I Had a Moment: A Few Thoughts on Readings & Endings

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Poster from Denis Johnson’s reading at the University of Rochester. October 9, 2015.

I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.

The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.

IMG_2972And I forgot for a while (about a  year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.

Denis Johnson       10.9.15   UR

“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”

From “Silences,” a story:

“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”

“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”

“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”

From “Accomplices”:

“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”

@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”

First sentence of a different story:

“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”

Other sentences:

“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”

“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”

“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”

“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”

“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”

“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”

“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”

***

He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.

Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.

I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.

Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.

Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel

Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said

I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.

***

That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.

But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And  then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.

That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.

2017 Winter-Spring Roundup

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Reading at Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon, Cheshire Cocktail Bar. January 8, 2017. Photo by Jamie McFarlan.

After I reached my 2016 goal of blogging twice a month (twelve columns for The Kenyon Review Blog) plus other posts on my website—I took a break. My last post of 2016 turned into an essay, an article, a repository of links, lists and quotes—not so simple after all. Writing and revising took many, many hours. I wrote about assembling and creating a manuscript, and then two manuscripts, from individual essays and stories—what I spent the better part of my year doing. I worked hard to compile some resources I had found helpful. Many people read “On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again,” and let me know that. Erika Dreifus also linked to my column in her terrific Friday Finds for Writers. Thank you, Erika! You set the bar high for literary citizenship.

Still, I’m thinking about whether or not it’s actually worth the time it takes to blog. Then I read a post by Ravi Mangla called 2016 Link Roundup, and it’s brilliant—simple links to writing he’s published in the last year—easy access to his work for those who are interested. I wanted to do something similar in this post—an update of sorts—since 2017 has been eventful so far (and otherwise I forget things, my own publications, and what I’ve been reading—time seems to only speed up as I get older).

The year began for me with a reading in January:

  • Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon This was a terrific start to a beautifully organized reading series. Invitation only and RSVP required. It really had the feel of intimate salon away from the social media trumpeting before or after. Music, craft cocktails, popcorn, a program, a Q&A. A relaxed Sunday afternoon, time to talk and mingle afterward, receptive audience.
  • My Advanced Creative Nonfiction class and I will be reading at Cheshire (the cocktail bar) at the July edition of the Speak Easy Salon on Sunday, July 9th. More info here.

Publications Thus Far in 2017:

Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (University of Michigan Press, 2017/ Ed. Kazim Ali). I wrote the lead essay in this just-released anthology about the lasting influence of my former MFA professor, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. You can order Mad Heart Be Brave here. Read an earlier version of my essay, “The World Is Full of Paper. Write to Me.,” online here.

Rochester Magazine (scroll to second essay, “From a Distance”). This was my 1st publication in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester’s daily newspaper—Rochester Magazine is a monthly supplement to the paper) in over 20 years (I had another publication when I was in college). The 2017 essay is about my wedding, and the ambivalence I felt about so many traditions associated with getting married.

The Asian American Literary Review‘s special issue on mental health: Open in Emergency. I contributed a short story, “Watch Over Me; Turn a Blind Me,” and a creative annotation of the pieces that made up the “Hacked DMV: Asian American Edition.”  The title link has more information on how to order Open in Emergency, and about the project more generally—it can be used as a tool in classrooms and community settings—a kind of social justice and educational intervention.

Redux: My short story, “Dicot, Monocot,” about friendship in middle school, originally published in the print literary journal Pleiades in 2002, is now available online. “Dicot” is one of my first fiction publications. Thanks to the wonderful editor, Leslie Pietrzyk— for creating a venue for work published in print journals to have a second life online. Leslie is another true literary citizen. On Redux, you can also read a brief, reflective piece I wrote as a companion to “Dicot”—the story behind my story.

Other:

My friend and former student Katie Duane published a lovely Literary Guide to Rochester. I’m thrilled she chose to feature an excerpt of my story, “The Half King.” This story is one of my favorites as well as a valentine of sorts to my hometown.

Most Anticipated Small Press Books of 2017!: I admire John Madera, the editor of the website, Big Other. He’s an example of an excellent writer who is also a real literary citizen, contributing to the larger community of writers and readers. It’s refreshing to see writers championing other writers after the sometimes relentless self-promotion that authors need to do. John sent out a request to writers in 2016 to contribute to his list of new books to look forward to in 2017: my contributions include new books by writers Geeta Kothari and Nate Pritts.

Speaking of other people’s writing, here are some essays and articles I recommend—terrific resources and thoughts by smart, committed writers I know. By posting links here, I hope I can refer back to the essays and that others might read these essays, too. Please let me know if you do—and let the writers themselves know, also. It’s sometimes lonely writing into the void.

Links to essays I recommend:

Karen Craigo’s brilliant and necessary essay, “May I Have Several Hours of Your Time?”  (Thank you, Karen, for writing this. Everyone—at least every woman and every writer and every woman writer—should read this. Let me know what you think. Or better yet, let her know.)

On a similar note, thank God for Melissa Febos’ essay in Catapult: “Do You Want to Be Known for Your Writing Or For Your Swift Email Responses” (relevant especially to women—or maybe relevant especially to me).

Heidi Czerwiec‘s essay, “Anatomy of an Outrage,” in ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People. You have to read the essay—I can’t summarize it. Heidi and I met at the NonfictioNOW conference in 2015 in Flagstaff, Arizona. In her essay, she references a 2016 column I wrote for The Kenyon Review Blog on trauma and privilege.

Claudia Rankine’s “I Think We Need to Be Frightened” (highlights from a talk she gave at BAM, published in LitHub). On her thoughts on the current political climate and reality in the US. A must-read.

Ravi Mangla‘s creative nonfiction essay, “Seven Months,” made me cry. In front of him. Just after reading this piece, I burst into tears. It was embarrassing (crying in public), but you should read it. His essay appears in the beautiful, newly-launched magazine, LitMag.

Thank you, Neil Aitken, for this blog post in de-canon: “Writers of Color Discussing Craft—An Invisible Archive.” There are links to SO many important resources and articles here. Please take a look and bookmark it. I was glad to see a link to The Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, which hosted a forum about Yi-Fen Chou and appropriation—one of my essays is included here.