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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Kathy Engel

By Nathalie Handal


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

This city/every mood/every tongue/every dark and light, every between. Gripping the wrist of the grisly wrenching past, abandonment, and also lights and noise, artifacts, the glitter and promise, the sounds our restless connectivity makes.

How to describe the mood of a place where I was born, where my daughters were born, where I have always been with one foot, one slice of me. The place my great-grandparents landed, some having escaped a pogrom. The place my father loved and lived. Overwhelming and inviting. The place of my longing and divide. The place that keeps having me back, its moonless nights, its raucous urban sea, anonymous and also memory-crammed, people- and ghost-filled, on this block, that corner, that café—many gone now, some still here.

This city where I’ve stood year after year, crowd after crowd, on a picket line, with a megaphone, on the cement, or in later years quietly alone, taking in the bleeding, singing, whispering, ranting map of our times.

Where I marched and walked and ate and danced and cried. Where I, with a group of women, started an organization called MADRE (still thriving), in friendship with women in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Palestine, Haiti, South Africa, and now many other places.

The mood is loss. The mood is danger. The mood is huge. The mood is lonely. Gray, not gray, black, flaming orange, purple, yes, waves of blue if one can stay quiet enough to find them or be found. The mood is home and not home. The mood is stolen and the mood is resiliently held.

The mood is every mood. The hurricane and sunset of the senses. The melancholy of dusk near Grace Church on Eleventh Street where my father and I stood. The exhilaration of helping to assemble a million people in the streets for disarmament and human needs. The agony of disregard. The sweetness of a stranger. The welcome and also terror of anonymity. Nostalgia on every corner. Sudden gunshot.

Screams in the night. And unexpected beauty—surprising bunch of tulips leaning their necks to the possible.

Now the fullness, also walking with my daughters who are women, coveting favorite restaurants, bending over piles of books in the Strand, McNally Jackson, Three Lives . . .

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The day in the kitchen on Eighty-First Street when my parents told my older brother, baby sister, and me that they were separating. I dropped a dish on the floor, choked back the flood of missing . . . wanted to be strong, bit my lips in my small-bodied nightgown, bare feet.

The day we said a final good-bye to my sister poet Safiya Henderson-Holmes after her years battling the ravages of thymoma traveled to lung and liver, after accompanying her to Sloan Kettering time after time for chemo, poeting with her at rallies and readings, sharing meals, shopping, growing together as mothers, sisters, marchers, journeyers . . .

Waking up after Bush won the second time, 2004, feeling the desolate, war-torn, garbage-strewn streets and the ravaged faces.

Each systematic reported or unreported [police] murder of black and brown humans.

Humans without homes forced to live on a sidewalk, in their public pain and abandonment, on cardboard, in the cold.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Every time I go outside, when I take even a moment to look, really look, I find an angle on a building, a structure, the way light hits or an unknown material, unexpected small monuments, bursts of color in a corner in spring—things that I didn’t notice until that moment. The city is ever blooming, ever burning, ever surprising.

Now I have a practice of smiling at strangers, sometimes speaking, sometimes making eye contact, often with people who are working in service to us all, cleaning trash, maintaining. Mostly, there is contact, response. This is extraordinary and flies in the face of all the stereotypes. I’ve had the most poignant exchanges through eyes, mouths curving, and sometimes a few words.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Galway Kinnell. Alicia Ostriker. Walt Whitman. Langston Hughes. James Baldwin. Pedro Pietri. Sekou Sundiata (may need to listen or watch). Safiya Henderson-Holmes. Henry James. Patti Smith. Cornelius Eady. Suheir Hammad. Sandra María Esteves. June Jordan. Grace Paley. Audre Lorde. Amiri Baraka. Sonia Sanchez. Nathalie Handal. Tina Chang. So many . . . so many . . . A zillion necessary words, abundance of syntax filling the crowded streets.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Hudson River. Almost every day when I’m in the city I walk or run to the river, look out over the gleam and garbage. The vast. The sparkle that turns out to be a place called New Jersey! Pray, give thanks, sometimes recite lines or make up new ones. I talk to my father, no longer here. He loved the Hudson. Loved New York. Made films here. Loved the grit and light. The lonely dusk and the crowds too. Loved to walk the city, listen to its voices, smell the foods, look at the way structures do or don’t fit together. He thought cars should be banned, only public transportation and essentials like garbage trucks, ambulances, etc., allowed.

He revered Pete Seeger, the activist folk singer. I think of Pete too as I look out. I talk to my dead there. Feel the vast. Urban waters leading out into everywhere and nowhere. I reference the Hudson in many poems.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Ear Inn on Spring Street in lower Manhattan! Now there’s Poet’s House on River Terrace, founded by the visionary Betty Kray (with Stanley Kunitz). It’s a home for lovers of poetry and all literature. Betty was my boss and mentor when I worked at the Academy of American Poets right out of college (age twenty-one to twenty-three) and a powerful influence on me in terms of dreaming up what can be created and making it happen. The Nuyorican Poets Café. The Bowery Poetry Club. The Poetry Center at St. Mark’s (I think the name changed.) And a zillion street corners where the word lives in cement cracks, waiting for the light to change, near a fire hydrant, under traffic roar, tucked into a child’s stroller. The city is an iconic literary place. Edgecombe Ave, where Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois lived. Greenwich Village, where E. E. Cummings, Grace Paley, and Amiri Baraka lived. Chelsea, where June Jordan lived before she moved to Brooklyn. Harlem, of course, as a whole city within the city, culture and richness of literary legacy.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I keep discovering them. A few years ago I spent a lot of time walking and jogging on the Lower East Side and the East River, found a whole world of people in the early morning doing tai chi, walking dogs, jogging, talking into the air, sweating, bending. Very different than the Hudson. I love that places were created to encourage people to exercise, stretch, lift, right there by the river. But that’s not hidden! I need to think more about the hidden!

 

Where does passion live here?

In the pulse, the bones from before, the wings of now. The unknown. The largeness and the shadows. Multiplicity. Languages from everywhere. Food from everywhere. Jazz in a tiny corner room below ground. Graffiti calling out, marking the lives it speaks.

 

What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

“Mother’s Day.” It captures my lifelong back-and-forth between eastern Long Island—where I lived starting at age seven when my mother married a potato farmer and where my husband and I moved back to in 1996 with our young daughters—and lower Manhattan, where I lived on and off between age fifteen and, again, now. In the poem, I’m driving on the Long Island Expressway back to the city, alone, having dropped my younger daughter at the airport to return to college, my father already having died. I have an impulse to call him for dinner, as I often did when I was returning to the city on a Sunday evening. Instead of dinner with my departed father, I walked to the Hudson, remembered myself there as a “loose-jeaned teen.” I sat looking at the river. The poem touches on my physical and emotional sense of that part of the city, the motion between two places throughout my life, first from father to mother, then from home base to a place where I work and also live. In some real way it brings alive my feeling of aloneness, nostalgia, and at the same time, abundance, possibility.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York does an outside exist?”

Outside as in “not in a building” or outside of the city as in “not in a city”? Or just “outside”?

There’s always an outside. And at the same time, all is connected, interwoven, bleeding together, somehow touching. If we remember that, perhaps we will be the tiniest bit closer to wholeness.

 

Kathy Engel is a poet who has worked for nearly forty years at the nexus between social justice movements and art/imagination. Her books include Ruth’s Skirts, poems and prose (IKON, 2007); We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, coedited with Kamal Boullata (Interlink Books, 2007); The Kitchen, with art by German Perez (Yaboa Press, 2002); and the chapbook Banish The Tentative (1989). She is associate arts professor and chair of the Department of Art and Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. Her poetry collection The Lost Brother Alphabet is forthcoming with Get Fresh Books in 2020.


Published Oct 7, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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