(Re-)Dress: Week 1, Day 2

To date, I have 12 dresses complete.

In about an hour, I cut and pressed the interfacing for five dresses, and started pinning.

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I am working in little blocks of time intermittently. It’s a busy time and sometimes I panic. I’m overcommitted and this won’t change until after the end of the semester. But the cutting and sewing often feels like relief.

--

It’s impossible not to be thinking about sexual assault and rape. I have not wanted to write about it, post about it, although I understand that others need to. It’s exhausting. To bear witness to the relentlessness of sexual trauma. To be reminded constantly of how deep misogyny runs. To be reminded constantly of how little I am valued as a woman. To be reminded constantly, of every instance in my own life where my body has felt not my own.

As part of the Rumpus community, I’ve been asked to write something about my own experience, and I will. I’ll write about the time I was raped in college. I won’t write about the dozens of other times when I have felt harassed, bullied, made uncomfortable, pressured, coerced. I won’t write about how just last week, a former colleague, as part of a birthday message to which I replied with a heart emoji, said, “I am glad you are not here now because I would kiss you for that pretty heart.” This message on a tiny pop-up window on my screen while alongside, in my facebook feed, that ubiquitous smiling photo of the serial rapist again.  

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There are still unformed thoughts about women’s work. About these dresses on the small bodies of children who will grow to be girls who will grow to be women. That is for another time.

(Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand

I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth.

Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it, using fabric my adoptive mother had left to me when she died. The act of re-creating this object prompted meditation on lineage and legacy – what has been left to me, what has been lost. The dress has become an organizing motif for my writing and art practices.

I made a series of dresses for an exhibit to accompany my graduate thesis work at Vermont College of Fine Arts in early 2016.

Since then, I’ve made dozens of dresses – in fabric and in paper.

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“(Re-)Dress, One for Every Thousand,” which will be part of a spring 2018 exhibition curated by Brooke Goldstein for the Jamestown Arts Center, is an installation that uses 200 hand-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be documenting the making of these dresses. I can’t possibly comprehend the number 200,000 in any meaningful way, but I think I can understand 200. Between my birthday (October 12, which is an estimated date assigned to me by the Orphans’ Home of Korea) and the end of February, when the exhibition is to be installed, there are about 20 weeks. To stay on track, I’ll have to complete 10 dresses per week.

When I’ve talked to people about this project, several have offered to help me with cutting and sewing. I am grateful for the offers, but part of what I am attempting to do requires me to spend the time with each dress, to recognize – in a bodily way, through the work of my hands – that each garment represents a full human life in all its complexities – wishes, dreams, losses, and fears.

We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.

I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.

everlasting switching

Yesterday we drove south to the beach in the late afternoon to watch the light fade over the water. The boys went in. The water is wonderful, they said. Occasionally, I would glance up from my reading to see their heads bobbing in the waves.

I walked in up to my ankles. To me the water felt cold, even after standing there for a while. I let the waves pull back, unsettling the sand beneath my feet.

--

I am reading How Should a Person Be? and on the beach, I have no pencil for underlining, so instead, I fold down the corners of the pages I want to return to. “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something,” on p. 17 is the first line that prompts me to such action.

It’s a book about female friendship and art and desire, and “the way we live now,” which is how we have come to describe what is disjointed or fragmented or formally messy.

The idea that lingers with me is about the puer aeternus – eternal child. Through the Jungian analyst “Ann,” she explains that the puer thinks himself too good for the banalities of living, and instead is constantly switching plans, never staying with any one thing or person long enough to be anchored in the quotidian, always changing course when things become difficult.

“It’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.” People who live this way tend to think that they are special, that theirs is a destiny greater than that of ordinary people. So while others build a life in which things gain meaning and significance over time, the puer is perpetually searching for a life without failure, without doubt, and in so doing, ends up empty.

Elsewhere, there is the suggestion that perhaps it is not self-improvement that we need, but suffering.

--

Traffic north is predictably slow as we inch our reluctant way back to the tasks we’ve left undone. I am filled with protest. It is not that I have not suffered, I am thinking, even while knowing this is not the point.

crossed from ground to sky

“At 2:30 in the morning, we’re sitting in the parking lot at the hospital,” is what this one woman is saying. She is wrapping her daughter in a towel. She has just said to her friend, “You’re slaying it, as the big girls say."

We’ve paid $$ to spend afternoons poolside on plastic lounge chairs in the shade all summer. I sit here typing while my son splashes around. When he comes back, I send him away. Go to the playground, I tell him. Sometimes, he does. Other times, he sulks, wrapped in a damp towel, on the lounge chair next to me.

I don’t remember much about summers as a child, except for the time we spent at the shore. In later years, I had a job at a little bakery across the street from the train station in a town fifteen miles away. This killed a lot of time – driving back and forth on the highway, making change, tying bakery boxes with twine. Late afternoons, I remember watching MTV and sometimes wandering my neighborhood, which was not much of a neighborhood at all. For a time, perversely, I was convinced that if I walked far enough into the woods near my house, I might find a body there.

The town I lived in then: run-down, gutted. Movie theatre on Main Street that showed second-run films on one dingy screen. The train station. The one bank. The drug store, where I would sometimes buy stationery for the letters I would never write. I’ve tried to forget so much of those years. I feel a kind of inarticulate, inexplicable shame about the years I spent there. Something unseemly about feeling stranded, so far from what I imagined the kids from my wealthy private high school were doing – lakeside in their summer homes or traveling through European cities. My mother worked temporary secretarial jobs when she worked at all. I was acutely aware of our economic precariousness.

--

These days, I go for days and weeks without writing with any seriousness. An occasional note. A journal entry. A phrase scribbled on a receipt while stopped at a traffic light – something I am convinced I will pick up again. I have a great many aspirations that dissipate almost as soon as the ideas formulate.

--

Some friends of ours left the country. Packed up their lives in shipping crates and moved to another continent. One evening, they were here at the pool and we chatted about readings we had gone to, and readings we had missed. Then a few days later, they were gone. They post photos online and I heart my affirmations at them all, but it seems unreal. I want to think we could pick up like that, too, if we had the opportunity, if we had the right reasons. But since I find myself nearly immobilized when I think about planning a single day, it seems doubtful that I would be spearheading such a campaign.

--

I watch the diving board, which looms in my line of vision as a metaphorical reminder of all I am afraid to do. There is a line of kids and one after the other, they hurtle themselves down the narrow platform and into the water. The first, in blue shorts runs the length of it without stopping. He is like the cartoon coyote unaware that he has crossed from ground to sky. The next in an orange shirt runs fast, but at the end, jumps straight up then plummets. One kid tries to walk backward, but that is not allowed. A group of girls standing alongside the pool jump in together, holding hands.

I am the woman in the shade, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, a cotton dress. I wear my swimsuit underneath, but never go in the water.

This is the way I live, I suppose: just enough ambition, just enough desire to put myself in the path of things, but then I mostly try to avoid immersing myself. No sense in getting wet, after all.

in its fullness

I spent the morning working with paper again, the same dress form. I am trying to figure out how to create frames that can illuminate the forms from behind. A soft, diffuse light. This is hanging in front of the window, mid-morning. To perhaps replicate this kind of light?

I like to think that the repetition and experimentation in fabric and paper has some bearing on experimentation in text. A way of trying to exploit formal constraints.

--

I joined a writing group that has been meeting for a couple years. Last night was my first meeting and conversation was mostly easy, pleasant. I like to think about work beyond these revisions. A new project. I feel a bit desperate for it.

Although what I plan to work on next is not entirely new. Character sketches, plot points I’ve been carrying around for a while, but attempting to put them together in this way is new. I read a bit of it aloud the other night to some other writer friends and it sounded rougher, more raw than I had remembered. There is a lot of work to be done.

--

I feel a bit directionless today, despite my many tasks and projects. Spring has finally arrived in all its fullness, and it’s distracting to think about getting the garden ready, cutting back the shrubs and trees, clearing out beds. Crocuses -- purple and white -- appeared in the ivy this year. Unexpected but welcome gifts.

on ending, an attempt at

I am in the final stages now, with the revisions, even though when I read through the manuscript, I think, “This book has no ending. This is not a way for this to end.”

M. says, “What happened to the ending that used to be there?” He is standing at the sink and I am pacing. “Can’t you just put it back?”

I wish I could put it back. There are days when I wish I could put this whole book back to where it began, when it was a collection of hastily-composed sections. A glorious, unconsidered mess of fragments and gestures. But there is no going back now. No un-steeping tea.

--

I re-read the first few pages of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely because there are some ways of associating one idea to another that Rankine makes seem effortless. These early pages compel the reader forward. There are questions that drive the narrative: What is death? Would I recognize it? How is death made real, verified? I feel the power and propulsive energy of these questions. Movement from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next seems precise, inevitable.

--

I am not the same person I was when this began. This is not a new observation. I like to think I have absorbed enough, lived enough, to bring new insight and nuance to my earlier experience. Aligning current self with past self seems a tricky proposition, and I wonder to what extent it is a useful undertaking, from an artistic standpoint. Life is life, after all, and art is something else? I think I spend a lot of time barking up trees.

Meanwhile, the weather seems to have finally turned, and I walk out into the kind of day in early spring that makes the future seem possible. Bright sun, perfumed air. The promise of forsythia.

These are the last days I will spend with this book in this way. I am trying to make the most of it. How much of these words and sentences I have lived with for so long. And still, none of it seems quite enough

the body's first architecture

Artist Ann Hamilton makes a beautiful statement about textiles being the body’s first architecture, and how the body knows things experientially, through contact with textile. She says that when she started making things with cloth, “it was like another skin.”

I keep thinking about this idea and the relationship between textiles and the body, and perhaps even with text, as I’ve been experimenting with paper and cloth.

I’ve spent the last couple days immersed, more or less, in this work.

The dress shape references the clothing I was wearing when I arrived from Korea as a child. Here's, it's made in Korean hanji (mulberry paper). Multiple layers of hanji are built up using a traditional Korean process called joomchi, which involves wetting and agitating the paper, to break down the fibers of the individual layers and adhere them to each other. 

I am trying to remake this image in as many ways as I can -- to experiment with fabric and form. Here, two additional takes. The background fabric has been stitched using a Korean quilting technique called bojagi. 

I am experimenting with color and pattern. Traditionally, white is a color of mourning in Korea and I am drawn to the contrast between this and the rich reds and golds of celebration. 

As joomchi dries, it can be molded to take on different shapes and forms. I've tried making soft shapes with fabric and batting and wrapping with joomchi. I've also been wrapping scraps of joomchi around stones. 

I like the idea of mixing these -- the fabric shapes, light and soft, and the stones. I like the idea of surprise if you are expecting an object to be one thing, but it turns out to be another. 

the feminist opposition

Last night at the Hera Gallery, Karen Conway gave a talk on the Guerrilla Girls, as part of the gallery’s current exhibition, “The Feminist Opposition.” As part of it, she briefly discussed the life and work of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985). I’d heard of Mendieta before – seen work from the Siluetas Series, but had not quite put together that the rough sketch of her life was not unlike that of artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and that they overlapped in time, in New York.

This late 1970s – early 1980s period in New York is one that has long been of interest, and for years, I’ve collected notes on Cha, who moved to New York and was murdered there in 1982, and Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in New York in 1981. Mendieta died from a fall from her apartment building window in Soho, for which her husband was arrested and tried, but eventually acquitted.

It is not so unusual for artists to be in New York at this time, of course, but last night made me want to think more about how Mendieta, as immigrant, as woman of color, as artist who used her own body in her artwork, as a woman whose life was cut short – figured into these notes and considerations of these women artists whose tragic early deaths have been haunting my imagination for years.

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I grew up in the 70s in a suburb of New York City – maybe a 40-minute train ride away – and so “the city” was a constant presence, where you would go for special occasions, or celebrations. My fourth grade class trip to Lincoln Center would have been in 1979 or 1980. For my tenth birthday, my family took me to see Peter Pan at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. This was the city I saw, my image of New York. Its grandeur and spectacle made a deep impression on me, and I trace my own artistic aspirations and longings to that early exposure. Not just to the performances themselves but to the idea of such performances – the extravagance and ambition of their production.

I was a performer, too. Dance classes, singing lessons, recitals. Auditions in New York for small parts in television commercials. Later, some regional theatre. It was not something that as a family, we committed to wholeheartedly, but for a few years, we had an agent and we went on calls, and it was a way to give shape to the time.

--

I was recently wondering aloud to a friend about whether there were artists or writers in my lineage. Like if I found my birth family, would I be able to take some delight in knowing that my mother was a poet or a dancer. Or that her mother had been an actress. Or that I was descended from a long line of performers. What shapes a creative impulse? How far back can one trace one's predispositions? My friend suggested gently that perhaps what is more important is my own sense of who I am, what impels me as an artist. I know this to be true, and yet the mystery, in all its enticing possibility, remains.

--

Mendieta’s work is unsettling, intentionally so. Representations of the body that distort or challenge the gaze. Body as subject and object. Although their work is so different from each other, I see traces I want to draw out and through Mendieta, Woodman, Cha. Or perhaps I am just attempting to claim my own lineage of artists. I suppose it’s better this way, after all. I get to choose.

in the shadows of our mothers

Then I remembered: Mama wasn’t gone
        but safe, in her bed, turning in sleep.

                        It was I who went away –

-- from “Nocturne,” Jennifer Givhan, in Landscape with Headless Mama

I read a few poems at "Poets Resist," an event organized by a friend of mine. I said how I have not considered myself to be a political poet – by which I mean to address political themes directly in my own work – but recognize in a real way that the personal is indeed political.

As a transnational adoptee, as the product of economic, social, and yes, political conditions, I recognize that my existence, here in this country, is the embodiment of political realities. Would I be here, if not for American military involvement on the Korean peninsula? This is not, in itself, a moral judgment. This is an observation of fact.

--

Mexican-American poet Jennifer Givhan has written a book that is haunted by mothers. We cannot escape them, our own mothers, the long shadows they cast. Her book is about the persistence, the insistence of love, even in the face of its maddening and spectacular failures. Miscarriage, divorce, abuse. Mental illness. Adoption. Death. All forms of grief and loss suffuse these poems. Lines and images are sad and raw. At times playful, at times heartbreaking. And yet, inexplicably, one wants more.

--

I read a poem about my own mother last night. About how I visited her in the hospital, near the end. She gave me the passbook to her savings account. It was not much, she told me, but it was for me. I was twenty years old. It seemed tragic to me that two thousand dollars was all one might have at the end of one’s life. My callousness surfaced fast as a means to distance myself from this woman I should have known better, should have let myself know. What should I have felt at that moment? Surely more than what I did. Surely, I am misrepresenting the whole thing.

Nor can I escape the shadow of motherland. I put the poems through mechanical translation – into Korean and back to English again, as if some bit of Korean-ness might remain, might infiltrate, might illuminate the words and phrases themselves.

--

In the end, was it me? Was I the one who left? Was it something in me that surfaced, made attachment untenable? Children believe this. That they have the power to cause their own disasters. Perhaps not that first time, but every time since then? Past the point of childhood? Leaving, always leaving, before one can be left?

fireball

For the past several months, on Sundays, we’ve walked around our neighborhood picking up trash. Just a few blocks down to the traffic light and back, and we end in our own backyard, for the stray plastic bags and chocolate wrappers that have accumulated during the week, blown in from open trash cans or up from the highway.

It usually takes us about an hour and the ritual of it reminds me a bit of going to church as a child. If left to my own devices, I would probably not do it, but the habit of it is now stronger than my apathy, and once I have started, I take an odd pleasure in it.

Across the street from our house, there is a stretch of land that slopes down to the highway. When we moved here more than a decade ago, it was rumored that the city was planning for a small park. Now, we find empty soda cans and beer bottles, cardboard softened by rain, discarded take-out containers, plastic bags. A few houses down from ours there is a transition home for men in recovery. And a block further there is a liquor store. A mechanic on the corner. The rest is houses – rambling old Victorians, their ornate facades now faded and sagging. They have all been subdivided long ago into multiple apartments. We don’t know our neighbors. No one seems to stay for very long.

We pick up bottle caps and broken plastic. One week, more than a dozen compact discs were scattered in the street, their cracked surfaces shimmering when the light hit. But mostly, we find bottles – the small ones. The ninety-nine-cent “nips.” Fireball cinnamon whisky, my son reads aloud. There are enough that we maintain a separate count for these – the way we kept a “lizard count” when we were in the desert.

On our way back, we often see the men from the recovery home gathered in their yard. Sometimes, someone will nod or wave in greeting. Otherwise, the mornings are quiet except for the cars zipping through.

Sometimes I think we should widen our route – start going down side-streets, or maybe out to Division Street, the main road that leads to the stadium. But in the end, I suppose I am unwilling to give more of my morning. I want to come back inside, read for a while. Or finish the laundry. Or plan the week’s meals.

When we return from errands on late Sunday afternoons, our efforts are usually still visible, the streets and sidewalks noticeably free of debris. “Looks pretty good,” one of us will inevitably say as we pull into the driveway. Then we unload the car and take our bags inside.

poetics for living

My current preoccupation is with questions of form. Which is, I suppose, a question of identity. An impulse to identify. I call myself (think of myself as) “poet,” which might suggest I write poems and yet I have not written poems in some time.

I am a poet, I suppose, in similar ways to how I am an American. With spotty contextual or historical knowledge, some uncertainty as to my own legitimacy in making such a claim, some doubt as to whether my current practices reinforce or thwart my efforts toward the claimed state.

States evolve, I know. States are not static. Still, questions remain.

--

Sometimes, I hear myself talking about art, or talking about writing, and I wish I could stop myself mid-sentence. I claim such a small body of knowledge, on such a small piece of what is knowable. Surely, listening would be preferable to speaking most of the time? That pleasure – encountering the expression of a thought or feeling or impulse – articulated with simple clarity by another mind.

--

A friend gives a talk about the “weird pleasures of going blind,” and what astonishes and delights is the way he is able to transform this personal experience – gradually losing his sight – into questions of meaning in art – how art makes the ordinary new, makes it strange, destabilizes, distorts, interrupts.

The way one moves through the world, interprets it, makes connections between one experience and another, becomes, after all, a kind of philosophy – a poetics for living.

--

But back to questions of form. I have at times tried to suggest that hybridity can be considered as a way to describe the text itself in formal terms – poetry and prose, prose and image, and so forth – but also as a method – an approach, a set of techniques and practices to create and compose text. The extent to which this latter claim might be proven true or accurate is of less interest to me than the possibilities it presents. The possibility to approach the work with a sense that it can be created from within and without – by what seems to come naturally, impulsively from one’s own mind, unbidden, and by that which is coaxed from some other place, by more artificial means: Make a list, respond to prompts, write a love poem incorporating these seventeen rules, and so forth.

Make a grandiose statement: One composes as one lives.

Negate something in a sentence where you mention some form of weather: Before the storm, they hurried us into shelters, but nothing could prevent us from wanting more than what we had.

Make a statement of confession that is purposefully vague: I left when I should have stayed.

Say something you might utter to a statue of yourself, without indicating that is what you are doing: If I thought one day you might speak, I’d stay here as as long as it takes.

currency

Yesterday, as part of Interdependence Days,  I talked about writing grants and getting funding, or trying to. It’s been a while since I’ve found myself thinking in that mode – invoking logic models and outcomes, working through the particulars of setting up a budget by cost center. I had spent the morning writing summaries of case studies for someone writing a book about brand implementation (which I only very recently learned was something one could write about), and in the afternoon, I prepared food for the evening’s workshop. My days take on these odd shapes now. Not unpleasant. A bit unpredictable, though.

Someone asked a question about getting money from funders and giving it directly to people – in the form of cash – who could benefit in immediate, tangible ways. This is not without precedent. There was an organization in Boston set up to do this in a particularly blighted neighborhood. The group operated for several years, but then faltered, and eventually had to disband.

I referenced this story in my response, but realize, as I am writing this now, that I mis-remembered its point. The way I told the story last night, it was about the organization failing to maintain its relationship with its donors and funders. But now, as I am thinking about it, I remember that the point of the story was trust. About idealistic people going into a neighborhood and spreading money around, without committing to its development long-term, without developing sufficient trust among the residents of the neighborhood, with its formal and informal leaders. I can’t recall all the details now, but I do wish that was the story I had told. I wish that was the conversation we had had.

The question also made me think of the artist Sal Randolph and her work with currency. I have had to think a lot about money and value in these last months of working freelance. About valuing my time. Taking on work for less than my hourly rate for various reasons. And of course, there is so much that I do, that I have always done and will continue to do, for free.

--

My son was not quite a year old when I took the job running a small grantmaking agency. I worked all the time. I attended events at night. I was never not thinking about work. I spent five years at that pace.

I left full-time work last summer and so had a few weeks of unstructured time with him at home and I think those shapeless days – our spontaneous field trips, our train rides into Boston, our lazy walks around the neighborhood, or down the hill to throw rocks in the river, or to the beach in the late afternoon – changed and deepened our relationship significantly. Just to have the time to be in each other’s company. Without goals or objectives, without schedules. The shared experience of living.

But I am not here to make pronouncements about about "balancing" work and parenting. Or about the choices that women make.

--

I took my son with me last night, and he set himself up in the corner of the room, enthusiastically using up all his “screen time” in one, uninterrupted session. Earlier, we had walked over to the bakery for a bagel and while we walked, he told me about all the characters in the game he was playing. He listed each in detail – their capabilities, how they interacted with other characters, their vulnerabilities. Occasionally, he would pause to ask, “Do you want me to tell you about ____?”

I have often joked that when kids are at certain ages, being with them is sort of like stumbling onto an endless podcast – except that you can never adjust the volume and you can never unsubscribe. There are times when the chatter is relentless, the stream of narration of all that is in their little heads.

“Do you want me to tell you?”

Yes, my love. Absolutely.

maze of mirrors

I am thinking about revision. What it means to go back to writing that I began at a very different time and make sense of it, anew. My friend Matthew Salesses writes about this here. This connection between revising the work and revising the self is resonant and rich for exploration.

The book I am revising is about a journey – an exploration, an interrogation of self, and the multiple ways in which questions of identity and meaning present themselves to me as I proceed can, at times, feel overwhelming and maddening. A maze of mirrors. How long, after all, can one gaze at oneself?

Of course, there is something of that very question in the book as well. American photographer Francesca Woodman used herself as the subject of most of her photographs. (“As a subject, I am always available,” she said.) There is Woodman, the artist composing and positioning Woodman, the body (subject/object) for the gaze. This examination is mediated by a third thing – the camera. For the writer, the third thing is language.

I think the act of revising might be an act of reclaiming. This has felt true, more or less, through the re-working of this book. Reclaiming a cultural, linguistic, and literary lineage that has been denied to me. Reclaiming a sense of agency – from object to subject. (From orphan to some other thing?)

Much of the initial impulse of this book came from the notion that language creates us. That our sense of reality is shaped by the way we can express it. Stanley Fish goes on at great length about this. But after weeks of revision – which quite often consisted of staring at pages and shuffling them around – I was walking down Blackstone Boulevard when the question came to me so clearly: if language creates, doesn’t it also destroy?

And I suppose the related question is: when one attempts to reclaim lineage, is there anything then, that is abandoned?

Mary Ruefle attributes French poet and Paul Valery with stating that “no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.” There is perhaps some relief in that. We can write and re-write, claim and re-claim these other versions of ourselves and our work for the rest of our lives, and I suppose one can argue that we do. It is a kind of mercy that now and then – even if only temporarily – we are able to look away.  

curvy

Had I known where it was headed, I might not have begun where I did. 

The lines were:

and my father
one hand raised
to block
the hot blades
of the sun
that split him wide

and in returning to it, I was asking myself, what is it I am trying to say about my father? 

From "Flashback: Kanmeido Photo Studio Family," by Cho Duck Hyun, in Korean Contemporary Art, Miki Wik Kim.  

From "Flashback: Kanmeido Photo Studio Family," by Cho Duck Hyun, in Korean Contemporary Art, Miki Wik Kim.  

The poem did not even start with my father, but from a photograph of a photograph. I was writing a series of poems prompted by art works in a book of contemporary Korean artists. 

But today, this father is my father and the moment of the photograph is just after he had said, as we stood around the pool, "You sure fill out that swimsuit." 

Is this something that a father says to a daughter? is the question I keep returning to. 

The swimsuit was a garish orange floral pattern. It had been chosen in the same desperation and despair as every other swimsuit I owned in those years, in my twenties, when my war with my body raged hot. I did fill it out. I was what the fashion magazines might have termed curvy.

I was there, in Jacksonville, to visit my father. He had just moved into his own apartment in a low-slung concrete building that encircled a grim rectangular pool around which a few old plastic lounge chairs were scattered. He paid for my ticket. He must have felt a little bit of power, summoning me to him as he had, after so many years of estrangement. 

--

Poems have their origins in life and Helen Vendler names the two talents of poets as being imagination and mastery of language. It is this first I am thinking of this morning. To rewrite this moment, I think: what if the water of the pool itself rose up from the ground and drowned us? No. Drowned him. What if I conjured it with my own rage? But it does not seem possible to animate that flat and lifeless pool. Then: what other disastrous forces can I draw down on him? On us? On the sad desolation of this scene? 

I do have a photograph of that visit, from later that day perhaps. I'm wearing denim cut-off shorts and inexplicably, a man's tailored suit vest over the orange swimsuit. (Was that something I wore then? Suit vests over shorts?) My father is hunched a little, from persistent back pain. He's gray -- his hair, his skin. He's leaning on a cane with one hand and his other arm is around my shoulder. I am standing as far away from him as I can in this configuration and while I may not be scowling exactly, my expression could not be mistaken for anything other than discomfort. Who is taking this photograph, I wonder? 

--

Does the water rise, or does the pool drain itself? Does the sky get dark? Does wind shake the tree branches? Does the earth itself open up and swallow us -- the lounge chairs, the pool, the sad apartment complex?

At the center of this poem is my father. Son of immigrants, high-school dropout. Served his country in ways that were never clearly articulated -- or at least, not to me. Twice divorced. Some time after this visit, he will remarry and he will write a few letters to me in which he hints at his newly-rediscovered sexual satisfaction. 

At the center of this poem is me. Lost girl. Half-scowling. I'll return to Providence and fall for distant men who barely see me. And the poem will unravel, and I'll keep trying to put it back together. 

all the market will bear

For longer than I care to admit, I have been working on this marketing questionnaire for my book. Collecting names and contact information. Please list towns you have lived in, people you know, places you think might host you. Please list any media contacts you have; any clubs, associations, schools you have been part of. Cities you’d be willing to visit. It’s not that I don’t want to do this. It’s my first book. I have worked a long time for this. I will do everything I can to make a “successful launch.” It just makes me think a lot about marketing and for how long the notion of selling oneself has been embedded in the way we think about being in the world.

I am doing a lot of selling myself these days. Applying for things – fellowships, grants, teaching jobs. Seeking out freelance work. I am compelled to confront, on a daily basis, how I might be perceived, how my value might be assessed. This raises a great deal of unease, is one way to express how I feel.

Does it read like a book one wonders. This is Francesca Woodman in her own notebooks. She was thinking about a reader, even then.

--

“We will change the way we write,” a friend says. This in response to my question to him, “How are we going to make it?” We are referring to this presidency. I am being melodramatic, but I am also afraid. The question of belonging is not an abstraction. But I am not sure I understand what he means yet. How the writing will change.

--

If you want to be a transformative poet, you have to stop hiding behind lyrical language. I’m paraphrasing here, but this is what one advisor said. This poem seems afraid to tell the story, he said. I could intuit a kind of truth in this, but still I found it confusing. I feel as though I am always telling my story, the same story, over and over, in everything I think, write, do.

We are taught to consider certain things beautiful. Ways of writing. Of presenting oneself in the world. These are learned preferences, practiced over time. My early exposure was to a poetics of obfuscation. Disorientation as a means to destabilize one’s sense of narrative, of what is real and what is not. Resistance to realism so flattened as to be rendered lifeless. “We already have reality,” a friend said to me once. And yes, shouldn’t art do something else?

--

Posing the question To whom might your book be of interest is not unlike asking to whom is your life of interest? Where does this book belong is another way of asking where do you belong?

Perhaps this is not a useful way to think about this. Perhaps a questionnaire is just a questionnaire and a spreadsheet is just a list of places you have been.

something there is that doesn't love a wall

For a while after grad school, I worked at a small law firm, summarizing case studies for client newsletters. The practice was seven lawyers, only one woman. I hardly saw her. I worked most directly with one of the partners and two of his associates. They liked me – I was smart, worked quickly, and would occasionally accompany them to bars after work. We would talk about politics and the state of the world. One of them, an avowed Republican, was fond of saying, “That’s the problem with you. You are so intent on fixing things.” I no longer remember the specific context in which this comment first arose, but it’s something I have thought about a lot in the years since then. This idea that trying to make things better – however that might be defined – was somehow a weakness, a fatal flaw.

There have been years of my life – great swaths of time – during which I can’t say that I tried to fix anything. A kind of treading water. But I think of those now as dead years, years of avoidance. Years of profound alienation from my own desires. I see photos of myself from those years and recognize nothing.

--

Happiness is the wrong question, a friend announced one afternoon over lunch. The question is whether you have an ample life. This is, I think, another way to talk about meaning. Does life feel meaningful? Sufficient? Full?

--

The lawyer went on to marry another lawyer and they live in the suburbs and raise their children. The impulse behind conservativism seems to me to be one of protection, a kind of hoarding. Isn’t the fear that there is not enough for everyone, so here is mine. I draw a circle around it and guard it. I build an impenetrable border.

--

In a book on Korean lineage documents, I found an illustration of a traditional Korean courtyard and something about this image struck me so powerfully, I found myself crying without knowing why. The low wall around it. What is let in, what is kept out. In my dreams of this courtyard, the walls are high, and I am on the ground, in the middle of it, alone. The people I know – family, friends – come to its perimeter and call out to me, but I do not leave the courtyard, and I do not let them in.

The newsletters I wrote were cautionary tales. Here is how you protect yourself from vulnerability. Avoid this outcome by taking these simple steps. Pay attention to these warning signs. Remain vigilant. Cultivate your heightened sense of danger.

--

Not long ago, I met a woman who had returned from an artist residency in Korea. I told her about the illustration of the courtyard, and how I was struck by the fact that the houses were closed off – encircled by this wall. She looked at me, and nodded. Oh, she said, that’s so interesting, because they seemed to me to be so porous – the gates thrown open all day for people to wander in and out. There seemed to be hardly any boundaries at all.

lifetime goals

A friend passed along a planning template with a section on “lifetime goals.” There was a time when this idea seemed compelling to me, and I wrote a personal mission statement, developed long lists of goals, and envisioned what I wanted people to say at my funeral.

Now, I find I want to break things down a week or two at a time. Get through what is directly in front of me. I could spend a lifetime, after all, figuring out my lifetime goals.

While I was teaching this past fall, I had an institutional membership to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Yesterday, this planning workshop helped a lot.

I sketched out a plan for between now and June 30. Before I went to bed last night, a quick calculation revealed that I am attempting to wedge an estimated 366 hours of work into 294 available hours.

"That's very specific," M said. He is not as much of a planning junkie as I am. This is a man who, until recently, did not keep a calendar. Instead, he noted important events or tasks of the day on his hand, in black sharpie. 

It's tempting to use all available time figuring out what to do first. Today, I am back at the revisions I have been dragging around with me for weeks. The workshop leader referred to studies that show we underestimate how long things will take (and overestimate how much we can actually accomplish) by a factor of 2.5! She of course meant other people, not me. 

unexpected

Woke up discouraged and have not been able to shake this feeling. Everyone I know is “overwhelmed,” or devastated or sad. A general state of disarray. The things that often help do not – not even a brisk walk. Not even the sun at my back.

I catch up on reading, or try to. The newsletters in my inbox – Interviews with artists and writers. Exhibit openings. Email I should have responded to but have not. It’s hard to not repeat myself. I have doubts.

Here’s the New Yorker piece on the recent death of Providence poet and activist Mark Baumer.

Here’s a collection of 400 video interviews with artists.

And here is what seems to be a great resource for anyone interested in interdisciplinary art practices. 

--

I am supposed to be revising my manuscript. There are questions I have about it that I don’t know whether I will be able to answer. In part, I want to be done with it. To move on to the new things I have started, half-heartedly. Another part of me wants to keep tweaking it forever. Moving sections around. A new framing device. Introduce new voices. This is a way, I think, of keeping it in the space of infinite possibility. To avoid confronting its limitations. Its visible flaws.

--

When I decided to center my life and work around my creative practices – writing, reading, sewing – it felt like a different time. One of openness, positive change. Times feel dark now and when I say that I don’t mean to suggest that times were not – for many – dark before. I do not mean to undermine the experience of others. What I mean to say is that all that made me vulnerable to sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and futility before have taken on concrete and monstrous new forms. It is difficult at times to know what to do first.

I don’t want to say, “make art,” or “don’t make art,” and there never has been any simplistic answer to the question of how to live a life of meaning. I’m stating here what is obvious.

--

Yesterday, I finished up a week-long daily poetry project. A group of us send a poem around every day – no commentary, not discussion, just the accountability of producing one small thing each day, for seven days. The best days are, of course, when I write something that surprises me in the writing of it. That the process itself yields something unexpected. That happened once, on day six:

I had already been drinking
by the time you sat down – the cold night
had reddened your face so we were both
flushed and happy for this –
our secret meeting
while we still had the babysitter at home

I remembered that first room
its sloping ceilings
the way the radiator’s low whistle
sung me to sleep. Your bathroom mirror
was too high – only ever saw
the top of my disheveled head.

Those years – before we knew how the past
could sneak up and shake us
could break into locked rooms and overturn
dresser drawers. Could empty out the closets
and throw it all out on the floor
and make us look at it – garish and unvarnished

I had asked you what you wanted –
where you wished you could be
what you hoped to do in this short life
your answer – infuriatingly steadfast, unwavering –
you, right here for this hour, doing this
for each other, with our hands