Trading poetic surrealism for NYC realism

by Guest Blogger

Justin Wymer ’12, a resident of Currier House concentrating in English and American Literature and Language, received an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to intern at the Ugly Duckling Presse under the tutelage of professional poets. In addition, he wanted to trace Federico García Lorca’s New York City sojourn, viewing urbanization through a surrealist lens, and begin a collection of poems that explores lingual perspective, cityscape and surrealism. Wymer has been published in The Harvard Advocate, Tuesday Magazine, The Gamut, and Infinitives: A Collaborative Chapbook, among other publications. In the spring of 2010, Wymer was awarded the Edward Eager Memorial Fund Prize for an exceptional submission of five poems by a Harvard undergraduate. He was also chosen as one of eight students to recite W.S. Merwin’s Dusk in Winter during a ceremony honoring the U.S. Poet Laureate’s life-long excellence in poetry and environmental activism. The following is his report on his fellowship experiences.

New York City: Manicured gardens, street vendors advertising falafel pitas, calapra trees, throngs of models aside homeless families, smaze-clouds, literary circles, scores of languages, massive fire-escapes, whining sirens, string orchestras in city parks, language poets, moldering newspapers on street corners, Chinese laundromats, cocktail parties, clamshell presses, ink-stains and mineral spirits.

Drawn to surrealist poetry, I originally had a difficult time writing in New York; I was used to trying to depict the everyday as strange, but everything in New York City was so foreign to me that it almost seemed extraterrestrial. It needed no poetic flourish of surrealism. (Have you seen the writhing graffiti on the side of the warehouse on 3rd Street, just as the sun is setting?) So, for the time being, I abandoned surrealism. After a talk with my thesis advisor, Jorie Graham, I set myself to the task of being "log-keeper."

I sat outside the previous apartment of Marianne Moore – a brilliant poet who lived just two blocks away from my apartment on Cumberland Street – at eye-level with a layer of manicured shoots, which are sagging a bit. Walt Whitman lived only four blocks away, to the east of me. The calapra tree in front of me had huge, heart-shaped leaves with long beans. They looked like sprays of childrens’ fingers. It turns out that New York City merely has a different sense of order than other places, and the poems I wrote there have molded themselves to accommodate the city’s patterns and speed – shorter, descriptive poems that attempt to encapsulate the motion of particular places in New York: Fort Greene Park, a particular balcony on Cumberland Street, feral animals on Dekalb Avenue.

When I was not writing poems, I made books! And edited them. As editorial/administrative intern at Ugly Duckling Presse, I read manuscripts, commented on them, and helped choose which books the press will publish. I edited one chapbook alongside Timothy Donnelly, a poet whom I greatly admire. And every Saturday, I took part in the festal camaraderie that is "Press Day" at UDP. Together, the interns and community volunteers collate, fold, hand-bind, and stitch together books; make broadsides for the covers, using flatbed or clamshell presses; and use an old-fashioned guillotine to trim them before they are sold at cocktail parties with authors, poets, dramatists, and publishers.

[Caption: Justin Wymer PHOTO: Rachel Shepheard]