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A Gritty Little Something on the New York Street

March 25, 2016 | by

Remembering Phife Dawg—a family perspective.

Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg.

I lived in New York for the first time for the summer of 2006, between my junior and senior years of college. I was in love with words. I’d started writing, but I needed a job, so I entered book publishing. Two days a week, I read manuscripts in the magnificent but decaying Flatiron Building; at night, I worked the coat check at a white-tablecloth restaurant on Union Square for spending money (the perfect gig, as in the summer I had few customers, and spent most of my time reading). After my shifts at the restaurant, I took the 5 train uptown to Harlem with the typical collection of bleary-eyed late-night workers and drunk revelers, where I slept on a cot in the living room of my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment.

The apartment was modest but warmly decorated in pinks, oranges, and turquoises—colors that undoubtedly reminded her of Trinidad, her island home. Our sleeping arrangement mirrored that of my great-grandmother’s house. She’d lived till she was ninety-eight: a former caretaker who’d immigrated from a rural part of the island, she’d saved enough money to buy a semidetached three-bedroom house in Jamaica, Queens.

As several family members and friends before and after her did, my aunt, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, had stayed with my great-grandmother to get on her feet in America. She married young, had a child, and, after an amicable divorce, started dating women—a shock to our family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. When I was younger, my parents, in a typical move of the time, never discussed her sexuality. I only knew that she had many female friends, and after a while, sometimes they would be gone from her life in a way that was unusual for just friends. In that apartment, she finally gave me a name for what she was, speaking to me openly about her life like I was an equal, capable enough to understand and not to judge.

On the wall of the apartment hung a portrait of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was her son and my cousin. She told me that when visitors came by, they would uniformly exclaim how much they loved him. Why do you have a picture of him? they’d ask, before dropping one of his verses, and she would answer with pride, He’s my son, her perfect white smile beaming. Read More »

What We’re Loving: George Packer, Joe Carstairs, Nick Laird

June 7, 2013 | by

joecarstairslarge

In a virtuosic long poem from his recent collection, Go Giants, Nick Laird inveighs against “the monotony of always being on a side!” Laird was born in Northern Ireland, but the complaint isn’t aimed only at sectarianism. His poetry, which shuttles between New York, Rome, and Cookstown, in County Tyrone, consistently escapes monotony and one-sidedness (including, in this case, a cricketeer’s pun on the word side). His book includes versions of Juvenal, Antoine Ó Raifteirí—a wandering bard and one of the “giants” of Laird’s title—and Anglo-Saxon poetry. You can also hear the nimble diction of Muldoon (“an atmosphere / flecked like emery paper, the finest grade, / that whets the seriffed aerials and steeples”) and the more ponderous music of Heaney (a summer job at a meatplant is spent “lugging plastic / crates of feathercut and paddywhack / and prime off the belt and onto palettes”). “Progress,” a long poem that rewrites Bunyun’s allegory, is a gathering of all these voices and ends up sounding like no one except Laird: “A fine baroque example / of how successfully the choral template / might adjust itself to fit an elliptic / non-contiguous life.” —Robyn Creswell

I recently visited my parents to help them sort through a lifetime of acquisitions in anticipation of a mammoth yard sale. Looking through boxes of my old books, I came across a favorite, The Queen of Whale Cay, and promptly reread it. Kate Summerscale’s biography is a vivid picture of Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs, a flamboyant figure of the Lost Generation. A boat racer, womanizer, dandy, and, yes, queen of her own island, Carstairs (an oil heiress) was also known for traveling everywhere with a doll, Lord Tod Wadley, who sported an equally dapper wardrobe. Summerscale was working on the Telegraph’s obit desk when she ran across the story of this forgotten figure; I’m so glad she did, and that I rediscovered my copy. (The office also acquired, from this foray, a brass whale, a crystal ball, and a harpoon.) —Sadie O. Stein

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On Parade

July 12, 2012 | by

The town that I grew up in holds what people like to call, with a kind of pride in poverty, the World’s Shortest Parade on the fourth of July. A number of small towns make similar claims, but our parade, next to the beach on Maxwelton Road in Clinton, Washington, deserves it. From the field by the old Steiner farm it continues just two blocks, ending at Dave Mackie park, where a series of foot, sack, and three-legged races are run and the national anthem sung. It’s not required to register in advance to march; one simply arrives and lines up in either a motorized or non-motorized line. This year, the parade’s ninety-seventh iteration, the lineup included a number of dogs, a few Republicans, one guy in a gorilla suit, many bikes (some of them “Occupied”) and a truck full of violinists. As we waited for the start, a bored-looking high school baseball team called the Crabs slouched, chins in hand, on their hay bales, and a grandmotherly woman in a mermaid costume had her picture taken with one of two groups of pirates.

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Michael Robbins on ‘Alien vs. Predator’

March 27, 2012 | by

Michael Robbins.

Reading the poetry of Michael Robbins is kind of like driving around the parkways and frontage roads of America’s suburbs. His poems have a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Kinko’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Guitar Center; they reference the slogans of Christian billboards and the bumper stickers of hippies; they offer the choice between Safeway and Whole Foods and between the corporate classic-rock station, the corporate urban-music station, and All Things Considered. The poems are heavy with concern for the elephants, the whales, and the freedom of Tibet. They have a Rhianna song stuck in their heads.

Among poets, Robbins follows in the footsteps of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon in writing about contemporary life using more traditional poetic forms and rhyme. He also references and sometimes even quotes Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Wordsworth, and others. But Robbins is more playful and less grandiloquent than his sometimes-grim forefathers: after reading his first book, Alien vs. Predator, the two things I kept thinking of were not poetry at all, but rather the short stories of George Saunders and the video art of Ryan Trecartin. As Saunders did with marketing jargon and Trecartin with reality television, Robbins congeals his suburban idyll, transforming its vacant vernacular into unsettling poignancy. And sometimes it’s even funny.

I reached Robbins by phone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We spoke the day after Rick Santorum’s victory in that state’s Republican primary.

Where are you working right now?

I’m a visiting poet at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which is where I’m staying and just waiting until I get out of this city.

You don’t like it?

The people are great at the university, my students are great, but Hattiesburg is … it’s just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell, basically. It’s just the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life. Read More »

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Reading ‘House of Holes’ in Public

September 28, 2011 | by

I spent a recent morning at a brightly painted, high-ceilinged coffee shop that serves a modest variety of salads and panini, nursing a pot of white tea and reading a book by the founder of the American Newspaper Repository which featured, in its opening chapters, a severed arm stimulating a college student’s vagina to the point of orgasm, a large Filipino masseuse squeezing fruit juice into an art critic’s anus, an amiable topless woman aggressively sniffing a golfer’s scrotum, and the Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin ejaculating onto the feet of a soup-kitchen volunteer. At the table to my left, a man and a woman were holding a conversation in broken French about deep-sea fishing. Most of the people in the coffee shop had MacBooks. “He wanted them all to be on their knees on couches and chairs with their asses up and ready,” I read, “and their slippy sloppy fuckfountains on display. He’d walk in front of them holding his generous kindly forgiving dick, saying, ‘Do you want this ham steak of a Dr. Dick that’s so stuffed with spunk that I’m ready to blow this swollen sackload all over you?’ And they’d all say, ‘Yes Mr. Fuckwizard, we want that fully spunkloaded meatloaf of a ham steak of a dick.’” I was hoping to meet a girl. Read More »

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