Ocean Storm, Bayberry Moon
One of my best friends from college died about three weeks ago. I only found out yesterday. I was attending an art event—a gallery tour in Tijuana—and happened to check my email in between stops. At first, not recognizing the sender's name, I thought it was spam, but it turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his, a woman I'd heard about many times but had never met. It's a strange, isolating experience to receive terrible news while you're surrounded by friends who are having a good time. My impulse was not to ruin everyone else's day, but of course I couldn't entirely keep my feelings to myself. A few people checked in with me, sensing my distress. I demurred.
In some ways, I suppose this friend was already gone from my life. It had been a couple of years since the last time we saw each other, or even really spoke. We had grown apart, and in some ways I had already grieved that loss. But in the back of my mind I guess I thought things might turn around. He'd had some changes in his life recently, and was engaged to be married. I was happy for him, and part of me thought that we might reconnect some day. That won't happen now.
I've thought so much about this man over the past few years, so often with sadness or worry. I met him the first day of college, and still, more than two decades later, that is how I remember him. He was slender and energetic, enthusiastic and outgoing in a way I've seldom seen, before or since. He laughed loudly and often. He hugged with his whole body. He was utterly un-self-conscious in telling his friends that he loved them, a rare thing for men of my generation. And that was something he gave to me—a willingness to say it back without feeling strange.
He was a man of big appetites and a passion for pleasure unlike anyone else I've ever known. He carried around a recipe for cheesecake in his wallet, and happily took every opportunity to make one and share it with you, even—usually—on the spur of the moment. Back then we all drank too much, ate poorly, failed to care for our bodies. A few of my friends drank like they were punishing themselves, but for him drinking and substances were always and only about pleasure. It took him to some dark places, eventually. I don't know how or why he died, but for some time now I have feared and maybe even expected the worst. I still thought we'd have more time.
And this is the thing that has haunted me, saddened me, worried me about our friendship as we got older. Some of the things that make us fun or funny or endearing when we are young become less and less excusable as we age. And, hopefully, as we learn. Some things he never learned. Some of the things that made us laugh at nineteen make me cringe now. Some of the things we said and did then are things that hurt people, or hurt ourselves. We were ignorant then, or maybe we were innocent. Maybe we should have known better then. Maybe somewhere inside some of us did. Either way, we should know better now. The fact that he couldn't or wouldn't learn to be better made it hard for me to be around him. Increasingly, in mixed company I found myself having to make excuses for him, or apologizing for him afterwards—something I'm sure he didn't want and certainly never asked for. He was sure of himself, even when he was wrong, even when the horribleness of what he said was evident to everyone but himself. When he dropped away from me I was sad, but part of me was also relieved.
I wonder if he was confused about why we stopped connecting. I wonder if he was angry with me. If he was, he never said so. As much of a pain in the ass as he could be, he was also one of the most unfailingly generous people I knew. He took genuine pleasure in seeing his friends enjoy things. Maybe in distancing myself, I was unfair to him. Maybe I was justified in doing what I needed to do. Did I cut him off, or did he move along on his own? I don't know how he saw it. Now he's gone, and I have to live with the fact that that's where we left things.
I try to take comfort in knowing that he was unafraid of dying. Neither of us believed in an afterlife, which terrified me and comforted him. Once—perhaps twelve, thirteen years ago—I was working myself up into a panic attack about my impending nonexistence. He just said to me, calmly, "It's nothing to be afraid of." I try to remember that, but of course the pain I feel now is about the hole he's left in my life. An absence that, yes, I will some day get used to, but which will never be filled. This is the thing about life: the longer you live, the larger and more numerous the holes become. Eventually everyone goes away, or we do.
And yet I cannot think about my friend without thinking about all the ways that he pursued his pleasures. The landscapes of our souls become furrowed and holed by loss, and new joy and new love cannot fill those voids. But what they can do is expand the boundaries of our emotional territory, giving us someplace new to stand.
I remember my friend smiling. It's all I can do.
• • •
I do have updates on my projects and my work, but I'm going to let them sit for now. It can wait.
I hope you're well, and that whatever you need, be it joy, peace, nourishment, or anything at all, finds its way to you soon.
Last night when I said goodnight to you, I told you to get some good sleep so that you'd have a good birthday. You responded with a laugh "Yeah, I want to go to sleep!" And then you just... did. You went straight to sleep. It's something I've always envied a little bit about you, honestly, how good you are at falling asleep. I think you will have a good birthday, though.
This year you had your first audition, for the Performance Crew at your dance school. Beforehand, I asked you how you were feeling about it, whether you were nervous. And you were, a little. That's natural. But you didn't let it stop you from trying. When I asked you how you'd feel if you didn't get in, you thought about it and then said "I think I'd be sad, but that's OK." You've found something that you care about so much: dance. And now that you've found it, you work at it really hard. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes you don't get all of the moves right away, but you never get discouraged. You just say "Practice makes improvement," which is something you came up with on your own because, as you pointed out, nobody can be perfect. You put yourself out there, and you are so, so brave. You made it through your audition and got into Performance Crew, but I know that you'd have been OK if you hadn't gotten in, that you'd have kept working and tried again next year. All of that is why I'm so proud of you.
You are talented and hard-working in so many ways, but you are also kind and thoughtful. I hope that you always stay that way. And I hope that we can always keep laughing together, the way we do now. And right now I hope that you have a very happy birthday.
I love you!
Love, Care, Responsibility
Recently I was listening to an episode of Carrie Fountain's podcast This Is Just to Say, which was a tribute panel to poet Tony Hoagland, who died last year at the age of 64, due to pancreatic cancer. I don't really know Hoagland's work—it's possible that this podcast was the first time I'd ever heard one of his poems. What awareness I had of him came from some references some of my poet friends had made to his problematic public exchange with poet Claudia Rankine.
If you're not much involved with the world of poetry—which, to be fair, most people aren't—then you might not be familiar with that incident. To summarize: In his 2003 book What Narcissism Means to Me, Hoagland—who is white—included a poem called "The Change," in which the speaker of the poem (which Hoagland may or may not have intended to be himself) describes a tennis match between a white woman and a black woman, and his reaction to it, and does so in language that is, to say the least, problematic. In 2011, Claudia Rankine—an acclaimed and important African-American poet, and a former colleague of Hoagland's—gave a talk at the AWP Conference in which she read Hoagland's poem and then presented an open letter in which she described the dismay she felt upon reading the poem, and talked about why it was hurtful. About a month later, Hoagland responded with his own open letter, which was... not great. Subsequently, Hoagland was pretty widely criticized for both his poem and his letter—and rightly so, in my opinion.
I had known all of this before but had mostly forgotten about it by the time I started listening to that This Is Just to Say episode, though as the episode progressed my memory was refreshed. I found the episode to be an interesting and nuanced discussion about a person and poet all of the panelists loved, but who they acknowledged also said and did problematic things. Interesting because I think it's interesting and necessary to consider what it means to love someone who has flaws, and what our responsibilities are to the ones we love, and how to keep loving someone even when they are wrong or shitty.
I don't want to say "We all have our flaws" or "We are all problematic" because that flattens the discussion and draws the kind of false equivalence that we cannot afford in this political climate. Because there are lines that shouldn't be crossed, which have been crossed, and which continue to be crossed, often with real and terrible consequences. To simplify the world we live in by saying "we all have our flaws" is to engage in the kind of both-sides-ism that has plagued our political discourse for years.
Except that we all do have our flaws and we all are problematic, and we do engage in and uphold a culture in which we expect purity, which is neither reasonable nor sustainable. And we especially do that online. Online spaces are not and never have been and probably never will be good for nuance. But I feel like it should be possible to distinguish between unforgivable harm and everyday thoughtlessness. Not in a way that ignores the latter, but in a way that allows for judgment. And when I say "judgment" I mean a process. I mean an individual process of weighing and balancing and looking at as much context as possible, context that includes both the personal and the global. I mean deliberation and care rather than snap decisions. I mean to say that one's bad deeds don't erase one's good deeds, nor do their good deeds erase their bad, but each filters each, and there are more ways to hold the totality of a person than to either defend them or throw them away.
In saying this, though, it is important to understand the broader context of such rhetoric, and the instances in which it is most often deployed. It is not lost on me that the thing that is prompting me to talk about nuance and care and deep judgment is a white man's misdeed. It is important to understand how rarely the marginalized and oppressed are offered the opportunity for deliberate consideration, for care, for understanding. And it is important to understand how often white men are offered that opportunity. It is important not as a way of castigating white people or men for being white or male. It is important because we cannot work toward a world in which the humanity and dignity of all people is affirmed unless we first understand that such affirmation is not given equally now, and unless we understand why.
But I suppose I feel that the path to justice lies more in offering care and understanding and context to the vulnerable than it does in denying it to the comfortable. Again, there are lines that we cannot cross or allow to be crossed. But I think that when we love someone, or when we love the things they've done, whether that be a friend or a relative or simply someone we admire, we owe it to them and to ourselves and to each other to reckon with their misdeeds and hold them accountable. Sometimes that means walking away from them. But sometimes it means pulling them closer. And either way it doesn't necessarily mean ceasing to love them.
And, yes, those whom we love bear a responsibility as well, to listen, to learn, to do better. It's a responsibility that so often they (and we, and I) fail to live up to. But I believe we can rise to it, even if sometimes we might need to be shown how. It's not about erasing harm or giving passes. It's about trying to get past binary thinking, to get past good/bad, right/wrong, stay/leave, and to get toward care and responsibility.
As an addendum, what I am doing now is considering how much of my feeling on this is or might be driven by my own biases and privileges. And considering whether and how having and expressing these opinions might contribute to further harm.
Nothing is ever as simple as I'd like it to be. But I do my best.
• • •
Some other news:
- A couple of weeks ago I released an episode of Keep the Channel with poet Yanyi. We discussed his book The Year of Blue Water, which is part poetry, part essay, and part journal, a document of self-discovery and human connection. We also talked about Hannah Arendt's seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
- On this week's episode, I talked with poet Rachel Zucker about her book The Pedestrians and about her podcast Commonplace, which is one of my favorite literary shows. It was a particularly interesting episode for me in that Rachel and I approach interviewing in very similar ways and with similar concerns (and similar anxieties).
• • •
My family has been up in Canada without me for the past week, visiting J's relatives. They're coming home tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to it. I hope that you get some time soon to be with people you love, whether that's family or friends or even yourself.
Last night as I was leaving your room after saying good night, you called out “Wait. How about one more hug and one more kiss?” And, of course, I obliged—it wasn’t so long ago that you never wanted hugs or kisses from me, and I’m happy that you like having me around. Still, when I left for work that morning and asked if I could give you a hug, you just shook your head and went back to your video. This might surprise you right now, but both of these interactions make me happy. It makes me happy that you feel comfortable and confident setting your own boundaries, that you feel control over your own body. It makes me happy that when you do decide to be affectionate, you do it with your whole self. And it makes me happy that I’ve earned some of that affection.
You have a lot of interests and a lot of talents. You love to sing, to dance, to draw, to read, to work with numbers, to learn. You love to do things on your own. More than most people I know, you are your own person. You insist on it. You can be led, but you won’t be pushed. You have a huge spirit, and that means that sometimes you will clash with others. People will try to change this about you, to make you smaller, and even though it means that sometimes I’ll be on the receiving end of your displeasure, I hope you never lose this. I hope you always keep going after what you want, and putting your whole heart into everything you do.
Very soon you’ll be starting kindergarten. Very soon to me, at least—to you that’s still a ways off. And, truth be told, it’s not as close as it feels to me. We still have time, and lots to do. But it’ll happen soon enough, and I know you’ll do great. Because that’s who you are. You are great. I’m so happy to know you, and I love you so much. I hope the day brings you much joy. Happy birthday, Mary!
Today you are eleven years old. Something I'm thinking about is how much your birthdays have changed since you were little. In the past when we would ask you what you wanted to do for your birthday, you'd want to have a party or go to an amusement park, things like that. This year, your requests were: Korean barbecue, tacos, and the beach with a few friends. There are a lot of things that remind me that you're growing up, that you're not a little kid anymore. This was one of those things. Mostly, I'm just happy to be able to have the time with you, to have things that we can do together that we all enjoy.
It feels like a milestone birthday this year, to me anyway. Does it feel like that to you? You're headed to middle school next year, and you got your first phone. Sometimes I miss you being little, but I'm always just so happy to get to know who you are now, and who you're becoming. Mostly, I'm just thankful that you're such a big-hearted, kind, funny person who always tries so hard to do what's right. You're a good kid, and you make me a good dad.
Happy birthday, Jason. I hope the day brings you much joy!
Soundtrack: "See The World (With Woahs) (Instrumental)," by The Dimes. Licensed from Marmoset Music.
I can't get no
Two of my poems were published this week, which is the first time that’s ever happened. Shortly after announcing their release, I found myself wondering how many poems I’d have to publish before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet. The only thing I’m sure of is that the answer is greater than two.
I’ve had the great fortune to talk with a lot of poets over the past few years, whether on my show or via social media, or just the kind of private dialogue that happens between artist and audience. I think there may be something more implied by the title “poet” than merely “a person who has written poems.” Rather, it is a declaration, a statement of intent. There is implied a certain dedication to the form, such that even though a poet may write novels or essays or practice visual art in some way, some significant piece of the poet is steadfast in their devotion to poetry. I’ve been willing to call myself a writer even though my output can only generously called “modest.” And perhaps I still aspire to become a poet, one day. But I don’t feel I’m there yet.
Still, I’m reminded of a long-standing argument I’ve had with Jeffery Saddoris, going back years since he first mentioned it on On Taking Pictures. Jeffery will call himself a painter or a photographer or a writer, but he refuses to call himself an artist or to refer to his work as art. As he puts it, it’s for the audience to decide whether or not what he makes qualifies as art, not for himself. And this is an idea that I’ve always pushed back against, because there’s a difference between “art” and “good,” and putting “art” and “artist” up on a pedestal like that can really only serve to discourage people from making art. It’s an act of elitism to tell someone else that what they make doesn’t deserve to be called “art.” It’s not less true when you tell yourself that, just more self-loathing.
You know where I’m going with this. I know. I’m working on it. Or, at least, I’m thinking about it.
I have to admit, I’ve been in a crap mood most of this week. It makes me feel like an ingrate, but I want to talk about it all the same. Last night I saw a thread from Delilah S. Dawson, talking about the weird dissociation she experiences when she has a new book launch. The part that made me sit upright was when she said this: “I think those of us who've built their career on rejection and failure know that if we put all our hopes in a book, it's going to break our heart. Most books never hit big like we dream, and if we protect ourselves from the possibility of success, it doesn't hurt so much.”
I think there’s a lot to what Dawson is saying. The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for creative types is to develop a thick skin about rejection. And, mostly, we do. We get so much practice coping with rejection. Some of us (me) come to expect rejection, even cherish our rejections as evidence that we made the attempt. Nobody really talks about how to cope with success. It’s assumed that that will be the easy part.
But it’s not. Not for me, anyway, and not only because I’ve trained myself so well to brace for disappointment. Rather, it’s that creative success, however you define it, is fleeting. It’s not that success is a moving target—though it is—it’s that success at any level isn’t really satisfying. You’d think I’d know this already—after all, my show is named for a Martha Graham quotation in which she declares that there is no satisfaction in being an artist.
As I’m writing this letter, my poems were published three days ago. One of them took me three years of writing and revising to get it right. The other took a mere 13 months. Both were rejected multiple times before finally being accepted. I’ve bookmarked every compliment and retweet those poems have gotten in the last three days, so I know how many times it’s happened: fifteen. And now, three days later, people are mostly on to other things. And rightly so—there’s so much great work out there and more coming every day. Fifteen people spent time with my work and were moved enough to say something. That is a gift. It’s more than most of us get. It’s more than what I’m accustomed to getting. I should be grateful, and I am. But part of me wants to know, now what?
I don’t doubt it would be the same no matter what the response had been, whether it was 15 comments or 15,000. I’ve never won an award for my creative work but if I keep at it I might some day, and I expect that I’d still feel this strange hollowness afterwards. It’s not that I think external validation is the reason to make art. I know that success is fleeting, that any satisfaction that can be had must come from the doing of the thing, not from how it’s received. But people expect you to feel something about success, something other than a strange, aimless, floating feeling. And so you come to expect that, too. Not feeling elation over it makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. I don’t think that’s true—I think this is more common than we might realize. But we don’t talk about this. At least, people don’t talk about it in front of me.
I think the important thing is just to recognize (again) that life isn’t the big moments, it’s all the ones in between. Even when that high does come, it can’t last. Where you reside is in the everyday, the grind, the routine, the ordinary. I’m thinking about that moment when you come home from a fun trip. There’s always something of a letdown, I think, some sense of disappointment that the thing you’d been looking forward to has now passed. But in the best times there’s also a pleasure in coming home, in returning to the familiar. I’m trying to get back to that place.
• • •
Some other news:
- If you're in the San Diego area, I'm going to be participating in the Last Exit reading on Saturday, July 27, along with Kristen Arnett, Sarah Rose Etter, Lilliam Rivera, and Tommy Pico. (It's a hell of a line-up, and one that I'm quite overwhelmed to be included in.) The event is free, starts at 8 PM, and will be at You Belong Here. Come say hi!
- I released a new episode of Keep the Channel Open last week, a conversation with photographer Ashly Stohl. We talked about her photobooks Charth Vader and The Days & Years, about photographing your family, about the perception of motherhood in art and society, and about the difference between New York and Los Angeles.
• • •
I hope you're well. I haven't said it recently, but I'm glad you're here.
Two Poems in Last Exit
I'm thrilled to share that two of my poems are up at Last Exit today, as part of their second issue! This is my first poetry publication, and I'm very grateful to Julia Dixon Evans and the whole team at Last Exit for including my work. And look at the rest of the line-up for the issue! Two of my faves, Chloe N. Clark and Cathy Ulrich, are also in there, plus a whole bunch of writers who are new to me, whose work I'm looking forward to getting to know better.
Check it out if you get a chance!
Last Exit Reading
Some exciting news! I'm going to be reading a couple of my poems at the next Last Exit event, on July 27. The line-up for the evening is pretty freaking amazing, if I do say so myself: Kristen Arnett, Tommy Pico, Sarah Rose Etter, and Lilliam Rivera will all be there. If you're going to be in the San Diego area, come check it out. It's free!
New KTCO: Ashly Stohl
It's funny, so often I find myself going to an artist's or author's website and getting irritated that there are no recent updates about their work, no news about new publications, no links to interviews or press coverage. These are things that I am always looking for when I'm doing research for an upcoming podcast episode or even when I just want to do a deep dive into the archive of an artist I admire. And yet, of course, on my own website the blog languishes for months at a time with nary a whisper of the things I've been up to. Presumably, if you're bothering to look at my website, you'd want to know what I'm doing, yes? So I'm going to try to commit to more regular updates.
Speaking of which, there's a new episode of Keep the Channel Open up today, featuring my conversation with photographer Ashly Stohl! I've long admired Ashly's work and not only because we both make images of our families—she brings a visual aesthetic to the genre that I don't often see, more influenced by street and documentary photography than by portraiture. And humor! So often that's missing from personal work, or just art in general. We talked about her books Charth Vader and The Days & Years, about artistic collaborations, about how to sequence a photo series, and about the difference between New York and LA. I hope you enjoy it!
The cathedral of Notre Dame burned yesterday, which was also the day that I learned that Gene Wolfe had died. Juliette and I talked about both in the evening, and she asked me if I felt sad. I said that "sad" wasn't quite the right word for what I felt—both felt profound and tragic, both felt like losses. But I wasn't sad, exactly. Perhaps it all felt too big to be contained in an emotion as simple as sadness.
In Wolfe's most famous series, The Book of the New Sun, we see an Earth millions of years in the future, an Earth in which most of the details have evolved to the point of being almost unrecognizable. But it's that almost that gets me. In these books you see deserts where the glittering sand is made of the eroded glass from the windows of a long-dead city, you see continents having shifted, coastlines changed. Even the sun has started to fade. But a close reader can see the echoes of our own time in Wolfe's distant future, and in any case the basic forms of human connection remain.
Still, reading those books, I can't help but think about what remains and what doesn't. How permanence is ultimately an illusion. Or maybe even a lie. Yesterday I saw someone tweet something to the effect that watching something ancient and beautiful burn felt like an encapsulation of our time. Yesterday I watched the cathedral spire fall. I watched and watched again, like so many people did. Construction on the cathedral began in 1160, and wasn't finished for a hundred years. I imagine what it must have felt like to start building something, knowing that you'd never live to see its completion. What it means to have faith that the work would be taken up by someone else. Though, I suppose in some way I do know something of that faith, because what else sustains anyone who works toward social justice? People have been working on that project for longer than a century already, and I still don't expect to see it achieved. But what a cathedral that would be.
It feels like right now, all of our cathedrals are burning, that we are all watching helplessly while our edifices burn. If we didn't set the fires ourselves. And I'm thinking about how hopeless it so often feels, how powerless I feel to stop anything. But also how fires, unopposed, spread. It feels too pat to end an email like this with a call to arms. It feels perhaps even disrespectful. But I guess what I'm thinking is that everything ends, that I and you will end, but that we still spend our lives building anyway. In my worse moments, this seems futile; in my best, it's beautiful. I don't know exactly where I am today, but I'm thinking about what the world has lost, about the impossibility of replacing anyone or anything once it's gone, about the need to keep moving into an unknown future.