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The City and the Writer: In Staten Island with Vasyl Makhno

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2011

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


1. Can you describe the mood of Staten Island as you feel/see it?

Staten Island is a city and an island, a part of New York City and something with its own character. It resembles neither Manhattan nor Brooklyn nor New Jersey. I especially like the old part of Staten Island, near St. George, with its hilly streets, two- and three-story brick buildings, and advertisements from the 1950s or 1960s. Some bookstores have retained an old feel, with their doors, windows, doorknobs, grates, and worn-out thresholds. Staten Island understands that it’s both a city and a province. That’s why the Verrazano and Goethals Bridges, like two leopards with metal claws, hold together its temporally out-of-sync parts. Staten Island’s other major feature is the ocean. The seascape consists of sand, boardwalks, stone and wooden piers, boats, yachts, and brick-colored ferries that pass by the Statue of Liberty every day.  In addition, golf ranges, parks, a Buddhist Museum, theaters, galleries, and other instances of intimate urban life are hidden behind the island’s hills and the ocean’s green waves.

2. What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

It happened last winter, as I was returning from Manhattan on the ferry.  It was snowing heavily, and I could hear nothing but the groaning of the metal hull and the waves. A seagull stood on the railing, almost as if it were frozen. The snowfall was so thick that we couldn’t even see the Statue of Liberty or the shore lights. The ferry continued slowly, uncertainly, almost as if it feared getting lost. All we could hear was the sound of the buoys. All of us, passengers and crew alike, felt immersed in a silent white void. And then, when a light on Staten Island became visible, the seagull flew away and, as the ferry creaked past the wooden pylons and came to rest, all of us felt a sense of salvation.

3.What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of Staten Island?

It’s hard to notice Staten Island’s extraordinary details, because there, as in all American cities and towns, specificities tend to be hidden behind a veneer of sameness. But if you travel along the upper roadway of the Verrazano Bridge, especially at night, you can see a panorama of shores, streets, orange lights, the Capodanno Boulevard that runs along the shore, and the never-ending flow of the highway.

The specificities of Staten Island’s character, as it’s evolved since 1600, are present in extant bits and pieces. The space, that used to consist of farms and cemeteries, has acquired an urban quality. When I come upon a quiet cobblestone street near the bay where ocean liners ply the waters, I sense Staten Island’s compressed time and origins in the now forgotten past.

4. What writer(s) from here should we read?

At first I did not associate Staten Island with the kind of dynamic urban culture that gives life to static streets, buildings, and parks. But I was mistaken, and not just because of the almost thirty films made or set in Staten Island, such as The Godfather. A few writers were also connected to the place—the poet Langston Hughes, who worked on a Staten Island farm one summer, the poet and feminist, Audre Lorde, and the playwright, Paul Zindel.  But the bottom line is that, while Staten Island has relatively few texts, it itself is a text and the hero of its own text.

5. Is there a place here you return to often?

I can’t say that I return to any one place often. But I do like walking along or staring out at the ocean, whatever the weather. I also like driving along the hilly serpentine roads of old Richmond Town or Todd Hill. They’re dangerous and give me a thrill. And then of course the little streets of St. George are charming.

6. Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

That’s hard to say. After all, Staten Island has no Greenwich Village or Monmartre, with cafés, writers, and artists. Staten Island reinforces one’s sense of individuality, compelling you to seek some other place, such as Manhattan with its irrepressible literary life. Staten Island’s emptiness also adds a dimension to one’s words and emotions.

7. Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Staten Island’s history is directly reflective of America’s history and all its features—whether the Vanderbilt family or the Italian Mafia or the poems of Langston Hughes or the ferry or the Verrazano Bridge—contain some hidden part of the city-island, making of it a myth or text.

8. Where does passion live here?

Along the coastline, in the ocean, regardless of whether it’s still or stormy. The passionate seascapes embody both eternity and the past, and Staten Island is the silent Sphinx that guards them.

9. What is the title of one of your poems about Staten Island and what inspired it exactly?

It’s called “Staten Island,” and it’s part of the cycle of poems called “Winter Letters.” One winter day, I saw the whole structure of this poem and the fundamental existential components of my feelings of time and space, age and place, reality and fiction—of all that comes to mind when I say “Staten Island.” In the last stanza Staten Island speaks to me like a friend and offers me a cigarette, and this sign of confidence signifies that the island-city, having become words, passes through the barrier of visual reality and becomes its own form of metaphysics—something peaceful and quiet.

10. Inspired by Levi, “Outside Staten Island does an outside exist?”

There exists as much outside Staten Island as inside it. It’s important to understand that this boundary is not identical with the Staten Island boardwalk. 

Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, essayist, translator, living in New York City since 2000.  He is the author of seven collections of poetry: Skhyma (1993), Caesar’s Solitude (1994), The Book of Hillsand Hours (1996), The Flipper of the Fish (2002), 38 Poems about New York and Some Other Things (2004), Cornelia Street Café: New and Selected Poems (2007), and most recently, Thread and Selected New York Poems (2009). He has also published a book of essays, The Gertrude Stein Memorial Cultural and Recreation Park (2006); two plays, Coney Island (2006) and Bitch/Beach Generation (2007); translated Zbigniew Herbert’s and Janusz Szuber’s poetry from Polish into Ukrainian; and edited an anthology of young Ukrainian poets from the 1990s.  Makhno’s work has been translated into over sixteen languages, and volumes of his selected poems were published in Poland, Romania, and the USA. In English, his poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, Absinthe, Post Road, Poetry International, and Interlit.

NH’s Discovery of the Month: When I think of Staten Island the following comes to mind: The Staten Island Ferry, St. George Theatre, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel, and now Vasyl’s words, “In reality on Staten Island stillness is displaced by the sliding snow.” (from “Staten Island,” translated from Ukrainian by Orest Popovych)

Published Mar 3, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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