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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Patrick Rosal

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2012

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?

I was driving up West Broadway yesterday around 6 PM and the cross-town traffic on Broome was backing up the uptown artery all the way to Canal. In my head I was cursing this fucking guy and that fucking lady and move your goddamned car and if you slap the hood of my car, pedestrian, I’ll come out and pinch your neck until you weep in front of your girlfriend and . . . a scraping noise came up on my side. It was a kid zipping up West Broadway on a skateboard, splitting the traffic, dodging people in the crosswalks. And I was hanging out my window mid-curse, and me and this kid caught each other’s eyes as he passed. He had a little, “Gotcha beat” in his gaze. And he did. A wood deck, four urethane wheels, and one leg taking fifteen-foot strides to zoom him through the foul-mouthed drivers. I love that.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I’ve been wrecked pretty good by conventional heartbreak in New York. But I’ve survived it in the end and that kind of heartbreak isn’t new or interesting. Maybe I haven’t lived here long enough or loved anything deeply enough in New York to get the muscle ripped out my rib cage.

But if I think about it more carefully, the heartbreak happens in remembering who I was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago: so many fist fights, such a hothead. You name a neighborhood in Manhattan, I’m likely to have a fight story for it. What anger I had. And what a waste of my gift for language. I gave up on speech so quick and turned to fists instead. I’ve had other failures of language, too, which have been much more tender, like the time I was at the Brooklyn DMV and a woman from Haiti who didn’t speak, read, or write English was trying to fill out a form. She kept turning to each of the men at the table filling out their own forms. No one understood her exactly. I sort of threw my hands up when she turned to me, but no one else would help her. So I took all eleven words I knew in French and tried to help her fill out the form. We got it done but, man, she laughed so hard at my shitty French all the way from the back of the line to the counter. It was one of the best heartbreaks ever.

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

Tita Candi, my aunt who has lived in Brooklyn for like fifty years, makes the best baduya (aka Filipino banana fritters). Her peanut brittle is amazing too. Two culinary treasures that I have a monopoly on. I could probably add, the Brooklyn Bridge gets a lot of play thanks to Hart Crane, but the Verrazano, to me, is just stunning to drive over.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

So many: Willie Perdomo, Tato Laviera, Jessica Hagedorn, Aracelis Girmay, Kimiko Hahn, Joan Larkin, Tiphanie Yanique, Joseph Legaspi, Sarah Gambito, Tyehimba Jess, Tina Chang, John Murillo, Luis Francia, Eric Gamalinda, Bino Realuyo, Tracy K. Smith . . . I could run my mouth for a long time making this list.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I go visit my brother’s custom frame shop on Twentieth between Fifth and Sixth. We drink at Aleo next door. Pete, the owner, is a baseball guy and ex-marine. A lot of the wait staff is Eastern European. Ksenia makes excellent martinis and teases me in three languages (she lived in China for some time too). Kira taught me how to say “Dance with me” in Russian and I have a recording of her reciting Tsvetaeva from memory. My brother, sister-and-law, and I get a lot of nonsense accomplished there. I’m grateful for that—a place to make no sense.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

One might consider Morris Park in the Bronx, which is the childhood home of founding member of Rock Steady Crew, Crazy Legs. To me, that’s an icon of cultural history as important as, I don’t know, the White Horse Tavern or Algonquin Hotel is for other writers. Hip hop and breaking have been so important in the poetics of people like Perdomo, Girmay, Murillo and you could add Terrance Hayes, Tracie Morris, Roger Bonair-Agard, Latasha Diggs, Ross Gay, Angel Nafis, Steve Scafidi, and . . . and . . . and . . . the list goes on. I think, for this emerging generation of poets, the notion of a literary landmark might be more eclectic.

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

If a man is a city, then yes. I was walking down Atlantic Ave. a few years ago and stopped at a big shop window with guitars hanging in it. The lights in the shop were off. But a man came from out back and waved me to come in. It was William del Pilar, who is probably not well known by the public and only locally known by luthiers and guitar aficionados. He sat me down without introducing himself or asking my name and jumped into a detailed (and very keen) explanation of the science to his craft. He showed me the unique construction of his instruments, how and why they make their particular sound. He wouldn’t let me hold any of the guitars, but I could smell them and there were so many in the room that were finished and unfinished. The room was painted a dark gray and the only light was what was coming in from the front windows. All the wood hanging from walls and on racks made the place look like it was in a perpetual dusk.  

Where does passion live here?

There are still dance floors where sweat is the standard. Recently, I’ve been to Bembe in Brooklyn and Las Camaradas in East Harlem. Those floors move. I don’t necessarily mean the physical place, but there are rooms you can get loose in. Who is standing, who is sitting, who is too zipped up, and who is getting down. How much touch, how much silliness, how much grind, how much laughter—you can tell a good amount about a place by its dance floors. The best ones in New York accommodate many versions of ardor.

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

I have several poems about New York. I guess the first one that comes to mind is “Citrus City” which I wrote many years ago. I was walking down Second Avenue and a long winter had just broken and you could feel how many people felt unburdened having left their coats at home. And I just bought an orange on the street and ate it as I walked. I noticed people sort of look at my orange longingly and imagined this effect spreading—who might be eating oranges, too, throughout the entire city.

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

This is the financial capital of the world. And the rich can sway many, many things very easily. They snap their fingers and move objects in Bangladesh or Manila or Stockholm. But then, there are people right on my block in Bed-Stuy whose gestures of affection, whose weeping, whose good, big laughter manage, for a while, to make the witlessness and capriciousness of power worth nothing. To touch, to weep, to laugh—sometimes—is to find a way outside of those fields of power. They are ways of crafting strength that does its amazing work beyond those fields.


Patrick Rosal is the author of three poetry collections and recipient of a Fulbright fellowship. His most recent book, Boneshepherds, was named one of the best small press titles of 2011 by the National Book Critics Circle. His previous collections, My American Kundiman and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, have been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award respectively. His poems and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies including Tin House, Drunken Boat, American Poetry Review, and Harvard Review. He teaches in the MFA Program of Rutgers University-Camden.

Published Dec 24, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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