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in spite of itself (ALL PURPOSE, CRUSHED)


It’s poetry month. It is also, in the United States, the month of Autism Awareness, Jazz Appreciation, Confederate History, Arab American Heritage, Child Abuse Prevention, Sexual Assault Awareness, and Financial Literacy.

Autumn in the southern hemisphere and spring in the northern.

Month of the diamond, second rainiest, sacred to Venus, slash-and-burn moon, symbolic ploughing.

Month when plants start growing; time of crop-harvesting.

It begins on the first day of the Japanese Fiscal Year and ends with record store day. In between, celebration of Passover, Buddha’s birthday, Good Friday, Easter, St. George’s Day. New Year in Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.

Tax Day and National Healthcare Decisions Day. Zimbabwean Independence Day, Patriot’s Day, Conch Republic Independence Day, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Liberation Day, ANZAC Day, Freedom Day, Greenery Day, Koningsdad, Take our Sons and Daughters to Work Day. Opening Day. Evacuation Day.

Month of the Boston and London marathons.

Month of Aries and Taurus, of daisy and sweet pea.

The month when trees and flowers begin to open.

Susan Miller says this April is going to be so bad she’s giving lessons in it. This quote keeps popping up in my feed.

In my feed—there’s too much. Too many to read. For anyone.

How poetry goes into the world, in what shape, moves around, streams, to think about this again here, at the Poetry Foundation, during National Poetry Month. How there is too much. To contribute. To contradictions.

To have a project, to stray. To wander.

To begin with, a poem, made for a reading last week with Simon Pettet and Dohee Lee, part of the L O V E show at Montalvo Arts Center.

I was surprised at every turn by this occasion, all that came before and surrounded it, surprised and delighted, a word I never use, or stopped using a long time ago. Surprised by my surprise, having observed in myself in advance (with no surprise whatsoever) all manner of internalized dismissal, argumentation with everything basically, the entire terrain—love, the love poem, the degraded materials, “All that medieval love poetry / With its military metaphors / The woman as the fortress”—the history and violence contained among those four letters, along with everything else. “They say it is love. We say it is unpaid work."And so I made a poem about this. Made from the writing of others. Wikipedia traces the etymology of cento through the Latin, a cloak made of patches, "Roman soldiers used these centones, or old stuffs patched over each other, to guard themselves from the strokes of their enemies." You can't get away from it, I guess. "Once open the books, you have to face / The underside of everything you’ve loved—" the soldiers didn't even make the centos for themselves, it was someone else's job, centonarii.

Before the reading there was cake, a gluten-free version of the culinary resident’s mother’s recipe, made for Jen Shyu's birthday. And so we began by singing happy birthday together, this provisional group, then Dohee sang the Korean happy birthday song and Jen with a gold crown rakishly tilted to one side led us up the hill ringing a kind of bell with a mallet, to visit several of the artist’s studios.

This is the way March went out, for me. What came just before the national month of poetry and financial literacy, the month of confederate history and diamonds, sacred to Venus.

Maybe because I am not very good at celebrating my own birthday, or maybe because of a facebook post I saw in the car on the way down, by a friend who shares a birthday with Jen Shyu, a post about his 30s and the transformation wrought by friends and love these last 10 years, how those very events so often understood as conservative forces in the shape of a life—grad school, having kids, a partner—had precisely the opposite effect, made him want to fight harder,

or maybe because while in residence there several years ago I worked on a book about friendship and community, a book full of feelings like love, but also the opposite of love,

or maybe because it's always a little embarrassing to meet a Bay Area artist this way, when we might have known one another already if I crossed the bridge, what do I mean by bridge: worlds, more often, especially because it is thrilling to see so much work by women, women of roughly my generation,

the day felt heavy with it, a magic I am usually more suspicious of because it’s beautiful at Montalvo and places like it, places where conditions make it easy to be together suddenly, where we have just met and now we are singing and eating cake, easy to be together among so many trees and walking on trails through them, in clumps and lines while a bell plays or a woman sings across the lawn, easy there to feel connected

but for whatever reason or combinations of the unseen, this magic, those feelings, felt heavier, weeping around the edges, and deep.

this flood of cramping / Textures.

It felt that way watching the trailer for Christy Chan’s film Pen Pals, rainbows and sparkles, a little girl waiting at the window for the wizard, because she is the person in her family who reads and writes English she is one who opens and interprets letters sent by the Klan, listening to Christy tell the story of this, about ordering a robe and hood for the film project, the elaborate order form, how moved she was by its craftsmanship when the robe arrived in the mail, how she didn’t know what it would feel like and needed to, directing a large and imposing person wearing the white hood, the silent moving image of that person striding through Redwood Park.

It felt that way hearing Leah Rosenberg’s question—how can painting be generous—in the way a cake is.  The distribution model of making food, serving it to others.

Felt that way in Leah and Christy’s thinking about distribution, Leah’s distrust of the way a painting endures, stays on the wall, Christy’s insistence that the process is the product, not the resulting film, that she would be happy to see it released among friends and art communities, making its own way, rather than waiting to be bought, to be made.

Felt that way in the thud of cream pies landing on plywood, on Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought's faces in As Many Pies as We’ve Known Each Other, the trust and intimacy of long friendships and also aggression, acting on one another, hurting and being hurt, love but also the opposite of love. The closer you get the louder the thud. It felt that way and funny too, painful, two women mirroring one other, making models, a fog machine full of disgusting fog juice filling the room while one draws the other's portrait, we can't really see doesn’t mean stop trying. Friendship as the most heroic of durational endurance projects. Staying together. Falling. Later watching the same video in the gallery, without sound, color on a loop, how beautiful from a distance. How layered and nuanced. How comic it actually is. Being stuck in this category, women, with its narratives and particular forms of competition. Clowning each other. With determination and focus.

Felt it remembering standing with Amy Trachtenberg in the same studio, seeing, I think, some paintings that informed or maybe even are some of the paintings in her current show, maybe even Feelings Are Facts VIII.

Feeling it in the colors of the pies in the video in the gallery so like the stripes on Leah Rosenberg's walking sticks, the ones she invited us to use, walking up the hill, thinking of the stripes in Amy's paintings.

this flood of cramping / Textures.


Then it was time for the reading and we walked up the lawn to the villa and Jen was singing to bring us and I felt it, the feeling of the off season and its approaching end, how every time before I’d been there in summer, season of weddings and concert series, how institutions are many things and trails, but it was just us in that moment walking across the lawn where I remember Stéphane layed a picnic for deer and they ignored it but in the middle of the night in moonlight did pee on the villa's wide stairs remembering the video of that as we walked up together where earlier in the afternoon I’d walked through the room with Simon, Dohee, and curator Donna Conwell and discussed the performance what shape it would take and I thought I had a clear idea.

At the end of Donna’s introduction two glass doors bang shut in the wind.

We laugh nervously and Dohee steps forward, dipping her finger in the water of a wine glass held in her other hand, slowly running it around the rim, a scratching rhythm, and she is saying she is thinking of her ancestors, she is holding the idea of her grandmother, and also birth, and her teacher, who taught her to play glass. She is playing the glass and walking down the aisle between us and I realize we are sitting in the white folding chairs more usually used for wedding ceremonies, sitting in two facing rows with an aisle between us where a couple would go but instead it is Dohee dressed in white and playing the glass and pulling us to walk with her into another room to take a glass from the table of glasses and dipping our fingers in the water and running our fingers around the rim and singing in many registers and walking back together in clumps and lines between the rows of white wedding chairs and into the other room and setting the glasses back down. I feel a little foolish writing this. It sounds improbable. Whatever it was. Between us. Embarrassed, not embarrassed, out of tune, together.

I’m standing at the piano and playing the glass which I have learned to do in the last five minutes and people are putting them down one by one and Dohee and I are looking in each other’s eyes as the last person steps into the room Dohee is my teacher she is leading me I am holding the last beat and she is telling me with her eyes now it is time to stop running my finger around the rim it is time to put the glass down.

I’m making a joke and reading my poem. A cento about love, full of argumentation. It begins with Jennifer Moxley and ends with Trisha Low. At some point it is happening again I am crying, it’s the year where I keep crying or almost crying, I feel like a bad actor laughing at my own joke, but also it is hard not to, or I can’t not, it starts when I read “no one tells you about these boys: their quiet feminism” and goes on until I am able to pivot, grab and pull myself up into another voice, almost growling, “by the love in me, open the door, show us your teeth." Then I am just reading, I stop looking around, I'm delivering something and 100 keeps surprising me, it is large, a large number, a long time, it took longer than I thought it would to make this poem by all of you, by everyone, or everyone proximate, books near the tables, in the monitors, where I worked as I made it.

Dohee plucks the strings of the eye harp, an instrument of her own design, and we slowly move back into the room where we began, and she is holding the energy as Simon hoped she would, no one shuffles and chats we're listening together to Simon who stands at a round table in the middle of the aisle, circling it, leaning on his elbows, leaning back, incredibly precise and mocking himself very gently and also a love poet unabashedly. He has written a cento about bees. We smile at each other across a wide clear space. Across air. There is laughter and the harp. Plucking.

Simon stands on one side of the table and then the other. He is reading from Hearth, he’s getting away with everything, like telling stories, the one about “A Spectre,” dedicated to Brenda Coultas, with whom he visited the spiritualist community Lily Dale, he tells us as he has told us before that knowing the names doesn’t matter, doesn't matter because of the poem, and then like two glass doors bang shut in the wind Simon returns to where we began, “I’m here” the poem ends and continues, “I’m here” the ancestors, “I’m here,” teachers, birth and death, “I’m here.”

Originally Published: April 1st, 2014

Stephanie Young lives in Oakland, California. Her collections of poetry include Telling the Future Off (2005), Picture Palace (2008), and Ursula or University (2013). She edited the anthology Bay Poetics (2006) and is a founding editor of the online anthology/“museum” of Oakland, Deep Oakland. Young and poet Juliana Spahr coedited...