A Review: The Last Year
Today is my birthday, which I am as unaccustomed to celebrating as I am unaccustomed to writing publically about my personal life—which is probably why I am doing just that—so bear with me.
My twenty-seventh year was not the easiest of them, maybe because I could find no direct object on which to focus my discontent. It just was. Twenty-seven was the year I neglected writing, the year I began to suffocate at work, the year I realized New York is a home I no longer want, the year I began to fall in love and found a lack in myself. I picked up books and put them down with an abandon I’d never before suffered from. But in the midst of these displeasures, as twenty-eight dawns on me (a few more hours before my afternoon birth time, they do count!), I want to focus on the better. The people and the words that, as they will, glimmered and got me through a year.
When I was twenty-seven, I read Spectacle, a story collection by Susan Steinberg. Its musicality caressed my craving for the poetic; its sentences harmonized with my feelings of worthlessness. “I’m a wreck,” she writes. “I need another wreck.” When I was twenty-seven, I read the saddest poem in the world and thought I, too, was a lonely deep-sea-swimming whale.
When I was twenty-seven, I met Mary Ruefle. In her essay collection, Madness, Rack, and Honey, I found a new text of faith.
When I was twenty-seven, I found a comrade in Darcie Dennigan and thought, even if I have no other clues about the world or where I will be in a year or “who I’m supposed to be,” at least I know that “what I’m really good at is loving the world well.”
When I was twenty-seven, I discovered Kate Zambreno, her Heroines, and her cutting (I mean that in the best way) Twitter presence. She reminded me to think more.
When I was twenty-seven, I found a mantra in Heather Christle’s words and began to waken. “Lay myself ferocious / and in nothing’s debt,” I try to remember.
But the most memorable words of the last year were about others’ losses. I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson, a superb hybrid work that weaves together the history, the science, the culture of the color blue and the effort of moving a life out of loneliness and loss.
I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, which I would recommend to anyone at any stage in life above almost any other book. The memoir’s catalyst was the author’s stillborn daughter, but, again, the book has a resounding theme: strength, even through grief. Strength in words and in writing our own stories, regardless of what actually happens.
And I spent my last night as a twenty-seven-year-old reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. (For the first time—I was always too scared for my emotional constitution to pick it up). I had this idea that if I read this book through midnight, into my birthday, I would cleanse myself of the past year by dissolving into the time following Didion’s husband’s death and the period of illness that eventually led to her daughter’s death, too. There is something to be said for removing ourselves from our own pains, for mourning for someone else.
“What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy?” (Didion)
“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.” (Nelson)
“Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory—but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.” (Yuknavitch)
A shift in perspective: not self-pity but possibility. When all else failed, their words wrote over my fears.
Daniel Nester: So I guess you’re of the mind that writing can be taught? I mean, I am as well, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Jason Koo: I am, yes. I mean, of course it can—like anything else. I’m amused by this idea that writing poems can’t be taught, but things like yoga and tango can. Imagine signing up for a yoga or tango class with no previous experience, paying for it, then showing up the first day and hearing the teacher say, Okay, show me what you can do. And pointing at the floor. You’d be mortified—and pissed, because that’s not what you’re paying for. You’re paying the teacher to show you the basics, to introduce you to the discipline. You’re not expecting to become a master overnight or possibly ever. You’re interested in discovering what the discipline is about and seeing how you like it, how it might change you. And you pay experts for instruction because without them you would literally—yes, I’m going to use that adverb—not know how to make the first move.
[…] I imagine a beautiful community on The Bridge where poets are regularly sitting down with each other’s work every day and writing sustained, thoughtful responses to each other—how could we not all get better as writers and readers because of this?
"Rules" of Writing
Kate Zambreno’s advice for writers—from her blog in 2010 but timeless & valuable:
- Fuck around a lot when you’re young. Do things for EXPERIENCE. Have lots of traumatic toxic love affairs. The best way to really get at the psychology of others is when they’re suspended over you.
- Continuing with the idea of fucking up, have at least one total to complete breakdown during this time period, or if possible, have it related to some trauma from childhood.
- After surviving, begin to come into your own, begin to awaken.
- Read philosophy & theory - don’t borrow the language, engage with the ideas
- Be political. Have opinions. Be angry. It’s boring to not be political and engage with the world.
- Read lots of literature. Be a voracious, promiscuous, engaged reader. Read the avant-garde, the high-modernists, works in translation, marginalized and “minor” writers, small press authors. Read the majors (Virginia Woolf, Beckett). Read the obvious books, wait a decade and read the non-obvious books, and then go back reappraise the obvious books.
- See the world, see yourself, see others, see art, film…
- Begin to keep a fairly involved journal
- Always have really great pens. And notebooks. Have a notebooking system.
And Zambreno’s favorite advice, from Hélène Cixous, of course:
Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which the publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women- female-sexed texts. That kind scares them.