How I have missed you. And what obstacles I have had to defeat in order to at last rearrive here, panting, on the grass. Well, but, I’ve had mental adventures of which you will be the beneficiaries, so don’t mug. Or rather do, because I know it means you missed me.
I’ve been buzzy with otter projects, actual agents and actual editors wanting to see pages and rewrites too, but am now released by the holding pattern of stopping and waiting (and waiting), and so am at last writing to you.
Life has time for kids, time for sleeping, time for watching Firefly on Netflix, plus 30 Rock and American Idol, and time for work. Writing to you comes out of time for work, because there’s no other time for it to come out of. Granted I sometimes see Millionaire Matchmaker without having written to you, but rarely. Usually these are the only priorities that supersede you. So sorry you’ve been so long supersed. I’m trying to save the world with rhetoric. It’s ex/hilarating /hausting.
Dudes, in one of my secret societies (I only have one, but I’m trying to confuse future forensics) (I confess this here because once, someone else in my secret society mentioned that they had other secret societies and it hurt my feelings, and I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of any of my cosocietans, should they happen to read this.) I said something and then some other guy said something obnoxious and so then I said something smartassy and the cosocietans really liked what I said. Want to know it? It was this: “Well what you said stung/k, but…” They liked that I goed stung/k. Isn’t following one thought to the next ex/hilarating /hausting? Anyway, the backslash locution at the end of the above paragraph made me think of that other one, stung/k. They are a shorthand usable by a culture that silent-reads its quips, so they needn’t be pronounceable.
I gave them the green book (edited by Johnson), a nice big Selected Letters of ED. To prep, this week I read it straight through. Some journey. I feel like a restrung viola.
Talking about letters in this class has led me to realize that even for those who do not write their blog posts as letters, these days the closest thing to what once were letters, are blog posts. The email has too much brevity, too little gravitas, it compares to the scribble on a visiting card. But the blog, like the letter, is given more than an ounce of thought, and less than a gallon. It has more like a pint of poise and a quart of purpose. Just right for an afternoon’s diversion.
Emily, Emily. It is impertinent to be as I am, pert and in print, but I feel twinny with you. I think we had similar childhoods (talk about jenny from the hood, that’s the hood) in a way – isolated -- and similar strategies for walking it off.
She starts writing these atom bomb letters at 13. It felt strange to read page by page and watch her age. At first the message was the medium’s inadequacy: Her chief theme as a child was to berate the shortage of letters in return. As she got older, she lashed love onto the page with equal passion. Then something cracks leading into the 1860s and she goes nuts just totally saying what she feels like saying even if what she’s using ain’t words. As you all know, I too stood in the long lines at the DPV and took the test and showed my ID and now have a full poetic license, for forms, free verse, language, concrete, rap or pop, there’s nothing with a steering wheel that I don’t got a right to ride. You wanna hear how my girl talks?
Here’s her second letter to Higginson, year is 1862. She'd sent him a few poems and he'd sent back suggested changes:
MR. HIGGINSON,--Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow.
Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.
You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.
I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.
You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.
You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.
I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their "Father."
But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?
You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.
I read Miss Prescott's Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.
Two editors of journals came to my father's house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them "why" they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.
I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me. I read your chapters in the Atlantic, and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.
Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you? Your friend,
Isn’t she perfect? Don’t you just want to cook her into a pie and eat her? Sorry is that weird? Can we read this part again: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.” He had written an article of advice to the young poet that was published in the Atlantic, and that is what made her think to write to him.
Life is a great detective story with a terrible pacing problem. Nothing is as interesting and as boring as life.
She said this in a different letter to Higginson, and it reads nice if you replace “letter” with “blog post”. Well, I’ll just make the change:
A blog post always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.
Kids in NYC have had the last 10 days off from school, some kind of winter break President’s Day playcation. They go back to school tomorrow. We have two twixts (a name I just made up for those who were once called children and now are pre-pre-teen and before before tween, and we are presently running the bath so as to wash them as they got pretty dirty hanging around here, paleontologizing. Max made that word up and used it like nine times in describing to me how he poked and brushed at a plastic fossil dinosaur skeleton embedded in clay that we bought him for 4.95 at the Cracker Barrel on I-95 coming home from the Poetry Brothel in DC where we saw our dear friends Steve and Yvany, two entirely separate friends who both live in MD near DC and have names interestingly sequenced. “So I was paleontologizing and paleontologizing and I saw a foot bone and I kept paleontologizing and paleontologizing…” That is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul. Seriously. Feathers developed for warmth and prettiness, on dinosaurs, and later helped birds fly. Ain’t life wry?
I also just read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which also comes in quart-sized bulletins. A letter or journal entry or blog post is the right size and genre for saying to your reader, “Dear, I’ve been gone three days and am just now returning. Everything I’ve said so far should be taken with rather a grain of salt as the reverend has kissed me, full on the mouth, which changes everything.” Or something of that nature. My point is that in the LetterEntryPost (lentrypose) we are in real time enough to mention when time has elapsed, but not so much in real time, like a tweet or text, where no holdover happens, it’s always now or never.
Anyway, by now the kids are in the bath. Max said, “I know why they call it an icicle.” Why? “Because it has no wheels.”
The other day I said Max I’m so proud of you for playing all those games and you didn’t win them but you had a good time and you never lost control. Answered Max, delightedly: “Does that mean I won control?”
Anyway it was weird to read her letters and see her younger than me, and then my age, and then watch her pass me and trace her final note, to her younger girl cousins, “Called back.”
Do you want to know what people write in lentrypose? They write this:
I don’t know what to say. Weeks go by without my writing to you and now here I am finally writing. What I end up writing about turns out to be a lot of commentary on why I haven’t written, and also about what I have written, and how the whole phenomenon of writing letters makes me think of everything to say at once and before I know it the pages are full and the clock is using its hands to rush me to say that it is done, and send it away, and go back to where the people are waiting for me. For everyone writing, there is someone, somewhere, waiting for them to stop. Ha. This mess of confess is what we both so long awaited?
There is a whole blog dedicated to aggregating blog posts that apologize for not having posted lately. To invent a genre is to invent an occasion of shame. I invent lipping. You haven’t been doing enough of it lately.
Hey everyone, I’m sorry I haven’t telegraphed lately. I’m so behind on my telegraphing. I owe so many people a telegraph.
Hair is being rinsed. There is something wrong with my photography technology. The computer can’t feel that the camera has been plugged in to download. Maybe it’s the cord? I say that because my imagination understands how to buy a new cord.
I’m not sitting like Emily Dickinson for any other reason than that my back hurts if I don’t sit straight. When we were in Amsterdam we said to each other, “Don’t doo da dute doot doo doo doo the Dutch,” because their bikes make them ride very straight in the saddle like the Wicked Witch of the West and we kept seeing them and saying “doo da dute doot doo doo doo” at them. It takes a while to get that quip out of your mouth. It takes commitment.
I am floundered by the daily news friends, the demonstrations across all these Arab lands is really overwhelming. I didn’t know they had it in them! Thinking is a matter of parceling up types and likelihoods, thinking is rearranging our shoeboxes of previously judged hypotheses. You can’t think without prejudice. But you can’t learn anything new with prejudice. Sometimes you get so much new information you just have to let go of everything and rebundle.
I think there is a lot going on in poetry in America right now, big freaking conversations are starting about black people and about girls. There’s a lot going on in America right now about money, and unions, and women’s reproductive rights. And there is a lot going on the world.
Emily barely mentioned the Civil War, and gets away with it because she’s such a humble sphinx, but the rest of us have to do our part, I think. So. Arab world. Rise Up! I’m Jewish, so I was raised nervous about you, but when I stay calm I have many interesting conversations. Good people right now are daring to dream that it might be okay to speak and what I’m hearing rocks: Three Egyptian twelve-year-old girls confront a microphone and the standard kid’s question and here are their answers: “I? A scientist” “I want to be a doctor” “I will be computer engineer.” Yes. That is all I am saying. Yes, yes, yes.
As for our own culture, we are making some beautiful progress people. Think about what happened to Oscar Wilde. His world was smashingly civilized in some ways, civilized means life in cities (which you can only do when you are sophisticated enough to do business, so that many can live far from farms), but by feel, civilized means how many forks do you have on your dinner party table. The European late 19th was civilized to the hilt (yes I’m making a dueling joke), but they made Salome’s wordsmith break rocks for his love of cox. That socks. We on the other hand are changing marriage. It is very good. We may not carry walking sticks but we don’t jail our greatest playwrights over with whom they want to lock lips.
Amy Lawless’s post here is great, if you already read it go read it again. Couldn’t we make Amy Lawless minister of something? I swear she is being squandered by the universe. But at least not by me. I am taking due notice and enjoying every word of her.
But then there’s the whole Claudia Rankine v. Tony Hoagland racism in poetry and geezuz, he wrote a racist poem and it sucks. (The poem in question. Discussion on Harriet, Discussion on another blog, WSATA) Can we start there? That part is no longer up for debate. I have a Ph.D. in thinking about shit like this and I’m telling you the poem is racist.*
* I have a PhD in the history of science (Columbia University, 1995) with a particular interest in the history of race science. I have an award-winning book that is about race science (among other things), I have contributed chapters to books on race (such as Science, Race, and Ethnicity, University of Chicago, 2002), have written frequently cited articles on race in peer reviewed journals (for instance), have taught courses about race, and have taken part in international conferences on race at MIT and elsewhere.
If you are having trouble telling the difference between productive “honest talk” and just plain being nasty, there are a few ways to check. If you are Jewish or African-American, and talking about Arabs, see how your insightful observation feels after you switch your proper nouns. The truth is, even if you are a white man you may have been sufficiently sensitized to bad talk about Jewish people so that the trick will work for you too. If not, try this: when talking about your feeling uncomfortable seeing Arab garb on someone on an airplane with you, consider whether you would say to a group of white men that you were in a bank when a Black guy walked in and you started to feel nervous. To say such a thing would mean a few things about you. It would mean that you are prejudiced against Black people, but it would also betray a shocking naiveté. Do you seriously get out so little that you haven’t gotten used to seeing a Black person? And you haven’t met enough Black people to know that they have the full range of personalities, just like Polish-Italian American, or whatever it is you are? Furthermore, saying such a thing, without prefacing it with, “I’m getting therapy for this because I know it is insanely irrational,” shows you to be socially inept, because whether or not you feel this way, you ought to know that if you feel this way it is your problem and you shouldn’t ruin other people’s day by vomiting up all your nastiness in the public space. Morally bad poetry sting/ks and will disappear on its own, but the conversation definitely seems worth having.
What I most want to say is that not all white people think and feel the way described in Hoagland’s “The Change.” It isn’t just that I wouldn’t say these things if I did feel them (though I wouldn’t). It is that I don’t feel them. Faced with a tennis match between a white girl and a black one, my sense of tribal unity would either be nonexistent, or bounce back and forth like the ball on a good volley, or in the setup Hoagland gives us, side with the American. Hoagland sees that there is something self-hating about his preference for the European over the Alabama girl.
Next, there is something both racist and sexist in the description of one woman as tough, little, and blond, while the one called out as less-appealing is big, dark, and outrageous. To call a woman big, even if it is patently true, may hurt feelings in a similar magnitude to calling a man small, even if (especially if) it is patently true. It is, at best, unfriendly.
For a man almost named hog-land to call Venus Williams’s name outrageous, and to utterly misquote the name (an insult tactic lifted right from classic racist Archie Bunker) and to then call the name outrageous, is grossly unkind. To call out her cornrowed hair in a list of her unappealing attributes is unkind to many. So is calling her bracelets “Zulu bangles.”
The way you parse tribes is very different to the way I do, when I do. Why do you not feel kinship with your American kin? You are smart enough, educated enough, and sufficiently aware of your surroundings, that you should have sought help for this problem of yours.
The poem then repeats these cruelties, saying its speaker sides with the white girl “because the black girl was so big and so black, so unintimidated…” It explains its dislike with violent images, from the “whacked” ball to the woman “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation down Abraham Lincoln’s throat, like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.” This is sexual violence, a mix of fear and titillation. The sexual language continues with smelling breath, touching a flank, “kicked her ass good,” and “thumped her once more.” Hoagland is himself, I suppose, reflected in “the little pink judge,” and they are assumed to have the same thoughts and feelings about all this, only the judge forces himself to fake a smile. There is an echo of the lynch as the judge climbs up to put the ribbon on her neck.
As I suggested above, if you want to speak candidly about such feelings, you can, but you have to provide context showing that you know that the problem is yours. Titling the piece “A Poem for My Shrink” would go a long way. Let’s face it though: Even with such a disclaiming title, writing poems about your discomfort with the triumph of the Jews, for instance, is just not kosher. When the Jews write and ask you what you were thinking, it doesn’t solve anything to answer by saying you wrote the poem for Christians.
There is a lot more to say about this, most crucially about the fact that most brown people are still much worse off financially than whites, they have worse mortality rates, less health care, suffer daily prejudices, and so it is morally twisted to single out the marker of “change” as about the tennis experience of well-dressed bleach-white people on the bleachers. All I’m saying is that the poem is no good. I’m not assuming the poem is Hoagland’s true feelings, or that he himself is a racist. I’m just saying the poem makes me want to say Shut the hell up.
I can’t tell you how many associations - that might well have helped my career - that I have retreated from because the sexism and racism made the whole thing lame, so I just left. Stay and make it better often makes no sense, for me, because being there makes me feel miserable and life is already hard enough. But you have to take a stand somewhere.
Anyway, I came here to talk about Emily Dickinson’s letters. In 1854 she wrote to Sue, her future sister-in-law, “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.”
Well now, as usual, I’ve gone on and am out of time. I was paleontologizing and paleontologizing and eventually I uncovered the fact that all I wanted to do was sit next to you for a spell and watch the sky go from blue to bluer. You never know who you are talking to, which means you always do. I do anyway. I am talking to my secret friend.
I love you. I know it is hard to be one of you under these outrageous circumstances, but look at it this way, at least our damage has given us a story and the prejudices against us have given us a common adventure.
Check out Firefly if you haven't already. Are you watching Portlandia? I am loving it. I am loving all of it, but one thing that makes me squirm impressively is Carrie Brownstein in drag. She plays such an awful tough. Reminds me of Sarah Silverman in drag. (see the wallpaper upper right hand corner? also, watch that insane little video) Same mustache, same ruthless demeanor. I'd love to see a love scene staring those two in drag. Is that wrong?
Also, a quick shout to this recent BAP post on the great Shelley Jackson's Skin project. Girl is a badass. Also, you should be entertaining yourself over at Hilobrow.
In 1862 ED wrote “Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can’t stop for that! My business is to love.” Alas, so is mine. Do not kill yourself and I shall return to encourage you again. Don't forget to lip and telegraph.
ps. In the photo above, your humble poet gives over her trust to the next generation and is rewarded with a slice of apple. Delicious!