"I try to make my marginality productive"

I’m working my way — slowly, luxuriously — through the interviews in the Wave Books collection, What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know). Each morning, I read a single interview. This morning, Harryette Mullen interviewed (by postcard!) by Barbara Henning in 1996.

First, a method of approaching poem composition that seems terribly exciting:

Writing the poem [from Trimmings] also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem. (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating with words from the first list. I generated lists of words that might be synonyms (pants/jeans/slacks/britches), homonyms (duds/duds, skirt/skirt), puns or homophones (furbelow, suede/swayed), or that had some metaphorical metonymical, or rhyming connection (blouse/dart/sleeve/heart, pearl/mother, flapper/shimmy/chemise), or words that were on the same page of the dictionary (chemise/chemist). I would improvise a possible sequence of words, seeing what the list might suggest in the way of a minimal narrative, a metaphor, an association, or pun.

Mullen’s discussion of OULIPO was similarly exhilarating. (Particular after having heard, just the other night, Daniel Levin Becker in conversation with Emma Ramadan about All that is evident is suspect : readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018, which was a pleasurable, rich, and stimulating conversation.)

“Far from being elitist,” she says, “they make the creative process more accessible as they deflate the divine afflatus of artistic inspiration. A formal constraint, such as a lipogram, gives the writer a definite problem to tackle.” Later, she adds, “it simply gives the writer a more eclectic array of aesthetic tools.”

Denning asks a question about fragments: “I find that I work with fragments in part because I’m so busy. Does the urban bustle affect your turning to fragments?” Perhaps there was a slightly different inflection or relevance to the question in 1996, when the interview transpired, before the ubiquity of fragments, but either way, Mullen’s response seems timely, insightful, and surprisingly moving:

Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time, on the one hand…. On the other hand, when I think of poetry in fragments, I think of Sappho, whose work comes to us, like classic Greek art and architecture, as enigmatic shards and evocative ruins. Given the human capacity to destroy civilization “with the touch of a button” the same way we microwave lean cuisine, ancient ruins stand as figures for the obliteration of ourselves and our own culture.

So many insights in this brief excerpt of this interview, which I suspect I will return to repeatedly, but perhaps my favorite comment is about something I have been thinking for many years, attempting to articulate. Here, Mullen gets to the heart of it:

I think of myself and my writing as being marginal to all of the different communities that have contributed to the poetic idiom of my work, but at the same time it is important to me that I work in the interstices, where I occupy the gap that separates one from the other; or where there might be overlapping boundaries. I work in that space of overlap or intersection. I have spent much of my life in transit from one community to another, and as a result I often feel marginal to them all. I also feel something in common with people who are very different from one another. I try to make my marginality productive.

Can I have this engraved on my tombstone, please.


I was pleased and a bit surprised to show up on a couple end-of-year booklists: Entropy’s Best of 2018 Nonfiction Books and NPR’s Code Switch 2018 Book Guide. Despite the thrill of inclusion, I feel conflicted about such lists. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I feel good about them when I am on them. Bad about them when I am not.

Here’s at attempt at documenting my own reading year. It was a useful exercise to try to gather all I had read, and even to think about the kind of reading I do and why.

Books I read for the first time:

  • Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner

  • The Collective, Don Lee

  • Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love, Anna Moshovakis

  • Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

  • Prosperous Friends, Christine Schutt

  • Exes, Max Winter

  • A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers

  • All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung

  • Transit, Rachel Cusk

  • Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah Satterstrom

  • Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

  • The Arrangements, Kate Colby

  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee

  • The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk

  • Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater, Sam Roxas-Chua

  • Echolalia in Script, Sam Roxas-Chua

  • No No Boy, John Okada

Books I’ve started and read from, over the year:

  • We’re On: A June Jordan Reader, Christoph Keller and Jan Heller Levi (eds)

  • American Originality: Essays on Poetry, Louise Glück

  • The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven, Thirri Myo Kyaw Myint

  • Of Sphere, Karla Kelsey

  • Captive Audience, Lucas Mann

  • They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib

  • Feminaissance, Christine Wertheim (ed)

  • Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire, Carole Maso

  • Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing, Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin (eds)

  • As Radical, As Mother, As Salad, As Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now? Paper Monument (ed)

  • Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000-2015, Jennifer Liese (ed)

  • Schizophrene, Bhanu Kapil

  • If They Come for Us, Fatimah Asghar

Books I re-read for a particular purpose this year:

  • Plainwater, Anne Carson

  • Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

  • Recocylopedia, Harryette Mullen

  • Jane, A Murder, Maggie Nelson

  • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine

  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine

  • Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil

Books I’m reading now, as part of current work:

  • Gap Gardening, Rosmarie Waldrop

  • The Dream of the Unified Field, Jorie Graham

Books I’m reading now, as part of teaching:

  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Tiger Writing, Gish Jen

  • How to Write about Contemporary Art, Gilda Williams

The documentation begs the persistent question: How do I keep track of the way a book moves me? How it lives in me? The list making is one way, but feels insufficient, superficial. I suppose something more like an annotated bibliography is another way, which I may try in the new year. There are only so many notebooks one can keep.

In fits and starts, I maintain a file box of quotes. Inspired both by the lists of quotes and “gems” that I kept in grad school, at the urging of Jen Bervin, and by Austin Kleon’s blog post about keeping (and revisiting) notebooks. Updated sporadically, I maintain a list of categories, an index that grows more unwieldy with each session. 

{Here is where I considered including a photo of my index, but the categories made me too self-conscious. Another time, perhaps.}

The booklists above do not reflect the books I bought in the past year with the intention of reading. Or the books accumulating in little piles on my office floor. A preview of a few I’m particularly excited about:

  • Action in the Orchards, Fred Schmalz

  • To Afar from Afar, Soham Patel

  • Our Possible Solutions, Carrie Oeding

  • Operating Theater, Carrie Olivia Adams

  • Bunk, Kevin Young

  • Who We Be, Jeff Chang

  • Black and Blur, Fred Moten

I guess I’d better get started. 

the apple

I’m a bit travel-addled, not sleeping well. Last night, I finally drifted into wispy sleep, but then woke myself from a dream that my son had missed his bus and was running out into a busy street to catch up to it. He was waving his arms and yelling please. His sobbing jolted me awake, heart racing. 

I drifted off again. Then woke with the image of an apple, sliced but then re-assembled, held together with a rubber band around its middle. Benign, perhaps, but in the dream state, there is something sullied and deceitful to it. 

I am thinking about daily practice. For the month, I’ve put aside one project and returned to another. There are many reasons it makes sense to change focus for a time, but there’s also a cost to the switching. Upon my return to it, the question looms: Is it even in the right form? I know well enough that the only way to know is to wade around in the muck of it for a while, so for now, I’m resigned to my discomfort. For various uninteresting reasons, I’ve resisted thinking deeply and seriously about genre distinctions, but at some point, decisions must be made. 

I’ve finally read the short chapter in which Freud discusses “repetition compulsion.” I’d read of it, but not the text itself. He writes:

“There is one special class of experiences of the utmost importance for which no memory can as a rule be recovered. These are experiences which occurred in very early childhood and were not understood at the time but which were subsequently understood and interpreted.” 

Instead of remembering, we enact. Rather than articulate the fears, doubts, and helplessness of those experiences (because we are unable), we enact them: “He reproduces it  not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating.”

For Freud, of course, one way to acquire knowledge is through dreams. A tricky proposition, to be sure. Perhaps I am my son, crying out for some lost thing. Perhaps I am being deceived. Or am I the bus driver, moving on, indifferent? Or the apple, forever broken, but appearing, for the moment, whole? 

interview with Caroline Miller and Logan Newby for Essay Press

I spoke with Caroline Miller and Logan Newby about literary lineage and formal experimentation for Essay Press.

About my influences, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, and Don Mee Choi:

There is a recognition in all these women’s lives and work that there is no personal without political, that the Korean American woman exists in a politicized body, politicized state. To proceed as if otherwise is a kind of self-denial, self-abnegation. I was trying to resist this impulse toward self-erasure, too.

The full interview is at Essay Press.


I never know where to begin. So, I try to do what I tell my students. Be explicit about your position. 

At a symposium yesterday about writing and art, and art criticism, and artists who write about art and other artists, a whole body of work I know little about, despite its intersections with my own interests, I felt at once both moved to immediate action, taking down titles and names to look up later, and wearied, how will I ever catch up?

(The poet who asked us, what poem did you read today, and when we all looked around a little hesitant, a little confused, he said, “Well, good luck with your hobby.” The unveiled sneer in it.) 

I understand it, this desire to recognize seriousness, in self, in others. It is not that I don’t understand it. I wonder what proof is necessary. Perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. 

Perhaps I am feeling a bit antsy about my own practices these days. Since the semester started, I’ve been scattered, pressed. Several short trips that have interrupted daily routines of course, but there are other concerns lurking beneath. Doubts, uncertainty. And more often than not, the impossible question, what is the point. 

(Who said it: The work is the work is the work.)

I’ve started a new project somewhat unintentionally, but now, two months in, starting to take the faintest shape. A series of morning poems. What is starting to emerge? A notion of fine-ness. As in craft? Re-fining? Fine, as in end? As in the smallest pieces of something? Fines. In this house overlooking where the textile mill once stood. Of finery. 

These is an elegy in here somewhere. 

Reenactments: Notes on Form

Repetition compulsion: remembering, repeating, and working through

Carole Maso, Anne Carson, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich

Returning to our (literary) mothers

What if the book contains: its false starts, its hesitations

You think you know what a reader wants: a good old-fashioned story

I want this to be everything

What if the book contains

Susan Sontag, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

You think you know what a woman wants:

Almeida: Reproducing something is not the opposite of productivity

a good old fashioned—

There is something still that haunts me

The language, word by word

She was working on an erotic song cycle

She was working through it

A moment of discovery. The pulse. Missing something that was never there

Now tighter

A flatness here, in the middle

And Gertrude Stein, again

Of a country. Of an undoing.

What if a book contains—

Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Renata Adler

How, in this city of men

This flattened middle

A knowledge that comes too late

But pierces

What if the book contains

Kapil: I wanted to write a novel, but I wrote this instead

Dream with the force of a wish

What possible use is there for certainty

wish with the insistence of memory

Carson: I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there

What if the book contains

“It’s only love,” laughing

There is something left to say

Adler: She kept patting every sentence along the line with a little crazy laugh

There is nothing

But look: It’s happening again

what I'm reading now

I got to write about the five books I'm currently reading for Tarpaulin Sky. The list:

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen
If They Come for Us, Fatimah Asghar
The Arrangements, Kate Colby
The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint
Feminaissance, Christine Wertheim (ed). 

You can read my column and more at Tarpaulin Sky


Remember when I convinced myself that the man I was in love with would meet and promptly fall love with my best friend? I heard something — that he was in New York for the summer, or that she was. The idea that they might cross paths. And then, the conviction that they would. How I spent long summer weeks tearful, alternating between longing and rage. That the two people I loved most in the world would choose each other over me. That I would be shut out. 

It starts in the body. The stomach flips. Or is it the heart.  

Sometimes an inkling. A hunch. Sometimes you know someone so well, or think you do, that you believe you can predict their actions. Sometimes, you see a thing and are convinced you can trace it back to its source. Sometimes, you are right, and you think I am so good at being right. Sometimes, you want very much to be wrong. 

A dream of high school, again. Is it because I always think of her around her birthday? Late summer, suffused with melancholy. The shapeless days coming to an end, but not quite yet --

There are things I still want to do in these final weeks. The grave and the trivial. Where has the summer gone? 

Let this be the record of these days passing. Let this be the document of hours spent in doubt, in curiosity, in wonder. A little joy. 

On the ends of things, she said: “There is grief, and there is gratitude. And grief. And then, there is embracing your new life.”

what is the bear

I dreamed about a bear in the woods behind where I was walking, with my friend, to get groceries. 

She saw it first. Told me, in a panic, there’s a bear, we have to run

She ran on ahead. I couldn’t run. Then, I was lying flat on the ground, trying to move forward, but I could not. I was completely immobilized. 

We were on a grassy hill and I could see the road from where I was. She was running back and forth, yelling for me to run. But I couldn’t even stand. 

I could see my own arm, reaching forward. A motion like swimming. 

It’s too hard, I thought. I can’t.

What is the bear? Is it my past? My future? I’m stuck, unable to move. I can’t take any action. 

The threat is closing in. 

There are things I think I want, and I can see them now, their proximity. 

There are moments I feel a deep, unnameable terror. Not panic, but a fear so profound, so bodily, it precedes language. 

interview at New Books Network

It was such a pleasure to speak with Eric LeMay about Litany for the Long Moment for the New Books Network.

From the introduction: 

In 1974, a two-year old Korean girl named Mi Jin Kim was sent from the country and culture of her birth to the United States, where she was adopted by a man and woman who would become her American parents and where she would become the artist and writer Mary-Kim Arnold. Her new book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), is her attempt to grapple with that history and its aftermath, to understand the experience of that girl she once was and how that girl shaped the woman she would become. Arnold writes:

“I will never know for certain what transpired in those first two years of my life. I only know that I am continually drawn back, tethered to the whispy, blurred possibilities of the mother I will never know, a language I do not speak, the life I will never have.”

Through a dazzling range of literary strategies, from the use of archival documents and family photographs to primers on the Korean language and the work of her fellow Korean-American artists, Arnold explores these wispy, blurred possibilities. She takes us into her need to know this never-realized self and this life she never lived. By stunning and poignant turns, her book reveals the complexities of the lives we do end up living, the hauntings that make us who we are, and the unexpected way in which great art and artists pull us apart and pieces us back together.

And the book has an excellent trailer, which you can find here.

You can listen to the whole interview here

eventual arrival

"Where every student [of fiction] eventually arrives is a place where the formal problems of the work are the same as the psychological problems of the student and the philosophical problems of the student's worldview. And that's a good place for students to arrive; it also shows that the formal problems of the work are now deeper." –Jane Smiley

thank you River River!

Spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at 9 1/2 Main Gallery in Nyack, New York to read with Suzanne Parker for River River.  

Anu and Donna are founders of River River, a literary journal, writing community, and more. It's been such a pleasure to reconnect with Donna, an old college friend. We lost touch after our children were born, but then found each other again when she and I were both published in the same journal. 

Suzanne Parker has written two stunning books of poems, Feed and Viral

L to R: Anu Amaran, (me!), Suzanne Parker, Donna Miele at the River River reading in Nyack.

L to R: Anu Amaran, (me!), Suzanne Parker, Donna Miele at the River River reading in Nyack.


Came across an unexpected reference to my past in a book I am reading for work. A name leaps from the white page and transports

How unnerving that time can shift like that. 

Writing is slow, slow, but an occasional line or phrase that even if useless in itself as a line, provides a point of departure: 

One comes to love, inexplicably, the places they first found love. 

Carried all morning like a koan. 

The morning’s labors: meditation on train stations as sites of desire. 

Emerging from a few immobilizing doubt-filled days. Circling the fallow ground. 

On the one hand: I am too attentive to the moment-by-moment shifts in my own mind. On the other: my own mind is locked cabinet. 

From my notes, from the news: A litter of kittens taped into a cardbox box and buried.

From the news: The body of a Georgia man who was found dead, rolled up in a gymnasium mat, exhumed for the second time. 

The morning’s (other) labors: 

I am here to be with my father. The father I barely know. I get up early. Run through the village and down by the quarry.  He sleeps. His wife boils water in an ancient kettle, stirs coffee powder into it. I don’t know how long I will stay.  

We fight about the weather. “I wouldn’t call that a light rain,” he says. 

At night, he takes me down to the tavern where his friends gather around a table in the back. They drink, play cards, tell stories about the war. Sometimes I stay. Sometimes, I take a stool at the bar instead. There’s always a pile of old newspapers and magazines and I scan through them idly while Kit, behind the bar, pours the gin. 

In the news: a box of kittens taped into a cardbox box and buried. A kid walking through the woods heard mewling. I’m languishing here, but I am not yet ready to leave. 


After seeing the Dutch film The Vanishing a few years ago, I have become aware of an intense fear of being buried alive. I suppose the fear has always been there, but the film’s final scenes gave my fear specificity and detail. I tell this to a friend one morning as we ride the train to New York. I tell her that for reasons that I cannot quite articulate, I find that knowing this is among the most common phobias oddly comforting. As if to suggest it is not unreasonable for me to feel panic when I think of it (which is perhaps, more often than I’d care to admit).

This morning, I wake from a dream where I am witness to a woman being tied to the side of a train car. I don’t know why, or what I have to do with it. There’s a cartoonish sense to the scene and I wake just as in the dream I am walking away. 

I have always said I am afraid of heights and I believe this to be true, although I have not had occasion to test this out in some time. Aside from the fear of being buried alive (specifically in a coffin or box), I don’t think of myself as particularly afraid of small spaces. I have, a few times, caught myself in behaviors that might suggest compulsivity. I often find myself doing things and not knowing exactly why. 

I remember an essay I read years ago about a woman who moves to New York and experiences profound loneliness. She goes on to detail the harmful effects that sustained loneliness can have on the body and on the mind. She suggests, as I recall, that pain — psychic pain — can be a call to action. In her case, she moved back to England. 

This is not the point of her essay, but it seems to me that there are some kinds of psychic pain that simply must be endured. I am thinking about grief. The loss of a loved one. I don’t know that there is much to be done in response, save perhaps the typical platitudes — take a walk, write in a journal, etc. I would like there to be actions to take. To change the situation. To (metaphorically at least) move back to England. 

When my mother died, I found the rituals around death — the funeral, the burial, the luncheon, the notes that needed to be written in response to the kind words of sympathy that came from friends and acquaintances — to be a comfort. Tasks to be completed, decisions to be made. I find myself reaching for rituals of one sort or another, but I don’t know what to do. A friend of mine told me that her family acknowledges the anniversary of her father’s death. That they make his favorite foods and tell stories about him. I think of this as such a lovely idea, but the person I am grieving most acutely (if grief can be described in degrees?) is someone I know nothing about. There are no stories to be told, no memories to share. No favorite foods to reproduce. 

I wonder, can I, occasional writer of fictions, simply make it up? An adopted friend of mine who is also a painter went through a period of painting self-portraits as an attempt to imagine his own father. I have myself envisioned recreating a traditional Korean home and courtyard, imagining the home, the artifacts I might have had. I suppose in a way this is some of what we do as writers, as artists — create spaces to accommodate our grief. 

evanescent joys

Walked the track again with my son this morning. Early, before the heat. We didn’t stay long — three times around, plus there and back, the whole excursion takes about 40 minutes — but I like to think I am perhaps offering him some small, everyday rituals to remember. The quiet, shapelessness of cool mornings in early summer. Occasional companionable chatter. 

Sometimes we talk about our plans for the day. He’s working on a little animation project. I’m juggling a meeting or two in an otherwise open-ended day. By the end of the month, the rhythms we’ve acclimated to will change again. But for now, I’m trying to make the most of the time, mostly formless, punctuated by little bursts of activity. 

The early spring blossoms are all gone now — the forsythia, the cherry trees, the irises. The peonies are peaking, but they won’t hold on much longer. Now, the roses. Sweet pea vine. Astilbe and lavender. Purple salvia in abundance. Honeysuckle. 

For better or worse, I’ve spent some time these past few weeks going through all the notes I’ve kept for the past two decades now, tracing the origins of certain lines of thought, ongoing preoccupations. Although most of what I’ve kept is useless, uninteresting even to myself, there are occasional lines or ideas that will spark something in the present. A note my past self did not yet know that future self might need. There is a certain kind of pleasure in this traveling back and forth in time. This reconciling of past and present lives. 

In the museum, in an exhibition hall filled with ancient armor and weaponry, I asked my son whether he thought he believed in past lives. I find myself often thinking of this when confronted with the unfamiliar, ancient world. I find it difficult to imagine all these eras have passed without me — without even some version of me. I suppose it’s a kind of “fear of missing out” on a protracted, epic scale. How else to explain the odd twinge of recognition when entering the reproduction of a darkened, medieval dining hall? Or the study of an 18th century Chinese scholar? 

Many ways to explain it, I suppose. But for the moment, the hushed reverence and the chilled, mostly empty exhibition halls, lend an air of magic and mystery to our wandering. An openness to possibility, to the inexplicable. 

“I like the idea of it,” he said. 

I said, “Yes, I like that too.”

The last gallery we enter is a reproduction of a 19th century Japanese ceremonial teahouse. There is a group of schoolchildren there, sitting on the little stools they have carried in from the hallway. Someone standing in front of them with a clipboard is asking questions and a few children raise their hands enthusiastically. 

As we leave, we see the sign, informing us that the name of the teahouse is Sunkaraku, “which reflects the spirit of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a temporary refuse from the complexities of daily life.” 

Sunkaraku, meaning “Evanescent Joys.”

nor was it less

A found note: “In interviews, years later, John Hawthorne will say, ‘Her life was not any more important than anyone elses’s, but certainly, nor was it less.’” He was speaking of his wife, Alice Hawthorne, killed when a bomb exploded at Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I have carried around this fragment for decades. This simple statement about the significance of a single human life.

“She was loved and now she is gone. And it matters.”

Returning to the tasks of domesticity after a few days away is difficult. The piles of books and papers around my desk seem somehow more chaotic than when I left, and I feel a bit wearied, to have to make my way through them. I suppose I am feeling a bit overwhelmed this morning. 

Here in my chosen city, I have come to live at a particular scale. Mostly, what I need is at arm’s reach. Philadelphia is vast and sprawling. More than 1.5 million residents, compared with 200,000 in Providence (and 71,000 in Pawtucket). I know myself well enough at this point to recognize that wherever I am, it is rarely where I want to be. But still, I wonder about the tradeoffs we have made for a certain kind of ease, a certain kind of comfort, the knowability of this place I have lived for nearly thirty years. 

Over the weekend, our friends threw us a “soiree,” as they called it. A dinner party so that we could meet the people who populate their daily lives, and they could meet us. They hosted it in a renovated church that now housed offices and co-working space. Next to it, what had been the church’s rectory was now the stylish home of the church’s owners. All the children found their way over there while the parents sat around a long, gracious wooden table covered with the dishes people had brought to share. There were some Providence connections and we talked about the people we knew in common, shared news of them. But mostly, it was the usual questions, what do you do, where did you live before, what are you working on now. Chatter about children and cats. 

And the evening passed like that, laughing and talking in the company of people, for the most part, we had just met. Something about that experience — the newness of it, the way it required a kind of presence, a particular kind of attentiveness, alertness — that was buoying. 

there all the time

I went back to the art museum alone yesterday, was able to linger in the galleries, wander aimlessly. I was rewarded for my return by Cy Twombly’s 10-part series, Fifty Days at Iliam, based on the last fifty days of the Trojan War. These ten canvases are large — most about sixteen feet long and ten feet high — and nine of them are hung in a small gallery that perfectly contains them. 

When I entered the gallery it was empty, and the feeling that washed over me — reverence, awe, surprise — was as sudden and intense and it was unexpected. I don’t know much about painting or how to speak or write about paintings, but my response was visceral and immediate. Hand-scrawled text, bold, fierce strokes, minimal color, except for the dark red that dominates a few — all immediately suggested the chaos and violence of war, its aggression and confusion. All at a scale I could not help but be moved by immediately. I was reminded of hearing Eileen Myles talk about the painting of Joan Mitchell — the way she took the world in through her body and her painting became the utterance of the experience. I find the notion of painting (or of other forms of art?) being the transfer of the energy of experience through the body — the way its performance becomes a kind of utterance, a kind of language — appealing. 

There were other pleasures to be had. An exhibit of Agnes Martin’s drawings and writings (notes, artistic statements, correspondence) provided quiet insights on sustaining a working life in art. She wrote on beauty and inspiration: 

As I describe inspiration I do not want you to think I am speaking of religion. 

That which takes us by surprise — moments of happiness — that is inspiration. Inspiration which is different from daily care. 

Many people as adults are so startled by inspiration which is different from daily care that they think they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Inspiration is there all the time

The poet Ralph Angel introduced me to Martin’s writing on beauty some years ago, and then, as now, I am struck by the complexity in it that resists my easy understanding. Her statements are at once straightforward and elusive. I think I understand it, but then question. I find I must return to it, consider it for a while. Think about it in the context of her meticulous, meditative drawings and paintings. Their repetitions, their spare, quietly-controlled gestures. 

There is more to say about the glorious hours I spent there in the galleries. But we are packing up now for the trip home.