Mervyn Taylor divides his time between Trinidad and Tobago and New York City. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from Columbia, and has taught poetry courses at the New School, as well as high school English in New York City public schools. He’s written six books of poetry, the most recent of which is Voices Carry (2017), and the first of which is titled An Island of His Own, which was published in 1992. The book’s title poem begins:
In his new kingdom he conquered
the conditions of exile. He scaled
the high cliffs to prolong
the sunsets, he learned to relish
the reward of a desolate day
when he’d sit on the rocks and write
to no one in particular
that the gulls were unfaltering
in the patterns of their flight . . .
Taylor moved into his apartment on Ocean Avenue in 1981, the summer after he graduated from Columbia. The apartment looks out on Prospect Park, as well as the point where Ocean Avenue and Parkside Avenue meet. It’s a sprawling intersection on the Southeast corner of the park, and features a pavilion with tables and chairs and umbrellas, which hosts Brooklynites who are coming and going toward and away from the Parkside Avenue stop along the Q train. From his apartment, Taylor has written many poems, including the three-hundred and sixty-two that appear in his six books.
When I asked him what he enjoys about teaching poetry, he spoke of the lines that poets cannot think or plan their way towards; but those that find them, in the middle of a thought, or in the middle of composing, when their minds are quiet, and their hearts are ready, and their egos are no longer standing in the way.
He laughs often. And when he welcomed me and Adrian into his place on the last Sunday of November, he was cooking pelau, a one-off cookup of rice, pigeon peas and meat. A radio was playing jazz from the 1950s. Whenever a new song would start, he’d ask us whether we knew who was singing. Usually we’d look at each other, and then look at Mervyn, who would be standing and smiling. Most often we didn’t know, and so we would ask Mervyn, “Who?” “That’s Sarah Vaughn!” he would say, and we would all laugh.
Next September will mark his Thirty-seventh year in the apartment. At one point in the ‘90s, he thought of moving into a place on Carlton Avenue, in Fort Greene, where he would have had a view of the Empire State Building. He thought it might help his work, to live in a neighborhood with more bookstores, and more poets and writers. Ultimately he said he decided to stay on Ocean Avenue because the rent on Carlton would have been two-hundred-and-fifty dollars a month, which he thought was too steep at the time.
Maybe it was the two-hundred-and-fifty dollars per month that kept him away. But maybe it was his intuition calling forth a line for his life in Brooklyn that he hadn’t thought of, or planned for. His building’s supers have changed; and he’s seen three come and go through the years. Old neighbors have moved out and new neighbors have moved in, but Taylor’s place on Ocean Avenue doesn’t just feel like a home. If you spend any time there, you’ll feel welcome and comforted, and after just long enough, you’ll begin to see and feel, how the apartment is an island all of his own.
Mervyn: I remember when I first moved in here. The heating situation was terrible. And the woman that I took over the apartment from, she warned me. She said, “I’m getting too old for this.” And I was a lot younger then, and she said if you can stand the cold, you’ll be okay, because, she said, they don’t send up the heat like they should. I figured she was just saying that but winter came, and I’m telling you . . . that poem about “The Center of the World,” the last section says, “My guest and I sleeping in gloves,” and it’s the truth, it was that cold. There was no heat, and the bedroom was the worst, it was like an icebox in there. I have a pullout couch here in the living room, and my girlfriend and I were sleeping on the couch here, and some nights, man, we’d be padded up to the point of wearing gloves.
Isaac: So what did the landlord say about it?
Mervyn: The landlord didn’t say anything, man! The super was a Guyanese guy. He would make an excuse. He would say, “You know, man, I’ve been trying to turn it up for years.” He acted like he had no control over it. But it was really, really bad. And it was those days when a lot of things were bad. The hey-day of crack and stuff. And I came back from Trinidad and the lobby down there, it’s in a poem too. It’s a small lobby, there would be ten or twelve crack heads in that space.
Isaac: Twelve people?
Mervyn: Yeah, in that space, and you would open the door and the crack smoke would just hit you. And I’d come in, but they were very polite, they didn’t want trouble. And I’d come in, and they’d say, “Oh, good evening, sir. Let me help you with that.” I’ve got my luggage, and I’d be stepping over bodies. It was rough.
Isaac: What year did you move in here?
Mervyn: Oh man . . . 1981. That was the year I graduated from Columbia. I used to live in, you know Vanderveer, down on Foster between Brooklyn Avenue and Nostrand. It’s a very popular spot. It’s a huge complex with ten or more blocks of apartments, not projects but just apartments. It became known as “Trin City” because there were so many Trinidadians living there at the time. You know who used to live there? That actor who is incredible . . . Williams, Michael Williams! You have to know Michael Williams.
Isaac: What’s he in?
Mervyn: He’s in The Wire.
Isaac: I haven’t seen that yet.
Mervyn: He plays Omar! I mention him because they did a story on him recently and he is actually from “Trin City,” Vanderveer, where I used to live. And now he plays his parts in Hollywood, and they asked him why he always comes back here. He said, “Life for a black man in Hollywood ain’t no bowl of cherries, man.” He said, “Yeah, I got money, I got a house and all of that, but what kind of lifestyle do you think there is out in Hollywood?” So he said from time to time to keep it real, he comes back here. And when he was getting the part in The Wire or Boardwalk Empire, he had to learn how to shoot. He’s a gangster, right? He came right back to Vanderveer and the gangster boys who used to bully him welcomed him back, and those very same guys took him up on the roof and showed him to handle a gun and look natural with it.
Isaac: I’ll have to check out The Wire then, and see if I can pick up on the “Trin City” influence in his character. So you moved in in 1981? Do you remember the month?
Mervyn: It might have been September. It could’ve been September, I think.
Isaac: Do you remember your impressions of the apartment when you first saw it?
Mervyn: Oh yeah. First of all, the fact that it’s right on the park! And the kitchen was beautiful. The kitchen started with three beautiful windows like I have in the living room here. But later they came to change the windows, and make it a little more modern. And I was upset because the old windows were like these country windows. And the guy who was changing the windows kept reassuring me that I would like the new windows just as well. And I said, “No, man.” And he said, “Well, I can’t leave it, you know what I’m saying?” So I liked the apartment. I didn’t like the warning that it was going to be cold. Oh, and the other thing, some of my buddies they had a vegetarian place up on Flatbush, and one guy kept saying, “Listen man, you’re moving in over there? It’s rough. The neighborhood’s rough.” It was largely Hispanic at that time, and like I said, the drugs were rolling in at the time. It was interesting because of the Spanish element. Like across the street here, in front of the park, in the pavilion right there, they’d be playing that Spanish music all the time, which was beautiful. It was a nice mix. So my friend was saying, “You know, man, I don’t know if you want to move around there. It’s kind of hectic.” And for the first ten years I would say while I was here, it got increasingly worse. So much so that I had a buddy who lived across the hall, and he said, “Are you going to stay here, man? I’m getting out.” He was one of the few black guys here in the building. He moved someplace down on Atlantic Avenue, a nice apartment down there. He said, “You have to get out of here.” And I remember, I went to look for a place down in Fort Greene. It was a nice place, a two room place. And from the window you could look over and see Manhattan and see the Empire State Building. And I said, “Whoa, this is nice.” And the woman there said I could have it. I think the rent was something like two-fifty.
Isaac: Two-hundred-and-fifty dollars?
Mervyn: Yeah! And I said, “Whoa, that’s too steep man.” That was too much money! I think in Vanderveer I was paying one-something. So I said, “Nah, I can’t do that.” But it’s interesting. I lived through that crazy period. I got mugged - well, somebody tried to rob me one time. I was coming from the bank and I came in, I was also doing my laundry the same day - the laundromat is right across the street there. So I got the clothes and I’m coming into the lobby and I’m checking my mail, and there’s a guy at the front door who looked like he was trying to get in and he looks okay, you know? I went and let him in. And this guy came in and he’s standing at the elevator, but I notice he’s not getting into the elevator. So I get on the elevator, and then he gets on. And we’re riding up, and when we get to my floor, I knew something was wrong, and as I went to push the cart off, he grabs me around my neck. So, first of all, I can’t stay in the elevator with this dude. He could literally kill me. So I force my way through the door, and he comes out with me. I’m not a tough guy by any stretch - I’m tough in the poems, but . . . so, I guess your wits work, man - I weighed even less at that time - I dropped myself down. So I’m on the floor and he’s over me, grabbing at my pockets trying to get the money. Meanwhile, I’m kicking like crazy. He can’t get to me. But then he grabs me by my ankles and drags me down the first flight of stairs, down to the land. Meanwhile, I’m making noise like crazy.
Isaac: What time of day is it, night?
Mervyn: No, this is like morning, man. It’s like eleven o’clock in the morning or something. And I’m screaming and then the doors start opening all over the place. And in the meantime, I’m trying. I’m trying. And then I think when he heard people coming out, he just took off down the steps. So the only that happened is my glasses got messed up. He messed up my glasses. So that was like my main experience with the neighborhood being rough. But he wasn’t even a rough guy, he was just some guy who saw me in the street and followed me home. The other one is that someone tried to break in one night. I wasn’t here; I had stayed out some place. And in those days, they had the police lock, which is a metal pole that comes up from the floor to right under the lock. So it slides on, so if somebody pushes, the metal rod jams on the handle. So they can open the door but only so much. All the apartments in the hood had a police lock. So when I came home in the morning, my neighbor - well, she didn’t even have to tell me; the door was a little ajar - but she told me, “When I came out of my apartment, he was there pushing on the door.” So when he saw her come out, he turned around and tried to act like he was surprised no one was home or something. She kept looking at him and then he just grabbed her chain and ran down the stairs. I was working nights then, proofreading. I remember coming home and seeing from my kitchen window a kid, slumped on one of those park benches. He’s in the poem too.
Isaac: And you never thought about moving?
Mervyn: I thought about moving several times, but the rents started to go up and the neighborhood started to feel safer. And I also got used to the view and the park being right there. It just felt good, you know? I said, “I ain’t going no place, man.” One of the reasons I kept thinking about moving was I kept thinking I had to live in a neighborhood where people were more literary-minded, like if I moved to Fort Greene or Park Slope where maybe there were more people who were into literature and theatre and stuff liked that, which might encourage your growth, right, as a writer. If you’re a writer you should be living in a neighborhood of writers where they have readings and stuff.
Mervyn: Maybe, maybe. I found out that’s not necessarily true. People tell me, “No, man, some of those places you’re talking about, sometimes people are not all that friendly either, you know.” So you could move to a neighborhood and not know anybody. But we can talk poetry. What do you want to ask me?
Isaac: Well, I have a question about whether you prefer the bachata, which was in the poem “Marie, and Juan” or the jump up?
Mervyn: The jump up is really the musical of Carnival in Trinidad. When you go out in the street in the costume and you’re doing what they call “playing mas,” somebody would say, “You gonna jump up!” The whole idea of the street dance is called the jump up. That’s Trinidad. The bachata is really Dominican music, from Santa Domingo. So the point of the poem, “Marie, and Juan,” is the opportunity that Brooklyn provides for two people to get together who in their own country back home probably don’t get along. You know the whole island of Hispaniola is divided into Haiti and Santa Domingo, right? With a border between them. And if you read Edwidge Danticat, you know that border. Matter of fact, there was a guy doing a presentation at the Miami Book Fair about that border. Because if you remember Trujillo, who was the president of Santo Domingo in this days, he was responsible for the slaughter of a lot of Haitians. Haitians would cross the border between Haiti and Santa Domingo to work in the cane fields because there wasn’t enough work in Haiti. But Trujillo was a racist; he didn’t like the Haitians, and his whole thing was to exterminate them. And they slaughtered hundreds, thousands you could say, of these Haitians who came over. But there were also Santo Domingo people who were dark-skinned, so how do you tell the Haitian from the Dominican?
Mervyn: Well, it’s an interesting story. There’s a word in Spanish that is difficult for Haitians to pronounce. It’s the Spanish word for celery, perejil. But to say it properly in Spanish, you have to roll your r’s. So, this guy, Trujillo, who was racist and also a person who went by class, because the poor people really didn’t know how to roll their r’s like that, it’s the upper class people who had this thing of rolling their r’s because some of them were very proper and very Spanish. There’s a poem by Rita Dove that you must read. Rita Dove has a poem called “Perejil” which is about that and about the dictator boasting of how his mother, nobody could roll their r’s like his mother. But the challenge was also to these Haitians. You go up and tell these Haitians, “Say perejil.” And the ones who couldn’t roll their r’s, you would know they were Haitian, and they literally chopped them to death, man. They killed these people. Earlier this month, there was a guy at the Miami Book Fair, he did this study - he wasn’t even born in the Dominican Republic, he was born on the Lower East Side - but he says as he was traveling back and forth all the time, he heard these stories, and he felt compelled to do a study on this thing. So right now they have all these things that they’re doing to solve that conflict between the Haitians and the Dominicans. He said once a year on the anniversary of the slaughter, people would go to the border and light candles and have a candlelight vigil for the people who died on that spot. Edwidge Danticat also has a book called The Farming of Bones, which is about a Haitian couple trying to escape from the persecution in the Dominican Republic.
Isaac: And you had read that before you wrote “Marie, and Juan?”
Mervyn: Yes. But “Marie, and Juan” is interesting, right? I was thinking about it because after I taught at the New School, I starting working in a public high school in Williamsburg on Grand Street. It’s called Grand Street Campus High School. And that has an interesting history too, right? Because they say that Grand Street Campus High School is actually built on the plot of an old Indian burial site. So they claim that that’s why that school never had any peace. It takes up a whole block. When I went there, they had shut down the old Grand Street High School. There was so much violence there, they shut it down. And what did they do? They reopened, and rather than have a school that was so unmanageable, they put a new school on each floor, so each floor in the building had a different high school. We were on the top floor - the High School of Enterprise, Business, and Technology.
Isaac: What year was that?
Mervyn: It might have been ‘93. Somewhere around there. The second floor was the High School for Legal Studies. The third floor was Progress High School, and I believe the first floor may have just been the general reception area, and the auditorium, which was for everything and for everybody. So I got a job there. And that’s an interesting story too. I was teaching at the time at a school called the Young Adult Learning Academy, which was a school, actually, for drop-outs, young people between sixteen and twenty-two. And it was a great school. It wasn’t a traditional high school, it was a school set up by the Department of Employment for these young people to get rehabilitated and get their GED and so on. But the guy who ran it was a guy named Peter Kleinbard who had an amazing vision, so he hired all these people from the arts. They were playwrights and poets; he even had some people who were left over from the hippy days, radicals, all about the revolution and so on. So quite a mix there. But then I think funds were running out, just like these programs always get cut. And the Department of Employment was going to shut down the school. And my principal, having this great sense of vision, told me that I should apply to this school in Williamsburg, he says, “. . . Because I don’t want you to be here and then they shut it down and then there’s nothing. I want you to go over there and get a job over there.” He said his plan was to come and open a school on the second floor. He says so when he gets that school set up, I’ll already be over there and I can just quit and move down to his school and we’ll be back in business. It never happened. He never got to open a school there, but that’s how I came to work over there. There was a Haitian woman working at the school. Her name wasn’t Marie, her name was Joyelle. In my book, there’s a poem about the conflict between the black kids and the Hispanic kids and how they would threaten each other and how there was kind of a war going on between them all the time. And it made me think because, as you know, Williamsburg is not just largely Hispanic but largely Dominican. And I thought about the conflict between these Haitians and these Dominicans. These kids, who if they grew up back home or if they knew their parents’ story that there was a constant fight there . . . but here they are in America having to go to school together and having to live side by side. And I thought about Brooklyn as a kind of melting pot, a place where people who normally wouldn’t be friends would end up dancing together. So the bachata is really the dance of the Dominicans. That’s their dance. So there’s the bachata.