The City and the Writer: In New York City with Monica Ferrell

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In New York City with Monica Ferrell

Special City Series / New York City 2012

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

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

If  “mood” means “a temporary state of mind or quality of feeling,” can I say New York is a pretty moody place?  It’s always changing its mind, always in a state of change.  I grew up just outside of the city and can remember other “moods” that the words New York City once evoked.  The New York of the late Seventies, my first New York, was a much grittier place, a violent city, a burning city. But you don’t have to go back thirty years to see change here. Nowadays when I am away even for three weeks, one of the first things I’ll do on my return is take a walk through my neighborhood to see which stores and restaurants have disappeared, and which new ones have come into being.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The end of a relationship took place here.  I remember its stages.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I live near enough to Red Hook and the Columbia Waterfront District that I can hear the noises boats make as they signal to the shore. (At least that’s what I think those low booming noises mean.)  I’ve always been enchanted by the sounds of transportation at nighttime, particularly if I’m sitting at home. When as a kid I would visit with my grandmother in her home in a rural town in Arkansas, I loved lying awake listening to the noises of cargo trains rushing past. The contrast of stasis and movement—of the small, known world that a home is, as opposed to the voyage—and the idea of strangers coming so near without meeting you, all of that appeals to me. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are so many.  Books I read in the past weeks by New Yorkers are Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds, and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. Actually, now I see that all three novels, though by writers living here, are in fact about other places—Madrid, Rochester/Bangladesh, the desert in California. I recently had a conversation with one of those authors about this issue, about the challenges and rewards of representing the place where you live, versus having a geographic distance. In the fiction I write, I find I am hopelessly centered on New York City. If writing a novel is creating a world, it helps me to have a real world, one I know very well, as a trampoline.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m very fond of the water, how it edges and interrupts this city (and others—Venice, Saint Petersburg).  I also love all in-between, liminal spaces.  For this reason, I love walking out to the bridges over the Gowanus Canal, the infamously poisoned backwater snaking through Brooklyn, where you’re more likely to find condoms floating than waterlilies (it was recently found to “have gonorrhea”). There’s always a twinge of irony when I do this: I know the words Gowanus Canal don’t exactly inspire a spiritual feeling in a lot of people here. But it feels wonderful to stand on the bridge, which jolts and sways as cars pass over, staring at the water, which, perhaps because so polluted, has a lovely burnished color especially toward sunset.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Before I was old enough to experience the city fully, I loved the descriptions in The Great Gatsby.  Here are two passages that stuck in my mind about Fifth Avenue:

“We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral, on the summer Sunday afternoon that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner.”

*

“I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.”

*

Or here are a few lines from Weldon Kees’s brilliant “Aspects of Robinson”:

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin

Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.   

Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.   

The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.   

This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.

*

But as for specific locations that are famous for their literary associations, I’m afraid I believe something turns iconic just as it reifies and becomes stale. No one can mention the White Horse Tavern without talking about Dylan Thomas dying after eighteen straight whiskies there, which makes the bar historical rather than alive. Even by the time Weldon Kees was writing, the Algonquin wasn’t what it had been, and I think he’s using the name at least somewhat ironically. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I love this question. Because it reminds me not only of something I dearly love about New York, but of something that I love about all cities. I’ve loved wandering the warren of streets in the bazaar at Varanasi; ditto in Fez. In both places: a wilder, denser, more extreme version of the larger city.  (My favorite travel-city-memory is of wandering with a glass of grappa late at night through Venice, and entering a tiny courtyard just as the bell of a church struck twelve.  It was like entering some sort of secret moonscape of a garden.)

Hidden cities, of course, can also mean not simply a neighborhood or something you sketch on a map, but also a community or subculture that exists within the wider population.  My first novel, The Answer Is Always Yes, explored the world of New York City nightclubs in their heyday of the mid-’90s, which was for me a hidden city to discover. And maybe a hidden city could also mean all the secret inwardnesses, any part of this city that’s hidden. My favorite bar for many years was an East Village spot completely unmarked from the outside. You walked up a set of stairs into a boisterous Japanese noodle restaurant, but only if you happened to know to turn left and pass through a pair of unremarkable doors would you burst into this serene, exquisite jewel-box of a martini bar, its ceiling muraled with angels seated on clouds.

Where does passion live here?

Before passion came to mean something sentimental, romantic, or erotic, it meant “suffering, enduring,” as in the passions of Christ on the Cross. You certainly see (and experience) that everywhere.  People come from all over the world to “make it,” as the Frank Sinatra song goes. And that struggle manifests itself in plenty of “suffering, enduring.”  Lorca’s Poet in New York is testimony to that. 

What is the title of one of your poems about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

Though my novel has a lot to do with the city, I don’t have many poems that are explicitly “New York”—which is odd because I do have an Oakland poem and even a Herculaneum poem.  Plenty of my poems are set here, though, or inspired by this place.  In my first book, Beasts for the Chase, the poem “Walking Home” is a fantastical reimagining of walking home after a night out in the city.  In the new book, the poem “The Hour of Sacrifice” takes place here too:

Child, you are alive now and your heart

beats low. The smallest drum in this place,

in this apartment empty on the far side

of the city. There is still time . . .

 

Now that I look back, I see that the poem begins in a decidedly non-urban setting (“You are alone before they kill you . . .  / Barbaric and speechless as a bear, / you are a bear parting the forests / out of hunger”).  I think I was inspired by two things: first, the erosion of habitats (forests displaced by cities, so animals are forced into the open in order to survive), and, second, something that Giambattista Vico postulated. I might be mangling it, but in The New Science I believe he asserts that cities are the new jungles, the new wildernesses, because of their anonymity and barbarism. I don’t know if I agree with his statement, but it certainly sparked my imagination.

Inspired by Levi,“ Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

Yes. Every inside assumes an outside, and indeed projects it, just the way every object’s front projects its verso, even when we can’t see that side. Not only does such an “outside” exist—there wouldn’t be any New York if it didn’t.

Monica Ferrell is the author of a collection of poems, Beasts for the Chase, which won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and was published by Sarabande Books, as well as of a novel, The Answer Is Always Yes (The Dial Press/Random House), which was named a Borders Original Voices Selection and one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2008. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Review of Books, the Paris ReviewA Public Space, Tin HouseSlate and many other journals and anthologies. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Discovery/the Nation prizewinner, she directs the creative writing program at Purchase College and lives in Brooklyn.


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