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Journal, Day Four

By Monica Youn

Current favorite pop-culture expression: a tie between “Rokkin’ like Dokken” and “It’s pronounced . . . ‘biotech.’” (Use the comment space on this blog to cast your vote.)

* * *

So I desperately need a new notebook. I loved my old one. It was by Carta, thick and chewy at about 200 creamy unruled pages, with a yellow ultrasuedesque cover. Unruled paper is key—“ruled” paper is just that—it makes neutrality impossible—you either have to be with it or against it.

When I was younger (and sillier), I had a ruled notebook that I used because of the cover—yellow paper handblocked in the Venice ghetto with a gold geometric print—but . . . get this . . . I only wrote on it sideways. Idiosyncratic, no? At the time I also occasionally used a fountain pen filled with green ink, and wore polka dot silk pajamas as daywear, so you have an idea of my overall pretension factor.

I now generally use a ballpoint pen, which is lucky because of a near fatal (for the notebook) kayaking accident, where we tried to load two people onto my 45-pound plastic kayak and the notebook (which was in a supposedly watertight compartment) was soaked, but the writing is still legible. It’s also covered in soot—from my studio fireplace—and it’s hard to tell the soot spots from encroaching mildew.

At this point, it looks and kind of smells like an artisanal cheese. I wash my hands after touching it, which is not ideal.

But I’m still using and writing in it. Partly because I haven’t decided on a new one. I have four candidates in my apartment (stock up—they make nice gifts).

  1. Orange, and identical to my previous one except with a shiny cover, which I don’t really like to touch, especially in humid weather. Strike.
  2. Unlined, but has a Japanese paper cover with cherry blossoms and flying cranes, which I’m finding unbearably twee. Strike.
  3. Burnt orange silk mid-century-ish print cover, but has lined paper. Strike, esp. because mid-century is over, they tell me.
  4. Same lovely yellow and gold block print cover as my old lined journal, and is unlined, but might be too small—about the size of those nice Green Integer books, but thicker. Upside: might be nice to have a notebook that would fit in my purse. Downside: might feel constraining, and besides, I’d hate to be one of those people on the subway who is always pulling out a notebook to “jot” down “thoughts” or “phrases.”

On the trip to Venice 10 years ago where I bought the hand-blocked notebooks, my friend S. was always plopping down—sometimes in the middle of the sidewalk—whenever he felt a poem coming on. (This was also the trip on which he uttered the sentence with which I still taunt him: “Fuck me if I don’t get a poem out of this!” He has since improved.) Apparently S. went to an alternative school where students were encouraged to sit cross-legged on the ground. Sometimes I’m glad I went to grade and middle schools where students (including me) were beat up regularly. Socialization is like circumcision: if you are going to do it (and I’m not getting drawn into this debate either), it’s probably less traumatic for all concerned to get it out of the way early.

I even went to Kate’s Paperie, which was having a sale, but all of the unlined notebooks had flower petals and herbs and shit embedded in the paper. What are people thinking? This isn’t pasta.

* * *

A confession: I do “jot” down little “phrases” in my notebook, just not on the subway or sidewalk—dribs and drabs of things, separated by horizontal lines I draw across the page.

So does everyone always feel like their process isn’t legitimate, like they’re not a real poet?

For instance, I’ve always been fond of Michael Hofmann’s description of poetry as trying to tear a piece of wallpaper off the wall with one’s fingernails—one picks and picks until the thing starts, then ideally it’s all just one long smooth pull. But I rarely write that way. And lately I’ve been envious of those poems where syntax has the same structural integrity as image—where the hinges are as strong as the building blocks.

Put another way, it would be interesting for me to write something with curves instead of angles and edges, which are my personal comfort zone. But whenever I try, I end up cutting away all of the connective tissue and end up with a text that is all elbows again.

* * *

And some part of me is sympathetic to S.’s sidewalk plopping and scribbling. (I’m just giving him a hard time for calling my poem yucky.)

All of this pulsing, chirping nature around me—the little frog-burps—is giving me what I could refer to as “green guilt,” —the part of me that has always wanted to grow up to be a poet whose work is “rich with virtuously observed detail,” rather than with fictional mouse fantasias.

“Idiosyncrasy of language derives from attention,” says Hugh Kenner.

“Guilt guilt,” burp the frogs.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, August 10th, 2006 by Monica Youn.