Writer of the Week (3/8/21): Phoebe Pfaffman

The Butterfly Tree by Phoebe Pfaffman

On my walk today, I pass the empty circle of stones where nothing is growing anymore- that used to surround what my dad called, The Butterfly Tree.
I stopped for a while and stared at the bare patch of mulch.
They’ve now uprooted the stump, and someone has left a cement block in its replacement.

I wonder if this is a sick joke, or a grave marker. Or if they are the same.

My dad said it had been gone a while before I noticed it. But I couldn’t believe him. How could I not notice something so big just disappear?

As a little girl, my dad and I would walk past it after school, eating our fried chicken from the deli by the bridge.
“That’s my Butterfly Tree,” he’d say.
I thought it was a real kind of tree that just attracted swarms of butterflies. Even though I never saw any butterflies come to it.

When I got older, I’d come there on my own and lean my back to the wide and tall trunk. I’d place my palms against the bark and imagine the magic from the tree coming into me. Before I’d go, I’d tell the tree, “I love you,” get at least one or two strange stares, then walk away.

My mom said the tree was sick and that that’s why they cut it down. She thinks that’s what the pile of logs on the corner of Columbia are from, but I didn’t think so. There are too many from a trunk not as wide.
She told me once that the lice in my head left me presents. While combing the dead bugs from my scalp, she found glitter. Tons of it, in my hair.

I felt sad for killing something that left me a present, but I didn’t feel that same sad for the tree. I imagined that it had a spirit that would live on somewhere. Float into the haze of light above where its branches used to be.

Now all I can do is step into the circle of stones, and stand on the cement block like I am stepping inside it’s ghost.
And for a moment, try to imagine what it is like, to be a Butterfly Tree.

And check out the author’s reading!

Phoebe Pfaffman is a senior at Murrow, a member of the Writers Institute and Art Institute, and a lover of Red Hook.

Interview with the writer:

Q: Who is my favorite writer right now?

A. My favorite writer has been Ocean Vuong ever since I read his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and his book of poems titled Night Sky With Exit Wounds, last year. I would also recommend you listen to him speak, he is featured in a handful of podcast episodes from various shows. You can find it by just searching his name on Spotify. Both he and his work are truly remarkable.

Q: When did you become interested in writing?

A: I became interested in writing when I realized writing was a form of storytelling. I was lucky to be introduced to it the way I was at such a young age. I was in second grade and they asked us to write about anything we wanted, anything true. I wrote a story about my School Bus Driver who had gotten lost and missed my stop, leading me to give him directions as he drove.

Q: What was your thought process for coming up with this poem?

A: I have been writing a lot about my father within the past year, and other poems and stories of my home and childhood. I noticed that the “Butterfly Tree” from the poem was cut down in the first few months of quarantine and have been thinking and writing little things about it since. Most of my writing comes out stream-of-consciousness in my journal, then I sit with it, then revise. I actually put this poem together for a friend, who I am collaborating on a dance piece with. We are using the audio recording of me reading it, GarageBand-ed with some music, and he is working on choreography for it.

Q: What has been an important experience for your development as a writer?

A: I feel like all my experiences have been important for my development as a writer. Growing in life is important to grow in your writing. But also reading. The more I read, the more I learn from other writers, and am able to apply that to my own writing.

Q: Could you talk about the relationship between making art and making communities?

A: I grew up dancing at a non-profit dance school called Cora Dance, in my neighborhood Red Hook. It was a place where families from every different corner of the neighborhood could come together; families of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, families of different sizes and shapes, with one mother or two mothers or no mother. Cora made so much unity and love possible for Red Hook, by showing the neighborhood what it looks like when all those children from all those families danced together, and what it looked like when they danced as a family. For me, making art and uniting communities have always been intertwined. Making and sharing art has always been about making family. Sharing our art is sharing what we create from those deep parts of ourselves, that we can all respond to, regardless of our artistic ability or occupation. I believe making and sharing art is an expression of love.


  1. Very moving & thoughtful….congrats on being writer of the week…I admire anyone that can write & make me feel something…keep it up…even if you end up not making that your job pls keep this or some creative endeavor in ur life….ur Mom & Dad have passed down their creativity to u…also love the photo…


  2. Phoebe: Thank you for sharing your loving soul creating such magical storytelling. Spreading your love to your community is a Rare opportunity and bountiful gift.
    With admiration


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