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?
New York City is a living being (of course), containing multitudes. When the city is in a good mood, everything is shining and sequined—strangers are beautiful! We live so close to each other that we are implicated in each other’s feelings, dark and light. Ever since the presidential election of 2016, boisterous New York is more aggrieved, nervous and high-strung. People bump into each other as they walk, texting without looking up, gasping for the breath that is never caught, anxieties magnified by seemingly never-ending news cycles that accelerate as America’s best aspirations are defrauded.
New Yorkers take the daily grind and the political climate personally. When it’s too much, they hide behind phones. But good weather or a good joke can get them to look up.
One of my favorite collective NYC punch lines occurred when a preacher—perhaps the tallest man I have ever seen—charged back and forth on a packed subway car as he slapped his Bible, ranting with percussive zest that fornication is sin and adultery is sin. With a flourish, a second man with a steel drum started to play a tune that subway riders recognized: These are a few of my favorite things. The car of strangers rocked with laughter. The mood of New York City? Tense, performatory, balanced on the edge of a wisecrack.
What was your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
I was drinking coffee on my balcony when the first plane hit, thirty-six floors up and four blocks north of the Towers. It was a clear, blue day. As the second plane angled in, I felt the people of Flight 175 reaching in terror. So close, I could almost see their faces through the airplane windows. I knew. What I was seeing.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, in the city?
New York City’s skies: Electric blue on spring evenings. • Rosy fingers (of dawn!), as sunrise reflects in the glass skin of buildings in fall. • Gray snow-sky, swallowing city lights. • Renovated green plaster sky of Grand Central Station with its faux constellations.
What writers from here should we read?
May 31, 2019 is Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday. He went further in articulating New York City as a cosmos of inclusion than any poet of his time, or ours. For almost twenty-five years, I have organized a summer event that brings hundreds of poetry lovers together to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, hearing great poems about New York City and then the entirety of Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry on the Brooklyn waterfront. The lyric mind of the poet celebrates proximity to others as well as a sense of its own privacy, the quintessential New York City experience.
Also, Grace Paley’s stories inflected with Yiddish and Russian speech—a New York that is always talking, talking, talking; Audre Lorde’s rigorous thinking about bridging difference; and Frank O’Hara’s worshipful city-jaunts assembled with a curator’s eye. More recently, city-poems from Patricia Spears Jones’s A Lucent Fire.
Is there a place you return to often?
I have been going to the Metropolitan Opera House regularly since I was fourteen years old. When the house first opened, an architecture critic said it was better to listen to the music with your eyes closed. But I love the Met’s red velvet excess; and the crystal chandeliers, those little galaxies of cut glass that get hoisted aloft with a shimmering hush before each performance. I am a Met Opera Romantic. The world’s biggest opera house is the site of my most intimate, formative experiences with the human voice: as a girl I saw Leontyne Price as Aida, later Jon Vickers as Othello. In my twenties, I would get cheap tickets and stand. As an adult, at Ring cycle after Ring cycle, I have held hands with my beloved, for the joy of it, and for extra stamina (since a single aria can last forty-five minutes).
The opera house is my ritual. But I actually return to my building in Lower Manhattan, where I have lived for forty years. Even after the burst of post-9/11 development downtown, I still have a daily encounter with Manhattan as an island. From my balcony, looking south, I see a piece of the East River and a larger swath of the Hudson to the west. I walk most mornings near the water. The riverbank is part of the monarch butterfly flyway in fall. All to say, even the built human place has an edge, a natural history, a periodicity—and after so many years of environmental work on the shoreline, oysters are also returning to the river.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Poets House is the 70,000-volume poetry library and meeting place I direct. I love what Holland Cotter said about the organization’s new home in Lower Manhattan, he called it a “hybrid of library, study hall and exhibition space, floating like a utopian mirage over the Hudson River.” Poets House is an essential dream space for poetry and a haven in which you can find poems to nurture your life’s journey.
Are there hidden cities within cities that have intrigued or seduced you?
So much of New York’s vigor (and its good food) resides in its cities within cities—single blocks even—inhabited by people from specific, distant places. But New York’s hidden cities also float through time, then perish.
A few blocks from where I live, there was an open meadow and kettle pond for 18,000 years, formed when the glaciers retreated. Indigenous people gathered water there. The Europeans polluted it with the waste of tanneries and stock houses and it was eventually filled in as Manhattan made its expansion north. Now, at that spot, where Church Street meets Leonard, there is a commemorative street sign: Lorenzo da Ponte Way. Because Mozart’s great librettist opened the first opera house here, also gone. Poetry and erasure—myriad hidden cities under our boot soles.
Where does passion live here?
Passion is in proximity, in our dream for shared survival, in our public spaces. The first real day of spring in New York City is a celebration—people go out with a collective sigh of relief without coats. There is serious kissing. The drumming begins in Central Park. I call this “the first bongo of spring”—people lighter, playing guitars, dancing with syncopated joy, reefer wafting all the way down from the reservoir to Bethesda Fountain. All around the city, on fire escapes in the Bronx to parks in Brooklyn—the sense that we are together in the pulse of our city—in the pulse of nature.
What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?
“New York Wheel of Fortune” from my first book, Day Mark, was written after I was picked up at different times during the same day by the same yellow taxi cab driver. The driver was so impressed by the unlikely odds that he pulled over to the curb to share an orange with me and to tell his life story. New York is filled with stories. Recently, another cab driver told me he has been driving for thirty years and has so many stories he has forgotten most of them.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”
In New York, we live in a surreal atmosphere of individualism, economic rapaciousness, and crazy-fuck-stupid. I read a few years ago about a man who lived uptown with a baby tiger. As the tiger grew, the man couldn’t manage it. To feed the tiger, he threw trays of chicken thighs across the threshold of the tiger’s room—the tiger had its own room, you see. The animal was rescued when the downstairs neighbor smelled something that can only be described as tiger piss.
Freud compared the human psyche to Rome with its vertical layers. But the human psyche is also New York psyche: vertical, horizontal, additive, oscillating between prophetic vision and madness.
Lee Briccetti began her career working with city planners on low income housing issues in New York City. She has been the longtime executive director of Poets House, a poetry library and meeting place in Lower Manhattan, and has developed partnership programs between public libraries and other cultural institutions across the United States. Her most recent book of poetry is Blue Guide from Four Way Books. An earlier volume, Day Mark, was also published by Four Way Books. She has won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry as well as a Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.