I Had a Moment: A Few Thoughts on Denis Johnson, 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.

The Personal Is Political

“The moment when a feeling enters the body / is political.” —Adrienne Rich, “The Ghazals”

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” —Claudia Rankine, from Citizen

11/22/16: SOTA teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students and Willa and me after our workshop.

11/22/16: Teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students, Willa, and me after our workshop (Photo by SOTA Teacher Marcy Gamzon)

This morning, poet Willa Carroll and I co-taught a creative writing master class to high school students at the Rochester City School District’s School of the Arts. Willa is a proud alumna of the school and I often wished, while growing up, I had also been a student there. Happily, I’ve been able to be a part of the larger SOTA community through the many alums I have as friends and acquaintances—and these master classes.

Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Poet Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Willa and I last visited SOTA as guest writers in June of 2014 (here’s my blog post about that visit). She and I have known each other since high school and it’s been rewarding to continue our friendship through writing and our various moves for school and work.

We focused today’s reading and workshop on “political writing”—writing the political, and thinking about the relationship between what is personal and what is seen as political. Willa and I both chose to frame our readings and writing exercises with words by, among others, Adrienne Rich, a groundbreaking poet, public intellectual, and second-wave feminist. The phrase, “the personal is political,” was important to me as a writer, particularly in college, when I came further into a feminist consciousness I had only begun to articulate in high school. I just googled “the personal is political,” and Wikipedia offered this handy history and context for the phrase:

The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, Women’s Studies, or feminism in general.[2][3] It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for women.

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title “The Personal is Political” in 1970,[4] but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. “Instead,” Burch writes, “they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.”[5]Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of “World War II,”[5] although the invention of the phrase “World War II” can in fact be traced to a Time editorial published in September 1939.[6]

The phrase figured in women-of-color feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde‘s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called Home. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[7]

Before beginning my reading, I mentioned that there have been a handful of events in the last fifteen years, which have shaped the direction and ideology of our country. In my opinion, these events include 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, and our most recent presidential election. The election showed me that the most misogynistic, racist, and incendiary speech and behavior by a presidential candidate not only did not take him out of the running—it likely helped elect him. This shocked me. And also that some Americans were likely not OK with a female president. Much more to say about that, but back to our workshop, which we began to plan before the election (and its results).

Willa read the two quotes at the beginning of this blog post. Before getting into my lesson on “making the invisible visible” and using forms such as lists as a writing prompt, I read a short excerpt from Rich’s essay, “Invisibility in Academe”:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard…to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other.

I think this is an incredibly powerful passage and one I’ve come back to again and again over the last 20 years.

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Sejal Shah (photo by Willa Carroll).

We then looked at “25 things, post-election version,” a sort of  list “essay,” which my former MFA classmate, Noria Jablonski wrote and posted on Facebook the day after the election. I also read my lyric / list essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” which was published in September in Brevity’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization.

Student Writers Hard at Work

SOTA Students writing hard, heads bent, pens moving.

A couple of the students shared their list exercises, and they were wonderful. The SOTA students were lively, focused, and wrote terrific responses to the four writing exercises we brought to them—even on the day before Thanksgiving Break! Speaking of thanks, we are thankful to have been able to return to work with these talented writers. Thank you also to teachers Marcy Gamzon and Bradley Craddock for hosting us, and to Friends of School of the Arts for sponsoring our visit.

None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

Fear of the Midwest

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Refrigerator magnets I got at a rest stop on the NYS Thruway. Yes, I was nostalgic for the place where I live.

Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and the Southern Tier all hang onto the moniker of the Northeast by their fingernails. In my story, “The Half King,” I describe Western New York and Rochester as “disturbingly close to Ohio.” New York is part of both the Northeast region and the Mid-Atlantic States. I thought I grew up on the East Coast; it wasn’t until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean…to read more click here for my most recent essay for the Kenyon Review.

The Secret Room

The Secret Room

The Secret Room (complete with a door that’s a swinging bookcase) in the downtown branch of the Rochester Public Library.

When I was growing up in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, you could drive to Monroe Avenue on the east side of the city and spend the afternoon wandering between bookstores. My friend Karen and I would make our way from the largest of them, The Village Green, to the Brown Bag Bookstore, then to Gutenberg’s Books (used and rare), and then to the feminist/lesbian bookstore, Silkwood. I bought my second-hand copy of The Bell Jar on Monroe Avenue. I still have it….Read more of my latest post for the Kenyon Review here.

Hin-Jews in the House

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At my Diwali party in 2001 in Amherst, MA. Both Monica and I lived in Massachusetts for many years and went to graduate school there.

Two months ago, my dear friend Monica Gebell and I read together at Writers & Books, the local literary center in Rochester where I teach. We grew up together, have known each other since middle school, and have both been writing for a long time. Time goes by so quickly and already much has happened between then and now—so I’m especially grateful Monica wrote something about our reading.  Read more here…

Upcoming: Spring Yoga & Writing Workshop

I’m looking forward to leading my next mindfulness retreat, a Yoga & Writing workshop with yoga teacher Erin Garvin at Midtown Athletic Club in Rochester, NY on Sunday, April 17th, 2016. Past participants’ comments have highlighted how valuable and restorative they have found these workshops. I love teaching them. 2016 is the fifth year that I’ve taught or co-taught a writing & yoga workshop.

Our day-long retreat will integrate motion and reflection, nurturing spring’s natural inclination towards metamorphosis. All levels of yoga are welcome; no writing experience is necessary. For more information or to register, visit here.  For more on my path of how I came to teach these workshops, click here to read an article in the UMASS Amherst alumni magazine.

Poster image for Yoga & Writing: A Mindfulness Retreat   Photo of Sejal Shah teaching a Writing & Yoga workshop