[poetry month] "Yours Truly" by Kate Colby

YOURS TRULY

I can’t see light at the end
of this blinding tunnel

until I cover my hand with
my eyes. A slack tide’s

brown leaves pack against
the breachway. Some plastic

trash is in it. Two wind-
bent men watch a severed

red-and-white fishing bob
bobbing away. If/when

“over” means “forever,”
I need you to possess me,

not like “occupy,”
but “empty.”

— Kate Colby, from The Arrangements, Four Way Books, 2018.

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[poetry month] "Your Mouth Is Full of Birds" by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

YOUR MOUTH IS FULL OF BIRDS

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said

nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded

like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked

into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember

the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell

in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,

when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant your forgave me for the rookery,

because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

— Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, from Hour of the Ox, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

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[poetry month] "Stay" by Lee Herrick


STAY

I am not what you thought
an ocean would look like,
but once a fire starts in you,
there will always be ash.
There are long walks, thank
goodness, there are woods
to be small in, there are
anchors to the world so
you will not fly away before
it is time. The miracle of grass,
even though you may forget it,
the fact that you are loved,
even though you may forget it,
and what a miracle that is —
being loved — or more so,
that you are a wide blue ocean
capable of loving, you churning
body of sea life who survived
the oil spills, the broken glass,
the dead birds floating in the bay.

— Lee Herrick, from Scar and Flower, Word Poetry, 2019.

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[poetry month] "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" by Sally Wen Mao

RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES

In Lijiang, the sign outside your hostel
glares: Ride alone, ride alone, ride
alone — it taunts you for the mileage
of your solitude, must be past

thousands, for you rode this plane
alone, this train alone, you’ll ride
this bus alone well into the summer night,
well into the next hamlet, town,

city, the next century, as the trees twitch
and the clouds wane and the tides
quiver and the galaxies tilt and the sun
spins us another lonely cycle, you’ll

wonder if this compass will ever change.
The sun doesn’t need more heat,
so why should you? The trees don’t need
to be close, so why should you?

The sea is full of jetsam tonight. A thousand
miles away, you think of shores,
arriving at the KTV bar in Lijiang, listening,
A song comes up: Jay-Z with Rihanna,
umbrella-ella-ella-eh, strangers singing
into the strange night, and it’s like home to you,
this cocktail of ashes dusting your knees.
This city is famous for yak meat, rhododendron,
and one-night stands. You wait for yours
to show up. He works at the bar, looks like Takeshi
Kaneshiro. He clutches your waist as you ask
for more songs, more wine, more fruit.
Another: Teresa Teng, whose voice is the song
you have in common. “The Moon Represents
My Heart” — but tonight the moon represents
your sorrow in the Old Town Square.
Later as you lie in the cheap hotel in the electric
New City, Takeshi tells you he has never
left this province his whole life.
His family grows a peach orchard, and the fattest
peaches ripen in September. Where can I mail
you a peach?
he asks. Tell him you’re flying
to Indonesia. He asks why you’re going
somewhere so far away. Say: in Manhattan,
there are thousands of gargoyles
that travel around the world
as everyone sleeps.
Say: in Brooklyn, there is a chance
to rebuild a life from trash —
long-stemmed roses blooming
in the dumpsters, bodegas spilling purple
dragonfruit still good to eat.
Say: one morning outside Bryant Park,
you stood watching a garbage
fire destroy a basket of rotten mangoes.
Within five minutes, firefighters
came to extinguish it. You peered inside
afterward, and the nothing you saw
was wet and dark and smoldering.
Above you, a crane lifted a tiny man higher
and higher, until light stretched
his limbs into a sheaf of minerals.
He was dust before the wrecking
ball swung.

This land promises snowfall. This land promises windfall.
This land promises the return of brief days. May this land
promise you a body, some muscle, some organ, a brain.

Some ribs made of dark tinder, their insides lit, all vesicle,
atrium. May this kindling promise you a hearth and last

past your dread, October’s sleet, past scarred trees, then winter,
then mend and on and onward and orbit so you are blank
as memory, turn into paper — crinkle, burn, and finally open.

— Sally Wen Mao, from Oculus, Graywolf Press, 2019.

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[poetry month] "Waiting Room" by Carolina Ebeid

WAITING ROOM

You can’t carry around on your back the corpse
of your father
— Apollinaire

The sun is hoisted already. A flag. An awful bell.
Then the blue form asks me to assemble my medical family tree.

There are diseases whose syllables
on the tongue sit tart & dulcet
as a slice of pear chilled by the morning.

Then all the prescriptive grammarians wake up, one after
another, mimicking sidewalk birds dashing to safer heights.

Reader, can we have a meaningful exchange without
you knowing how I assemble heaven? The air’s
poignant with male peacocks. The air’s stony

& clean as altitudes above which no trees will grow.
All my father’s sadnesses begin to stomp & huff

as a line of bridled Central Park horses.
He brushes them. He feeds them seaweed.
It’s good for the teeth & the heart.

I have my father’s hair, which was once a lion’s-hide-
vermillion. You can’t carry around the corpse of a lion.

Looking at slides of a CT scan,
you may hold an idea of the body
as a junky steel contraption that can

be fixed. A figment of propellers here & at the center
an heirloom engine, oiled & intricate.

— Carolina Ebeid, from You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, Noemi Press, 2016.

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[poetry month] "The Facility Finder" by Jordan Davis

THE FACILITY FINDER

I was pleased to discover America.
It cheered me up to hear everybody else fighting.
When I finally gave my hostility a name
I started cleaning up after it like a proper pet.
It felt great to make a fuzzy electrical sound.
Holding my place on line with the book
of my one thousand doodles gave me
inordinate feelings of pride. Or ordinate, maybe.
The sun making wavy lines on the roofs
of the parking lot, the waves making
a glint-covered sunset on the roof of my heart,
the roofs keeping me my accustomed level
of damp, it all meant one thing: tautology
is the energy source of the future, and you
are the one I want beside me in the vehicle,
our hands on each other’s knees,
shouting our heads off to the music
recorded on this obsolete medium
as a low-cost way to express our earliest vibes.

— Jordan Davis, from Shell Game, Edge Books, 2018.

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[poetry month] "Midnight Sun" by Kim Hyesoon

MIDNIGHT SUN
Day Five

A letter arrives from a place where your reply can’t be sent

That you’re already here
That you’ve already left you

A shimmering letter arrives from the hole that knows everything

Like the brain that sees all too clearly after death, a bright letter arrives
Like the days before you were born, a widely wide letter without yesterday
or tomorrow arrives

Soft chiming of bells from a carriage made of light
Giggles of a girl in pants made of light, knocking on the nightless world

The last train runs above ground
the world where all the trains on the platform light up at once and silently
forget about you

You can’t go, for you are footless, but the children of your childhood are
already there
A letter arrives from that bright hole where not even a reply in black can be
sent

where your children age in front of you
from that place where you departed to, to be reincarnated

A letter arrives, written in ink of brightly bright light

from that place where you’ve never encountered darkness
an enormously enormous letter arrives
a brilliant light a newborn greets for the first time

—Kim Hyesoon, from Autobiography of Death, New Directions, 2018, translated by Don Mee Choi

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wobble a bit

Arrived late last night in Portland for the annual chaos of AWP. Happy to be here, among the anxious throngs. Grateful for the time I had to read, think, imagine a little. One of the highlights of my reading, this interview with Carl Phillips.

From “The Art of Poetry, No. 103, Carl Phillips,” The Paris Review:

On narrative context:

I tell people, especially if I’m giving a reading, it’s okay to let the words wash over them, the way one experiences abstract art. I’m not trained in visual art. I often see things in a museum and don’t know what to make of them, but I still have an experience, a response to what I can see. Likewise, I don’t think poems have to have easy translation. I believe strongly in emotional and psychological narratives. I think of many of my poems as emotional gestures. Context isn’t always essential — or maybe it’s that I resist context as an absolute. I like what happens when context begins to wobble a bit.

On closure:

Many poems are the psychological, emotional by-products not of a single experience but of an amalgamation of experiences. At the end of the day, I come back to something Ellen Bryant Voigt once told me, that poetry is not the transcription of experience but the transformation of it. 

I want readers to feel at the end of a poem as if something has been consolidated, if only briefly. But then to realize, Oh, and… To hover there. I think that kind of closure is more faithful to the idea of an ongoing quest. 

On unconventionality:

I’ve always thought that’s what poetry was for, a space for unconventionality, risk, disruption. I really resist what seems a human impulse toward what everyone has agreed on as normal. I don’t understand that in life, and I truly don’t get it in poetry. 

On poetry as a radical thing:

I think it is. And a dangerous, because almost holy, thing, and therefore not to be dealt with lightly. Poetry’s not a box for storing unexamined experience, but a space instead — a field, really — within which to examine experience and to find that the more we examine it the more we’re surprised or disturbed by what we see, things that don’t go away. I think that’s the resonant part. 

On unraveling:

My newest poems are very invested in storytelling as a kind of unraveling, poems that proceed by and often end in loose ends, rather than anything even vaguely like resolution. Unraveling seems maybe more true to how our lives are. We like to think they’re compartmentalized and neat, but it seems to me that life’s actually about a lot of spillage that we’re trying to hide from ourselves and from other people. 

meanwhile

It’s hard to read. Hard to stay focused. I’m thinking about utility. I’m tired, moving slowly, but want everything to go faster. 

One milestone to the next. I drove back from Northampton in time to teach my morning class and felt like a hero. After, walking down Angell Street to my car, I deflated. 

The book I hadn’t planned on writing is getting in my way. Perhaps it is not useful to think of it this way. But here we are, nearly spring. There are moments in it I love, but what is it, as a whole? 

Anyway, present company: two episodes of David Naimon’s excellent “Between the Covers:” R.O. Kwon and Tommy Pico. An interview with Anne Carson in the Paris Review. Don Mee Choi’s translation of Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death. Finished the review of Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus

Next week, there is much to do. An open heart brings many gifts but there are costs to porousness. I let a lot in. 

Meanwhile, papers piling up. Meanwhile, rain today. 

if you have to be sure

I drove to Maine this week to spend an afternoon and evening as a visiting writer — spoke informally with classes, dinner with some faculty and students, a public reading, drinks. Not an entirely unfamiliar experience, but gradually, I’m acclimating to a different way of being — from the 10-minute reading in a line-up of three or four to a more sustained attention, expanded expectations. To have this larger “platform” and its attendant expectations requires, I am starting to realize, a different kind of preparation — not only of the material, but a kind of mental and emotional preparation. More simply, as my son would put it, “leveling up.”

After the book came out, I was of course asked to speak about it. When a book comes out, one is supposed to want attention for it. Interview requests, the speaking invitations, reviews — it seems obvious, but in some ways I did not feel prepared for it. I very much wanted attention, but it was also true that I very much wanted to hide and never have to speak publicly about it, or anything, ever.  Anyone who is close to me, who has had to live with or near me this past year, knows how much I simultaneously hate and love this book. Each time I read from it, I encounter things I would change — words, phrases. Delete whole sections. And yet this book — this messy, flawed, human book — has brought me so many gifts, how can I feel anything but gratitude and love? 

I had a writer visit my class recently, someone who has likely been asked to speak about her book hundreds, if not thousands of times. What struck me is how unhesitatingly she spoke of it — walking us through a close reading of a short passage, diagramming its structure on the whiteboard. As a listener, I felt a kind of relief. Her expertise, her certainty about her own work was reassuring. 

I feel vulnerable in more ways than I anticipated. Not only that the book itself is explicitly about my life, but that the aspects of the personal are generally what people want to know more about. Did I ever find any more information about my birth family, do I feel a sense of resolution having written the book, and even, someone asked me after a reading once, Do I forgive my mother? I don’t know how to answer these questions. I find myself bristling slightly when I am referred to — as I have been on occasion — as a “memoirist.” I am no expert on adoption, or on memoir, or even on my own life. I didn’t set out to write about my own life in this way, and yet, now that I have — now that I have entered the public conversation with this book — what responsibility do I have to speak with certainty, with authority? How different the role of the writer is from the role of the Writer? Perhaps I have not appreciated this distinction well enough. Not only in what it might require — the public presentation of the private role — but also the ways in which I need to prepare myself for the swirl of emotions that flood me after such a public display. 

Despite the warmth and generosity of the faculty and students, despite the conviviality over dinner and drinks, despite the kind and effusive remarks of the students, I drove back home yesterday feeling deflated. I re-played every answer I gave in class, every line I read aloud that felt flat. Imagined audience members on their way home, shaking their heads in disappointment and shock at how bad the whole thing was. Was I the worst Visiting Writer in the history of the college? Quite possibly so. 

This doesn’t seem a very helpful way to proceed in one’s life as a writer. (I am always charmed when someone asks, “Do you ever feel doubt about your work? How do you deal with doubt?”)

I arrived home in the afternoon, tired, depleted, a little sad. I read the news of W.S. Merwin’s passing and among the many poems and quotes and tributes posted, someone had excerpted these lines from “Berryman:”

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

What can I tell you that you don’t already know?

Some mornings, I awake with a line or a phrase. In this case, prompted I think, by reading about syllabics. (Four stressed syllables above).

Among the lectures and notes that comprise Compendium: A Collection of Thoughts on Prosody, Donald Justice quotes John Cage:

“Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing. Anything, therefore, is a delight.”

And

“the idea of relations being absent, anything may happen.”

As for the rest of the notes on metrical types and syllabics, I will admit: I want to be more interested than I am. But let us keep this between us. I fear this makes me a Very Bad Poet.

--

Yesterday in class, one student, when I observed that he looked like he wanted to speak, said “I have ideas but I don’t think they’re very intelligent,” and proceeded to express them. He made a lovely connection between two things we had read, it doesn’t matter much what they were, but that he made it. And it made me so happy that he did, and that then, as a class, we could talk it through together. A few other students added to and expanded on his initial thought and it all felt like a very wonderful moment indeed. This is what I want: a shared experience of intellectual curiosity in an environment that feels safe enough to speak before one is fully ready to.

Later, I went to hear Sawako Nakayasu and Laird Hunt read. Sawako read from new work that was lively and exuberant and Laird read what he referred to as “autofiction,” about time spent in London and Paris with his family. For a section, he read with photographs from the trip projected on the screen behind him. I felt very much at home, in that room, among those writers, many whose work I have known for a long time. My teachers were there: Carole Maso, Bob Coover. Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, with whom I did not study, but who are like the patron saints of the program. What I mean to say is: I felt fortunate to be in such company.

Before the reading started, Bob waved me over. It was the first time I had seen him since I had given him my book at the end of last year. He thanked me, said it was beautiful and told me, “I read it all the way to the end,” which I take as high praise.

He said, “I have some notes, I’ll get them to you,” and I laughed, recalling his careful red script on all my early stories. Then just as the event was about to begin, he said, “I want to know what’s next.”  

some news

Honored and grateful to be one of the recipients of this year’s MacColl Johnson Fellowship. Thanks to the Providence Journal for the profile.

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artificial clarity

My dreams have been vivid, but I don’t remember them. Only wake with the feeling of having been engaged in some high drama. The impressions I’m left with are washes of color – red to magenta. Intense, pulsing blue.

This year, even in February’s depths, I anticipate spring. Last night, an orange band low across the horizon cheered me. A bright sheen across every layer of ice.

--

It’s a busy time. I’m meeting with students. They tell me their plans, their anxieties. If there was a time I envied their youth, I no longer do. Frenetic desires no longer hold appeal. I am no longer interested in the sharp edges of wholly untested ambition.

My ambitions now: the work is the work. It is not as though I am untouched by desire. The surprise and seductiveness of recognition. I am not above it. The pleasures of it are uneasy, though. Complicated. I am not yet sure what I am trying to say.

--

Kate says that she wrote most of I Mean while driving. She was teaching at URI then, spending hours on the road. She kept a notepad near her. I keep a notepad in my car, too. Scribble things to myself, but never much of value, and frequently illegible.

Here is a note I wrote to myself recently while driving:

was no god who at the conference table said “good girl” fed me scraps of the banquet
I had myself prepared

It was a reference to an incident years ago. A work dinner I was hosting for out-of-town investors of one sort or another. After we ate, I rose to bring the platter of desserts to the table. A tray of small things – petit fours, macarons. The man seated at the head of the table, as I placed it down in front of him said, “Ah yes. Good girl.”

I was so shaken and enraged, I had to excuse myself. I don’t remember what happened next. Did they leave? Did we speak again? Surely someone stepped in to account for my absence. Why, after all this time, am I remembering it now?

--

As for the work: A nearly complete first draft of a new collection. The outline for the next project proposal: something sprawling and risky that I can’t yet get my head around, but grant deadlines require clarity, even if somewhat artificial. And the ever-present shape-shifting novel. (For a photograph last week, I trudged through the wet snow back to Nine Men’s Misery. How will this all come together? How am I ever going to make this work? “The work is the work” in all its triteness running in a constant, oddly reassuring loop.)

I am, for the most part, exhilarated by it all. At least today.

Cersei, in mid-life

Each morning, as I open my laptop, I’m confronted by the fleeting shame of the prior night’s guilty pleasures – the final frame of the Game of Thrones episode we had watched in bed hours before. Rising early in the dark, coming to my desk while the world around me is quiet feels virtuous. Remembering that I fell asleep watching men argue over who would be “warden of the north,” with the clanging of their swords following me into my dreams: well the sheen of virtue does tarnish a bit.

I am reading Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches, and am reminded of how sustaining it is to have friends whose work you admire. The book is composed of two parts: one long lyric essay, and then a series of tiny (150-word) ones. Kate’s concerns are mid-life, motherhood, writing, reading, knowing and unknowing, the way a life seems at times to collapse in on itself. She observes and interrogates language with such relentless precision.

From “Driving to Margaret’s Mother’s Memorial Service:”

The smell of rain on hot pavement connects this moment to so many others, none of which I can remember.

Is every moment more a sequel of or serial with the one before?

A conundrum’s a semantic impasse, not an actual condition of the world.

And later:

When you start habitually narrating yourself it begins to feel as though a thing hasn’t happened if you can’t adequately describe it. But description and narration are bound by a temporal standard that communication necessitates. So you become dependent on description for experience, and then the description compromises the experience with its falsifying strictures. Sometimes I wonder if I actually preempt some of my experiences by narrating them or as even before they happen, replacing them with their own anticipatory representations.

None of my closest friends watch Game of Thrones for reasons I cannot argue against: “Too sexist, too violent, too many dragons.” “I just can’t bear all the blood sounds.” I can’t say why, entirely, that I enjoy something that I would normally not expect I would. There is spectacle. I find the actors quite riveting. There is something too about character development that M and I will often talk about over breakfast, which makes it all feel a little bit like “research.” But perhaps there’s no need to try to defend it or suggest it is more than it is. A shared, fully-rendered fantasy we can escape to, where we can experience the relief and satisfaction of recognizable desires and ambitions resolved without personal consequence.

Loving Game of Thrones is also one of my very few experiences of being a “fan” of something. I don’t follow sports of any kind, can’t tell you much about popular music, don’t know what’s really going on most of the time when my twitter stream goes full-on Oscars. But Game of Thrones! I can mention it at a party or extended family gathering and people actually know what I’m talking about. There is pleasure in that too.

Leaving this off where I must for now, I feel as though I should offer some sort of meditation linking the character of Cersei Lannister in her own mid-life to Kate’s ontological inquiries. That essay will have to wait.

artist unknown, Korean

Last summer, I read Wayne Koestenbaum’s Notes on Glaze, mostly in short bursts, poolside, while my son splashed and wrinkled in the over-chlorinated water.

Beyond the photographs and their accompanying short essays, what has remained with me is the inquiry. Koestenbaum was sent photographs, without any identifying or contextual information, and asked to write extended captions on them for on ongoing column at Cabinet Magazine. In the introduction to the book that was later composed of these text and image pairings, he says:

The column began with cheekiness, but quickly accommodated itself to more serious violations, even if I treated trauma whimsically. Language, when worked, is a wounding business, and these columns gave me a chance to measure the wound of being wrongly seen, the wound of assembling a self, and the wound of any form of duress, whether mild or mortifying.

Later that year, I heard Teju Cole discuss his desire, in Blind Spot, his photograph and text collection, to bring objects together in visual space – objects that have “an organic but unacknowledged relationship to each other.”

What struck me in these comments about both projects was the importance of the space between – the as yet inarticulate silence between the photographs Koestenbaum was given and the text that might be brought into space with them, the about-to-be-identified linkages between Cole’s objects. The attempt to make meaning from and in those gaps.

--

Upon request, I was generously given a list of the hundreds of items labeled “Korean” in the RISD Museum’s East Asian Art collection. (As an aside, the document was charmingly titled “Korean for Mary-Kim.”) Most of the objects, the earliest of which is identified as “3rd century CE,” are credited: “Artist unknown, Korean.” This anonymity persists until, of course, the 20th century. Scrolling through the 86-page document, photograph after photograph, object after object, the phrase “Artist unknown, Korean,” asserts itself becomes a kind of poetic refrain, anaphora:

Artist unknown, Korean
Spoon, 3rd century CE
bronze
length: 21 cm (8 1/4 inches)
Gift of Mrs. William C. Baker  12.163

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s-600s
bronze
Diameter: 17.8 cm (7 inches)
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke  15.017

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s - 600s
bronze
22.2 cm (8 13/16 inches) (diameter)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.304

Artist unknown, Korean
Ornament,
bronze; gilding
3.8 cm (1 1/2 inches) (height)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.373A

 … and so on.

In an exhibition catalog from the Seattle Art Museum in 1992, I first encountered this preamble in the relatively brief discussion of Korean lacquer art:

In Korea, all arts have suffered badly from centuries of invasion and warfare. Perishable arts, including lacquer, are almost nonexistent for many periods. Most extant lacquers have been excavated from tombs or other archaeological sites and have been damaged during burial. In addition, most pieces from the period between the eleventh century and the Japanese invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late sixteenth century are in Japan, removed from their cultural context….

How to address incomplete or unknowable provenance? One approach is perhaps through imaginative response. A series of texts around missing objects, gaps, the ruptures in the collection. An attempt to explain those absences, to raise questions around the “centuries of invasion” referred to above.

In a recent interview, Regine Basha of Pioneer Works observed that “decentralizing the art object and emphasizing the process over the product is one way to stimulate more critical engagement and debate,” and I am thinking about how this might be applicable, through multiple points of view, or interweaving multiple, even conflicting interpretations or sources.

method and meaning

Of note from the morning’s reading [“Harry Mathews Reveals the Inside Story to Marcella Durand,” April/May 2004, from What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know)]:

I’ve always thought of myself as a poet and my ambition in fiction was to write fiction that was organized the way poetry is. Not to write poetic prose or a novel with a poetic texture, but work where fiction doesn’t originate in the illusion that we’re reproducing some other reality.

And later, on “syntax:”

… extending the meaning of the word beyond the relationship between words in a sentence to the relationship between sentences in a paragraph or between paragraphs in a chapter. I claim syntax is where the meaning of a written work essentially lies. In other words, you can write about one thing and mean something else.

[…]
Whatever element of non-literary reality the poem began with has been put through a series of distillations to produce an elixir that is in itself delicious and evocative and can suggest many more things than what gave the poem its start….Such poetry aspires to the abstraction that music has.

Mathews quotes from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson called “A Humble Remonstrance:”

The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must still consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work.

"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.

documentation

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?