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Brendan Constantine: California Poets Part 5, Five Poems

Brendan Constantine (photo by Jun Takahashi, 2020)

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

Brendan Constantine

Five Poems


You're on an elevator with God and afraid

to ask which floor They want – for surely

God's pronoun is They - because deep down

you know God is already on every floor and

how long is this going to take? God says,

I never get tired of The Girl from Ipanema.

You smile and agree, though only now

do you notice the music. You start pushing

buttons in no sequence, feel the earth fall

away. Is this what it’s like to be a prayer,

or rather, what it’s like when one arrives?

... like a samba that swings so cool

and sways so gentle …

You remember something you read about

the first elevators, how they were powered

by animals and, later, water. And children,

They say, don’t forget children.

At every stop God gets on again, but you

don’t notice, you’re too into the song now.

Surely joy and apprehension shall follow you

all of your days.

Never Have I Ever

1 point for each

Faked a cataclysm

Cheered for a mountain

Got dressed up for an animal

Followed a sleepwalker outside

Forgiven a compliment

Seen the oxen doze in their red yoke

Judged a funeral

Recognized bric-a-brac

Stopped thinking about a particular cloud in 1975

Made out with a statue

Heard back from Jeremy

Misplaced a chariot

Shown you the door

Drank from cupped feet

Watched my own birth video on continuous replay

Flooded the airwaves

Reappeared downstream

Wanted a different word for Zebra

Curled at the edges

Sparkled like a cave

This poem first appeared in the Red Eft Review, Summer 2021

Where Do You Get Your Ideas

There's a little shop

at the end of each sentence

where I buy the next one.

In a glossy catalogue

delivered every month

from evil.

My ideas come from a cave

my father found in my mother.

It was warm, he said, a fire

already going. On the walls

were paintings of more mothers.

From fire, the word itself, from

everything that could burn us

in the moment of saying it.

Ask me again. Now ask me why

I asked you to ask me.

Really, they just barge in

whenever they feel like it.

I haven't finished a dream

in days.

The first ones came by ship.

Stowaways, they nearly starved.

Then someone found a sack

of almonds and everyone

lived. When they reached port,

they could see in the dark.

From chumps who aren't using them.

From a vending machine

outside the crime museum.

From you. Right now,

you're giving me ideas.

One of them is worth millions.

Another is a small harp

playing in your coat. Still

another is a balcony view

of the parade. There were

supposed to be dancers

in flaming hats. You will

have to imagine them.

From knowing when to stop.

It was a few stanzas ago.

At night, I form a church

with my hands. Inside are

the faces of people I’ve hurt.

If I want to sleep, I must

look each one in the eye.

I don't make the rules.

This poem first appeared in the Journal ‘Tin House,’ March 2019


A book just told me that ‘bird’ used to be ‘bridd.’

At some point in the 16th century, a sleepy monk

copied it wrong and here we are, unable to hear

the bridds, even with the windows open.

That’s how it feels, anyway, like the whole creature

is gone. Maybe it’s only a loss in the life of poetry.

I mean, a poet is, above all, cursed with knowing

there’s no such thing as a synonym.

House and home? Nope.

Bloom and flower? Not even close.

Love and devotion? Don’t get me started.

When my mother got pregnant, there was no way

to tell the sex of a fetus. Back then, the doctor checked

your heartbeat and guessed. For me he got it wrong

and said, “Girl.”

Mom says she knew better, could feel a boy,

but she played along and kept a girl’s name handy:

Nora. I don’t know when she told me, but I was still

young, young enough to be astonished

my parents had ever lived without me. In my mind,

I could see Nora, my age, my size, but a different face,

one unlike my parents. Somewhere, in a world

aslant from this one —

one which I saw as always just above my head

and a little to the right—Nora sat on a set of swings,

swaying lazily, making patterns in sand with her shoe.

She wore a dress with ruffles, she wore boredom,

sadness. She heard everything I said and could say it

better. I’m not sure where I lost track of her, maybe

puberty. It wasn’t until I read about the bridds

that I glimpsed her again.

They’ve taken the swings down. The park has been

updated. Nora has a wheelchair because she hardly

used her legs. I don’t know who gave her the sweater,

who helps her into it or brings her here,

to watch the other wrong children play in half-light,

in the long-lost music of the trees.

Sometimes the Stork Eats the Baby

It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think,

once you start to think about it. That is,

the stork is typically patient with

a human infant, even an unpleasant one,

so it’s rarely a question of rapport. And

babies don’t go down that easy, not

like fish or money. But sometimes.

Sometimes the sea is wide. Sometimes

a powerline will look like it needs

your signature above it. Then the stork

may pause in its flight, might harbor

a doubt. Even then, they’re pretty

forgiving, of themselves and the sun.

They usually go on. But sometimes.

Sometimes there’s too much night, or not

enough jungle. Sometimes there’s only

you. Then you might do anything to

get back a little innocence, a little

What Happens Now. And sometimes.

The baby is sleeping. The baby is awake.

The baby holds your toe with its whole hand.

In darkness, the stork folds the blanket,

leaves it on a beach — leaves the blood

if any, on its beak — and flies back

to get another baby. It’s not sinister,

it’s not what you’re thinking. The next

baby makes it home. The stork, renewed

in its purpose, seldom eats another.


September 6th, 2022

California Poets Interview Series:

Brendan Constantine, Poet, Educator, and Performer

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Your poems remain imaginative on the page, but the performative nature adds an extra dimension to the content. Why, in your view, is it just as important to develop presentation as much as craft?

BC: Being able to perform one’s poetry certainly isn’t a ‘rule.’ Indeed many poets write specifically because they’d rather not say these things aloud. Further, some contend that poetry is at its purest when left unvoiced, thus allowing the reader to make their own associations.

Personally, I love to listen to poetry, and I believe that if I’ve been invited to read, this makes me a guest of the listener. It’s simply good manners to make my recital as expressive as possible, without of course, upstaging the text.

I try to make eye contact with my audience, annunciate clearly, and offer at least as much emotion as I would if we were old friends catching up.

DG: Let’s stay with presentation and craft for a moment: “The Opposites Game,” was first published in The American Journal of Poetry. The piece begins with Emily Dickinson’s famous gun metaphor, then concludes just as resoundingly. The animated film published on the Ted-Ed platform adds yet another visceral element. Can you talk about the development of the film—more specifically how the process of creation and viewing it changed your perception of the poem on the page?

BC: Credit where credit is due—the first adaptation was done by filmmaker Mike Gioia for his Blank Verse Films project and I encourage folks to check it out.

The Ted Ed version is entirely to the credit of poet Sarah Kay. She has been such a steadfast supporter of my work and, indeed, the work of many other poets. A true sister for ‘the cause.’ It was she who helped to promote the poem online and then suggest it as a candidate for her collaborative project with Ted Ed, ‘There’s a Poem for That.’ Thus, ‘The Opposites Game’ is now part of an online anthology of poems, all adapted by different artists and animators.

When I was first introduced to my interpreters, filmmakers Lisa LaBracio and Anna Samo, I assured them that I wouldn’t ‘helicopter’ their efforts. “Run with it,” I said, “This is your poem now.” I’ve been fortunate enough to have a good deal of my work adapted by other artists and this is always my policy: stay out of their way, let them do whatever they need to do.

In this case, Anna and Lisa insisted on sharing their notes and sending me ‘dailies’ as the film evolved. Only once, I think, did they ask if I found an image forced or too “on the nose.” Needless to say, they nailed it. And yes, my understanding of the work changed, as it always does after passing through another mind. The experience is always humbling.

DG: For many years you’ve been a key figure in bringing verse to the so-called “real world.” You’ve worked with the homeless and those affected by traumatic brain injuries. Indeed, not just poets, but all of us rely on the mind’s imaginative power to solve problems. How has the effort of bringing poetry’s creative force into larger society helped you better understand the community in which you write?

BC: I think once you’ve decided to make a career of art, it’s very easy to lose sight of why you started in the first place. Whatever your medium, be it painting or dance or acting or making poems, you’ll find that your most conspicuous and immediate audience will be—or at least appear to be—other artists in the same discipline. When I began to seek out poetry readings, I quickly became accustomed to seeing only poets there and this resulted in a kind of myopia.

But the whole reason poetry ever occurs in most cultures is to have higher communion with the world. Yes, every artist should be working for themselves, but we’re also supposed to be contributing to a greater community, to promote an emotional vocabulary. I won’t say ‘dialogue’ because so much art is clearly declarative, not inquisitive. But, ultimately, once you go public with your art, it’s for everybody. And that means everybody gets to make their own, too.

I know some would insist that art be “left to the professionals,” but who exactly are the professionals? We could argue endlessly over that one. People are doing it now, loudly. But can you imagine going to a party, separating all the couples, and saying, “I’m afraid you aren’t qualified to dance.”

Let me add, emphatically, that when I’m working with the writers you specified in your question, my admiration for their work is totally unqualified. I’m never thinking, “Not bad for an amateur.” Some of the most compelling and urgent poetry I have ever experienced has been the work of people who have no desire to make careers of it. The “real world” is full of poets.

DG: Let’s return to opposites in a slightly different way: You organized a very interesting online workshop for Beyond Baroque in 2020, titled “The Art of Getting It Wrong.” Your philosophy: “Sometimes, in order to strike gold, you must dig through lots of mud. You must accept that no matter how skilled and experienced you may be, your worst writing always lies ahead of you.” In addition, you state that “any job worth doing, is worth doing badly.” With so much success behind you now, has this process of creative destruction become easier or more difficult over the years, when there’s arguably more to lose?

BC: Thank you so much for asking this. I’m actually about to offer the workshop again, this time for the Fine Arts Work Center and 24 Pearl Street. It will start on Halloween and run daily for a week online!

OK, end of shameless promotion. Ahem …

I believe all art is imprecise. A perfect poem would be unreadable and make no sound. A perfect painting would explode its gallery. And the only perfect dancer is fire itself. A fellow artist says it another way, “Failure is not an option. It is, in fact, always the result.”

I often tell my students that the measure of poetry is akin to the measure of diamonds. On a jeweler’s scale, the ultimate diamond is a thing comprised entirely of light. It is therefore unattainable. Likewise, the great joke played upon every poet is that no matter the size of one’s language, mortal self-consciousness cannot be described. Too much is lost in the expression, no matter how deft or prescient. The best we will ever achieve is a poem that produces a brief (indeed fleeting) physical understanding. What is a physical understanding? A feeling—the poem that speaks to you has embodied something ineffable.

If that sounds fantastic, it is. In my opinion, poetry is the art of saying something unsayable. Perhaps more remarkable is that even after the poet has had their say, it remains unsaid.

So, has it become easier or harder to recognize my limitations as a poet? Depends on when you ask me. Today, it’s no problem at all. I’ve spent the morning looking at poems by Francesca Bell, Patricia Smith, and Kaveh Akbar. I’m not even born yet.

DG: Risk is something inherent to your work—even the risk to be light-hearted. In your 2009 collection, Letters to Guns, published by Red Hen Press, there’s a poem called “Unsung Cheeses.” Yet, upon first reading, what appears to be something light is really a serious reflection on the state of our society: “O cheeses that languish in books like the lyrics of lost empires, / this mercy, this forgiveness, these hands describing love.” Can you talk about how the poem came about, perhaps in relation to the context in which it was composed?

BC: The poem is actually an homage to the great Donald Hall, former Laureate of the US. He has a wonderful poem called ‘O Cheese’ in which he lavishes praise on his subject, confessing both love and a sense of unworthiness. The poem was rather cathartic for me, a permission giver as it were, so I crafted a response. I later sent the piece to him and received a kind letter encouraging me to share it.

The catharsis I mentioned is one I continue to experience and it is given, or perhaps detonated is a better word, by anyone who reminds me how young poetry is. That is to say, as old as it may be in years, it’s still quite fresh with possibility. This is because languages are always growing, always expanding. And so long as we keep making new words (and technological means/contexts in which to share them), there will always be new poetry, new forms, fresh light.

DG: Along with your creative efforts and work in the community, you’re also a well-known educator. How have your endeavors in teaching, specifically at the Windward School, affected your development as a writer?

BC: I‘ve been teaching for a little over twenty years and I think I’m almost prepared for it. Teaching scares the hell out of me and it always has. I’m terrified of wasting anyone’s time, especially the young.

In many ways, my previous answer to your question about my work with people in recovery also applies here. Teaching is vital to me precisely because it keeps me guessing, frightened, fascinated, teachable. And it reminds me that everyone’s reason for making art isn’t the same. I forget that, too. Despite a routine of caution and (I hope) humility, I can still make broad assumptions about what a poem is, what it should do. So, I work in many different classrooms, with emerging writers, returning writers, people living with various constraints, even people who deplore my ideals. I teach because everyone has something to teach me.

If I may linger on this point just a bit longer, I’d like to share a story: A friend and colleague once gave me a book of poems, describing it as “brilliant” and “essential.” I trusted my friend and was truly curious what had provoked the endorsement. In the end, it sucked. It wasn’t just bad, it sucked, sucked in a literal sense: it drew air from the room, depleted reality. At least, that was my first impression.

But then it was also my second and third response, my fifth and tenth. Why, I wondered, why on earth would anyone bother with these poems? What could possibly have induced someone to actually write them when there were so many other pursuits—breaking your knees with a hammer, setting fire to your money, screaming into a box and mailing it to yourself—all of them equally deserving of effort.

My disdain became almost erotic in that it caused me to move and make things. I’d deliberately grab the book from time to time, open to a random page, be appalled again, and then race to write a refuting poem, a poem that contradicted this poet. I played the Opposites Game with a vengeance.

And then one day something hit me. Who, I asked myself, had caused me to write more poems—my heroes or this one supervillain? Suddenly I saw the experience in a new way—I thought I was angry, but I was actually inspired. This poet got me thinking, kept me off balance, made me work. The next time I looked at this person’s poetry, it made sense, it was beautiful, in fact. It wasn’t my style, didn’t confirm my tastes, and sought a grail I still couldn’t perceive. But it was beautiful. I now look for this author and share their work in my classrooms.

Nope, I’m not naming names and it doesn’t matter.

DG: The unmasked man in the room—if I may use the image to substitute the elephant—is COVID, which has impacted us all. And yet, writing, for better or worse, has always been a rather solitary pursuit. Being a poet who cherishes performance, how did the pandemic affect you, both personally and creatively? Did you produce more or less work, and did, perhaps, your approach to the craft change in any way?

BC: I wrote quite a bit during the first year of the pandemic, and then recovered my non-rhythm! Certainly, the isolation and new inducements (Zoom, etc.) to spend more time at the keyboard were useful. I also taught a good deal more. Happily, that trend continues. The experience has indeed informed my approach to both writing and teaching. I’ve gotten a little more patient with both. Perhaps incidentally, I began listening to music while working. I never did that before. I either did one or the other, but not both. In particular, I discovered the work of Marcus Fjellström, a Swedish composer and artist who passed away five years ago this month. I’ve found that if I play his music at low volume, I can get into a ‘zone’ and work for long stretches.

I missed performing terribly, and while I was grateful for the work-arounds, there was just no substitute. Only in the last month have I started getting anything like the regular invitations I used to receive. I have something on the order of twenty live readings booked between now and the spring.

DG: Los Angeles has been your home since birth, and you’ve committed to helping the arts thrive here. What are some of your favorite poems about the city, places you love to go for inspiration—or perhaps just a cup of coffee? Any reflections about the city are welcome.

Los Angeles truly is a city like no other. For one thing, it can often seem isolated from itself. Because of its terrific size, there are innumerable scenes, seemingly in the same cultural orbit but totally unaware of each other.

San Francisco, Manhattan, London, Paris, Rome can all be crossed cheaply and quickly. But no one seems to know where Los Angeles ends. We’re pretty sure it starts at the sea and then vanishes somewhere outside Kansas. That may sound like a dig, but I delight in the hugeness of my city. There is always more of it, and it’s positively crackling with artists.

Just now I’m living on the West Side, about three miles from the water. There’s a coffeehouse nearby, a Black Owned Business called Good People, where I like to meet friends and even do some writing. It feels like a hangout from my youth. It has that charge. It’s also on a tight stretch of Santa Monica Blvd. where one often sees courier robots on their rounds. Sawtelle Village is a short walk, and there’re art theaters like the Nuart and the Laemmle Royal.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?


Catherine Lacy’s 2018 collection of stories ‘Certain American States’ UK poet Rachael Allen’s 2019 book ‘Kingdomland’ Poet Donika Kelly’s ‘The Renunciations’ – 2021 Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel ‘The Horse’s Mouth’

Waiting for:

Poet Betsy Sholl’s new collection ‘As If a Song Could Save You’ – October 2022 Claire Dederer’s forthcoming critique ‘Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma’ April 2023

Working on:

Just finished a new and limited chapbook called ‘Close Call’ in honor of my friend, LA poet Gail Gauldin Moore who passed away last May. “Everything,” she once wrote, “is a close call.”

I’m looong in the throes of publishing my fifth collection of poems, which as it happens, is called ‘The Opposites Game.’

Finally, a bunch of new poems showed up in the last couple months. They’re rough and I’m not yet sure what they want. So far, they seem friendly. They’ve asked to sleep in my office. Just now I’m trying to see what they’ll eat.

DG: This sounds wonderful and interesting, Brendan. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

BC: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate. And thank you for celebrating California poets.

Author Bio:

Brendan Constantine is a poet based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in many standards, including Poetry, The Nation, Best American Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Poem-a-Day. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a fifth, ‘The Opposites Game,’ is forthcoming. A popular performer, Brendan has presented his work to audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe, also appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered, TED ED, numerous podcasts, and YouTube. He currently teaches at the Windward School and, since 2017, has been working with speech pathologists across the country to develop poetry workshops for people with Aphasia and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).


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