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5 Years

Dear Mary,

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!

11 Years

Dear Jason,

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!