Beyond the Rented World

Two of my favorite Bernadette Mayer writing experiments propose that we “write a work that intersperses love with landlords” and "attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.” Mayer, our poet of real talk about money, asks us to look for the landlords always there in the workings of our lives together, refusing repairs, evicting low-income tenants (more than 1 in 10 NYC public-school students have no permanent address), and all the time undercutting the potential of our relations. There’s nothing inherently protective in poetry—some poets are landlords—but these poems think through processes of imagining an unrented life in stages ranging from the fed up to the least congenial. [If you can, support anti-gentrification work in your area. Some NYC-based organizations: Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Equality for Flatbush, Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, Bronx Community Vision, Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities]

Walking Like a Robin

take 3 or 4 steps then stop
look smell taste touch & hear
is there anything to eat?
oh look, there’s some caviar
it must be my birthday, thanks
i must be very old, like seventy
i guess i’m falling apart, i’ll just
sew myself back together but will it last?
please take a piece of me back home, each piece
is anti-war and don’t pay your rent, in fact
remember: property is robbery, give everybody
everything, other birds walk this way too

They Sell You What Disappears

They sell you what disappears       it’s a vague “they”
maybe capital T               who are they and mostly
poorly paid in China


Why does this garlic come from China?
It’s vague to me               shipping bulbous netted bulbs
Cargo doused with fungicide and growth inhibitor

What disappears is vague           I can’t trade for much
I can cook           teach you cooking         ferment
bread or poetry                 I can sell my plasma

They are paid poorly in Florida
picking tomatoes for tacos
Some CEO is surely a demon
in this poem

Need capital to buy                        need to buy or else
you are always paying rent         one month away
from “the street”
3 neighbors asked for money this week
                                 We are guilty
bringing in sacks of food                              bought on credit

Trademark this poem                 mark this poem with a scan code
on the front and digitally store it somewhere
not to be memorized “by heart”

Girl Work

I pay my rent and go to the rent store

I buy a new shiny rent

I buy a tight fitting outfit to tell myself I am rent

The weather shiny

The sun flecked with little bits of wealth

Hello I am looking for feedback and also rent

Is my body managed with sufficient affect

Has my poor been concealed craftily enough

Open your mouth and pour your riches on me

Someday they will own this too 

Memo on Two Possible Conditions for Our Marriage


We cannot, of course, get married—but if we did, there are two ways.


It would be most fun to marry you when it’s a terrible idea,
because it’s too soon or,
because it’s being posed as a solution to our problems, or just
because you know the relationship won’t work out and this seems like a way of putting that off, of being people who surrender to a mutual whim.

That’s why, right now, I sometimes want to marry you.

Especially in my dreams, where as long as we’ve been together,
you have proposed and I have refused:
“Why are you ruining this?” I ask.


It is of course more reasonable to get married when it would be a “good idea,” which is like walking to the bank one afternoon to take out cash to pay your rent, but finding the whole experience relatively appealing despite its context—either the sun is especially nice and your bank is in a neighborhood in the city you like to walkthrough, or it is raining, and you would never have gone for a walk in the rain if you didn’t have your rent to pick up. But you suddenly remember how much you like it, how convenient an umbrella is, etc. The specifics aren’t important: what matters is that this totally routine & actually bad experience appears as a pleasantly specific Tuesday lunch break, somehow, and you walk home and hand $800, taken out in twenties, to the landlord, and you smile.

i.e., it sucks.


To get married when it’s a bad idea,
but a romantic solution, is like
waking up that same day, realizing you cannot afford your rent, but knowing you need to do something, and going downstairs and seducing your landlord. You don’t begin by saying you can’t pay your rent—you half want to believe you’re just there to fuck him, after all, by coincidence, of your own desire—but you make some excuse to go inside (you’re thirsty, you want to say hi to his small dog) and wind up between him and a wall, as if the kiss were yours to surrender to. He doesn’t mention the rent, of course, and you go back to your apartment and fall in love, you wonder if you can sustain an affair with the landlord indefinitely, or whether you’ll need to somehow get the kind of income that makes a non-stressful walk to the bank before the affair goes south, or the landlord gets the courage to mention the rent to you, or his wife finds out.

Most of all I would like to marry you like a tenant who fucks her landlord
         for rent,
pretending she does so out of love.


I refuse to consider marrying you
years from now, when “all is settled” and neither of us has yet been killed
by errant taxis on our individual walks.

It isn’t “imaginable.”

To do neither, to not even date, or make up, or quit
hurting one another needlessly,
to agree to just kiss and talk about Bolaño all day, is fine.

It’s charming, even,
in the way not paying one’s rent at all would be:
in a much more pleasant walk, comprising fantasies of the bank’s explosion, or with no thought to money at all, which passes through too many hands, as I will myself, once out of yours.

I Could Go On

Dear Jo:

Good morning, I’m shallow, sleepless, irrepressible. Does that endear me to you? 5 AM in March, wind smacks the skylight and hustles refuse over Flatbush like somebody’s idea of a Zeitgeist. Hi it says time to nap but instead I’m writing testaments of what and who I love— Mike is sleeping in my bed warm and furred like a cat with a beard and a tattoo sleeve, maybe he would resent that description, I can do no other, I’m awake in another room achieving nothing in the second person singular, hello.

I do it for God and the television, with a promiscuous heart. I do it with prosthetics but à propos of anybody with an opinion about them: you are forbidden I want to say from evaluating my component parts, I am an atom, fuck a metonymy, fuck a catalogue. First I composed that sentence, then I felt myself get eyebanged by every guy with a beard on the subway platform, don’t think, Jo, I didn’t sometimes return the favour. Mike’s gone now, who brought me Oreos and spooned while I dreamt my nipples turned into mice and died, it’s spring and I’ve been eyeing every aging wonder boy in the park plus his leanly pumping quads, their sprigs of magnificent hair, there’s even crocuses, furious purple delicate violet contemptuous yellow, now I’m on a train, hello.

My imaginative lusts riddle bullet holes in the side of the achievable. Have you ever wanted to get fucked by an abdomen, an armpit, a couple of peddling legs? My preferred position with Cam for instance letting him piledrive my face from above, I lie down on my bed like a failed porn actor, I can imagine the camera fixed on my dewy lined eyes the bottom half of my face obscured under a cock and a tremendous cupid’s bow my cheeks sharp enough to be an architectural instrument as both of us try to remember our lines—but from this POV it’s more like sex with a wiry frame and faded punk tattoos. Halfway into Jersey anyways and I’m I thinking about your letter, poem, whatever, “All I Want by Joni Mitchell,” where every paragraph begins I wantI is the letter’s only person, want its only verb. It’s Monday morning, what do I want? The flourishing of bees and grasses, never for anyone to pay rent, for the landlord to stop, for fuck’s sake, spying on us, also a backyard, “it all … the whole world,” to speak veritably about no appetite, never again authenticated, no more bad-faith prurience no more AWP, my done taxes, a living wage for CUNY adjuncts, no moving apartments no falling to pieces, various men, if only they could finger, only some items impossible some are consequential, I fill up the tank and say goodnight and go, I could go on.

Patty Schemel writes in her memoir she joined Hole after “Doll Parts” was already cut but wrote a new drum line for the end and can still hear the more ambitious resonance of her snare in the final 16 bars or so sounding a hollow trench for Courtney’s appetite I fake it so real I regularly dream I’m in a band but of course can play no instrument instead I writhe on stage exacerbating attention my face flushing well really my ears and my own desperate hot need to be seen, dear Jo, you get me.

So what if I want to be embarrassed? Usually I feel like telling anybody your dreams feels like showing your ass to strangers, well, so what if they look at what will probably bore and maybe severely excite them and won’t be any real scandal. Last night dreamt of being flat, ran all night to the top of my own dimension, night before the dream about the mice, then I came into possession of an immense stash, pursued by dream police I hid my ketamine in the pastel candy shop of other pharmaceuticals—even in dreams I can purloin a letter!—but the cops in my head got wise to the trick, even to a daring cinematic escape down a garbage chute where a “man with facial hair tries to recall my identity.” By train through Jersey no spring here yet everything brown enclosed backyarded, and what have they done with my full stops, the Wawa in reach, I’m Dunkin, I’m somebody’s sugary kid.

Call embarrassment less a discomfiting bug and more an intransigent object of megafixation, a hot flash an indisputable even if unconfirmed certainty of occupying somebody’s attention despite themselves whether in vexation mockery or aimless arousal though maybe now my sense of shame a fruit rotted on the vine like for instance to trick myself back to sleep watch videos of anybody else eating things I can’t or won’t like soups and noodles, foods on a stick, McDonalds breakfasts, lunch meats, eggs fried into toast oh hell as in a letter from or season in a staycation in hell Good hell morning I haven’t slept again I think I’m amorous infrastructure

Jo I think you’re a lyricist of infatuation and I’m a geographer of arousal. What, if any, is the relevant difference, how will we be graded, I’m a slice of cake and cream, I’m Michelle Trachtenberg in Mysterious Skin and you’re my malfortunate Joseph Gordon Levitt, we applaud each others’ poor decisions, late for work again goodnight you run up my phone bill I lie for hours in the hot water we toast with our remaining vices and make up about it, mutual spectators in the tragedy of semi-notorious men. Does that endear me to you? We’re on the run from one to another parking lot, one of us a cavalier drifter with life by the balls, the other a neurotic but the better driver, with hair “the colour of eyeliner” which am I? You’re a caramelized peach, poached, juiced, even at a distance so inconvenient it’d take a day to reach you by bus on several tumescent roads.

Can you hear me where you sleep? Dear Jo. I want to fingerfuck my boyfriend in this bar, and I want you to know I’m thinking about it. Surprise!

With love at a boil,

On the Loss of Energy (and Other Things)

no more the chicken and the egg come

one of them

before the other


be fadin (steady)

from the supersafeway/a&p/giant



         the pilgrim cornucopia

         it ain’ a pot to pee in


         (these days)

gas is gone

and alka seltza runnin gas

a close race


name it

         toilet paper

         halfway honest politicians

there’s a shortage


step right up)

a crisis

(come in closer)

A International Disaster

Definitely Takin Place

(give the little lady down in front some room)

and (how about the brother in the back row/can

you hear me brother?)


                  I SAID THE HOT AIR’S RUNNIN


                  I SAID

                  THE MEAT’S NOT GOOD

                  FOR KIDS TO EAT

                  TOO FULLAFAT

                  AND STUFF LIKE THAT


                  IF YOU EAT MEAT

                  HOW YOU PLAN TO PAY THE RENT?

                  I SAID

                  THE OILWELLS DRIBBLIN

                  LOWER THAN A SNAKE

                  AND SOON WON’T BE NO HEAT


                  EXCEPT THERE AINT NO

                  MEAT TO EAT

                  I SAID

                  BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?

these things/they gettin more and more worse in

the time it takes to tell


how the country’s bound to hell



if you be middlin poor or poor or Black or Black-and-poor

this profit-makin mess the worst

mess we been force to handle

since the civil war

close down the crackers


how the north won

into victory the crackers like to celebrate/a

reconstruction of the facts

on poor and Blackbacks


I am digressin/folks

please settle down and listen good

I say you know

you know

the affluent society

starvin high

on the hog as pigs can get

I say you know

we all been pigs

but mostly we been little pigs/I say

the big pigs

got the whole big pigpen

underneath some tasty big-pig pigs’ feet

dynamite can move

where is the dynamite?

How come we tryin to cooperate

with this “emergency”/this faker/phony


got you plannin

not to die and not to have a baby

on the weekends

not to do too much/

much less to start to die or start to have

a baby

on a Sunday

or on early Monday

got you/stiff and slow and hungry

on them lines the richboys laugh about/

Will somebody

real and prominent and smart

please stand

up here

and tell about inequities and big and little pigs

and other animals and birds/and fish

don’t know a thing about no hog behavior/where’s 

the dynamite?

I say you know/I say

you know.

And so do I.

Continue reading on


Spanish is clumsy on my tongue like Angolan slaves
breaking their tools in Puerto Rico, Barbados and Nevis
Black women have killed their babies only
to save their souls, health from diabetes
and policemen coming to shoot them in their sleep
what do niggers dream while walking through a living nightmare?
the cost is some bargaining chip in minor suburb of Michigan

My grand maimed one
and all the thick cocks of Missouri
that god could not hide from me

If I die, then let the city burn with me
I want my blackness to coat the cities’ night
to burn like Sati’s glowing skin
let the foundation shake
have the children eat from my flesh
to be reborn as heroes in Homer’s Odyssey
if I am to die in the hands of our enemies, then use my corpse as a Golden Fleece
to decapitate the cyclops in blue

Do you know what love feels like
to vibrate and violently shake
to watch The Exorcist late at night with the second love of your life
just to hear he became an uncle to a new life the next day
to feel wet in the middle of the night
like a moist tampon on the first of a period
to truly be content?

I go into the sea at night and let the waters lap at my charcoal-flavored labia
why are verdicts announced at night
“Are they scared?”
they should be
the whiskey bottle is mocking me with its Aunt Jemima form
I don’t want to return
I don’t know how to exchange fares at this destination
I will lose myself in the crisis
I don’t want to return to work
I don’t want to sleep and count the weeks
dedicated to
how much money I have to save for rent
I don’t want to grovel from paycheck to paycheck
I don’t want to mutter under my breath when pigs show up to my workplace
I want to burn
I want everyone to know how alcohol feels when it’s lit
what it’s like to play with fire
I want us to burn today and tomorrow

On Living Anymore

part I: suicide 

is suicide the staking out of autonomy or is it murder by slow poisoning
(patriarchy, capitalism, prison, etc take your pick)? 

is suicide the ever-resistant final fuck you to that slow poisoning? 

is suicide the best star, the prettiest girl, the tightest beat we ever danced to? 

can i literally kill the cop in my head, burn away civilization’s noose? 

if one takes down one’s enemies with them to hell, does one have to also
drag those bodies down a black river like a horse on fire? 

i went to court to deny my suicide, my perpetuation of suicide, i refused to
answer their questions which they took to be a sign of suicide 

part II: housing 

they couldn’t find a place to lay their head 

there were more than 80,000 empty beds in the city 

there were people forcefully removed from their apartments so they could be renovated 

families died from carbon monoxide poisoning; they were burning their
belongings in the middle of the room; they were found huddled together 

red circles around the Quartier Karl Marx 

they killed the landlord then they lit the house on fire and swam into the middle of the heat
prospectors gathered around the charred foundation 

we’re busy capturing the sun, they said, opportunities aren’t forever 

you sleep, you die, they said, that’s the business 

part III: debt 

the story of my generation was the story of debt, 

i bought 1,000,000 dogs, 

but the investment didn’t pay off 

everyone else had 1,000,000 dogs 

some paid more, some paid less 

many dogs died in the process, as prices were haggled, raised, and forged into debt 

in private i wept over my 1,000,000 dogs but the dogs paid no attention 

finally in public we built an army of dogs— 

the re-wilding of our debts 

part IV: belonging 

i am exactly where i need to be, lost and on my last 50,000 won, my last 400 dollars 

i have hurried past the city of my suicide into something brighter and more gone 

the ruins of this architecture are dazzling 

we’re running in the grass; it’s ruthless 

our ways of being, numbered and cast away t

he grass cuts, like all intimacies 

we are intimate and fighting and that’s all i need to know 

all the knots in all the grasses and then we throw the net up 

i believe in no world, 

but i want to trace every bit of it with fine lines of no hope 

and that is the only love