Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How a Second Year (in a Three Year Program) Spends His Summer

Hello friends, Romans, countrymen! It's been a while, a good long while, since I posted here. Naturally it is because of my endless cavalcade of celebrity shindigs, film premieres and promiscuous cavorting that has caused my absence. Just kidding folks. Well, mostly. Right now I am writing this from my mother's favorite recliner in my parents' house, a house they will soon be moving out of, but probably not until after I return to Ohio. I find myself in an interesting place, not physically on this chair, but personally, professionally and emotionally. Basically I am eager to get back to Columbus and start living again.

As some of you know, my transition from West Coast rockstar to Sockeye Salmon out of water in the midwest has been occasionally rough, sometimes even depressing. This is not because of the program or even the location so much as it is rooted in the fact that, before now, I never really lived anywhere else than California (and even then I've always lived within 100 miles of where I grew up). Though there is a lot of diversity in my home state, it doesn't represent the vastness of this country, because nowhere can, so Ohio, unsurprisingly, is much different from here. Different in some ways I like, and some ways I don't like. Again, nothing earth shattering about this revelation. It simply is what it is.

Anyway when my summer began I had two main goals: 1) travel around/bask in the glory that is the Golden State and 2) write poems that were better than what I wrote last summer.

The first was important because after finding myself somewhat lost and adrift in Ohio I realized that my upbringing, heck, the specificity of the time and place and circumstances of where I grew up and lived almost all of my life, was important, nay, essential to who I am and why I do this crazy poetry thing. With that in mind, I endeavored to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for my home (generally and specifically) in order to attempt to tackle it like my new hero, Robert Hass, has for decades. Simply put, I wanted to cultivate a certain kind of California-ness in my writing, a sensibility I hope to incorporate with my other writerly interests (the male body, homoeroticism, mythology, history, perspective etc.) and I want to do it both in terms of the nature, of course, but also the people. To this end I spent some time in Northern California, essentially touring the bay area, rarely sleeping in the same place twice. I walked the rocky Santa Cruz coast at night, throbbed to the helter-skelter sounds of a gay discotheque in San Francisco, and lazed in the shade of coastal redwoods looming high in Berkeley. I drove a lot, as a passenger anyway, and as such had a lot of time to observe people and places. I met vivid characters who left marks on my memory like fingerprints. I even flirted with a hot guy across a dark room, full of mostly naked men. After my sojourn was over, I headed back down to familiar territory--Los Angeles, where I dined in Ktown, skipped along the beach in Santa Monica, brought baked goods back from Canters, saw a few good movies in single-show theaters and lost myself in the beautiful Getty center (an exhibit on Social Issues Photojournalism was particularly arresting)--before finally coming home the Mojave desert. Since I've been home I've barely ventured outside and even then only long enough to get sunburned. You need to live here to realize how little time that takes. Still, it could be worse; it could be Nevada or Arizona. Even being home, even house hunting with my mother in 110 degree heat, has opened my eyes to the sparse and simple beauty of chaparral and Joshua trees. There's a lot more to love about home than I realized.

So have I written "California poems"? Some, but not many, and they're not really that good. I once heard Bret Anthony Johnston read his fiction at UCLA and he said that he found he couldn't write about a place until he left it, until he moved on. I feel the same way. I think that the physical distance enables a certain kind of emotional objectivity, not unlike how photographing something banal tends to yield intriguing details about the thing. Those details (the way light spills into a parking garage, the way macaroni and cheese can resemble human brains in a bowl) are present, but it takes the objectivity of the camera lens to yield it clearly. So too does distance in relation to our perceptions of the thing we're distanced from, be it a loved one, a pet, a favorite sweater, a car, or even a home state. I hope that I will write more about home when I return to Ohio.

I've written a lot though, a lot of non-"California" (or is it) poetry. I've drafted about fifty poems, but the number shouldn't shock anyone. I write a lot of initial drafts and typically end up with a handful of fine poems...I don't know that any of them are great except for the two being published. As we all know, published = greatest (well not really, but it sort of feels that way, doesn't it?) At any rate, I've been sporadically productive, as I'm want to, and I've started exchanging drafts with a fellow second year via these series of tubes we all hold so near and dear to our postmodern (post to the third power?) existence. I for one welcome our future robot overlords. Let them be merry and fertile. I think I've accomplished my second mission of writing better poems than I wrote last summer because I feel I am a much better and more grounded writer. I have a sense of what is important to me, what I do well, and what I need work on. This is exactly what I was hoping the program would do for me. OSU has three amazing poet-teachers and I am so humbled to have received their encouragement, criticism, praise and often humorous scorn. It's heartening to see my own progression. It gives me a sense of direction, as in I am going somewhere even if it zigzagged, spiraling down, or randomly jabbing.

I'm excited to return to Columbus because I feel like I'm going to really run as soon as I hit the ground. I am taking an Asian-American lit class (a pet hobby/potential parallel career interest of mine) and I have half a dozen novels to (hopefully) read before class starts in September. I have lessons to plan for my poetry writing class (which I am super jazzed about teaching! Those kids are going to have a lot of fun with me! Fun and LEARNING!) I have new MFAs to non-romantically romance! New Ph.D's to form an uneasy though gradually more comfortable and enriching playfully combative relationship with! I have a GradQueer organization to co-run! Poems to send out to journals (that have actually expressed interest to see such things from me!) New apartments to move into (well, just one)! So much to do! And it all starts when I head back to the home of Jeni's Ice Cream and the most unthreatening gaybars in the country (probably). I'm so glad (and fortunate really) to be in a three year program because with the introductory year behind me and the thesis year looming ahead, the second year should be a party...a writing party! Full of seriousness and purpose and personalized rejection letters and late night coffee jaunts and new recipes and pledges to go to the gym that may or may not hold and...and...and...well I'm glad to be at OSU.

Here are some recommendations on poetry: Robert Hass's The Apple Trees at Olema, Carolyn Forche's The Country Between Us, Larry Levis's Winter Stars, Alan Shapiro's The Dead Are Alive and Busy, Rae Armantrout's Versed, Timothy Liu's Say Goodnight and Ralph Angel's Anxious Latitudes. All are quite good in my estimation.

And for the applicants...don't let the process harangue you this early in the game. Be sure to be writing now since most applications won't go live for another couple of months. It's time to draft, draft, and redraft everything. A year from now if you're in a program you'll realize the humor of this since you, like me, will probably be doing the exact same thing though (hopefully) with better results.


  1. Have you read Joan Didion's Where I Was From? Just a suggestion if you're getting your California on.

    Best of luck on year the second!

  2. I'm pretty sure I'm taking that Asian-American lit class, too! MW mornings?

  3. @Amy I love that Didion book though my favorite might still be Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Where I Was From is a good book on the subject though. Yay for like minds!

    @Lindsay We do indeed appear to be in the same class with Joe Ponce. I'm excited for it...I took an Asian-Am Lit class at UCLA and it was really cool.

  4. Hey Tory, I missed northern California (Sonoma County) for the first time this week. Here in Wilmington, NC there is no Trader Joe's, no Whole Foods, and the "International Foods" section of my grocery store consists of frozen pizza rolls. (Tearing up now.)

    Next time you're in SF try the Ethiopian restaurant in the Haight. I think it's called Eritrea, but I forget.

    Enjoy your CA summer!

  5. It's funny how even if California doesn't translate into new poems until you leave California, it might have some fish-eye lens effect on your non-California poems, simply for being approached in such a familiar place. Glad to hear it was a good summer.

  6. I think there is a lot of truth to not being able to write about a landscape until you are out of it. I know that has been true for me! Have a great semester :)

  7. Tory, your description of Columbus as "the home of Jeni's Ice Cream and the most unthreatening gaybars in the country" warms my little Ohioan heart!

    And "The Country Between Us" is one of my favorite books ever. And I think Timothy Liu is wonderful and few people seem to know his work, so his book on your list also made me smile.

    I've always written a fair amount about place, but I think that I can write more objectively, and better, about Ohio now that I'm stuck in PA, so what you said about writing about CA makes sense to me. Best wishes for your second year! If you meet Will Kurlinkus (in Rhet/Comp) tell him I said hello - he did his masters here at Penn State and is going to OSU for the PhD.

  8. I totally feel you on the California poems thing, except for me it's Idaho lol. Happy 2nd year to you!


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