Poet Of The Week

Peter Longofono

     March 19–25, 2018

Peter Longofono’s poems have appeared in H_NGM_N, Fields, Public Pool and Tenderloin, among other journals. He makes music with Continue (featuring Anomylos Ensemble members), Charmers (the music of Django Reinhardt) and Gillian. His chapbook Chords was published in 2016 by the Operating System. He lives in Park Slope. “Vierge Ouvrante” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released last spring.

Vierge Ouvrante

En garde. Easy deacons, hot wisdom. An orc aspires
to folderol; a snake, to manumission. Mighty Eiffel

out of reach, all rivet, atop the nachttisch. By dint
of cut onion. The chit’s prayer for propulsion foreign

in captions. Clearly arthritic, our linear Eucharist.
Boys, behave. In no wise may this be obeyed. To Dover

the planets propel, keeping well, the sure pluperfect.

This is purse-rummaging. Like the threadcount
it peaks. A hate bracelet for one, frozen oatmeal

in daguerreotype, percolating scum. The bicycler
gyres, completely original. Like damnation he can’t

figure his spokes. The expressly forbidden appeal.
For sleep, shaved almond sleeves. For tokens, slots.

—Originally published in Tenderloin, Issue 32, September 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I’ve always been interested in the assignment of meaning to ritual, and through ritual to material. It’s how we populate our lives, and it’s also how completed lives can unmoor themselves from a blocky, stiff, known past to become apprehensible in the present. This piece addresses the concept of a nested, Christian, medieval sculpture-artifact called a Vierge Ouvrante (“Opening Virgin” or “Shrine Madonna”): carven figures of the Virgin that open outward to display a carved/painted iconographic array within. In working through the concept—feminine interiority, incarnation theology, superficial artmaking, hollowness/indwelling, devotional ornamentation, nourishment/sustenance, multivalent visionary assemblage—I felt reminded (for reasons I don’t understand) of Satie’s Belle-Époque Paris: the spread of the bicycle, the construction of Sacré-Cœur, self-befuddlement, reverent assiduity, bizarre personal effects/affects, the erection of the Eiffel Tower … the two concepts interwove and engendered the poem.

I produced the first version very quickly, maybe in the space of forty-eight hours, sustaining a flatness of tone meant to exaggerate objects by contrast. I then sent it to David McLoghlin and Ben Purkert, I think, to get their takes; I felt I had made something sufficiently bizarre, but as with most of my poems I also wanted it to feel obliquely nutritious. Someone besides the chef had to taste the food. Through their remarks, I ultimately decided on its final form as a not-quite-sonnet rotating wheel-like around the single-line stanza in the middle (the hub).

What are you working on right now?

I’m well on my way towards a … chapbook-length? … series of poems on virtue. The classical and the theological meet the personal. Immediately in front of me I’ll need to compile quite a bit of research on gratitude and thanksgiving, which I’ll pair with commemoration/remembrance. Each of these takes weeks for a first draft, pretty unusual for me, but I also dig how they produce balanced worldlets when I’m through with them.

Musically, I’m working up Amos Fisher’s arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony (with drums!): wacky, sinuous and bursting with seriously incredible basslines. I’m also very excited about some new Gillian compositions featuring vocal harmony. Jazzwise I’ve got this Charmers project nearly where I want it, and the new guitar I just ordered should cap that off perfectly.

What’s a good day for you?

Waking up after 9 AM in a slightly cold room. A zany shirt on. Lots of fresh fruit and strong coffee; walking or biking for a few hours in the sunshine. Helping somehow where my effort makes a difference—which is to say working to make someone’s life more bearable. A handful of truly astounding poems read twice apiece; psychedelic reading, intensely flavored homemade food, very cold water. Playing music and singing for even longer than exercising, preferably in front of other people, preferably if they dig it, preferably sweaty. Sunset from an elevated perspective. Carousing with the funniest people I can find; helping them meanwhile. Understanding what I need to do the next day as I fall asleep after midnight next to Pilar.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Grad school at NYU.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Park Slope on the third floor with five-ish roommates (it fluctuates). Been here for nearly two years, though it looks like I’ll have to move midsummer, which I don’t mind. I love the direct access to the park: moon-watching in the meadows is one of my favorite things, period. I’m also fascinated by the stonework on the façades around here and spend hours walking around, taking it in. I love that I can bike in just about any type of weather to just about any place I need to be, though I don’t love biking into Manhattan. It’s 100% more residential, hilariously so, than most of the other spots I’ve lived in Brooklyn, and it’s overrun with kids and teenagers (usually hilariously so) during the weekday. I love finding great books and art on the sidewalk, new (cheap) places to eat or drink, and kicking it at Barbès, hands down my favorite bar in Brooklyn.

I’m not sure I’ve been here long enough to comment meaningfully on change. I want Café Steinhof and Sharlene’s and Dixon’s and Sir D’s and Cousin John’s and Dumplings & Things and the handful of decent diners around here to stay open. New York Methodist Hospital is acting like it wants to eat my block, and it probably will. I would enthusiastically welcome another wings place. The schools in the beautiful John Jay building at the corner of 7th Ave and 5th St seem to be in great hands: Jill Bloomberg’s, to be specific. She’s a model for anti-racist activism.

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

I used to live off the Lorimer L in the weirdest railroad apartment that nonetheless had a pretty great backyard. We’d throw these salons in the summertime with live music, kegs, a grill station, art displays, candles everywhere, and regular breaks for poetry. A whole hell of a lot of work, but very, very worth it, especially in order to make room for friends’ work to be heard.

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

First and foremost, a poetry community outside the context of an existing, inhabited community—elder- and childcare, anti-oppression, visitation and solidarity with the sick and imprisoned, local food labor, help for the homeless, representation with intent, arts programming and instruction for young people, meaningful career development—is complete nonsense.

Within that framework, a poetry community mostly means rigorous attention to the craft. I don’t have any patience for gladhanding, prose essentialism, tin ears, or centralizing gravity; more often than not this manifests as a fault in my behavior, but I feel it absolutely. Compassion for oddness, practiced interpersonally, is key. Active listening at events. The selflessness to make space for, to work to witness (not necessarily understand), new voices.

For me, it rarely if ever looks like a workshop, and its eternal interrogator is the overwhelmingly important moment of being moved, alone and silently, by the printed word. I generally find a poetry community in the company of a handful of close, blisteringly talented friends. Late, late at night. Also in the gesture of reaching out to a friend out of nowhere with an extremely close read of their work.

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

Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife looms large before the entire enterprise of “say it with care.” When Morgan Parker was here (and she sometimes comes back) she was one of my favorites to kick it with; remember to read your sequences aloud! she tells me in my head. Nothing gets by Seth Graves at all, he’s very natural to drink with and reads a circle around any writing he considers. Not sure where they’re living currently, but Jenny Xie and Amanda Calderon feel like Brooklyn poets, and they stand like sentinels for me on either side of NYU’s grad program in terms of voice and range. Lynne DeSilva-Johnson is the person to have the conversation you don’t yet know how to have with; she’ll think it entirely through with you. R. A. Villanueva has a reverent grasp on nouns, their haecceity, in a way that makes them feel suffused with knowing. Lisa Marie Basile, too; and beyond that in every sense she is no stranger to the eldritch, shuddering instead of frisson. Sam Selinger has patience I never will, and it’s all over his poems; he may very well admire Ponge more than I do, and that’s saying something.

I’ll end with a Queens poet we should all go see right now: Joey De Jesus. Be present with Joey’s work, it’s good for you.

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

When I was at KU, Michael Johnson—whose work is completely, radically unlike mine—made space for me to be dumb in his classes, and that helped immeasurably. Ken Irby did more for my registers and sonics than just about anyone else. He’s missed very, very much. Sharon Olds is the best workshop instructor I’ve ever had, though again: radically unlike.

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

Said’s Orientalism has been inverting my train rides. I read a page, then stare off for half an hour or so. Extreme slow going, which is the point. I am learning through it which discourses I’ve bought—paid for, volunteered for—and how to extricate myself from that mess, not necessarily successfully.

I return again and again to Trilce. What a hero! And a friend to psychonauts.

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

I need to become familiar with Ernst Meister and George Oppen for their Celan moments, as I’ve been told: very important to me. What little I’ve read of Eve Sedgwick has ignited a strong desire to read more. Same goes for Octavia Butler. Césaire, more M.F.K. Fisher, Nostradamus, the tracts of Benjamin Lay and the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I always read many books at once to keep a sense of buoyancy, and also to train myself to be able to find my place easier even after some time away. To counterbalance this, I almost always plan out my reading months or even years ahead of time. One book typically predominates, usually by virtue of its size/density. Exclusively physical (though I write exclusively digitally). I prefer not to write inside the books themselves.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

For nearly a decade I’ve had an urge to write horror poems. I haven’t yet because I don’t trust myself to do it with sufficient rigor; also because it might well induce considerable psychic pain, and I’ve got to get my habits into a stronger and safer place before I’d be willing to take that risk. Still, I’ll have to go about it sooner or later. The important thing would be to keep it from collapsing under its own conceit, and to preserve the immediacy of repulsion: I don’t want to be in the position of a comedian who doesn’t make you laugh.

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

I’m ordinary. I read on the train and when I’ve got time to kill between obligations in the city. I find it damn near impossible to write poetry in any environment except home, unfortunately. I need dead quiet, a clear mind, pretty high self-esteem, and at least four hours free to even consider writing.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The backyard at Pioneer Works: it’s possible to hide there. The Greenpoint waterfront: manages to feel inscrutable somehow. Barbès: positive I will like the music. Directly under the bridges in Dumbo: architecturally bizarre. The meadows in Prospect Park: take your shoes off and spread out.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Hart Crane instead,
And what I love about his work is that you don’t matter at all to it,
For every time Whitman’s lines strike me as good concepts
     overexplained, how about

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.


Ethics need to freshen anew, daybreak in the bedpile, Biggie
relaxing from a conking turntable. Sleep can’t quickjack
the tough out of the sterntile—can’t make good, love—

the take-me-along teem, same old age as your father
when he had himself out. That went-to-workday Dodger,
self-incompatible as hickory, inflamed ringfingers’ throb.

Get up from the drawl you’ve crestfallen in, sleepy per-sin.
Spell your city in midair with one lit and listless cigar, Brooklyn,
and blow it if you must, you flowery exhaust, you inkless pen.

Why Brooklyn?

Opportunities as a writer and musician. Like nowhere else in the country. Practice gratitude.