by Annie Wyman
I. The Existential Barf
The only free seat on the bus is by a sullen boy who doesn’t turn his face away from the window as I slump down next to him. His Converses are dirty. As I shove my bag beneath my seat he scoots his feet out of the way and the phrase F*CK U 2 catches my eye, markered in black on one of his outsoles.
The bus lurches forward, and despite my exhaustion and the boy’s smell and his surliness I find myself thinking, I like you, kid, I like your style. I mean, F*CK? That’s almost charming.
The bus picks up speed. I press my forehead to the seat in front of me, sweating into its rainbow upholstery, and I relax, which means I let myself glower. I am unembarrassed to do this because 1) I am, like I said, exhausted and it’s hot and 2) I figure that this kid will understand me. Together he and I can fill up this whole row with our vague unhappinesses, all the way from Albany to Saratoga, and it will be great. He stares out the window. I stare at the floor.
Yo. Kid, (I am thinking this at the kid—this is something I believe most people do, this thinking things at other people, on buses and in grocery stores and across restaurants and sometimes oceans). Yo Adam or Stephen or Eric, or whatever, I, too, have dark secrets and longings which may not be exactly the same as yours in the particulars but in a general sense must be similar, given your shoes and my chapped lips, which are bleeding because I have been biting them. You see, I bite when I am nervous, and when I am sad. You and me, Stephen, we should be friends.
Then I think, more to myself than to the kid:
Maybe everybody should just be friends.
This last conclusion strikes my sleepstarved brain as perhaps genius and even makes my heart lift a little and I want to look at Eric or Adam and tell him about it out loud, for real, but fortunately I don’t because at that moment something in my stomach ripples and clenches and I nearly puke.
I swallow this back—this psychic nausea, this existential seasickness incarnated as barf (I’d say it might be something like plain old carsickness from staring at the bus floor mixed with lingering airsickness and far too much Diet Coke with those terrific rings of ice in it you can stick your tongue through and which you can pretty much only get on AA flights, but life is never so simple) and as I swallow back this barf I think about when I was in the sixth grade and I got a pair of Airwalks, real skater’s shoes.
I mean, Stephen, Eric, whoever, there was this boy in my class who had Airwalks, I mean, he could ollie, and he was from Chicago, and his name was Ryan and he was hott.
I etched SUBLIME into the toes of my very own Airwalks shoes with a ballpoint to make them cooler. Sublime was a cool band, and they played a song that had my name in it and I knew the hott boy liked that song especially and at the time I don’t think it mattered to me that it was a song about a prostitute.
With my head bent like this, smushed up against the seatback in front of me, the only objects in my field of vision are my feet and his. My contact lenses are stuck to my eyeballs with a thin layer of blear. My mouth tastes of bile and ash. I am far too miserable to distract myself from my misery with my journal or a book, and my iPod exploded back in San Francisco two days before this trip. As we jolt to a halt at a stop sign another wave of something icky starts to rise.
And then I notice that the boy’s shoes are identical, which they should surely not be, and the patches are attached to the canvas with a neat machine stitch. The graffiti is silkscreen. There’s no way that even handwriting is the boy’s own, which means it is a f*cking font. A patch reads FASHION SUX up the outside of his left foot; another reads FASHION SUX up the outside right.
For a second I feel worse, and then I feel numb. The boy’s nose is now against the window. We pass a sign that says Welcome on our way out of town. We’ve made it to the country, and the highway runs upside the treeline.
Hey kid, it’s okay. I never learned to skateboard. I wore my Airwalks twice, and then I stopped wearing them because it was too weird a thing for a girl at my school to do, and because I was ashamed each time I laced them, very ashamed and afraid, not of what the hott boy might think but because those shoes were a reminder that I had no idea who I was. And as long as I didn’t know that, there would be no friendships and no boyfriends and no fitting in.
II. This is Saratoga Springs
This bus ride marks my arrival in upstate New York, where I will spend my time in a poetry workshop at Skidmore College, run by the New York State Writers Institute, which I will go ahead and say right now is prestigious and which famous authors go to. The students here are of all ages, from twenty-or-so and school-age on up to sixty and professional—in short, it’s a smallish gathering of people who have made and are trying to make writing their life, and like many of these gatherings, you can pay to go to it, too.
This bus ride of mine takes forty minutes. I’m dropped off outside the Adirondack Trailways / Greyhound bus depot, a portable building in a parking lot attached to a coffee shop with a plaster horse bolted to its roof. As I exit the bus, I smash a man’s seeing-eye dog across the skull with my messenger bag.
His wife is seated across the aisle; she has a seeing eye-dog, too. The couple got on about fifteen minutes ago, but I was half-asleep then, so by the time I notice they have animals I shouldn’t but could probably pet I’ve already nearly killed one. The poor thing doesn’t even yelp as I bash it—so well-trained, and so stoic. The woman smiles in my direction as I wish the driver a pleasant afternoon.
In the sunlight I shove myself onto the base of a lamppost and stretch out my legs atop my suitcase and call 411 for a cab.
My wallet is empty and I’m hungry and my cell phone is almost dead, and so I’m happy when the blue Crown Victoria arrives, though it stops eighty feet from where I’m standing, all the way at the other end of the deserted parking lot. The driver waves through the windshield and I lug my shit over.
The driver uses one arm to rock himself out of the cab. He is enormous. Everywhere I look—each of his arms, his thighs, his breasts, there is enough mounded meat to make an average big man’s belly. A feathery orange beard covers his cheeks. Its growth begins almost at the corners of his eyes. He wears a thin greasegray polo and a pair of aviator glasses with orange rims.
He helps with my bag. The lock is busted off my door. The back seat moans and I fasten my seatbelt.
We turn up Broadway, Saratoga’s main drag. We pass a few coffeeshops: Mrs. London’s (when I venture in, later in the week, I find tea cozies and floral wallpaper), Uncommon Grounds (a nice place that has a subpar cucumber wasabi dressing), and a place called The Circus Cafe (the hostess’s stand reads Step Right Up in crimson lettering) vying for al fresco space with larger restaurants. The shop windows are crammed with sundresses and riding crops.
Gaudy plaster racehorses appear on both sides of Broadway, their hooves bolted to the sidewalk. One is covered with a mosaic of mashed-up disco ball, one saddled with flattened Pepsi boxes. One is wearing kneesocks, another an American flag. This, I can assume with only 98% accuracy, is Saratoga Springs’ version of the Chicago Cow Parade. But Saratoga is almost exactly 100 times smaller than Chicago, really freaking tiny, and so there are about four ponies on every block and they appear not at all serendipitous or whimsical but as a kind of kitschy equine infestation. Near the bank I see that one statue has been painted with a brick and mortar pattern up to its haunches, stucco above—camouflaged against the building behind it as though it were embarrassed to be seen.
Saratoga Springs is home to the oldest racetrack in the country, and at the end of July, the town will triple in size and quintuple in wealth. I’ll miss the racing season, since it opens at the end of July, but the sidewalks are already bustling with otherwise well-dressed women wearing Bjørn sandals, plus husbands, plus townies, who are standing around the way townies do, as if you’re a total assh*le for not also standing around.
The driver asks me if I’ve ever been to Saratoga before, how long I’m staying, hands me a little stack of homemade inkjet printer business cards and dictates to me the number for a 24-hour-service company since he likes to be off the road at six. We pass a few blocks of elaborately-banistered Victorian mansions the size of elementary schools.
“The problem with the campus,” says the driver, “is that it’s up here in the projects.”
“Ha-ha,” I say.
III. Exhaustion, Discomfort, Meanness, Gravy
In actuality, the problem with the campus is that it’s up here in the boonies, and it’s tiny. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do, unless you want to hop the trolley into town (the problem with the trolley is that it’s just a truck, with the body of a trolley welded atop it).
I get out of the cab at Case College Center, Skidmore’s atherosclerotic stucco heart. The Case Center houses a post office, a souvenir and bookshop, a café, a common-use computer area, and a downstairs lounge area called the SPA, where every evening the Summer Writers Institute hosts its author receptions.
I pick up my key at the housing registration desk on the second floor. The boy who takes my picture for my ID card is barefoot (outside the Case Center there is a motto etched into the sidewalk: We Value Creative Thought, which puts me in mind of primary-colored crayons, and then I imagine the kid and his three dozen classmates dancing barefoot across this motto, smearing themselves with organic poster paints and totally out of their minds with huffing said paints, and maybe also hasish. I’m exhausted, and uncomfortable, and thus unequivocally cruel). I am living in Wiecking Hall, also called Skidmore Hall, three stories of brick stacked into a horseshoe in the bottom-left corner of the parking lot. I drop off my bag.
It’s 3:47pm. I am three hours and forty-seven minutes late, having promised the program director I would be in by noon so as not to miss my first class. This was during negotiations, when I bargained my way into arriving an entire day after we were instructed to (I didn’t want to miss a party for a roommate back home, though the emailed excuse was “family emergency”). I make my way back through the parking lot past the Case Center to the college green. I am looking for Palamountain Hall, where I will check in with the NYSWI, and it takes me a while to find it despite the fact that there are four (4) buildings to choose from. A sheet of ivy covers one side of the building, completely obscuring all of the giant iron nameplate except half of the A, the I, and the N.
I make my way to the NYSWI offices, a shared suite also occupied by Salmagundi, one of the most respected institutional literary journals in America (later, I will find that one of my fellow interns in San Francisco is an editorial assistant at Salmagundi, but she’s not even in California anymore, having left for New York City to work in her cousin’s bathing suit showroom). In the offices I meet Marc Woodworth, a nice man in shorts and square-rimmed glasses. He hands me a yellow folder, which contains my schedule for the next two weeks.
There are around three hundred students here, and we’re split up into fiction, poetry and nonfiction workshops that run two weeks each. We get individual conferences with institute faculty, private tutorials if we want them, plus readings. I’m here because I want to work with Campbell McGrath, a well-respected poet with a no-nonsense reputation, a formalist whose work I admire. I have some vague hope, like many of the other students, that my teacher will beat or scare some of my own poetry out of me.
Then Marc and I are off down the hall to my classroom, where Campbell has already been teaching for three hours. I can hear him through the door—and it’s a thick door. Marc asks if I want to go ahead and go in.
“I think I’ll wait until he’s finished,” I tell him, assuming it won’t be long since Campbell’s supposed to have finished ten minutes ago. Marc smiles at me and wishes me well and disappears off again down the hall.
I wander up and down the corridor. I notice the Coke machine takes credit cards. I wash my hands in the bathroom. I leaf through my folder—it contains a few poems and a schedule of the twenty-five readings to be held over the next thirty days, thirteen of which I’ll catch. When the door to Room 00382 (I wonder, and still have not verified, if there are ten thousand rooms in Skidmore’s four buildings) opens at last and a gingery sharpboned person emerges, followed by a flock of people with yellow folders.
Campbell McGrath, I want to say, but the words die in my throat as the bunch of them pushes by me back toward the program offices. Campbell’s showing everyone where to turn in their assignments, the plywood boxes bolted to the walls. I join the crowd, without really knowing what else to do but as soon as he’s finished I stick out my hand and say my name. He’s already guessed why I latched on to his tour and motions me into the classroom to give me the day’s assignment and a rundown.
Afterwards, I buy a salad at the Case Center and sit on the back porch to smoke and work on my stuff for Wednesday. Grade-schoolers, gifted students here through a Johns-Hopkins program, are arranged over fully half of the college green. They are reading, all forty or so of them, lying on their stomachs under the trees, and their silence is flabbergasting. They seem so serious, so earnest. As for me, fresh off a flight I pushed back a day because I wanted to get drunk and make fun of the other drunk people dancing in my apartment while sure as hell not dancing myself—well, serious I am probably not.
I’ve been at my writing for about an hour when a friend wanders by. Steven, from school, who’s here to study fiction on the four-week program.
Steven! I am happy to see him, and he sticks out one arm for a sidewise hug and drops down next to me. He introduces Alicia, another Stanford graduate in his workshop, and we shoot the breeze. After about an hour we head to the dining hall, where I buy yet another salad and steal Steven a piece of chicken because he’s living off campus and doesn’t pay board and can’t sneak past the sour woman who swipes our ID cards. Alicia brings him some pork and they have an in-depth conversation about the gravy.
I mean, I think this is great and engaging and all, but I beg off after a while and go to my dorm to take a shower. I’ve been without sleep for about thirty-one hours, bounced from BART to red-eye to layover to the terrifying turbulent shudder of a miniscule commuter jet to the Adirondack Trailways to the cab (consulting a card now, that excellent one-man outfit is called Geyser Taxi) to campus.
IV. The Word I’m Looking for is Faker
The New York Summer Writers Institute is run by the department of English at Skidmore—for the most part, its administrators are the editors of Salmagundi—and a program also called the NYSWI at the state university at Albany. I have already met Marc Woodworth, and I will not meet the other directors, Bob and Peggy Boyers, though I will see them a hundred times over the next two weeks. They seem indefatigable and energetic and surprisingly loving, which is maybe what makes me keep my distance. Clear-eyed people are dangerous, and what I am most afraid of at this moment is some smart person seeing through me.
Though I long for the comfort of my Wiecking dorm bed, which earlier appeared to be a narrow slab unencumbered by any such thing as a mattress, plus one pillow, one thin blanket and sheets half a foot too short to cover the plastic beneath, there is a reading tonight. There’s a reading every night, in fact. So off to Davis Auditorium in Palamountain, where at first I attempt to sit next to a writer named Kathryn Harrison in the front row. She’ll be reading second tonight, and the idea of such sudden proximity to such relative celebrity lifts my heart. But then Kathryn Harrison looks me up and down and tells me to go sit somewhere else. My cheeks redden. Excuse me, I want to tell her. but the auditorium is full. I was motioned down here by the usher. Then Steven waves to me from a higher row and pulls his jacket off the seat next to him. “Saved it,” he says, as I drop down into the chair.
Our first reader is the Pulitzer prize-winning music critic and poet and public radio personality Lloyd Schwartz. Bob Boyers, long of skull and ponytail, reads a two-page introduction to the life and times of Lloyd Schwartz. It is a lovefest, an enthusiastic, intelligent if orgiastic torrent of praise. None of it registers. I am already half asleep.
Schwartz reads a string of poems. He certainly is fun-loving, waving his arms about and brushing his wave of grayish hair off his forehead with gusto. He is unstinting with the anecdotes and the radio voice. I find most of his poems precious, especially one sestina—all far too twee, too skittish to stare down any real emotional truth. But he gives me one line I can’t shake out of my head:
It’s like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder.
Kathryn Harrison is next. She is a memoirist, and she has things to say about her father, but I am too exhausted to pay much attention, my head by this point lolling against my chest and against Steven’s shoulder. He jabs me twice in the ribcage to no effect—I am so tired it feels more like he is prodding me gently toward some soft land of sleep.
I doze off and wake up and then most of the audience and the readers are off to the lounge in the Case Center for beer and plastic cups of wine and cheese cubes and broccoli with ranch dip and conversation about books.
Here I meet Brendan, a wide-eyed sophomore from the area who’s in workshop with Alicia and Steven. We sit at a table together. Brendan is sweet and wants to know why their group doesn’t talk more about plot construction, a subject on which he has read several books. Steven and I will laugh about this later, though in the moment I envy him and feel bad I haven’t read anything about plot and know that the problem with my stories is that nothing ever happens in them.
This seemed like, at one point, a good reason to study poetry and to try and write that instead. Plus the other problem with my stories is that I can’t give up “poetic language.”
Unfortunately, the poem I write for the second day of workshop earns me this response (though not from Campbell, not quite yet): I was thinking about your debt to prosody. This stings me badly, even as I try to make the point that he has misused that last word. He has, but I know exactly what he meant.
Who the hell do I think I am, I thought then, and think again at the table with Steven and Alicia and Brendan with his plot-talk. I am a person with dubious feelings about the study of creative writing who majors in fiction and then goes to poetry camp because she hasn’t done so well with fiction in the first place.
I fold my hands on the tabletop and try to make some lighthearted chit-chat with my friends to make myself feel better. They seem happy to be here, after all.
“Bob Boyers,” I say, “has his nose pretty close to some buttholes.”
Oh my God what is this I have said! I am horrified at myself. Steven laughs a little, very politely, and Alicia follows suit.
I try again.
“I can’t believe we just talked about Chekhov.” (Which is in fact what we talked about on the way to cheese cubes and broccoli.) “I hate myself.”
“Yeah,” says Alicia, “but I like Chekhov. That little dog lady story.”
“Duh,” I say. “I mean, that’s his best one.”
I’ve read this story, and I can’t remember when. And I’ve heard Francine Prose talk about this story, as have many other people in cities she hit on her book tour. I remember Francine very vividly, and how her fingers tensed on the edge of the podium as she talked about the old Russian master and his story. It is for sure a wonderful story. There’s a little dog, and a lady, who is maybe also little. On second thought, I haven’t read it, but I don’t bother to tell Alicia that.
As I trudge back to Wiecking, I wonder—is there a word for people like me?
V. Student Platinum Visa
Two days later, a Wednesday, I find myself in Campbell’s class for the first time. Everyone else did introductions Monday, and Campbell asks me to say a bit about myself. Airwalks, I think at him, but the thought seems to misfire, missing him completely to float somewhere at the front of the classroom, distracting me while I mumble my response—though there already are many things to be embarrassed about in Who I Am:
1) I go to Stanford, a tech school, an elite/elitist school, which means I’ve chosen to go somewhere that doesn’t value Art and creative expression, like, oh, say, Skidmore.
2) At Stanford I study creative writing, which sometimes feels really stupid because I’m taking workshop classes in lieu of learning as much as humanly possible about the history of my country or other people’s countries or reading Tolstoy or Levi-Strauss or how this miracle of a galaxy balances in its nothingness.
3) In the Stanford creative writing program my official emphasis is fiction and not poetry, the allegation being that I’m doing it because fiction writing is more glamorous and more profitable.
I could go on, but I won’t, because honestly, I am tired and embarrassed again. Even as I write this I lose track of myself in my attempt to defend my curriculum vitae, to pick just the right details and say them just offhandedly enough to assure everyone that I’ve considered all the things I could be doing and have chosen something better than everyone else. And I’m never sure if I’m defending myself from others—whose allegations are these?—or from the convulsions of my own insecurity.
As we read other students’ work over the next three hours I offer a sentence here and there, mostly nitpicking someone’s choice of words, a line break or something—easy criticism in the service of finding one’s place by being mean (and today I’m not even that tired). I look Campbell in the eye precisely once.
Later that afternoon Steven and I head to town and seek out a used bookstore. I spend an hour in front of the wall of first editions. I buy my third copy of A Separate Peace, a second printing.
A Separate Peace is one of my favorite novels. The narrator, Gene, attends a prep school during World War II. At school he suffers the death of his best friend, Phineas, a true golden boy, an athlete, a tree-climber, etc. What wrings my heart in the book is not the idea or fact of death but that unto death Gene cannot negotiate friendship and ambition, jealously, self-consciousness, even platonic love. That for Phineas and Gene want and doubt and youthfulness can slay so much.
The second copy of A Separate Peace I bought cost me two dollars in a Half-Price Books in Dallas. It was a great find, inscribed on the flyleaf by Knowles to a boy named Warren: “I bet you are just like Phineas.”
My heart thrilled for Warren, and I wanted to know him, though he was probably an oldish man by then. You know, Warren, I’ve always thought I was just like Gene.
One of the blurbs on my new copy, from a magazine I’ve never heard of, reads, “Is he the successor to Salinger for whom we have been waiting so long?”
Knowles didn’t ever quite live up to that, at least not to most critics. He did for me. And anyway, that kind of yearning—for the real stories and their tellers, does infect, me, and it’s partially Knowles’s fault. Maybe it’s more intense here because I feel hollow, and have always felt a little hollow around writers. But oh my God it is wonderful, this shimmering shifting hunger.
As usual, today I combine that hunger with the need to consume, and I take out my Bank of America Student Platinum Visa and think about stacking this book with all my others.
But as I hold it in my hand, even as I know it is not good to buy things to make yourself feel better, especially books, since they are Art, and I am cheapening them, I also know that if I can think I am just like Gene, like Someone—well, at least that isn’t No One, and that can numb the doubt for a while.
VI. Dining Halls, and an Analogy
The Johns-Hopkins kids are always wandering around talking about unified field theory. On my second day, several of them are dressed in drag, though at first I don’t notice so much that the girls are doing it. They look like I looked when I was a Gifted Kid, shapeless jean shorts and baggy t-shirts, sneakers and crew socks. I walk behind a handful of little boys on my way to dinner one evening. One boy ventures an opinion on what sounds to me like “a burrito-shaped infinite galaxy.”
One of his friends shakes his head.
“I don’t want to say anything is impossible, but that?”
He is wearing a beautiful red bra strapped across his skinny ribcage.
I eat all my meals in the Skidmore Dining Hall. The Johns-Hopkins kids are always everywhere, clamoring at the pizza counter and throwing saltshakers at each other in the booths.
Sylphs, their hair drawn up buns and doughnuts and even what seem to be croissants atop their heads, spill waffle batter at the do-it-yourself breakfast stand. They’re ballerinas, aged six to seventeen; Skidmore has a summer dance camp, the Briansky Saratoga Ballet. Instructors are here from the Kirov, from the New York City Ballet, and from the Paris Opera. In four days a principal from the New York company, which has its summer home in Saratoga, will be busted for cocaine possession in a parking lot on Broadway.
I eat all my meals alone, always at the same booth by the window, sometimes with a book by Milan Füst and sometimes with my laptop. One morning, I overhear a ten-year-old say, “Oh yeah? I went to sleep at like twelve. I was texting this girl.”
(Should I digress at this moment to discuss the surge of indignation and mild disgust I feel overhearing this little boy talk about his texting? To have my concentration broken yet again by the chatter of pre-adolescents—bragging, arguing, circling each other on their socio-sexual training wheels—when I’m trying to work on a poem I know will be shitty if I don’t spend every minute I have on it?
Should I then make a little analogy, to the way the writing students here circle each other, how one woman, maybe thirty, has already established herself as queen of our class and is always holding the hand of a mildly cute MFA student and sharing his cigarettes, and how she complains that Campbell doesn’t listen to her because she’s a woman, and how she’s written one mean poem for workshop already, one that chastised other people in our class for “walking about like they’s hot soup” and informed them that she hoped that the “door does hit them on the ass on their way out” (lines 2, 13).
Should I say, in my analogy, that I actually felt excluded when Caroline read that, being acutely aware of my status as f*ker, like her door was aimed at my ass, and that maybe I resent the texting kid because if I had had a cellphone at age ten there would have been no little boy to send me messages on it, except for maybe wee Thomas Weatherford, who only wanted to be my friend and I mean wee when I say it because the only thing I remember him ever talking about was how it felt super to pee in the pool.
Could I then extend that analogy, to the way that Kathryn Harrison eats in the cafeteria, like me, though I rarely ever see another instructor or even adult students here, and that she always sits alone, like me? Is life that simple? Probably not.)
The food in the cafeteria is actually pretty good.
VII. The Predicament, and the Grace
More readings, more receptions. Frank Bidart, who thumps his chest and gestures up to the last row and beyond that to an empty heaven somewhere above, on the other side of the Palamountain ceiling. Michael Ondaatje—another of my heroes—who has a lot of funny hairs growing out of his face. Russell Banks, who wears a little diamond earring and boots and loses his car keys.
At the reception for Mary Gordon, Alicia flashes a polite smile at Matt, who is carrying an empty Heineken bottle and a nearly full Michelob Ultra. He seats himself at our table, slumping over it and placing his chin in his hands. He’s in Steven and Alicia’s workshop. He has a buzz, coarse skin, round glasses and a flat nose, the knuckles of a bruiser and a big thick build. The conversation runs the usual course—what’d you think of Mary Gordon, wasn’t it crowded, where are you from.
Matt says, Good, yes, from Salt Lake, where I’m in an MFA program. I tune out immediately, already having proven myself as no good at conversation. I stick my face in Pax Atomica, Campbell’s latest book.
How else to convey a sense of the predicament?
How else to envision grace?
After Matt leaves the table, Alicia tells me Matt used to be a Mormon but he left the flock when he was accused of homosexuality and told to stop spending time with his Scout Troop to avoid the unnatural temptations of sleeping bag and sing-a-long.
Campbell wanders by. He has a sort of speedy slouch and ducks his head frequently, but when he says, “Hi, Annie,” I’m pretty sure he’s ducked that head at me.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m reading your book.” This last pops out of my mouth as if I’ve just been heimliched.
“Good,” says Campbell, and slouches off sideways into the crowd, the collar of his windbreaker pulled up tight against his neck.
After the receptions Steven and Alicia and Brendan and I sometimes go back to Steven’s apartment to watch a movie. He’s renting a place, since he’ll be here a whole month, and it’s a nice break to leave campus, to have Oreos instead of cubes of cheese on toothpicks.
One night we watch Short Bus and then Alicia gives me a ride back. For whatever reason, we started the movie late, and now it’s almost one in the morning.
I hop out of the car. There is a woman sitting on the one dry bench below the side entrance to Wiecking Hall. As my luck would have it, she is smoking, and as Alicia’s Beamer pulls away I ask her for a light.
“Well, sure,” she says. Her voice is low and her neck very thick. “I was just hoping someone else would be up.” She reaches out a sluggish arm and offers me a matchbook.
It’s unfair to say that an unmodulated voice is frightening, inhuman, that monotone speech puts one in mind of the disassociated and then, a heartbeat later, the psychopathic. It is indeed unfair, but in this moment, hearing this woman speak, I am very, very frightened.
“Yeah,” I say, taking her matchbook and striking one. I slip my foot out of my sandal and pat it around on the cement. This is a nervous habit, and usually it keeps me from running away from people.
“I’m Jean,” says the woman, and slicks back a strip of bang that has fallen across her forehead.
“Yeah,” I say. I don’t even think to offer my name but instead hold a mouthful of smoke on my tongue, patting my foot, nodding, anything to keep my cool—and fortunately Jean keeps talking, in that low, rolling Buffalo Bill tone of hers.
Jean, I learn, is in Frank Bidart’s master class. Three days a week they—the elite seventeen—workshop a poem each. Their sessions can last five hours. Jean has a poem due at eleven tomorrow and she is stuck.
I manage to ask her some questions. Jean started writing five years ago, she says, when she was thirty-five. One of her astrologers in Tucson, or Scottsdale, she doesn’t remember, told her to announce herself as a poet.
“So I wrote one poem, you know, a year, for like five years, and then I came here, and that’s how it all started.”
But how, I ask her.
“It came to me as a gift. I took a pen and I had a piece of paper and it just came out.” She makes a noise like a gentle fart with her mouth, which must be the sound of poems just coming out.
We talk a little bit about where I’m from. Texas, I say, but I live in San Francisco. I want to stay there and write. I went to New York and I didn’t like it so much. Jean is from Greenwich, Connecticut, but now she lives somewhere further south than that, with her boyfriend, and doesn’t specify where. She asks me for one of my cigarettes, angling her chin at the shiny red package poking out of my bag.
“I haven’t had a Dunhill since I was in London,” says Jean, “because I couldn’t get Marlboros. I haven’t had a Dunhill since 1975, since before you were born.”
I am infinitely pleased by this, the way she says it, that she’s been to London. Me, too! I want to say. And recently! I lie to Jean about having Dunhills because a friend gave them to me as a special treat. I bought myself these Dunhills because other people like them. Because they want them, and because they act impressed when I have them.
“What sort of poetry do you write?” I ask, looking her in the eyes. She is wearing black liner on her lower lids, and despite the late hour she looks fresh. Her hair is cut very short. I am no longer frightened, and even approving—because I can convince myself that she approves of me.
“I’m working towards a sort of prophetic poetry,” Jean says. “I have this sense of an ominous future coming. I write about political things, too—stuff that I have first hand experience of. Immigration. That kind of political stuff. Addiction. Violence.”
She peers at me from under her bangs.
“Miami,” she says. It seems she has remembered where she is now living, a few minutes after that question has passed.
I nod, like it’s nothing, like this is every night of my life. I’m shivering—the long sweater I’m wearing, one that zips up at the neck, still leaves my legs bare under my dress and my sandals as I flex my feet under the straps are damp from the grass. It’s the Fourth of July and it was rainy all day.
“I can do deep mediation. I can just do it, and I write about what I see in a planetary way. It’s my background in philosophy and theology, you know, I went to McGill. It’s the way I have of seeing.”
I tell her I am hesitating, that I can’t figure out what I’m doing, that I’m used to writing stories and that I am shocked as shit that people can declare themselves as poets. That I admire that more than anything in the world and that the word poet is the one I want more than any other word.
Jean tilts her head.
“If you go to France, and you say, I’m a poet they say, read me something. Not here. They want to know if you’re published. Do you have a professorship.”
I borrow another match. A Skidmore campus security SUV inches up out of the trees to the curb.
“Oh, here he comes,” says Jean. “Does this guy want to chat?”
Of course he wants to chat. Jean makes incredibly adept small talk with the man, and before I can finish another smoke he is gone.
An hour later, I leave Jean on the stairs—she’s on the second floor of Wiecking, while I am on the third—and she tells me, “Usually, I can pray myself to sleep. But even that, I mean—tonight even that isn’t working.”
VIII. His Voice in My Ear on a Busy City Street
Oh my God I have to get out of here.
On Saturday morning I leave for New York City. A weekend trip! Though my mood is black, in workshop I’ve been doing better, since a burgeoning but mostly unacknowledged fear of Campbell—you could also call it respect—has had me up until three each morning. This one, he told me, in a one-on-one meeting, pointing at a poem I thought was my strongest. I don’t even get what this one is. What is this?
I blush and squirm. Inside, I am angry and ashamed. I don’t know, Campbell. You’re the MacArthur Fellow. You write wonderful books. I think about my shoes a lot.
But pressure is one way to make the words come, pressure and the fear of embarrassment, and sometimes that’s what I need—an audience to perform for, to make me sit up straight and write. Maybe that’s what workshop is good for, especially programs like this one—“the gulag,” Jean called it, with its impossible deadlines and the kind of fellow students who sometimes bellow, “NEVER USE THE WORD BECAUSE IN A POEM.” But for now I need a break because my head is going to explode.
The man from Geyser Taxi takes me to the Saratoga Amtrak station. My train is half an hour late, which is fine since I can buy a Pepsi and sit in the sunshine and just chill out for the first time in one hundred and thirty-three hours.
My train takes me along the Hudson, the stumpy New England foliage and the mud of the river interrupted by dying industrial towns and streaks of obscenely red berries in the underbrush. When we slow, pulling into Schenectady and Poughkeepsie, I find these berries grow in horrible fat cones, the only color in the landscape clustered crudely into what I can only describe as the botanical incarnation of a thousand middle fingers, a thousand protruding tongues—oh my God poetry is ruining me I have to get out of here.
I have plans to meet up with a friend from high school. At Penn Station I transfer to the subway. I get off the F at Second and Bowery, emerging at last from beneath the city. I shake my head in the warm evening air. Manhattan! Lower East Side! This is better than fancy cigarettes. I know this neighborhood. I used to worry about the streetslime crawling up the hems of my jeans as I walked through the Asian market on my way to work just up the block—oh, that ubiquitous Grand Street goo, redolent of lychee and fisheye, pounded into the asphalt by twenty-four-hour pedestrian traffic. I make a phone call and wait on the sidewalk, my face pointed in the direction from which I think my friend will come.
He’s snuck up from behind me. I fling my arms around him, despite my bags, despite my sweat and his, and find my check stuck against the side of his head, my eyelashes touching the upper rim of his ear. His hair is blond and tufted and its smell is familiar, a lemoniness that cuts through even the Lower East Side’s metropolitan reek.
IX. Luxurious Ass-Print, or, “I’m not afraid of who I am.”
After a few minutes of chit-chat in Gardner’s apartment, his roommates arrive. They’re huffing and puffing, and they haul up the stairs between them four or so square feet of plasma flatscreen television. They pause to shake my hand—Parry, who works at Morgan Stanley, and Ian, who is Credit Suisse (Gardner is Citigroup, infrastructure and bonds)—and then the three of them slip the sleek dark thing from its cardboard sheath, from its Styrofoam and bubblewrap. We ooh-and-ahh together, though I find time to mention to that, you know, I don’t really watch TV. We don’t have one in my apartment, never needed it, what can I say. Plasma flatscreen hi-def?—doesn’t mean anything to me.
Still I move in for a closer investigation. My reflection hangs in the bright surface of the screen and I am relieved to see that my hair looks—this is unbelievable—great! I nod approvingly at myself, though Parry and Ian and Gardner assume I am nodding approvingly at their TV—which maybe I am. It will look nice above their fireplace, with the leather sofas and the oak table and and the oil paintings and all the other nice-looking things Harvard-summa-cum-laude-cum-i-banker boys have that I wouldn’t notice if they didn’t really mean anything to me.
Would I look nice here, Gardner? I could certainly try.
“You should hang out for dinner,” he says.
“Well, I have a thing. But I’m not sure my thing is set yet, you know, I have to see. I have to call my friend, who is kind of a flake?”
“We have pasta and sausages. We have new pots. Nonstick stainless titanium alloy Teflon copper-bottom.” He waves his arm at a stack of boxes on the marble kitchen countertop. “Parry’s mom went to Pottery Barn.”
Parry’s shirt is open two buttons, revealing a broad field of handsome curls. He is still glistening ever-so-slightly from the journey with the flatscreen, and when he greeted me a few minutes ago his voice was downright velvety. Now he is standing at the bar in the kitchen, and now he is on the couch with a bottle in his hand before I can blink. Its cap disappears with a soft, beery poof. “A/C up,” he tells Gardner, who takes the remote from its wall brackets and dials down the temp from 75 to 60.
I tell Gardner all about Skidmore, and I drop the name John Updike for no reason, really, as if I had a right to, and Parry says, “Yes. I live by him.”
He rises from the couch—the leather retains a luxurious Parry-shaped ass-print—and motions me over to the bookshelf. It’s hidden by the door, but sure enough, it’s big, more than maybe two hundred volumes. He’s got his Updike—Rabbit, Run through Rabbit at Rest, four collections of essays, plus Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Richard Ford. Even poetry, mostly Robert Lowell. All the wise white dons of American lit, more than I’ve ever read and ever will and wish I could—and wouldn’t you know it, half a shelf of Chekhov.
Passing back by the kitchen to the living room, I notice a tattered square of paper magneted to the fridge. It’s a cut-out from Glamour magazine, a little sidebar entitled What Makes a Real Man Sexy? Parry’s headshot is in the corner, and next to it is his quote:
I’m not afraid of who I am. I’ve got a little chest hair, and I like to show it.
I’d actually like to hang around, but I have to leave, to meet up with my friend Devin, whom I haven’t seen in at least six months. We have dinner in Nolita. Corn with mayonnaise and cayenne, mojitos while we wait an hour for a table, and by an hour after that I am drunk and we have both have smears of Cuban cheese in the corners of our mouths and couldn’t care less.
An hour after that Gardner comes to join us at a party for a bunch of Columbia film school grad students a few blocks away. I know one person, and he, like everyone else who has one, is completely preoccupied with showing off his iPhone for most of the party.
So I spend my time with my old friend and my older friend, and when Devin leaves to catch his bus back to Boston I curl up on Gardner’s bed, which he has surrendered in favor of the couch. Before I fall asleep, he leans over me and says, “Just so you’re comfortable, if you want you can change the temp,” and waves the A/C remote at me like a magic wand. Then he tiptoes out into the living room and claps his hands twice. The sliver of light at the doorjamb winks out.
X. Blue, or Green
The next morning, Gardner tells me, “I have two towels. The white one has stains. You might want use to the green one, is all I’m saying.”
In the bathroom, the towels indeed number two. One is white and has stains, and the other one is blue.
I start to call, What green one? to Gardner through the door, but I smile instead and press my fingers to my lips. I have forgotten my friend is colorblind. A fleet, feathery something twines up my ribcage and for the sake of shorthand here I’ll call it love. In an instant I know, definitively, why people keep old friends around: to be ambushed by a love like this, a love that risks no disappointment.
Do Parry and Ian help him pick out his polos, the way I know his mother used to, laying them at the edge of his quilt in the morning while he brushes his teeth and puts in his contacts, which I know he wears day in, day out, even though they hurt his eyes terribly and everyone says he looks better in his glasses?
I love you, I think at him. I can hear him banging dishes around the marble kitchen. Parry and Ian are listening to a tennis match on the radio, since they haven’t installed the television yet.
Sooner or later, I’ll tell you, Gardner, that what I apprehend now (as I laugh into your towel so that you can’t hear me in your fancy kitchen) is the texture of a friendship I thought had worn too thin, stretched over four years and four thousand miles of near-silence, and now is here, so close to me, the way it wasn’t even when I heard your voice in my ear on a busy city street.
It isn’t green! It’s blue—and isn’t such error the language of our friendship—the wrong words the right ones? Weren’t we always misplaced objects, misplaced hours, the loose threads of distance and misspent days? Small slippages and small repairs. And isn’t that beautiful? Because in all the little errors we’ve made, something is held—is comprehended—between us.
So maybe you couldn’t call such things errors at all. How could there be any better word for us than green, when green is actually blue, and blue, you know, is actually green?
That is more than enough poetry for two weeks in New York.
In the kitchen, he hands me a cup of coffee. I watch him tie his shoes at the door and I think at him, Thanks.
I spend my last night in the city on a sofa in the Marriott ExecuSuites, where yet another i-banker—he’s thirty blocks closer to Penn Station, and I’ve got to be up at seven—has lent me a toothbrush and a towel. In the morning, a crick in my neck and a sweet, enlarging sense of relief spreading somewhere beneath my ribcage, I walk six blocks to the station, buy a bagel and board a train back to the gulag. The berries stick their tongues out as the Amtrak rattles by.
XI. A Very Bad Idea
Days pass back at Skidmore the way they passed before I left, except that I am happier. I stay up late exchanging text messages with a boy far past midnight and I write my poetry and I smoke too much. I’ve thought more and more reasonably about myself and my writing after seeing Gardner, after gently disapproving of his corporate existence and enjoying his lovely apartment and allowing him to buy me drinks—and buying him some drinks in turn, and allowing him to gently disapprove of my semi-translucent bohemianism. I had nothing lovely to offer him other than my haircut, but I think it was enough.
The Friday before I leave, Joyce Carol Oates, the elfin grand dame of American fiction, with more than a hundred and fifty books under her belt in a dozen different genres, comes to read. Joyce Carol Oates is wearing a lavender bucket hat, which is wonderful because we were discussing them earlier today—bucket hats, in fact, were my first experience of second grade, when my family moved from Colorado to Texas. All the girls had denim bucket hats with big sunflowers and blouses with little roses on them and I had purple jean shorts and a t-shirt with Garfield on it and on the front of this t-shirt he was dressed as an artist and was making a big mess with some paints and the back of this t-shirt read All The Greats are Misunderstood, which was as little comfort then as now.
Feeling misunderstood, I know, is no sign of greatness but in large part a function of insecurity and pridefulness. Of loneliness, of want. Maybe it will fade as I age. At the same time, it’s the one great subject of the poetry and the novels that splinter my heart, like Knowles’s—and teach me that for every chasm, there is a bridge somebody somewhere can think into being.
Maybe we should all just be friends.
Maybe not such a bad idea, even in its flabby unsubtle naiveté. Maybe I could rewrite it this way: Maybe we should all try to tell each other what it is to live as who we are.
Oates reads a story about the last days of the life of Ernest Hemingway.
“We all have an equal right to him,” she says, leaning forward over the podium before she starts to read. “We are all equidistant from him. After all I think that we are all brothers and sisters, all the same in some way—we have certain longings, the same rages.”
Then she says, “Do not make your writing your life. I think this is a very bad idea.”
XII. Joyce Carol Oates, I Disagree with that Last Thing
On the last day of our workshop, we go around the circle and have a little reading of our own. A man named Jason knocks it out of the park. His final poem re-imagines a village at Gardanne, chastising Cezanne for leaving without finishing his painting of its likeness. I mean, frou-frou, but through his syllables rises a pure note of dependency and longing that reminds me of Rilke:
Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
And that, right now, reminds me of old Lloyd Schwartz. Like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder.
Which of course reminds me of Gardner, the sharpness of a sudden perception of love, which reminds me of home, which brings with it all of my childhood, and bobbing along in that murky river is a pair of near-pristine skateboarder’s shoes.
What am I looking for? What is this sublime hurt? Why is it in Jason’s poem? Can I thread it through a poem of my own? How is all of this related to finding my place alongside other human beings?
Is a beautiful poem as simple as tricking out your loneliness?
Why did I come to Skidmore? Somewhere in the prosodical traffic jam above, I lined up the reasons why I feel a little shitty about what I study, and where I study it, and what I’m losing. I’ve barely addressed what it is that I gain in creatively writing, writing creatively, whatever, especially when I take the time and money to travel all the way across the country to study poetry when I might instead be able to tell people that I spent a summer working for urban sustainability (I could probably tell that lie convincingly, since I know one person who is, God bless her) or for Credit Suisse (I could probably do that one even better, since I know like forty people who are, bless them too but only provisionally and with a stern promise to check back when they’re thirty)?
I came to Skidmore to study poetry, and be scared, and I did and I was. I wrote some poetry I liked. But why make poetry a part of myself when I can’t call myself a poet? When I can’t help but find a thousand contradictions in the impulse and the action? Why did I buy the fucking shoes? When even then the idea of them ripped me up inside?
Here is something: everything rips me up inside. It’s hard for me to get through a poem (or a conversation) because I think too much and say (or write) too little. My words drop out from under me. I cannot overestimate how often this happens to me, how often I am lost from hour to hour to each day.
This is the death of intellect and the plummet of the heart, the dissolution of all the arches and the spans, and this is it—here it comes—this is what I find in despair and isolation—the impulse to speak, to write. The urge, as I fall, with no material at hand, is to reconstruct. It is blind and it is painful and it happens a hundred times a day. I thrash about for words and I find one—sometimes f*ck!—and suddenly I cannot have enough of them, collecting them, ordering them, making them into a sense. It’s better than buying shoes, and even buying books—it’s higher and deeper, but it’s certainly related.
Call it insecurity. It is a blessing. This is how I recognize that no true emotion is ever self-assured. That the bottom will fall out again and that despair is not an ending. This is how I can question my loathing, my discomfort, my exhaustion, and my cruelty—and encourage my love and my happiness, even as they falter. This is how I know to reconstruct. To connect. To be borne up. I thrive in the difficulty. I don’t want to say I am a poet because for me that would be the end of poetry.
This is how I realize that contradictions and doubt are a chance to reach across impossibility and fear. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning that. The predicament, and the grace, is in stringing together all the separate pieces, in realizing that struggling does not imply loneliness but is hope itself—the chance to find a word and make it a language, and with it friendship, love and an identity.
There are metaphors to be made here, transport mechanisms, vehicles, sentences, weave. Bridges or sutures related to the way meaning is threaded wirelike through the matrical grammar of thought and word. The way the nerves are threaded along all of my bones though the more solid mesh of my body. I won’t make those metaphors now.
One word after another, I can stitch myself back together. One word after another—the vague hopes and unhappiness, the blue and the green, the Dunhills, the F*CK U 2s and bucket hats. A constellation of words on the page can comprehend a friendship or an emotion, weave them all together to make a thing of beauty, a marvelous accounting that speaks in the language I chose to give it. I would be ecstatic to call that beautiful thing my life.
So let me just say one more thing, and I’m finished, rest assured. You’ve read it all now, read some part of me, and that’s poetry enough.
Download “Poetry Enough” as a PDF.