While waiting for my medium coffee with “milk and one sugar” at one of the few Dunkin Donuts in New York City that still allow you to tip (every Dunkin Donuts require their employees to put in the exact amount of milk and sugar as requested by the customer), I suddenly feel less sullen when I realize the song playing is “Always on My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, I feel like writing my ex-boyfriend from my sophomore year of college.
“Remember when you played this song at friend’s birthday party and you wore a jacket and tie and kissed your friend Chris and took off your jacket and rolled up your sleeve and I thought I would love you forever and ever and ever?”
Remember? What would it mean if we always wrote when we felt like it? If we always wrote what we felt? If we always felt what we said? Someday, we’ll be together, I tell so many people at so many times in my life that when I hear Diana Ross’ voice coming through the shared wall between me and my neighbor on a Saturday night when I am in my bathrobe, when I am in my sorry state, I feel as if she is singing for me alone. No need to correct my delusions—I know how common and generic and true and heroic these recorded serenades can be. I feel so lucky. So terrified.
When I travel to west Bronx to teach high school students there are so many Dunkin Donuts on the main commercial streets. Pizza is two dollars and sometimes when I only have a dollar, the man behind the counter takes pity on me and tells me to come back with the other dollar when I have it. I always have it, but on occasion, I have forgotten to come back. It’s not innocent forgetfulness. This now, is not saintly remembrance, either.
When I go to Jackson Heights to teach David Foster Wallace’s essay on the ethics of eating and preparing lobster, my students raise their hands to go to the bathroom five times in three hours. I give them a ten-minute break but ten minutes after the ten-minute break, they need to go to the bathroom.
“What was the point of the break?” I ask them.
“Oh, I was getting water then.”
“This didn’t convince me of anything,” one of them says when we finish the essay.
“It was so dry and so pointless and so repetitive.”
“Don’t you think sending a hundred text messages a day is kind of dry and pointless and repetitive?” I ask, trying to be relevant, trying to find a way to insert whatever it is that I have to say and whatever it is that I want to say and whatever it is that I know I should say; trying (striving?) for the holy trinity of expression, trying (striving?) to remember the first thought I had before I arrived at the end.
“Yeah, but that’s texting. You don’t have to do a good job of grabbing the reader.”
“So why do you have such tolerance when it comes to texting but so little patience when it comes to longer, more formal texts?”
“Forget it,” I say all the time. Just never mind. Who cares. Whatevs. I don’t want to be grabbed. I just want to be petted. I want my heroes to pet me when I can’t sleep.
At a reading in Brooklyn, Monica tells me I am “headlining,” and I want to rest my head in her lap. I want someone to use the side of my face as a tray for the meats and cheeses and breads and petit cornichons! I read a poem about detachable pussies because I once saw Wanda Sykes joke about how detachable pussies would make it so much easier for women to go for a run late at night without worrying about being raped. “Oop! I left it at home!”
The first part of the poem is in Chinese. I am the only person in the room (in the art gallery, in the bar, in the poet’s house, in the bookstore, in the café) who speaks Chinese. I am the only person here who is Chinese. I am the only person here who is a person of color. I am the only person here who is a woman of color. I cringe when other people cringe at the term POC or WOC. I am the only POC and the WOC at several poetry readings in a row. I can say anything I want in Chinese, so I say that I want to suck my mother’s face until it turns blue. I say that my mother sold her first luxury car to a young Chinese couple and sobbed until her eyes were puffy as fish. I want to say things about sucking cock and spitting the scalding tepid jets of gooey semen at the audience. I want to talk about my one-woman bukakke, the tenderness involved in spitting cum at an all-white audience, but I don’t know that. I can’t be sure. I am smug in my perceived solitude. I am so smug and incautious in my alienation. I don’t know who is white and who is a POC. No one tells me to stop caring but I feel those words on the verge of existing. I feel that idea always threatening to become a kind of concretized advice in the air between us. I feel so little tenderness that I don’t think I want to go to any more poetry readings. Afterwards, someone tells me that she studied Chinese for seven years but couldn’t quite understand what I was saying.
“That’s because I don’t really know how to speak Chinese,” I tell her. “It’s my fault, not yours.”
I read Kanye’s book of advice on how to be more like him, and how he became the best version of himself. It’s called “THANK YOU AND YOU’RE WELCOME.” On page 33, he says “Never complain without offering a solution!” No poem I have ever loved has ever offered a solution. But I feel resolved when I read Lorine Niedecker on the train. I feel saluted. I want to befriend the child she aborted at Zukofsky’s “urging.” I feel resolved when Nat shows me a small chapbook of elegies for Niedecker written by her friends. At brunch, he reads me a short essay her publisher wrote about her. I can’t focus on what Nat is saying of what Niedecker’s publisher once said. I am already imagining myself as the fallen, lonely, misunderstood heroine. The “poetess” being referred to with such contempt and admiration. Her “restraint,” and how that sets her apart. Her formality. Her discipline. No one refers explicitly to gender and yet the boundaries are being drawn without anyone necessarily participating. I am already fantasizing about my small, unimportant life becoming so mind-bogglingly important to a few, select people. I have selected to be part of this. I feel as if I have nothing to say. Whatevs.
On the walk back to the subway after brunch, I watch a kid share a bicycle with his sister. When he falls and scrapes his arm, he says, “Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.” His mom barely looks up from her book and says, “That was a hard fall, you ok?” Owowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowow.
When I was a kid I hated the kids who would say, “But why? But why? But why? But why? But why? But why? But why?” or “How come? But how come? But how come? But how come? But how come?” Shut up and die already, I thought.
Last summer, I noticed the ubiquity of people posting pictures of themselves doing cutely banal things like pretending to eat a 20-foot sub and tagging it #YOLO. Or someone would say, “I’m going to dip my toes in the water,” and someone else would say “YOLO.” Once, I joked about seppukuing myself if I got another mild yeast infection. “YOLO, ya know?” Later, Nat told me about YOLLIL: You Only Live Later In Life. Amy Rose told me about YOLITA: someone who is too young to be able to truly YOLO or appreciate its urgency and potency. I remember being whatevs years and years ago when Sarah told me, “If U Seek Amy” was Britney telling us F-U-C-K MEEEEE but I still told it with glee to Luke when we were walking around the East Village last week. Lil Wayne sounding so bored and so relaxed when he says, “Tongue kiss her other tongue.”
When I was a child, I used to beg my father to tell me a story before bed. He only knew one and it went like this: “Once, there was a dog who stood atop a cliff. He looked out across the valley and saw another dog who was standing at the edge of a cliff looking out at another dog who stood at the edge of a cliff looking out at another dog who stood at the edge of a cliff looking out…” until I cried out, “STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAP.”
“You said you wanted a story.”
When I asked my father where humans came from, he said from their mothers, and I said, No the first humans, and he said monkeys, and I said, Where do monkeys come from then, and he said their monkey mothers, and I said. No, the very first monkey, the very first creature to ever appear on earth, and he said, Well no one knows, but then my auntie, his older sister, interrupted to say, God. God was there at the beginning. So before God then, I said.
To go before God.
To kneel down in God’s kingdom and wait for ???
To have been there before God was there ????
Are there poems before God ????????
The first poets I met when I went to graduate school for fiction claimed they were prophets, mystics, deranged seers, opium takers, orchestrators of orgies, the messengers and progeny of Bacchus, Lupercalian ogres, disgraced deities, bratty bards, and drunken augurs. I said I was a materialist. Occasional sensualist because my poet boyfriend used that word and I wanted to be his twin more than I wanted to be his lover. I was unable to look past what was right there. Unable to hear anything except what was audible. Unable to imagine touching anything that did not already have a name, a defined form. I repeated the same ideas in every poem. I had only one thing to say. I was so terrified of saying it because once I said it, would I still have anything left to say? To have so little to say. To insist on speaking. To create a silence every time we speak. To know all this and do it anyway. This is as close as I can get to saying what I mean.
Still, my other tongue wants to speak. My other tongue wants to be kissed. My other tongue speaks for me. My other tongue knows such tenderness. My other tongue is as subject to mortality and cowardice and neglect as you poets must know. My mother said my poems were “touchable.” I could say she is mistaken. I could tell you what she meant. I mean to correct her when she calls me to tell me the “smoking turkey” she ordered from the internet for Thanksgiving is on its way. But I leave it. I don’t want to fix it. I don’t even want to record it. But I sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I feel a tiny urge to rescue it. To be a hero. To be praised. Our compulsions are as heroic as our excesses. Our excesses as heroic as our restraint. Our forgetfulness as necessary as our total attempt to say something. Such expressions never to be heard again.