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my friend said, “some of my friends look around and say, ‘now that i’m in my forties, i don’t have a job, i don’t have a house, i don’t have anything.’”
my gaze enters the intersection and makes a left turn.
sunlight pours through my line of sight. my gaze turns to smoke.
i laughed and said, “i wouldn’t have a house if it wasn’t for her.” i leaned against her in shaanxi garden.
i wouldn’t have a house if she wasn’t insisting, and our friends heading to foreclosure asked us to buy their house. it was a wreck, just like their marriage.
they hadn’t made repairs in decades. you could see through the kitchen floor into the basement. the bathroom wall had fallen into the bathtub. the bedroom ceiling had a manhole-sized hole.
our friends left, splitting up, heading separate ways, never to return, dead VW bug in the driveway, emptiness of lives all along the fence line where my daughter left alligator lizards in jars to mummify. we ripped out the interior, rebuilt the walls and windows from the studs out. i worked every day four months straight on it. still, the floors were wet and the place full of paint and varnish fumes when we moved the kids in. i put boards across the floors so we could go room to room.
she wanted a cactus garden in front. i’d never poured concrete in my life. i poured a concrete foundation for cement block walls, measured every angle and surface with plumb line and level as exact as i could. when the mexicano mason came to build the walls, he laughed at it. he fixed it.
i have a house because of our collectivity.
(this is not about ideology, fundamentally.)
i have the 8 hour day because of unions like my union.
i have this job because colleges and universities never offered me a full-time gig in spite of experience, books, publications, awards. they offer kids with no publications tenure track gigs that i applied for (when i used to apply); they offer me part-time or temp gigs, which are basically nothing to them. but i’ve gone on strike with my union and won; we’ve threatened strike over healthcare and raises and won.
i’ve paid $300 a month or more union dues for decades.
for years, i paid party dues and membership fees to organizations that don’t exist. they exist a little farther up the way.
radio hours blown into the last daylight in the trees.
traffic on the golden state freeway in orange afternoon haze.
people all driving in the same direction. not getting along, going along.
analyses in the press and we might comment.
exchange of commentary like crows.
it’s the collectivity that puts the wind in our mouth, that spins it away.
1. My basic tip is to get out more. PARTICIPATE.*
*(The consumerist model of waiting to be serviced and then waiting for an invoice or
bill, or paying for service in advance and passively expecting something to happen
does not work in the life of the mind, in literary life, in literature. This activity is not a “transaction.”)
2. PARTICIPATE in, or at least attend, literary activities in your area. Nearby colleges hosted readings by really outstanding writers. These are not merely famous writers; some colleges hosted readings and workshops with some of the best, new, popular writers among the contemporary intelligentsia. How can these newer voices serve you? They can give you perspective on what’s new, on what’s possible, on what’s happening. Maggie Nelson! Cathy Park Hong! Find out who these people are! What are they doing?
3. Discuss what’s new in writing, what’s possible in writing, what’s happening in
‘literature’ with friends (hopefully who write)—make friends with those who do.
The discourse is always happening. Listen for it. Our language exists before we’re
born. It comes to us through birth and bloodshed, through immigration and revolution,
through labor and love, through the generations. It comes to us. Make use of it to
make your mark in the never ending on-going dialogue. Enter the conversation
wherever you want. Start with friends.
4. Read daily. Not merely what is assigned. Read in order to explore your own mind,
through your own special, revelatory, vital interests. Read literary journals and
literary magazines to explore the discourse in your own interests. There’s a million
of them, from the sort of ‘mainstream’ New Yorker, Granta, Boston Review,
McSweeney’s, to local lights, fly-by-nights, hand-made zines, college magazines.
William Faulkner said, “A writer should read everything. Of course, you can’t read
everything.” Subscribe; subscribe to them. Explore your commitments. Commit.
5. Practice reading and writing outside institutions and institutionalization. The world is wider, juicier, richer, more electric. Practice reading and writing beyond the kinds of reading and writing everyone else is doing—which is to say—on a little hand-held screen or on a flat screen.
6. The bottom line is, if you don’t prioritize it, no one else will. If you don’t do your own writing, no one will. That’s not exactly a tautology.
It was at a party. I was looking for some quiet corner, but the house was full of people. Paul walked through the room ahead of me. He went into another room and shut the door. He was wearing my shirt.
in the house where the old lady died
her family moved in (the man with the gray
mustache her son?) a handsome white couple
gray and unhappy, their teenage children unhappy
at our house we could hear their children
scream and curse at them, the father drove by
never looking at us, year after year for a decade or more
in his old car, fast, or in his pickup truck
never looking our way, never saying hello
the son grew burly, thick set, said hello only
if directly spoken to, walking up or down the hill
the son got a car, and left, then it was the daughter
who calmed down as she grew up, and i only saw her
crying in the street (one time sitting in the middle of
our street, refusing to move as i drove up the hill,
weeping) but then she appeared with a boyfriend
appeared happy, with little dog and boyfriend,
then the boyfriend was in the driveway, on his cell
phone, he said hello once or twice, then she was gone,
they were all gone, driveway empty, industrial size
dumpster in the driveway for a mound of debris, first
remodeling the house had seen in decades,
but the family was gone. months later, two boys
who appeared part black, part latino came by
looking for their dog (i had not seen their little dog),
said their family was renting the place, but
they would soon be moving (back to chicago?)—
and i don’t know who lives there now—
i drove by once and the driveway was empty,
the house dark, the front door wide open—
i thought to close it, but had never known those
people, i don’t know who lives there now.
photograph by Arturo Romo-Santillano
that’s me and you walking like crows with heads going back and forth like 2 trains running
that’s me and you with our little red tongues wagging like insects emerging from the desiccated nation of petals
that’s me and you with our cheeks squinty and shiny like a muscular salmon doing a whitewater squirt
that’s me and you when i wasn’t notched as a Roosevelt dime and you weren’t folded like the old war newspaper
that’s me and you riding the internecine moment when the night of the universe curled some gazes inside of boulders
that’s me and you making like stevedores on a 1934 General Strike as the hour itself glazed cool blueish ceramic
that’s me and you when i had a pocket full of keys as if that mattered and coins that could drop a meter in the street
that’s me and you when all our thoughts weren’t bottled in amber glass and tossed by the San Bernardino like a roadkill century
transcribed at “Type Writer: An Afternoon of L.A. Stories Typed Before Your Eyes” with Marisela Norte and Lynell George
How do we start?
I came to L.A. from Minneapolis
and I’m a shoemaker and I work for myself
I’ve literally only been here for three—no, four hours
A couple months ago I met this awesome dude
he’s with the L.A. Philharmonic
and I just need a reason to move
things were really picking up with this dude
they were. And they kept escalating, but they
came to a full stop, he was supposed to come visit me
and he didn’t. I don’t know what I’m doing
I could stay in Minneapolis… but I don’t know,
I didn’t decide…
he’s getting a divorce, he’s not really helpful
he’s emotionally embroiled in something I don’t want
to get involved with
I’m leaving on Friday, I’m just here for a week
it would be a big deal, to move all my equipment
but maybe, in Minnesota there’s 3 shoemakers
in L.A. there’s a lot more, but most of them are hobbyists
There’s a lot, in L.A. and New York, they charge
about $2,000. In Minneapolis my price point is about a third of that
Do you want the real story or the one I tell people?
I’ll tell you both
I was in grad school, in the MFA program at the
Art Institute of Chicago, I was a book maker, a writer, a photographer
I’d always done a lot of writing, editing
I got into a serious car accident,
I couldn’t write anymore
but shoes, I could follow
I made my MFA project shoes
they altered the way people had to walk,
you know, I didn’t have to say anything,
I didn’t have to explain, they sort of mimicked the healing process
you know what I mean?
I wrote a lot, I had a blog
but I lost it, a friend of mine said he found it
I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I lost it again
I couldn’t read anything for a long time
I wrote but I couldn’t read
I just started reading again
Are we taking off?
Are you going to put it in your archive?
No I don’t need it, I’ve lived it.
We’re going now, thanks
Nice to meet you
with Lynell George and Marisela Norte
Sunday, April 17 | 2:00–5:00pm | Craft and Folk Art Museum courtyard | Free and open to the public
5814 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 937-4230 | www.cafam.org
Bring your favorite Los Angeles stories to share with favorite local writers Lynell George, Sesshu Foster, and Marisela Norte, who will transcribe your words into poetry and prose using one of our typewriting stations. Participants are encouraged to bring their own typewriters to join in this special type-in event. This event is part of the cultural programs in conjunction with this year’s Big Read, honoring the work of Ray Bradbury. The Big Read is a program in partnership with Arts Midwest.
for more information: http://www.cafam.org/programs
glad we could talk, my students came and enjoyed it—
later, i read some poems with Kenji Liu and Angela Peñaredondo
at the Kaya Press tent, and afterwards went round and caught
your reading at the poetry stage, where I saw the call
and response of “187 reasons mexicanos can’t cross the border”
caused passersby to stop in their tracks, turned their heads; they
drew forth under the trees to see what you were delivering
from the stage. this was before you closed, zapateando.
i should have joined you when they took you to sign books.
it started sprinkling, as it had been on and off all day
and like i had been, i was thinking about the lean girl,
my student who died two weeks ago, swept out by a wave
at santa monica beach, in sight of the pier and surely crowds
of hundreds of people on an ordinary saturday afternoon,
drowned. now there’s nothing to say about it, nothing to be done,
so i wandered through the tents, looking at the booths
full of books and booksellers, writers and readers, and
when i figured that we maybe still had time to talk,
i went back to “the green room” but i couldn’t locate
you—i did a circuit, walking through the crowd and the tents
in the off and on again drizzle, talked to David Shook
at Phoneme Books, bought his translations from the Zapotec,
i guessed soon you’d have minders escorting you onstage
at the award ceremony, though i could have let loose
the dogs of metaphor or raised a figurative hue and cry
as of metonymy, but let the mist in the air settle as it may.
thanks for the hour or more. let’s talk again! maybe
i’ll see Fresno, capital of poetry. hi to Margie!
you were swept out to sea by a wave and drowned
you rode your bike through a puddle electrified by underground wires
crushed by a wheel that came bouncing, bounding over the center divider at 65 MPH
you died of an aneurysm no one ever suspected
it got dark and cold, cold
and i think about you every day, kid
even though we weren’t close
i don’t know what you thought of me, if anything (i figured you didn’t bother to think of me, because you were too busy trying to become the adult you were never given the chance to be)
but i respected you, kid. so hard working, so disciplined
(who even knew you were a kid? your family did. your little sister did.)
you were just a kid, really, after all. whatever i saw in the coffin had nothing to do with you. that wasn’t your destiny. you didn’t deserve what you got. your family didn’t deserve that.
i think about you, your smile, your grin— and what is there to say? now it all seems so pointless.
nothing to say and nothing to do about it now.
no way to go back, no way to fix anything, no way it will ever be different or better.
the steps can’t be retraced. that saturday never returns.
the chain of events, the accident, the circumstances. it’s as if whatever was real about all of it left with you, kid.
(i thought of my 3 year old nephew sucked inside a hole in a sea cave
by water that bubbled up out of a puddle he was sitting in,
and he disappeared in a hole in the side of a giant rock on the beach
i thought him lost underwater inside the black bowels of a cave—
but i ran through the surf to the mouth of the cave and absurdly, he emerged,
sitting up, screaming riding a wave like a surfer down into the crashing waves
and i snatched him up and he was saved, unhurt) but they could not save you and you were not saved.
i could be writing this about my other nephew who did die.
it doesn’t do your family or the rest of us any good, but i think of you daily. you were not in that coffin, kid, but in the unrealized events where i imagine you always will be.
People bunched outside of the chapel doors, SRO, trying to peer inside. Ribbons fluttered in the breeze, wide long ribbons from wreaths strung with their black phrases in English and Vietnamese. Wreaths and flowers lined the interior to the doors. One from an ER staff—I presumed—someone’s co-workers.
Incense at an alter, gilt packets, a large floral centerpiece around her photograph, and at one side, a small Buddha. Behind it, a tapestry of the Buddha. I had no view because of the press of people.
Leaves on a green lawn under big trees. Traffic on Main Street kitty corner from Ranch 99 Market. The minister spoke in Vietnamese. Men ducked in and out, whispering. She appeared to me, this girl, bearing up under the significant duress, of her time and ours, with an inward steeliness, an outward coldness.
As if begrudging words, sometimes she’d say goodbye. I thought it was mere shyness. She was lithe and strong, a distance runner. Sometimes I heard the goodbye. I looked up as she went to the door—the abrupt profile of her cheek so expressed the fierce determination that I admired and respected.
17 years old, swept out by a wave on the beach and drowned last Saturday, as if the world insisted on making the cruelest, most bitter gesture in the most obvious vacant way. Her friends wept as they spoke of their love for her. I waited my turn to speak. “Thank you for the honor of letting us know Thuy Tran,” I said, “thank you for the honor of allowing me to be her teacher.”
I clasped the hands of her brother, her sister and her mother, on the way out the side door. I said something to them. Her mother thanked me. Out in the sunshine, my cell phone chirped. Messages ticked into my cell phone, wishing me happy birthday.