind of bound, and I’m thinking of entitling the series “Bound, Unbound.” So it’s women who have constraints on them, but at the same time they’re coming out of them. And they’re strong. They’re not feeling imprisoned. They are emerging, and they’re powerful. These are the things that I’m dealing with visually, as well as verbally, with poems.
Tom: There’s also one other one behind us over here, maybe we can just stand up to look at it. Liz: This one was the first one in the series. I did a smaller version of it which you can see over on the other side of the studio. And I was very struck by this pose. She’s blindfolded of course, so she can’t see. But at the same time she has a strength and an awareness of her own presence. It also reminds me a little bit of Lady Liberty, which I didn’t really think about until after I painted. But this image was kind of a launching point for this entire series. This one is “Monumental,” it’s the largest of the series. I also started working in black and white initially, with the idea to go to color, but then I was kind of drawn to this layering effect, and having the ribbon, the constraint, be the most colorful thing on the canvas, but at the same time she feels full of energy. Tom: That’s really fascinating. Liz: Thank you. Tom: Since we’re on the topic of painting there’s another one that I thought would be kind of interesting to talk about, and you had commented on it earlier, “Self Portrait.” What can you tell us about this one? You’ve painted portraits of other women, and you’ve mentioned muses, but this one is of you. Liz: Yes. Tom: It’s interesting that you’ve used some of the same colors as the other paintings, I wonder whether there are parallels with that, or whether there’s a totally different color scheme and meaning and theme. Liz: Well I think you’re onto something because it is using the same palette, which is a pretty limited palette, with the addi-
tion of these lovely magentas and fuchsias. This painting is called “April Fool,” and it’s a self-portrait from April, and I was kind of going through a difficult moment and I wanted to convey the feeling of getting lost in the paint. So the paints and the act of painting are represented by these pink swatches of color, and I’m kind of being them, so it’s as if I’m presenting the paint to the world, but I’m behind it. So there’s a hesitation in that, but then I also ––– kind of like I’m trying to convey with my muses ––– there is some resolve in my face and expression, I’m very determined. I don’t look exactly happy, but I’m very determined. I think I wanted to make this a portrait that I’m present within, but the paint is more important. And so the brightest parts are the pinks that are in front of my face. It’s different from anything I’ve done before, and I’m curious to see what else emerges along this line. Tom: It’s very interesting. There’s also another aspect of your creative life, which is poetry, could you tell us what drew you to poetry in the first place, and where you started, and where you are now? Liz: Definitely. I always have loved poetry, and I wrote some terrible angsty poems as a teenager. Tom: We all do. Liz: Most of us can say that! Mine were particularly terrible. So I kind of just put that away and didn’t really pursue it. And then last year, or maybe two years ago, I was at the end of a long relationship and I went on this journey to Asia, and I just had all of these adventures, and it was just a really beautiful time of self-discovery and getting back in touch with who I was. And when I came back I was thinking that it might be interesting to try to write some of those stories down. And I thought that I might take a memoir class, or that I’d learn more about story telling. And it just so happened that I was
looking on Gotham’s website and trying to find a memoir class, but none of them worked with my time schedule and then I saw a poetry class and it just jumped out on the page and I thought, Oh! I remember really enjoying writing poems. And so on just kind of a whim I enrolled in a ten week class. And I just absolutely fell in love with it every since. It’s kind of been non-stop since then.
this could be a difficult question for an artist, but where do these ideas for poems come from? Is it spontaneous and it arises from an abstract muse, and it’s not really a real person, but you just tap into that? Are there specific themes that you bring to the surface and conscientiously start writing about those themes? How does that happen?
Tom: That’s great. And where do you do most of your writing?
Liz: That’s actually a really good question. I think because I’m a representational painter, and I always start with an object or a model, or a photograph, something that’s my launching point. And I kind of think that it’s the same with poetry. I’ll have an object appear in my mind, and I’ll just go on a journey with it. For example, the poem “Self Portrait as a Still Life,” I’ve been peonies.
Liz: I have two places that I do my writing. One is at a small table in here. And I write by hand, so I have notebooks, and then so in the middle of a painting day I’ll just take a break, maybe halfway through, and just sit and write. And I feel like this is a very good space to do that, as this is around a lot of other things that I’m making, and a lot of my poems are informed by painting, so that can be helpful. The other place ––– and it’s very weird, but I love writing on the train. I love just having my iPhone with me and in my notepad I have just dozens and dozens of poems that I’ve started, and there’s something about being in the middle of all of the chaos and tuning it out. And ideas come to me on the train, and I teach all around the city so I’m constantly bouncing around on different trains and it’s been interesting that it’s been part of my practice. Tom: That is interesting, because I’m definitely not like that. I have to create almost like a monastic situation in order to write. It has to be very quiet and very chill. And most people who I know are like that. So it’s interesting that you can compose a poem and get ideas and go on that journey right in the midst of it. Liz: In the midst of chaos. Tom: I find that very ––– Liz: It is odd. Tom: Whatever works, right? And I guess 150
I have several paintings of peonies, so I’ve really been thinking about this flower. For instance, what can this flower symbolize, and if I’m thinking of myself as a flower, or I’m thinking about a person as a flower, or if I’m just thinking about the colors. So I do think a lot of times it’s something concrete that I see, or an image that comes to my mind. And then I start with that image and see where it goes. And then a lot of times it becomes very much abstracted. And it ends up telling a story outside of the actual image. That’s how I start usually. Sometimes a line will come to me and I’ll hash it out. But I think a lot of times it’s an image that I have in mind. Tom: I was re-reading one of your poems, “Meditation on a Broccoli Stalk.” Liz: Yes. Tom: I love the title. Liz: Thank you. I have the painting around here somewhere. Tom: We’d like to see that as well. And there’s a line in the poem, “I sit down to paint -–- a poem demands to be writ-
ten instead.” So I’m interested to hear your thoughts and feelings about the tension, if there is any, between the two art forms that you’re working in, and also whether some ideas are just destined to emerge in print, or whether some are more visual, or more likely to crossover. How would you say these art forms interact? Liz: That’s an ever-evolving process which is constantly surprising me. But to start with “Meditation on a Broccoli Stalk,” which was one of my earliest poems, I literally did sit down to paint a still-life, and I had it all set-up. I had my limited palette out and I was ready to go. And I just couldn’t start it. And then I started looking at this broccoli stalk and started thinking about the colors and then I just grabbed a notebook and started this poem. And so it really did interrupt the painting process, the poem was coming out before the painting did, and then I wrote the poem and I thought, Well, now I’m going to paint it. And so they coincided. That’s not always the case by any means. But I do think the two languages, poetry and painting, are very intertwined. I will say that I’ve felt very rewarded in poetry, in the way that I can tell a story about my experience and the way that I can process things verbally. And that’s harder to do with paint. You can say so much in words, in a short poem you can tell a story. Tom: It’s unbelievable where you can go, in one page.
Liz: In one page. In one painting, it’s a specific moment, and of course there’s a history leading up to it, but I find that I can go a little bit further with my own interior world with poetry, where as the paintings are more how I’m viewing the world, and external things, and inspirations that are coming to me from outside. And again, when I’m thinking about the muses or models that I’m working with, Karina and George, they bring so much ener-
gy and ideas to the table, and so I get idea from them, and there’s an energy exchange that happens as a result. Tom: It’s more of a social experience. Liz: Exactly, and they’re both artists, so I think they take their work as a personal expression as well. Tom: I remember recently we were talking about John Ashbery, and his paintings and collages ––– in some ways it’s an unexplored area, artists who do other art work, or even other jobs, and what that’s like, and how different mediums interact with each other, and influence each other, and grow out of each other. Liz: I’m really fascinated with artists who are multi-disciplinary. I have a book here by Elizabeth Bishop, and it shows some of her paintings. And I know we know her as a poet, and I didn’t realize that she painted. And it was cool to see the other side of her as an artist and a writer. Tom: And do you feel like since you’ve started writing poetry that your style has changed in any way? Do you still feel as though you’re experimenting with a lot of voices, or do you feel pretty set and established in the way that you’re writing? Liz: The way I’m writing I think is a constant progression and exploration. I will say that poetry really got me out of an artistic block. I was really not sure what I was doing with my paintings, and I had been traveling a long time, and I didn’t know where I was and what I was saying, and everything was kind of in upheaval. And so I spent more time writing than painting last summer, and I will say that I feel like I found a voice, but I feel like that voice continues to grow. And also I’m so inspired by hearing other people’s work, and going to readings. And I’ve done a lot of that this year ––– just
meeting and getting to know other poets. And I do think you’re influenced, in a good way, by what you hear, and it allows you to think of different ways of saying things. I love studying poetry and taking workshops where you get interesting constraints that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. For instance, at one point I had to write a poem about identity without using the word “I.” I have a feeling that my poetry will stay very descriptive, and maintain a lot of visual components, because I am a visual artist, but I’m excited to see how it progress or changes ––– what if I experiment with form, what if I start writing pontoons, or villanelles? There’s a lot to explore, and so I’m open, but I’ll probably always remain a little bit of an imagist, and a little bit of a confessional poet along the way. That seems to be where I tend to stay. Tom: And do you have any favorite poems, or poets who you keep coming back to, who you read and re-read again and again? Liz: E.E. Cummings was always my favorite poet as a teenager. And I love the way that he plays with language, it’s always been inspiring for me. He also is very good at creating images. And so I do like him a lot. I’m also obsessed with Richard Siken right now. I think he’s making work that’s voluptuous and wonderful and poignant, and so I’m reading him a lot. I’ve always liked Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. Currently I’m getting to know Nicole Sealey’s work, and I quite like her work, and I got to spend some time working with her at the Brooklyn Poets retreat, which was an amazing and wonderful experience. There’s just so much out there, and I just need more hours in the day to read poetry. Tom: I can relate. So you went on the Brooklyn Poets retreat, can you tell us what that experience was like for you? Liz: Well I have to say, without gushing, that 156
it felt like one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had. Tom: Wow. That’s a statement. Liz: It is a statement. It was just such a beautiful experience of humanity. I felt like an environment was created ––– there were twenty-four poets and four instructors, and it was just such a warm and inclusive and non-judgmental and vulnerable adventure with these people for four days. I felt like we were in our own bubble, and of course we were in this beautiful mansion in Amagansett, and there was food provided by one of the poets ––– everything was beautiful. But overall I just felt like it was such a safe and nurturing environment, and I haven’t experienced that in any other creative communities, to really feel solid and deep friendships form so quickly, and to share some much respect for each other’s work, and to think that the ages ranged from people in their early twenties to people in their early seventies, from all different backgrounds, and orientations. It was just a beautiful experience, and I think I’ll be processing it for a long time. And I also got to hear twenty-four voices, of different perspectives and different ways of writing. It was really lovely, and I’ve never done anything quite like that. Tom: I think maybe it would be nice to go up on the roof, and we can sort of have a look at Harlem from above? Liz: Yes. That would be where I take my breaks when I just need to have a breather, so it would be great to show you that space. _______________________ [Up on the roof.] _______________________
Tom: So we’re up here on the roof of your building, and I just wanted to ask, when did you first come to Harlem, and what would you say your relationship is to this neighborhood? I know that you have your studio here. Liz: Right. I’ve been in this studio for about four years. And it was my first time having a studio without sharing a space, so that’s been a great experience, just to have my own space. It’s a luxury in New York. I currently live right across from Marcus Garvey Park, and so I just have to walk across the park in order to get home. And I just moved into that space in June, so I’ve only been living in Harlem for about six weeks. But it’s nice to move somewhere that I know already, having worked here for four years. I love the neighborhood. It has a lot of energy and it feels like it’s a part of New York that’s definitely changing, but it has an old New York vibe, with the old bodegas that have been here forever, and there’s a lot of gorgeous architecture up here. I live in the top floor of a brownstone that’s turn of the century, and it’s really quite a lovely space. And it’s a very friendly neighborhood as well. I’ve been happy to get to know the neighborhood, and the people who either work in this building or live close by. Tom: And you’ve lived in other neighborhoods in the city as well, right? Liz: I have. I’m someone who has hopped all over New York. I’ve lived in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in Queens. I’ve lived in New Jersey. I’ve lived in the Upper West Side. And I’ve lived Downtown. I kind of like that though. I’ve gotten to know the city really well. I feel like there’s hardly a train that I haven’t had a regular commute on at some point. And New York, it’s funny because geographically it’s not that big, but it’s just huge, and each neighborhood has a different vibe. But this is a place that’s quite
lovely and fits well with me, and I believe that you can put something out into the universe and see what happens. And so I really did say, I want to live in Harlem, and then it happened, and I’m quite happy about that. Tom: So where did you grow up? Liz: So I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, which is a suburb of Atlanta, and so I tell people Atlanta. And I moved to New York thirteen years ago, and so I definitely feel like New York is home. I came here to go to art school for one year, and here I am thirteen years later. Tom: It happens. Liz: Yes. That’s how it happens. It’s been a love affair, for sure. Tom: And so you mentioned that New York is your home. Have your feelings about home evolved over time? Or did it take a long time to fall in love with New York, or was it love at first sight? Liz: It was definitely love at first sight. I came to New York five years before I actually moved here, and the minute that I got off of the plane I just absolutely loved everything. And I remember telling myself that I really needed to figure out how to move here. And I actually did get a chance that same year to come up to New York and study for a semester at the Art Students League of New York. I distinctly remember ––– because I could only stay three months, because that was about how much I could afford, and I took a picture of my feet in the school, and I told myself, I’m coming back, as if I was making this promise to myself, I’m coming back, and it took a couple of years, but I got back up here, and studied for a few years. And there are so many things that I love about New York, but really it’s the diversity and the culture and the energy. And I feel like I’ve become a different person 157
than I would be had I not lived here. I’m sure most people who move here have that experience. I just feel like I’ve been exposed to so many different experiences, and have been so inspired by so many different people, and just this small plot of land that is just bursting with buildings and people and schools and museums, it’s phenomenal, and it has definitely become home. I dream about going to other places, but I always feel like I want to come back here. Tom: You mentioned that you travel often, and you’ve recently made a trip to Berlin, and you’re going to France soon. What would you say your relationship is with those places, are they just places that you go to in order to recharge, and then come back? Liz: I know that travel is a luxury, and I’m very grateful for the times that I do get to travel, and to me it has been a wonderful way to step back from life, and like you said, recharge, but I also get a lot of ideas when I travel. I get a lot of help with either big life decisions, or with creative ideas. It’s almost like the way New York was to me early on, because now I know it so well, but when I go somewhere else, and I’m new there, and I meet people who are from there, and get their different perspectives and see new things ––– it just helps, because then I can bring that all back to New York. I have this dream of at some point living in two different places, because New York is hard to live in all the time, as much as I talk about how much I love it. The flip-side, of course, is how all of the people who live in New York complain about how horrible it is here ––– so crowded, and people are cranky, and the subway’s terrible, and all of that. Tom: I found that when I first moved to New York I was primarily very overwhelmed by it, mostly because I had moved from somewhere that was very small. But at the same time, this place is filled with so much vital160
ity and energy that you can become the person who you want to be, as supposed to where I was before, I didn’t feel constrained in any way, but on a very subtle cultural level there was a do’s and don’ts that it was very easy to be aware of. For instance, in England I just felt like there were certain things that I could do and should do, but also certain things that wouldn’t be so easily accepted. And there was an element of judgment that was a part of the smaller community. Liz: Definitely. Tom: And so coming here, I just felt very liberated. Liz: It’s so open. Tom: I just thought, okay, I could actually write poetry and become a poet. Liz: Yes! You can re-invent yourself. I relate to that. It’s really nice to be somewhere that’s so open.
I Think it Wouldâ€™ve Made You Happy Abigail Conklin I wanted to call, tell you how impossible it was to see the ocean even as it commandeered every square inch of air above the headless cage of the Manhattan Bridge. How my breath, deepening, drew air no longer made lazy by the 90 degree evening, but urgent zephyrs of split-open springâ€™s first dispatches of the season: messengers from Pharaoh. Your daughter, screaming from the top of the world.
Seasonal Social Events Abigail Conklin The last time we had to see each other, I slipped out without saying goodbye. Avoided admitting I could –– can –– still feel the warm wealth of you, seeing me How the joy of it filled my skin with the moon.
Abigail Conklin is decisively, expressively human: vulnerable, insightful, wise, and not
without a disarming sense of humor and wit. Indeed, the first time I met Abigail, we were laughing within mere seconds of our first exchange, and this interview was no different ––– when I left her Washington Heights apartment earlier this summer, my face hurt, the corners of my mouth were dry, my eyes watery and my throat more than a touch scratchy and sore. I doubt I’d laughed as hard, or as long, or as many times in a single afternoon in some time. But it’s what our resounding laughter framed that afternoon that defines the pulp of this interview ––– the reverent composure of Abigail’s character. It’s apparent in her poetry, voice and cadence, and her sensitivity to the places, moments and inhabitants of New York City, that Abigail Conklin truly is, as her sole refrigerator magnet suggests, the STRONG FEMALE PROTAGONIST of her own story.
“Keep your shit,” Abby says with biting sensibility. The words resonate like a mantra
from her roots as a born and raised New Yorker, through her sojourn in the Midwest, and back to the table at which we now sit. It’s as if she’s proposing a way of life that defines hard work through the accumulation of recorded experience, and that each experience and place ––– the people she sought out, or those whose paths simply converged with hers ––– become part of her unending paper trail.
There are instances of great care and admiration for others in her words, and when
she says “I write because I want my work to be useful to other people,” I believe her. As we spoke I discovered an inherent humility in her process, and within that humility Abby plays both an outgoing, exuberant and charismatic optimist as well as an insightful, curious, internalizing artist. To be sure, as we sat at her kitchen table, waxing casually about fear; failure and shame; the process of making a poem; and how the cross sections of our lives might inform one another, I felt I was in the company of a very aware and present human, who seeks to give back to the communities around her.
PHOTOGRAPHY - ADRIAN MOENS. 172
Adrian: Thank you for the water. Abigail: I have a lot of it. Adrian: And gigantic cups. What is this, a pint and a half ? Abigail: Beats me. It’s good for you, though. Have more. Adrian: I will have more. I’ll have a lot more.
Abigail: Right. Which unfortunately I can’t deliver on, either. But I have a lot of new material. I had a bunch of transitions in my life this past May, so between packing for a move, wrapping up one job, getting ready for another, and a bunch of other stuff, I didn’t write a lot for a while, but since then I’ve been able to write a lot of new work. The new work feels different to me.
Abigail: Whenever folks, my coworkers or folks that I work with on the teams I’m on, whenever they’re like, Oh, man I’m so stressed out, the first question I ask is, How much water have you had today? and the second question is, Are you in crisis? But the first question is always, Are you dehydrated?
I think it feels sharper, and I think it feels cleaner than it has been before. So I was excited for the reading, and to try new material out. And I won’t say the crowd was completely not there, because they were trying in their theater kid way, but it was a very, very small, last-minute-planned event, and in that way I think it was a bit rough. When the energy is low in a room it can be hard to get through a set.
Adrian: Usually I ask that question way too late. If you’re asking, Are you dehydrated? then it’s an indication that you’re asking too late.
Adrian: Do you think that has to do with the size of the crowd? Or is it just the energy of the room? For instance, could you be reading to two people and have a great reading?
Abigail: I ask about crisis too late.
Abigail: I think so, but because I’ve been at this event when it’s packed to the gills, I know how amazing it feels when you have the full room, and in that way I’ve been a bit spoiled. With that said, I have performed in large venues with a crowd on mixed performance nights ––– so the people were there more for the music than anything else--- so then when the poet came out . . . no one ever knows what to do with the poet!
Adrian: How was your reading last weekend? Abigail: It was okay. It was a small crowd, and I love the event, but it’s run by a bunch of theater kids, so if the room is small it can be very difficult to play to… they’re sort of confounded by poetry. You’ve seen me perform, and you know that I’m not a slam performer, or a super dynamic performer in the way that, when people hear me read, they say, Oh, you’re a poet! Adrian: So they’re expecting more of a slam poetry style? And in their mind, you’re a slam poet. Abigail: They want it to be Eminem without 8 Mile, drugs, laughter, and ideally not Detroit. Adrian: But with Brittany Murphy?
Adrian: It’s always awkward. Abigail: To be fair, I don’t know what to do with me either, half the time. I understand where everyone’s coming from. But I do think we need to make clapping a thing. I think that having a clattering noise after a poem is really good for making people realize that a poem is a living thing. I’m not standing at the Louvre and looking at the Mona Lisa in its little glass box and thinking Ah yes, I feel the cosmos at work in me and in her together when I’m performing. 173
I’ve even prompted an audience, when they’re in that moment of, Do we snap, do we clap? I’ve said, Clapping is totally fine. You’re welcome to respond to the poems because I’m making them, and they’re a maker’s project. But people very often still see the work as a foreign object. Adrian: I kind of get it. Because I think there’s a certain expectation that poetry is a very dense art form. Abigail: And elite. Adrian: That too. Abigail: And ethereal. Adrian: Right. And the thing is, you’re not reading a fucking elegy, as if someone has just died in the room, and your words have just fallen from your mouth and spilled onto the floor, and everyone is just gaping. Abigail: And the autopsy is really uncomfortable for everyone. Adrian: But from your point of view, I think that clapping is especially necessary as part of a performance. It closes the gap between the audience and the performer a little bit, but when there’s silence there’s just this void that opens up. Abigail: Just yawns and yawns and yawns. Adrian: What do I do with this? That sort of thing. Abigail: It is. Though I’ve never performed on a clearly-defined stage or in an auditorium. I think that would be really difficult to work with, and knowing me ––– having been an educator and been in pedagogical positions –––– I think I would end up pacing around the room and using the aisles and roaming as I performed, and I’m not sure if that would take. So there’s a lot to be said for the smaller rooms without stages. My favorite events are the ones where everyone is quite close together, as those spaces 174
sort of demand that the performer and the audience see each other. Because I could poke someone in the nose in between a poem, or even during a poem, and they could pull my paper out of my hands. Adrian: So you’re more inclined to read in those spaces, with everyone on the same level ––– where you’re not on a stage and there’s no power dynamic. Abigail: Yes. Also, I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m kind of shallow in terms of my poetry, because I want people to respond to it. I write because I want my work to be useful to other people, and so it’s critical to me that I get reactions from people. So if the reaction is always a resounding silence, then I can’t tell whether the poem didn’t land, or that group in particular just doesn’t know what to do with poetry. Adrian: What about a half-hearted clap? Abigail: Well, then it’s pretty clear. And you can say, okay, that’s all right, that didn’t work. And from there, you can work on figuring out why certain poems might not work so well when they’re read aloud. Adrian: Do you write for the page, or more for how it sounds when you read it? I ask because it seems like you’ve been reading your poems aloud and performing your work a lot lately. Abigail: I have been. And it’s been very cool because I’ve worked hard at poetry for a long time now. I couldn’t perform well for the first two years of performing it. I was just doing it because I knew I had to. I knew that I had to get good at it, because in some ways, it’s the only way to really market and sell your work. As I put it to a friend recently, I’ve had to hustle my work into existence. I knew that I was going to keep writing poetry no matter what, and so I just kept pushing it and pushing it and pushing it.
And then earlier this year, at one point after I did some reading with the Poet’s Settlement open mic, Terrance Degnan pulled me aside and said “You’re getting there now. It’s taken you a few years, but your performing is there now.” And I’ve heard similar comments from people who have heard me read over the years. I feel like I started hitting my stride with it a year ago, but of course, I also still think I have a lot of growing to do. Adrian: When do you not have a lot of growing to do? Abigail: That’s kind of a thing! Adrian: That’s cool that Terrance pulled you aside and gave you that compliment on your work. Abigail: It was cool. He said that what I’m producing is really valuable. Adrian: That’s so good to hear. Abigail: It really is good to hear. My most powerful work isn’t appealing to magazines right now, but that’s fine. I just keep performing it. Adrian: I don’t think the opinions of magazines can really be the metric of good and bad. Abigail: They’re not the arbiters. I had a really great moment, where I had a piece accepted, which will come out in October. The poem is called “Feminine,” and it has teeth. It’s an angry poem. I remember when I sent the first draft out for feedback, one peer wrote to me and said, “Are you okay?” Adrian: That’s what I want my poetry to do. Abigail: I said, “I was actually in a really good place when I wrote that, but thank you! Noted!” And when I was told that the poem had been accepted, I was shocked, because poems that are as in your face as “Feminine” are rarely picked up. I also sent it to a friend of mine, who is the co-founder of a radio 176
station in Brooklyn (TK Dutes at Bondfire Radio), and she texted me back, “I fucking growled out loud reading that shit!” Adrian: Yes. Abigail: That’s all I needed. And it’s really wonderful because I know that something with that much of a punch will land maybe once a year if I’m lucky. And so I’m still riding that, and for the rest of my life I will quote my friend’s saying that she growled when she read the poem. How great is that? Adrian: It’s a great response. Abigail: Yes! Adrian: I think that’s the kind of response that makes poetry work. Abigail: Exactly. Adrian: When it means something to somebody like that ––– when you get a physical reaction. Abigail: Right. And at that point it’s not yours anymore. Adrian: It certainly isn’t. __________________________ Adrian: Do you write every day? Abigail: I try to. I’m not very organized about it. I have eighty billion notebooks. This is the one right now [indicates a notebook on a nearby table] that’s getting the most action. But I would say that I write most days. Adrian: What’s your process like? How do you know when you’ve got a poem going? Abigail: Sometimes it will walk in fully-formed as a concept. For instance, “I Think it Would’ve Made You Happy,” that line occurred to me entirely intact. At one point that poem had a different title,
but the opening line walked in (“I wanted to call, tell you.”) and I thought, Okay I’ll keep that. Sometimes I can remember those ideas for long enough to work with the shape of them. And from there, I can make something out of them. But sometimes I lose them because I write the thought down and come back to it a while later and think, What the hell was this? And the moment’s gone. But most of the time, finding the root of a poem as opposed to actually writing a poem is a totally different process. I’ll usually do a lot of free-writing during the week, and then will take most of my Sundays transcribing all of my notes, and everything from my notebook, into my laptop. Then as I transcribe it, I start noticing shapes, ideas, and line breaks. It’s rare that a poem emerges when I’m free-writing. The poem usually comes later. Adrian: So the ideas get shaped into poems. Abigail: Yes. I love having a laptop for that reason. As much as I don’t like being dependent on screens, I love the immediacy of being able to try different line breaks ––– to try one, read it, and then take it back off again. It’s so satisfying! I’ll think, Did that work? Let me try it this way. One other option for me has been to take an entire poem, cut it out into pieces, and then rearrange it in that way. But I’ve also lost entire poems when I’ve worked this way. Material objects and I have a very bad relationship. I have to chew on stuff for a while, but I’m talking to myself internally most of the time. I’m trying ideas out as I’m observing events unfold. Maybe I’ll throw a couple lines out there, just mentally. Adrian: It’s amazing how often things don’t work.
Abigail: Oh my god! I have a shelf full of notebooks to prove it! __________________________ Abigail: A few weeks ago I gave a lecture on being a poet. Adrian: Where did you give the lecture? Abigail: I have a friend who teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Oklahoma. She had me Skype in, and I taught the class for a day. One of the major points in my talk was, Just keep all of your shit. If you do it all electronically, sock it away on flash drives, or whatever suite you use online. I keep all my notebooks. [pointing] That was the bucket of notebooks I hauled over here when I moved. It was easily the heaviest thing that wasn’t my bed. Adrian: Well that’s beautiful. How far back do those notebooks go? Abigail: Mind you, I’m still finding stuff at my parents’ house, so there’s writing from when I was much younger in their basement. When I was fourteen or fifteen. The writing that I have here is from the age of eighteen forward ––– almost a decade’s worth of dithering on. That doesn’t include the margins in all my college notebooks, or every goddamned notecard that I had in my backpack in Michigan that has since been thrown away. I leave a literal paper trail. You can find me. Adrian: So you could be finding writing for years. Abigail: My whole life. Adrian: That’s amazing, to think that something you wrote down a decade ago could become a poem today. You’re finding relevance and connection with your past. Abigail: One of my college roommates is getting married this fall, and we were reminiscing recently. She was one of the first friends I had in college and she would say Abby’s 177
a poet. She does other things, like youth programming, but Abby’s really a poet. I just really remember that moment of being seen. Adrian: Being seen as a writer and being seen as a poet? Abigail: Yes. Adrian: You went to school in Lansing? Abigail: East Lansing. Adrian: It’s hard for me to imagine you in Michigan. Abigail: Really, why? Adrian: East Lansing. I know people who went to that school. Abigail: “That school!” Adrian: It seems like if you were going to be in Michigan as a writer, then Ann Arbor would be the more obvious choice ––– just because it’s a hippy-dippy town with cool bookshops. Abigail: I didn’t like Ann Arbor. I still don’t like Ann Arbor. I’m only ever there when someone has died. But I do appreciate the food scene there. The restaurants are great! Adrian: When someone else has died? Abigail: Families are big! Occasionally someone gets married and that’s cool too, but generally, we’re up there because. . . . Adrian: The only time you go back to Michigan is when somebody dies. Abigail: Not Michigan overall, but Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a lot of family stuff. The rest of Michigan is fair game. But I never liked it because it felt as thought it was stacked too much upon itself, and it was going to fall in.
The University of Michigan thinks it’s pretty great, and so I wanted a university that was just a little more lame. I was so tired back
then. We had moved from Brooklyn, and then we moved to northern Virginia, and I just remember thinking toward the end of my high school career, I cannot be surrounded by these people who think so highly of themselves. I cannot do this. The beautiful thing about Michigan State was that I met people from not only everywhere across the world, but also wide swaths of people from every possible social class and socioeconomic status. I was surrounded by a lot of people who were thinking “I’m never leaving Michigan. I’ll be here. I’ll work here. Maybe I’ll move to Detroit for a couple years for my wild and crazy youth, but then I’ll come back to Lansing. I’ll go back to Birmingham. I’ll go back to Manistee. I’ll go back to the Upper Peninsula. I’ll go back to Iron Mountain and that’s where I’ll stay.” There were just a lot of people who held that mentality. Adrian: What did you study at Michigan State? Abigail: I went to the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. Adrian: And you were studying education there? Abigail: Youth and community development. Adrian: Right, because you’re not a teacher. Abigail: I’m not, but I’ve done everything around the classroom. Adrian: So your writing, and your work in youth and community development, how have they informed each other? Are they two different avenues of thought for you? Do they run perpendicular? Do they run parallel? Do they cross reference each other at certain points? Abigail: They do. At least in my head they do. I’d say it’s like a double lane highway. They’re right next to each other the whole
time, and occasionally there’s construction so they have to share a lane. A lot of the more political work that I write, or the more jarring work, is informed by working in public schools and working with public school students. I’m really careful though. For instance, throughout the years that I worked in East Harlem… When I look through the writing that I have from that time period, I feel really weird about using those for publication or performance. Although I think that some people could find it useful to know how the experience of working in difficult communities can totally blindside you, or even ruin your life, when I look through that work I weigh it a lot. For now it still sits with me, and I keep it. With that said, writing will be the first to go if I’m in a situation of high stress, or if I have a lot going on emotionally. I probably won’t write for a little while. It’s an interesting question though, whether my work with youth and communities appears within my writing, because with a lot of what I’ve had published, people wouldn’t read it and think “Oh, she must work in youth and community development.” Adrian: I think there’s some real value to that also, that they exist beside each other but don’t necessarily interact, or when they do it interact, it becomes a more powerful experience. I know from my own art making perspective, trying to smash two things together doesn’t always work. With that said, sometimes I feel as though my experiences working in the interior design industry are valuable and I should utilize them to write and use them in a creative way. Abigail: That voice is always there! The one that says, You should really be making use of this time.
_______________ [We take a quick water break.] _______________ Adrian: So you’ve lived in other places; East Lansing, Northern Virginia. But you were actually born in New York? Abigail: Yes. And I would call myself a New Yorker. I’m comfortable with saying that. Adrian: Why? Abigail: I was born in St Vincent’s hospital, one of the most significant medical establishments in the city’s history, in the middle of the AIDS crisis. Born literally on the last day of Pride month. I was raised in Brooklyn, then we left in the nineties, just as everything really started changing. We were part of the diaspora that was pushed out, and my whole life, my whole understanding of identity and gender, changed after I left New York. I didn’t realize that the city had given me so much. This was the only place I’d ever lived where it was acceptable to be literally whatever the fuck you wanted, as long as you were a decent person. Virginia was the place where people would tell me not to bother with being a writer, because I’d never make money. New York has many wrong and shitty things going on, but New York does its best not to ruin hope in all people. There are exceptions to that, of course. I’ve also worked with kids who have lived and have grown up here, and I think once you’ve worked with the children of a place you can say that you belong in that place because you’ve put the work in. But that’s my read. There are plenty of folks who would tell me I’m not a New Yorker, and I get that, because their loyalties look different than mine.
Adrian: How so? Abigail: I didn’t grow up entirely in one particular neighborhood. I have a very different relationship with the city. My understanding of identity is different. Adrian: That reminds me of an experience I had recently in Chicago. I was there visiting a friend, and she’s dating somebody who is in prison, who grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. We were talking on speaker phone to him while I was there, while he was in prison and I was at her apartment in Hyde Park. At one point during the call he asked me how I was doing and why I came to Chicago, and I said, Well, I just came here to chill out and relax, and he laughed. And it was at that moment when I realized I was talking to someone who had never had, and was never going to have, that experience. Abigail: He was never going to come home to Chicago and think, Oh, thank goodness. Adrian: Right. He grew up in a place where people killed each other every day, and it was not a chill or relaxing place to be. So I get that ––– people have very different perspectives on a place, depending on where you’re from. It’s important to think about, what it means to be from a place.
don’t have all the details, but as I’ve been told, when they went to enroll my brother for kindergarten that last year we were living here, there were too many kids and not enough kindergarten seats. So they just said, Come back next year, it won’t kill him. Or you can put him in private school. And my parents thought, With what money? So they knew, just based on that, that it was time to leave New York. That was when the having to apply for middle school thing was really kicking in. The idea that you have to apply for middle school here, you have to apply to twelve different middle schools and hope that one picks you. That’s how fifth graders spend their fifth grade year, and my parents just thought, The fact that there’s no guaranteed education for our children for free, even though that’s an inalienable right… That changed things. But they also had two young kids, and so they were thinking, All right, we should be thinking about buying a property now, this is the point in life. But the landlord wouldn’t let us buy the place that we were in, which was in the bottom two floors of a brownstone, and even in other places where they looked, they couldn’t find anything bigger than that. It was always going to be the bottom two floors of a brownstone.
Adrian: So was Virginia the only place that you lived outside of New York, before you moved away for school in Michigan?
It was insane how much development appeared out of nowhere, and just how everything changed. I get lost in Park Slope all the time now, because I used empty lots and the McDonalds on Fifth Avenue as guide posts, and I’m just . . .
Adrian: There are no more empty lots?
Adrian: What took you to Virginia?
Abigail: There are no more empty lots! There’s a Connecticut Muffin that’s still there, along with one restaurant which I grew up going to. I lost a tooth there in a cheeseburger when I was six.
Abigail: My grandmother, my mum’s mum, had passed away the year before, and so my grandfather was alone in DC. At the time one of my dad’s siblings, his oldest sister, was living in DC, with my cousins. And I
Adrian: And that restaurant is still there? 183
Abigail: It’s still there. Adrian: Amazing. Abigail: I want to go in and just tell them, You still exist! So good to see that you still exist. Adrian: Or you could go in and set a tooth on the counter, then walk away. Abigail: I could do that too. Apparently there’s a place that my parents used to frequent for their date nights that’s still there. And because I love food, and I love cooking, I was reading New York Times reviews, and came across a review of the place. It still rates every year in their round of cuisines. It’s a little Brooklyn spot on a corner, so that’s cool, but I don’t recognize the neighborhood at large anymore. I have a friend who lived across the street with her little brother. We reconnected when I moved back here, and she lives in Industry City now. She told me that she had to leave Park Slope when she came back from college. She said, I love Brooklyn. I’m always going to be a Brooklyn kid, but I can’t be here. I don’t know what this is. This isn’t home. What the hell is this? Adrian: I moved here three years ago, and the image of Park Slope in my mind is different from the image that was immediately fed to me: strollers and dogs, and just a family neighborhood. Would you say that your experience with Brooklyn neighborhoods led you out of Brooklyn? Why don’t you live in Brooklyn now? Abigail: Because it’s not affordable. if I were to live in the Brooklyn that’s familiar to me, I would be committing an act of violence. I would be a gentrifier. Like, an active gentrifier. So, I shopped around and was like, I need to find a neighborhood that’s mixed, declaratively mixed. Not one where all the whites showed up recently? Part of what I was looking for was a
neighborhood with families, families of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds. And a neighborhood where the history of the place wasn’t just its history, but very much still a part of what’s going on. And so I ended up here, in Washington Heights, and the spaces are familiar ––– the high ceilings, the old buildings. This is Dominican territory up here, which it has been for sixty or seventy years, and it still is, it still hasn’t changed. It still smells like Fabuloso, and you still hear Spanish radio out on the street, and the old guys still sit out and play Mahjong. Yeshiva University is up the street and there’s a huge Orthodox Jewish community, which has also been the case for many years. In my old building there were older folks of color who had been living there since the eighties. There’s a growing number of young folks who are living here and gentrification will come inevitably, but there’s not a terrifying speed to it here the way I feel it in other places. For instance, if you go ten blocks down into west Harlem, you can feel it. I’m more aware of that just because I worked in Harlem. I think it’s wild that so many people live in east Harlem and Spanish Harlem, for example, because when I was working there a couple years ago, it was still very violent, and I found it hilarious that these people were showing up and paying millions of dollars to live in a neighborhood that was in so much pain. Also, a lot of my friends have commented on this: there’s height here. Partially because this is the peak of New York City, and the highest altitude in New York City, but also because the buildings are higher, and it’s not as close to the ground, so there’s just more room, and there’s more space in the living areas and I really love that. And now I get a tree out my window, which, talk about luck! Adrian: Exactly. You’ve got a tree and you’ve got open space outside your window. It’s nice 185
that you can see outside, and that you’re not backed up against another apartment building. Abigail: And Highbridge park is right out here, at the end of the block, and you can go up to the old aqueduct that crosses the river into the Bronx. Adrian: I was happy to come up here. It’s always nice to get out of lower Manhattan, or Midtown, where I work, or just around the Upper East Side. Abigail: I work in Midtown now too. It’s hilarious. This is the New York that’s on TV! Oh, right so many beautiful people! Adrian: Yes. And so much anxiety. So much, just so much. Abigail: Also, so much money getting spent. So much money getting spent! Adrian: That too. Abigail: Trevor Noah walked by my office window a couple days ago. I looked up and I found him staring at me, and I did what Abby does in those situations, which is to be super smooth ––– spin away, and put my back to him. And everyone in my office was saying, “Abby, Trevor Noah is looking at you!” And I was just bright red and breathing heavily, panicking almost, and so now every morning, my coworkers will ask me, Has bae come by yet? Adrian: That’s the kind of culture that a lot of people assume New York is. Abigail: And they want it. Adrian: Right. That’s why people spend money to come here. It’s the celebrity culture and that vibe and that energy and the fact that you could even see a celebrity on the street and it’s nothing for a New Yorker, because you’re just supposed to think, Eh, whatever, but it is nice to know that there are still real neighborhoods. Abigail: Yes. Like this neighborhood. For 186
about three years we had a restaurant in the basement level of a building around the corner. It was run by two guys who used to be partners, and then eventually they decided to just be business owners together. But it closed about a year ago. So this just really feels like a neighborhood, in that there’s mostly only corner stores around. It’s really difficult to hack it as a “fun restaurant” here. It’s mostly takeout, the same way it’s been takeout for a billion years in New York City. We do have a bookstore. It’s community run, and it’s ninety percent second hand books. Adrian: Which bookstore is it? Abigail: It’s called Word Up. It’s all volunteer run. I love that. Adrian: That’s very cool. Abigail: Next year when you come up for your annual visit ––– I remember because you came up to visit me around this time last year ––– so next year, I’ll take you to Word Up. Adrian: It’s a date! Abigail: I love that place so much. So much poetry! Holy fuck! It’s fifty percent Spanish books and fifty percent English books. Adrian: That’s incredible. Abigail: The young adult section is bangin’. They have a ton of Manga and graphic novels in Spanish and in English. I love it. Adrian: What do you make of the present state of the Young Adult genre? Abigail: I was so afraid you were going to ask me about Manga. This is way better. Adrian: That’s funny. Abigail: I’m actually reading some young adult literature right now. I’m struggling with it though, because I think that some
authors are trying to churn it out, even though the work might not necessarily be that strong. For instance, for the young adult book that I’m reading right now, in many ways I want to take a red pen to it because it has an excellent premise, and deals with important issues relating to racialized violence in Oakland, but it’s really sloppy. I feel like the editor did a very, very poor job of making sure that the book delivered. It feels as if the book is still lost in the back streets, the food has gotten cold, and this particular takeout delivery just isn’t going to arrive in time. With that said, I do love that there’s a lot more LGBTQ-focused young adult fiction on the market right now. Because previously it was mostly just, “Oh, I think I’m gay,” books, and now there’s more work where the character isn’t just questioning sexuality, but actually having relationship drama because he doesn’t like him or they’re fighting or... We are opening ourselves to this idea that love is love in fiction for young people, who are far more flexible with it than adults are anyway. There’s also a lot of great literature coming out about immigration to and integration within this country. Authors who have written from the point of view of someone outside of the United States, but the fiction by authors who were first generation Americans who were raised by immigrants, too. I think there’s a lot of really excellent ideas happening, but I also think that publishing is struggling right now as an industry, and unfortunately, I think that the literature is suffering for it. I really hope that we can work toward striking a balance. There’s a wealth of material that can be published, but trying to push it all out as fast as possible isn’t the answer, and so I think there needs to be a better job done in making sure that the books are taken care of by their editors. But I also read with a red pen going in my head. I’ve always been like that. 188
Adrian: Do you feel like you’re a harsh critic? Abigail: Yes! Absolutely! Adrian: Do you feel like you’re known as a harsh critic? Abigail: In writing, yes. As a peer and as a friend ––– Adrian: I meant more as a writer. Abigail: In terms of writing, I am a harsh critic, but harsh also makes it sound like I’m sort of unrelenting and unforgiving, which isn’t the case. I always try to help authors see what’s already working in their work, which I think is impossible without having other people’s eyes. Because when you’re writing the work, you’re right up close to it, and you can’t see the painting that you’re producing if you’ve got your eyeballs glued to the bottom right corner of the canvas. So if I can’t physically pull you back so that you can see it, then maybe I can at least draw your line of vision sideways with an edit. But I’m known for my criticism, and I enjoy that. I enjoy that both in prose and in poetry, folks reach out to me. Sometimes it’s with questions as small as, “This is a letter I’m writing for my student’s parents,” or things as large as papers being submitting for a thesis. I think people reach out to me because I’m good at cutting to the quick. I enjoy that and poetry has taught me that. Adrian: I think that makes for a good poet too, to be able to cut to the quick. Do you have other people read your work critically? do you engage in workshops? Abigail: I have a couple of peers whom I depend on. I have a group of friends who are all readers, but aren’t writers, to whom I’ll send work when I think it’s fairly mature. And then I have a group of peers
who are all writers in some capacity to whom, and I love this, I can say, I just want your eye. What do you think? And then sometimes it’s more like, Please do something about this, I’m stuck, and I love those relationships. I really enjoy being in workshops. I’ve tried to start a couple of writers’ groups, and a few of my friends have tried as well, but it’s just difficult. We all live all over the place. Adrian: In my experience it’s a lot more work to organize the meeting than to actually have the meeting. Abigail: That’s everything. Adrian: For a one hour meeting it takes a week and a half to get everybody situated and on board. Do you mind if we talk a little about “I Think it Would’ve Made You Happy”? Abigail: Not at all. I Think it Would’ve Made You Happy I wanted to call, tell you how impossible it was to see the ocean even as it commandeered every square inch of air above the headless cage of the Manhattan Bridge. How my breath, deepening, drew air no longer made lazy by the 90 degree evening, but urgent zephyrs of split-open spring’s first dispatches of the season: messengers from Pharaoh. Your daughter, screaming from the top of the world.
time. When I go back to this piece, it feels almost cerebral, just like it’s all up top. Adrian: I’m also noticing that there’s a “you” in this piece, but can’t quite detect who that person might be. Abigail: You can tell if you read the last three lines. Adrian: That’s the reference to “Your daughter, screaming / from the top of the world.” Abigail: It’s written to my father. Adrian: I see that now. I love the imagery within the piece, and it also seems shorter than a lot of your other work. Abigail: That’s a trend for me right now. Adrian: Are you just hacking things down? Abigail: Yes! More recently I’ve just been gravitating towards, and listening closer to, this voice that’s kind of just asking me to be more concise with everything. But with this poem, you should know, that I wrote it at the release party for the last issue for Curlew Quarterly. I remember we were sitting together, and you leaned over, and you were saying, Why are you texting? Why are you on your phone? and I was just like, Shut up, and you were like, Are you writing poetry? and I was like, Yes, shut up! It was this poem! Adrian: That’s funny, although that’s not how I remember it going down. I think I just looked over at you, and you were writing, that was it. I couldn’t care less if you were on your phone. But that’s what you were writing?
Adrian: Very nice, thank you. In this poem, I see a sort of elemental haze, with the ocean, and there’s also a lot of heat, and this fuming kind of breeze within it.
Abigail: Yes. I wanted to call my dad while I was walking to the reading, and crossing the Manhattan Bridge, because I was having my first good day in a long time, and my father would’ve been really happy to know that I was decent right then.
Abigail: And sort of a rising at the same
Because my unhappiness weighs very heavily
on my parents, as parents do, and it weighs on my father in a very specific way. So I wanted to call him but it was too windy and the trains were too loud, so there was no earthly way I could have said anything. There’s your poetry gossip. Adrian: Thank you. It’s good poetry gossip. There’s this beautiful breath that opens up in this poem. I’m really glad you submitted it. Abigail: I am too. It felt like an outlier because I’m usually much more concretely sort of looking down in my poems, and impatient, and this was not either of those things. I’d like to think that there’s a capacity for more of that in me and I just have to keep working to tap into it. Adrian: “Urgent Zephyrs / of split open springs / first dispatches of the season:” - I just love that image so much. Abigail: I also love the word “zephyr.” Adrian: You couldn’t help yourself! How am I going to squeeze this word in here? Abigail: Exactly. I couldn’t say wind, because it wasn’t wind. it was something else, and I knew that I needed to call it something else, something that seems almost devilish in its behavior, but not with the same the sort of aggression as wind, and then I remembered “zephyr,” and I knew it was right, and went with it. Adrian: It’s a great word. Zephyr and the pharaoh. Abigail: Yes! ______________________ Adrian: I was having a conversation with a buddy of mine, actually just this morning, about process and failure, and it made me realize that in my experience the only real failure is not making the work at all. And as you and I were talking earlier, I realized how much I admire that you always have so many 190
notebooks, and that you’re constantly writing, and in this continuous process of accumulation. How do you feel like failure plays in to what you do or how you might feel successful? Abigail: I really like hearing that concept, the idea that only not making the work at all should be considered failure. Because I think the words that most often come out of my mouth are “For fuck sake Conklin!” And that’s usually coming from a place of shame, or impatience with myself. It makes me think of what we were talking about when we first started talking today, about performing my work. Because I had moments during that last performance of thinking, What the hell am I doing? How am I going to pull through this twenty minute set with a room that’s not really responding in any way, negatively or positively? I don’t want to do this and it feels like a reflection of my work. And usually this results in me translating my negative emotions through a lens of shame. It’s really only been within the past couple of years that I really have learned that I have to sit down with the work and spend time with it, and see it for what it’s actually doing, rather than through the negative lens that reading it in public might bring every now and then. I was an athlete growing up and I was brutal on myself when I lost. You could not speak to me when I lost, and I was a real pain in the ass about it. But in the last couple years, I’ve really taken to Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory, which I can’t think about without thinking about the Macklemore song called “Ten Thousand Hours” hours. There’s a line in it: “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint/ The greats are great because they’d paint a lot,” and I come back to that often. I just think, “Alright, I’m pissed. I’m embar-
rassed, and I’m ashamed that this went this way, but I can chalk it up as another experience. Punch in, punch out, and call it more money in the proverbial ten thousand hour bank. I have to look at it that way. As it turns out, I don’t think artists aren’t supposed to suffer, and I’m kind of over the idea that the only way you can be valuable to society in a creative fashion is if you are just in constant pain. I don’t think that’s fair. I know that I personally have produced better work and more consistent work when I’ve had a dependable paycheck and health insurance. When I’m not working sixteen hours a day, six days a week, and I am healthier. So I really try to look at failure and just think, “Cool, that was really awful, and I want to kick something, but it’s over now, chalk it up. More hours clocked,” because otherwise I would eat myself alive.
Issue No. 4 - $19.95. 193
Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018. Featuring work by Liz Adams; Abigail Conklin; Anaïs Duplan; Emily Fishman; Dale Kaplan; Adrian Moens; Isaac Mye...
Published on Sep 28, 2018
Issue No. 4 - Summer 2018. Featuring work by Liz Adams; Abigail Conklin; Anaïs Duplan; Emily Fishman; Dale Kaplan; Adrian Moens; Isaac Mye...