1. Home
  2. Poetry Magazine
  3. How It Feels by Jenny Zhang
Prose from Poetry Magazine

How It Feels

There was a girl in my middle school no one really liked. She told everyone her uncle had sexually abused her and that she had an older boyfriend who was a freshman at Yale, and yes, they did more than kiss. People said terrible things about her — that she was lying about her uncle, that she just wanted the attention, that her boyfriend was made up, that she had never seen a penis in her life, that the reason why she so frequently stared into space with her mouth hanging open was so she could remind everyone what her “blowjob face” looked like.

At the end of the year, she didn’t come to school for a few days in a row. The rumor was that she tried to kill herself with a plastic spoon (the especially cruel said it was a plastic spork she got from the lunchroom). It was officially (unofficially?) the most hilarious and pathetic attempt at suicide anyone had ever heard of. I didn’t find it funny, but I did rush home after hearing about it, grabbed a spoon from the kitchen, locked myself in my bedroom, and there, sitting on my bed, I pretended to slit my wrists with the spoon, pushing it against my vein. Is this at all meaningful? I wondered.

Remember in the teen flick Heathers, when Shannen Doherty’s character, Heather 2.0, informs Winona Ryder’s character, Veronica, that the school’s numero uno loser Martha Dumptruck attempted suicide and failed? When even one’s failure to live is a failure ... is there anything more poetic?

In the movie, Heather rushes into Veronica’s living room during “pâté-hour” and announces gleefully, “Veronica, have you heard? We were doing Chinese at the food fair when it comes over the radio that Martha Dumptruck tried to buy the farm. She bellyflopped in front of a car wearing a suicide note.”

“Is she dead?” Veronica asks, horrified.

“No, that’s the punchline. She’s alive and in stable condition. Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people in the school and failing miserably.”

Do popular kids write poetry? The popular kids in my high school were the cliché teen movie jocks and cheerleaders who bitched and moaned through every poetry segment we did in English class. “This is just weird and makes no sense,” was a constant refrain.

Or: “Yo, this person needs to chill out. It’s just a tree/bird/building/urn/body of water. Like it’s really not that big of a deal.”

Darkness is acceptable and even attractive so long as there is a threshold that is not crossed. But most people I know who suffer, suffer 
relentlessly and unendingly no matter what sort of future is proposed (“it’ll get better/it won’t always be this like/you will start to heal/
I know it’s such a cliché but you really will come out of this stronger in the end”).

Why is it so humiliating to go on and on about something that means a lot to you only to be told, “Wow, you spend a lot of time thinking about stuff, don’t you?”

Or: “So, you’re one of those people who analyzes everything, huh?”

Or: “That’s kind of dark.”

Or worse: “Um ... OK.”

My school’s Martha Dumptruck frequently submitted poems to our literary journal of which I was on the editorial board. I thought her poetry was terrible. I was so embarrassed for her. What I knew about poetry in high school was that it was both hard to understand and completely open to interpretation. I was told that a poem could really mean anything. Poems could have grammatical mistakes, they could give a fuck about narrative or the space-time continuum or reality as we knew it. Poetry was an attempt to dig into the buried stuff inside a person’s psyche. It used dream logic instead of the logic of our waking lives. Poems were sputtered by demons not sprung out of morality. In other words, poems were deep shit, and they were also anything at all (this became clearer the further I strayed from my high school’s poetry curriculum): a single word (lighght), symbols and signs (Hannah Weiner’s code poems), phrases that a child learning to speak might say (a rose is a rose is a rose), words that have been uttered a zillion times (I love thee / you), a blank page, a collage, an erasure, a Google spam filter, whatever. But if that was the case, if poems could be anything at all, then why is the default to cringe whenever someone writes a poem about their feelings? Even worse if that someone is a teenager? Even worse if that someone is no longer a teenager but nonetheless thinks about themselves with the kind of intensity that is only acceptable between the ages of thirteen and nineteen?

Last year, someone commented on my Instagram that I had a responsibility to the young (mostly) women and men who were using the hashtag #noonecares. The comment was under a picture of me standing on the pier of the Williamsburg waterfront, days before I slipped into the kind of bland, unexciting-to-describe, low-grade depression that I mostly masked from my friends and family by not leaving my apartment and making excuses to duck out of every social obligation. It was several weeks of lying in bed, holding in my shit and piss for hours until I reached the tipping point (leakage happened occasionally) because I was too depressed to get out of bed — the thought of moving across the room and down the hallway to get to the bathroom seemed like a particular kind of hell that I could not agree to.

A few months later, when I was no longer in the I’d-rather-shit-my-pants-a-little-than-climb-out-of-bed phase of my depression, I became curious about what having little-to-no will to live looked like for other people. I browsed the hashtag I had used in the caption of my photo, “First taste of daylight in 72 hours #noonecares,” and quickly spiraled into the territory of self-harm hashtags: from #noonecares to #noonecaresifidie, #wanttodie, #whatsthepoint, #depressed, #hurting, #help, #ihatemyself. I scrolled through the photos for as long as I could stomach it, which was not long as it was primarily pictures of slashed up arms, razors floating in the toilet with captions like, “the last of my stash ... if I get 100 likes tonight, I’ll flush them.”

Why are some people’s feelings so repellent and others so madly alluring? As a fourteen-year-old, I wanted to be someone who was destined to die beautifully like Shakespeare’s Juliet — freshly fucked, dead before ever having the chance to know what it’s like to despise the person you once loved. She died just as her love for Romeo was ascending, becoming heavenly. In the throes of love, infinity seemed like a good idea. Pain looked so good on her. It immortalized her. Juliet was my suicide idol — hers was a suicide to aspire to and 
I couldn’t even get close. Like so many other fourteen-year-old girls, 
I was told that my problems were minor, my tragedies imaginary, and worst of all — I was told I hadn’t lived enough to really want to die.

The failure to move someone with what you think is the tragedy of your existence. I don’t know, or just another way of saying #noonecares.

That thing where we imagine what would happen if we died and our dead, needy souls could float above our own funeral, watching the people who didn’t love us as we wanted to be loved, in attendance, weeping, blaming themselves for not having tried harder to save us, for not having been more generous, more attentive. Why does it give us such satisfaction to imagine them saying, “I should have been better to you. I should have never treated you this way.”

When a young person dies, they are forever immortalized, forever grieved, but what happens when we are too old to die young? Or if we can’t commit to dying a physical death but still want to reap the joys of being mourned, which I guess is just some way of saying: 
I need proof that my existence matters.

There was this other kid who was universally picked on in my high school. He had epilepsy and talked with his mouth a little crooked. The jocks (there were jocks) would purposefully bump into him in the hallway, knocking his books onto the ground and kicking them so he had to scramble to pick them all up again.

“We’re just having some fun,” they said whenever a teacher came out to investigate. No one really had the energy to stop the momentum of cruelty anyway. Then, during my senior year, it was 
announced over the loudspeaker that he had suffered a severe seizure in his sleep the night before and died.

Everything is embarrassing, everything seems like a facsimile of the real thing, whatever that might be, if it even exists. My whole high school went into mourning. I lost track of the red faces, the number of students who wanted to share their personal story of how he touched their lives, what a good person he was, how he represented 
the spirit of our school and our town. It was an exciting day ... to be so close to something so genuinely tragic, a rare instance where showing feelings in public was a good thing, as valuable as being an asshole had been the day before.

When someone dies, we go searching for poetry. When a new chapter of life starts or ends — graduations, weddings, inaugurations, funerals — we insist on poetry. The occasion for poetry is always a grand one, leaving us little people with our little lives bereft of elegies and love poems.

But I want elegies while I’m still alive, I want rhapsodies though I’ve never seen Mount Olympus. I want ballads, I want ugly, grating sounds, I want repetition, I want white space, I want juxtaposition and metaphor and meditation and all caps and erasure and blank verse and sonnets and even center-aligned italicized poems that rhyme, and most of all — feelings.

When I was a teenager, every little moment called for poetry. 
I mean, I’m still this way, except at my age it’s considered inappropriate and embarrassing, if not downright creepy.

The first time I was exposed to Tracey Emin I was twenty-four and discussing misspellings and typos with my boyfriend at the time who had brought home a bunch of Tracey Emin art books from the library. Her work often contains “mistakes,” like her monoprint that says, “retier softly” in little kid chicken scratch above a drawing of a naked girl on her knees. We loved her sloppiness. We loved how little she seemed to process her emotions before turning them into art. “I’d rather eat processed food than have processed emotions,” I wrote once in my notebook after reading a transcript of her film, How It Feels, where she describes in great detail the trauma of her first abortion: “I felt something slip and as it slipped I put my hand there and what I held between my thigh and the palm of my hand was a fetus, kind of mashed-up fetus ...”

We loved the crudeness of her drawings and embroideries and monoprints and neons. I loved her self-absorption. I found it so incredibly generous — to be just as ugly as anyone but to emphasize that ugliness over and over again, to let yourself be the subject of your art and to take all the pummeling and the eye-rolling and the cruel remarks and the who cares? and the that’s not art that’s just a scorned woman unable to let go. Her pain was so alluring to me. I stared at the pictures of her depressed bed with the sheets all bunched up and stained with her bodily fluids and dried up menstrual blood and the psychic weight of psychic bedsores from not being able to lift oneself out of there. I had a bed too and it had been the site of my depression so many times in my life. I slept on my own dried blood as well and wore the same underwear so many days in a row that the discharge from my cunt had built up and become so thick that it essentially glued my pubic hair to my underwear and every time I had to pee and pull down my panties I would give myself like a little unintentional bikini wax.

My boyfriend and I were particularly enthralled with Tracey because at the time we were courting each other with misspellings and typos. It was the early years of auto-correct on phones. We both had flip-phones whose range of saved words were much more limited than iPhones now. “I miss you baby and my twat is still ringing” became “I miss you bikes and my twat is still ringing.” “Come home and I’ll make you ramen” became “Come home and I’ll make you robb.” “I will wait for you after class my pamplemousse” became “I will wait for you after class my samplenourse.” “I miss you bikes” was mistyped one time as “I miss you bikers.” “Bikers I’m preparing a very good robb for us” became “bikespspspspspspspspsp I’m preparing a very good robb for us” because I accidentally hit the s key too long. We built our private little world through these mistakes, and like everyone else falling in love we tried to become one entity, impenetrable through our arsenal of inside jokes, through a language that other people could not understand or use.

The year I fell in love, I wrote a story about my relationship with my little brother and sent it to my mom. She wrote back:

I just finished read whole story. It is very funny and touchable, plus nice pictures. you should e-mail this to Johnny too. I was laughed a lot. I wish I can translate this to Chinese. Maybe oneday I will.

Love,
Mom

I rarely have the impulse to correct someone’s mistake, or misspelling, or mispronunciation, or misusage. Every time my mom speaks in English, she makes a mistake. She pronounces tissue “tee-shoe” and once, in the middle of the night, when she was sick with the flu she woke violently sneezing and asked my dad to get her a “tee-shoe,” and so he got up and pulled a T-shirt from the drawer, thinking she was cold. Later, I tried to teach both of them how to “correctly” pronounce “tissue” and “T-shirt” and I truly, truly, truly felt like a scumbag.

But I have to get back to Tracey Emin and her misspellings and her intensity and her nakedness. I mean her literal nakedness and her emotional nakedness, both subject to such revulsion and praise and fascination and snap judgment and boredom and ugly patronizing and overt cringing. I look at the photo from her show I’ve Got It All where she’s sitting on the floor, legs bent and spread, wearing chains around her neck and little messy braids tucked behind her ear. She’s shoving bills and coins and miscellaneous bits of junky flotsam and jetsam. Her tits look unbelievably good and her legs look tired and she’s looking down at all this garbage and bills and the moment captured is in a sense so completely trashy and gleeful and celebratory and excessive and weird, but in another sense, the photo is so much that it becomes a statement against allowing others to tell your story, against those who would insist on your victimhood. When I look at that photo, I don’t pity her at all. I love her. She is the first poet 
I have loved.

And her scratched out poems are the greatest poems I know. One of her monoprints is a drawing of a naked girl standing in front of a nondescript black puddle, and next to it, the words:

pethetic
little
thing

Aren’t we? At least those of us who still risk revealing ourselves in public?

In How It Feels, Tracey narrates through a voiceover her struggle to make art after her abortion:

Ah ... I gave up painting, I gave up art, I gave up believing, I gave up faith. I had what I called my emotional suicide, I gave up a lot of friendships with people, I just gave up believing in life really and it’s taken me years to actually start loving and 
believing again. I realized that there was a greater idea of creativity. Greater than anything I could make just with my mind or with my hands, I realized there was something ... the essence of creativity, that moment of conception, the whole importance, the whole being of everything and I realized that if I was going to make art it couldn’t be about ... it couldn’t be about a fuckin’ picture. It couldn’t be about something visual. It had to be about where it was really coming from and because of the abortion and because of conceiving, I had a greater understanding of where things really came from and where they actually ended up so I couldn’t tolerate, or, or, err, I just felt it would be unforgivable of me to start making things, filling the world up with more crap. There’s no reason for that. But if I couldn’t fill the world up with someone which I could love for ever and ever and ever then there was no way I could fill the world up with just like menial things. That’s art.

I guess that is what is so embarrassing about being a poet, that you might be filling the world up with more crap. That your pathetic little thing is not interesting to anyone but yourself.

When the warehouse that housed her piece Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 19631995 — a tent with all the names of everyone she slept with embroidered on the inside — burned down, journalist Tom Lubbock wrote in The Independent,

But it’s odd to hear talk about irreplaceable losses. Really? You’d have thought that, with the will and the funding, many of these works were perfectly replaceable. It wouldn’t be very hard for Tracey Emin to re-stitch the names of Every One I Have Ever Slept With onto a little tent (it might need some updating since 1995).

If even internationally recognized artists can be invalidated with just one, “um ... OK,” then what about the rest of us? #noonecares

The quote I kept seeing again and again in all of these Instagram self-harm and suicide hashtags: “No one cares unless you’re pretty or 
dying.” But there were others as well:

I hope my last breath is a sigh of relief.

disgusted by my own self

I remember everything that you forgot

do you ever feel worthless

please please please let me die in my sleep

This is how you make me feel, like a black mass of nothingness, an ugly space filled with my own sadness

I fucked up I failed — it was my disaster — my choice — I just didn’t expect to feel so bad — so foolish and so afraid of ever being touched.

All of these but especially the last one remind me of Tracey Emin’s artwork. There’s a part in her essay “You Left Me Breathing” where she writes about the dissolution of a relationship:

You left me — you left me breathing — just half alive — curled up like some small baby seal, clubbed half to death — you left me alone — you left me breathing — half alive — 

Half alive is not dead — stains on the shore, blood seeping into the water, but definitely not dead. I tried to think of and remember the times when I had cried, not just tears that ran down my cheeks, but the breathless sobs of overwrought, uncontrollable emotion.

I don’t know if we, as a culture, feel compelled to extend much sympathy to those who are half alive. Half alive is not dead.

In her neons, Tracey Emin takes a material that has long been associated with seediness to communicate some very adolescent feelings. Neon is cheesy, neon is tacky, neon hangs over love motels off the highway that charge by the hour, neon blinks in the part of town where the riffraff linger, where ne’er-do-wells pass each other on street corners, where people who might be there one day and dead the next hang out. Tracey’s neons hang out in galleries, glow bright in Times Square, and they cycle through a moving range of teeny emotions, from the hopeful, Fantastic to Feel Beautiful Again, to the moody, Sorry Flowers Die, to the bratty, people like you need to fuck people like me. Some of her neon messages are crossed out, i know i know i know, while others literally appear as indecipherable scribbles.

My favorite neon is the one that simply says:

Just Love me

Is there anything so inadequate as the words “I love you”? Is there anything so perfectly capable as “I love you”?

“O!” I said when my boss at my first real job working as an union organizer told me, “We don’t do midriffs here.” “O! Okay!” I said. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “you look great and you should show that off on your own time. But just as a rule, we don’t do midriffs at work.” “O!” I said when a boy I waited all year to meet again in Paris told me, “I want to elope with you,” while we were on a train from Paris to Nice. We spent three days eating sandwiches from the 
garbage bins outside of cafes. We tried to go to an outdoor movie screening of Terminator 3 on a cliff that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, but it was twenty euros to enter and we were nineteen short, so he hoisted me up onto a tree — “O!” I said, “I’m gonna fall,” — and took off my underwear and scrunched it up into the pocket of my dress because I had an urinary tract infection and needed to pee every twenty minutes, my diseased urine dribbling through the leafy branches. “O!” I said, “I hope I don’t accidentally pee on someone’s head.” Afterward we said goodbye in the doorway of the studio I was subletting in the Bastille — he was leaving to go back to Scotland and I was leaving to go back to the US — and just as I was beginning to mourn what I had to leave behind, I heard a knock at the door and it was him again. “It would be easy to fall in love with someone like you ... difficult in fact not to,” he said, granting me my lifelong wish of being my own protagonist in a movie. “O ... ” I said, “I won’t be able to forget you.” “O!” I said when I saw my grandmother for the first time in three years, chilled by how old she looked this time, too old to dye her hair black like how she used to and how the hair dye she used was so cheap that it would run down her scalp and the little black drip marks would remain on her forehead for days. She was too old to curl her bangs by wrapping them around an empty can of Pepsi and then taking me and my brother out to the store to buy more with her Pepsi can roller on prominent display. O! I was mortified back then. “O!” I said when her nose started bleeding as soon as she saw my brother, and I noticed how small she was sitting in that wheelchair, how at every stage we occupy a different throne and hers now was that of a sick old person. “O!” I said, “you must,” when she said she wanted to make one last trip to the United States to see us, even though I knew she would never make that trip. “O!” I said when she told me she likes to have conversations with me and my brother in her dreams. We come to her and we are just the age we were when she took care of us and lived with us in New York. “O! Yes, I remember,” I say to every memory she details even though I do not remember any of it. “O!” I write in my poems sometimes with nothing to follow but it is wonderful to use that letter and that exclamation mark. It is wonderful to try and say anything.

O maybe no one really does care. Maybe it is humiliating to 
attempt anything.

I sincerely don’t know why poetry can be mortifying but tattoos can be cool.

I think everyone wants to make something touchable, but most of us don’t out of fear of being laughable. I’m not saying I’m fearless.

My mom used to ask her mom to touch her earlobes so she could fall asleep. When she immigrated to New York and could no longer fall asleep at her mother’s house in Shanghai, she started asking me and my father. I remember one time I said, I don’t get it, why do you like that? Let me show you, she said, and she rubbed my earlobes until I couldn’t help but close my eyes. I started to see differently. 
I think we were spooning. Or I had my head in her lap and she was sitting upright against the bed. “Do you see how good it feels to be touched there?” she asked me. I did.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Poetry magazine

Prose from Poetry Magazine

How It Feels

Other Information

  • Browse Poems

    loading...