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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Willa Carroll

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 as you feel/see it?

New York is kinetic, frictive, and relentless. The unceasing pace of its streets, with endless throngs of people and cars, feels inescapable. People from all over the world live and move together, charged with a velocity unrivaled by any other American city. You need a proprioceptive sense of your body in space at all times on the street, in the subway and public spaces. The city is like an ocean––churning, vast, and forever in motion. Its force can tumble, its salt can sting, yet it gives life.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

A couple of days after 9/11, I drove halfway across the country, back to New York from a Midwest trip. I recall traveling with my companion in silence, the landscape a blur. Driving into Brooklyn on the BQE, across the river we saw the massive plumes of smoke billowing upwards. As we inched forward in traffic, adjacent to the disaster site, the horns of the surrounding cars began sounding, blaring without letup. Many hands on many horns formed a chorus of solid sound––a communal lamentation. In a city famous for constant irate honking, car horns suddenly transformed into instruments of emotion, sirens of mourning. As we added our decibels to the vigil, the fat basset hound in our backseat began howling.


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

With all the offerings of this cosmopolitan metropolis, one can forget that the city is built on the actual earth. Most people can name only a handful of the forty-two islands that comprise the New York archipelago. Let’s not forget Rat Island, Chimney Sweeps Island, and Mau Mau Island! And how the Bronx is the only landmass attached to mainland America. I’ve strolled the beach in the Rockaways, with the distant Empire State building over one shoulder, and a dolphin breaching over the other. On the eve of Hurricane Sandy, under the full November moon, I saw the East River surge over the Manhattan barricade, even before the rain started. Many forget this city’s vulnerability to climate change, with its increasingly extreme weather and rising oceans.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are legions of New York writers, past and present, and winnowing them into a reasonable list feels impossible. A short list of iconic writers, not all from the city, but all of the city: Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Audre Lorde, Vivian Gornick, Anne Waldman, Eileen Myles, Philip Lopate, and Martín Espada, to name an armful. I’ve been following the work of Tina Chang, born in Queens and now Brooklyn Poet Laureate, since her first book. I admire the work of poets Charif Shanahan, born in the Bronx, and Leila Ortiz, born in Brooklyn.


Is there a place here you return to often?

When I need to escape the grid, I wander the Ramble in Central Park. The meandering paths, thanks to Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, are a marriage between a labyrinth and a network of forest trails. In the nineteenth century it featured beehives and peacocks. Though it’s soundtracked now by less exotic birds, you can still find a charming little pond lined with azaleas, running into a babbling stream. Roaming and ambling, you can forget you’re in the heart of the city. One time I came around a bend as a bewildered man asked, “How do you get out of here?” At first I was wary of engaging, yet collected myself in a New York instant and answered, “You have to ramble.”


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Scores of iconic literary places and celebrated venues dot the city map. You can pilgrimage for days to see all the plaques marking the former residences of renowned writers. Yet there’s a charm to the unmarked places, such as Willa Cather’s final apartment at 570 Park Avenue, where you can snap a photograph without elbowing a tourist. There's a handsome red plaque at 82 Washington Place, where she wrote her first novel, and where Richard Wright wrote Native Son. And the place that coincided with the most prolific period in Cather's career was her apartment at 5 Bank Street, now the site of a newer apartment building, marked by another plaque. I prefer to mysteriously stroke the stone facade of her former building uptown, holding a secret vigil, paying respect to where she lived and died.


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

The embedded enclave that most affected me was Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I arrived there in the late nineties, among other young artists, before the developers. My first place was an industrial loft sublet with a toilet in the hall and a bathtub in the kitchen. I was still dancing then and rehearsed in an old matzo factory. I moved to another loft across the street from a scrap metal shop, not far from the vacant Domino Sugar Factory. There was a sweater factory above me, machines weaving all night. I lived in seven places in seven years––illegal lofts near the East River and apartments in sections that were either predominantly Puerto Rican or Italian American. I especially loved the Southside with its loud salsa music, graffiti murals, and bodegas. There were only a handful of newer restaurants and bars in the neighborhood, frequented by familiar faces framed by edgy hairstyles, everyone an artist. It was a liminal habitat, a bubble in the city and in time. The aughts brought the acceleration of commerce and luxury high-rises punching skyward.


Where does passion live here?

Passion inhabits everything here––art, culture, business, sports, fashion. And the street is the main stage, the endless proscenium.


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

“Back to New York” was birthed in the tunnel entering Penn Station. The rhythmic repetition of the train wheels on the track summoned the poem’s title and main refrain. Returning to the city after a stretch of time away heightened my sense perceptions. The poem unfolded over the next couple of days as I inhabited a liminal state––seeing my Manhattan neighborhood with fresh eyes. I was reading Phillip Lopate’s Waterfront and learned that the East River is not a true river, but rather a tidal strait with a current that changes direction twice a day. The river, in my poem, became “an arm of the ocean, a leg of the sea.” I also researched the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital, a decaying Gothic Revival structure from the 1850s, landmarked as a ruin in 1975.


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

There’s no place like this city. It’s akin to your best lover­­––everything that comes after pales in comparison. In literature, visual art, cinema, and song, countless representations of the city carry the place far beyond its borders. New York culture, polyglot and ever evolving, is imitated around the world. Yet the map is never the territory. Visiting Stockholm, I observed a huge crowd watching an outdoor performance––blond kids breakdancing to a frenetic sonic cousin of rap music. I longed to be back in Washington Square Park, watching original b-boys from the Bronx, birthplace of hip-hop. Click your heels, there’s no place like New York.


Willa Carroll is the author of Nerve Chorus (The Word Works), one of Entropy Magazine’s Best Poetry Books of 2018 and a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, noted in The Common as an “elegant, meticulously choreographed treatment of life as art.” Her poems have appeared in AGNI, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal, Narrative, Tin House, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith, and elsewhere. Smith writes that her poems “grapple with what it means to belong to a body, a family, a country.” A finalist for The Georgia Poetry Prize, she was the winner of Tupelo Quarterly’s TQ7 Poetry Prize, judged by Brenda Hillman, and Narrative Magazine’s Third Annual Poetry Contest. Her poetry videos and multimedia works have been featured in Narrative Outloud, Writers Resist, Interim Poetics, and elsewhere. With an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars, she’s taught at universities, public schools, and writing centers. A former experimental dancer and actor, she’s collaborated with numerous dance and theater artists, musicians, composers, visual artists, and filmmakers. She lives in New York City. Learn more at


Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Regina Galasso

The City and the Writer: In Annaba, Algeria, with Janette Ayachi

From Five Continents to Five Boroughs: A Language Map for New York City

Published Jul 13, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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