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poems of the people

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
- walt whitman

it’s april.  which means it is, once again, national poetry month—that time of year when poets try like hell to get non-poets to give a shit about poetry.  (i kid because i care.)  if we are to believe the poetry foundation’s 2006 report, poetry in america, then 64% of adult readers think that people should read more poetry.  not only that, but while more than 80% of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2% of poll respondents didn’t read poetry because they felt it was “too hard.”  to me, this sounds suspiciously like all those nielsen families who over-report the amount of time they spent watching pbs.

but i’d like to give the poetry foundation huge props for trying something different this year.  last fall, they asked america “what’s your favorite poem?” and, god bless them, americans responded.  i’m not even talking about the obvious respondents: professors, mfa students, and sullen/lovelorn teenagers.  no, i’m talking about the people you didn’t think gave a shit about poetry.

the favorite poem project has some pretty fantastic video footage of everyday americans not just reading a poem, but talking at length about what that poem—and poetry—means to them.  you’ll see a jamaican immigrant talking about sylvia plath, a marine reading yeats, a construction worker waxing about whitman, hillary clinton (and her husband) reciting some verse, and dozens of others.  it’s enough to make you believe that, goddamn right, poetry is not dead.

still, on more than one occasion, i’ve found myself siding with the non-poetry crowd, those who say the knock against much contemporary poetry is that it’s not—what’s the word?  accessible.  i don’t recall ever thinking that poetry should be *easy* mind you.  but damn if there haven’t been some times when i’ve seen a contemporary poem and just thought, “you’re fucking with me, aren’t you? you fucker.”

that being said, i recently got a piece of direct mail from the poetry foundation, and in it was a quote attributed to the magazine’s editor, don share.  that single sentence is, perhaps, the best counter-argument to that “accessibility” issue that i’ve ever heard:

The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to, is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction.

i swear, i’m ]this[ close to subscribing to poetry magazine myself.


506aed87fb04d60a51001515._w.1500_s.fit_The most popular place in Spokane on a Saturday night might be my local grocery store’s Redbox.  Last weekend the queue was six deep, not counting the people who abandoned the line to do their shopping first.  A day old copy of the Wall Street Journal was stashed on the closed checkout counter behind me, so I read about Flight 370 still lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while I shifted my weight from foot to foot and swayed with impatience. Not only did I spend ten minutes in line to return a DVD; in the past month alone, I’ve spent $27.38 on three DVDs due to late fees. If I were a member of Netflix, I could have rented the same number of movies for $7.99. If Redbox is more time intensive than streaming movies and, in my case, so much more expensive, why was the queue six deep?

I can think of several reasons. First, Redbox offers new releases that aren’t yet available for online streaming. Netflix also offers new releases through its separate DVD service, but you have to wait two days for your DVD to arrive. Two weeks ago, on a whim, I rented Woody Allen’s take on A Street Car Named Desire called Blue Jasmine from my Redbox on my way home from work. Last week, I rented Nebraska, a black-and-white, oddly-paced film about a father son journey and a nonexistent million dollar prize. If I hadn’t just seen it in the local independent theater, I would have queued up at the Redbox for the Dallas Buyers Club, too.

The little red movie serving machines are also placed strategically in my line of travel, in the places I already frequent. In fact, 68% of the American population lives within a five-minute drive of a Redbox, which means you don’t have to make an additional stop at a movie megastore because. Now, you can go grocery shopping and pick up your movies along with your eggs and milk.

According to Redbox CEO Shawn Strickland, this willingness to rent DVDs is not just a throwback to the age of rentals and a nostalgia for the material. About the movement to steaming,  he said, “There was a choice forced on the consumer.” Until Redbox, easy access to DVDs was disappearing. However, this was not necessarily a result of popular demand, as evidenced by Redbox’s continued growth, proving that some of us still want to go rent a movie.

I no longer have internet at home, and it seems  that the best option for me is some combination of the Netflix $7.99 DVD rentals and Redbox for those nights when I’m waiting on my DVD but still want to watch a movie. And this is exactly what the company is hoping for. Rather than compete with streaming, Redbox is in the business of giving customers another choice.

Observations on Bus Rides (or: Temporary Delusions That the World Might Not Nuke Itself After All)

NISE 12 1343

For a minute we’re all part of the same thing. The sun flickers and rests on the sides of our faces as we pass trees, highway signs, 18-wheelers, tractors. It’s all quiet. 50-some years after Rosa Parks and no one makes a fuss, black-white-purple-green we all sit in comfortable silence. Floor vibrating under the settled rubber of our shoes, seats bouncing us like a lullaby. The world passes us by outside, beige fields of weeds, leafless winter branches, working class, upper class, middle class, nowhere class, but on the bus we don’t stop for trivialities, we don’t patiently wait for our respective exits, on the bus we trust the same driver. On the bus we amble together along the same road.

Tour of the House Called Longing


Prints by Zarina Hashmi

There’s a tree blocking the house from the front, a needled tree, but that can be cut back. The house is green and lovelorn, it is 1093 square feet on a 3 thousand something square foot lot, room for lemon trees, anything. It borders an alley, industrial spaces, its street address is 808 and all of this points toward yours.

The house is listed for 550,000 and will need some work.

You will take up the carpet to expose the old floors, and somewhere in there you hope you’ll find an alcove, an indentation, a place to build some kind of shrine like every house in India.

“This is my house.” So said Navita, packed dirt floor, we stepped over a gutter moat to reach the front door. Walls painted bright orange, one plastic chair, nothing else but the shrine: Durga’s picture hung on the wall with a calendar. The next room was all but dug out, where she and her mother kept their sleeping mats rolled during the day.

“This is my house.” It will contain only the best of what you need and love, you don’t need more and more. Potted palms in the corner of the living room. Necklaces hung for the choosing near the bedroom window. The bathroom tiled like an Istanbul hamam. Things you’ve found, collected, resting finally.

Read more »

How Going to Church Prepared Me for Watching the Olympics

A sheet of stamps from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta retails for $27.00, but collectors can purchase them on eBay for $14.99 plus shipping. The stamps feature athletes from various sports suspended in motion; their hardworking muscles shimmer with sweat. When I bought a sheet of these stamps during the heat of the summer games, I never licked the gum adhesive on the back. I carefully separated the stamps and taped them to my bedroom door in support of my favorite Olympic events. 1996 was the year of the Centennial bombing, the year that Kerri Strug stuck her vault to clinch the team all-around gold in gymnastics, and the year that Michael Johnson gold-medaled in the 200 and 400-meter dash. I was thirteen years old with a keen sense for how beautiful it was for well-trained bodies to push, even in the perforated frames of those stamps.

The decadent privilege of staring at perfect bodies compete in slow motion was not the only reason I loved watching the Olympic games. The profiles and human interest stories captured my adolescent attention as much the athletic events. I choked up every time an earnest reporter narrated the obstacles, disappointments, and hard earned successes in the moving clips between events, which started airing during trails and intensified just before a gold-medal heat. I couldn’t get enough of the athletes’ histories before becoming competitors on the international stage. Now I know that crafted interviews and brilliant editing created my intense investment in the outcome of these events, which, in reality, were drastically removed from my personal experience. Without the glimpse into the athletes’ pasts, it would have been easier to zone out and flip from NBC to regularly scheduled programming. It was the stories of the athletes that fostered my connection and kept me cross-legged on the carpet with my chin in my sweaty palms.

Although these clips were engineered to trigger an emotional response, I knew how to believe in the underdog even without the cues of dramatic lighting and music because of church. Read more »


William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Two_Sisters_(1901)When I moved to Berlin I had almost no money. I couldn’t get a job without getting residence papers and couldn’t get papers without a contract job.

Due to a friend, I lived in an enviable neighborhood for almost no rent. I walked the fashionable streets near my flat in the cold and watched all the real, speaking, living people go in and out of the brightly lit shops and restaurants on Bergmannstrasse laughing brilliantly.

I rode my bike to a far away flea market one Sunday morning and bought a bike light for two Euros and then had buyer’s remorse. The ride was perfect, took you over bridges and train tracks and across a cobblestone plaza that felt like a village in the middle of the city. I saw a woman I knew behind a table at the market. She was from Syria and went to the same free German class I went to, at the cultural center for immigrants and refugees. My German was still nothing and we made sounds at each other and smiled knowingly.

But what did I know. I was just having a bleak adventure and could go home whenever. I’m sure this wasn’t the case for her.

The bike light didn’t work.

I wasn’t going home though. I responded to every, tiny job ad I saw. After some months, I got a job babysitting.

Read more »

Winning the Kokoro of the People

In 1689, Basho went for a long walk into the interior, Oku. After he returned in 1690, he began revising his travelogue from the adventure. I offer the introduction as a testament to its beauty:

The moon and the sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times, there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn to windblown clouds into the dreams of a lifetime wandering.

It’s not your average travelogue. It’s not a day-to-day record of events. Basho avoids either or the major tropes in travel writing: “I went to an exotic place and found it exotic” and “I went to an exotic place and found it quite ordinary, just like home.” And while most travelogues are meant to relate useful or timely information, Basho’s writing feels timeless to such a great extent that I have been enjoying it 317 years later.

Basho’s haibun works in a similar way to the headnotes in the Kokinshu and haiku emerges through the hybrid form: the prose sets up the poem. The travelogue aspect of the work is as crafted as the poetry—his account of his journey in The Narrow Road to the Interior does not represent a straightforward, factual, or complete rendering of his travels. He did travel, walking for a hundred and fifty days with the goal to visit the famous places mentioned in poetry, but in the book, the order of events has changed, details have been deleted or embellished. Likewise, the poems might feel spontaneous embedded in the narrative context, but he spent five years revising the text that appears in the final compilation.

His autobiographical prose sections rarely lean overly lyrical, since Basho observed the renga (linked verse) tradition of including less lyrical passages before and after gemlike vignettes, so as not to exhaust the reader. For instance, his account of visiting the place called “Under-the-Trees” moves from the mystic to the mundane—from a narrative description of this dense, dark, dew-laden forest to a quote from the Kokinshu (Poem 1091) where the speaker suggests that one should carry an umbrella in this place.

“Kokoro” means the “heart and mind,” here, the beautiful cohesion that cannot be found in form alone. It includes the sincerity and conviction of the poem.

The Cat Show is Decadent and Fabulous

A show person's beautiful denim shirt.

A show person’s beautiful denim shirt.


Last Saturday, I went to a cat show. Yes, a cat show. I’m still piecing it all together. I feel like I spent my weekend at a rave surrounded by people in soft sweaters navigating through feathers and little gold bells, like my brain is still coming down from all of the ecstasy and molly I ate. But I was sober. Stone cold sober. I have no excuse other than I was under the influence of heavy dopamine surges typical of an all-night cat video bender. So. Many. Cats. I was there for three hours. I planned on staying less than one.

The Saintly City Cat Show in St. Paul, MN is held annually, and it brings hundreds of cat people in varying levels of cat-personhood ranging from cat video enthusiasts to the seasoned breeder and presenter. Some come from as far away as central Illinois—an eight-hour drive. In January. One woman I met flew to Sweden to get her rare Norwegian Forest cat. Sweden! These people are dedicated. They are proud of their pedigree felines. They give their cats three-word names. Gaelic names. Names of Roman gods. They subscribe to Maine Coon magazine and Cat Fancy. Their sweaters match the coat coloring of their cats. Based on what I saw this weekend, it is astonishing—nay, negligent—that Christopher Guest hasn’t written this screenplay because, just like his movie Best In Show, these people are as nuts as they are lovable. Read more »

envy and its opposite

imagesI used to talk with a friend about his idea for a newspaper that reports only good news.

I found this to be a beautiful idea: messages from the world that are surprising, inspiring, and inclusive.  And for some reason it comes to mind every time Columbia College Today, the quarterly magazine from my undergraduate university, arrives in the mail.

I don’t have to read it, because I know what’s there. But I do, usually in secret when the rest of the house is sleeping.

Let me tell you what my fellow Columbia graduates have been up to.

They left New York briefly, to attend Harvard Law. They returned. They are quadrilingual and hold dual citizenships. They are heads of their self-started London companies and visit each other in Dubai quite frequently. They are married. To each other. In the pictures they submitted, the friends next to them have the year they graduated from Columbia or Barnard next to their name. All the brides are wearing variations of the same strapless fishtailed wedding gown.

Read more »

My First Kid Birthday Party as an Adult

photo (23)My roommate’s son turned six over the weekend and his parents put together a Titanic birthday party to celebrate. No, not a gigantic party, it was Titanic-themed with model ships to glue and paint, pin-the-funnel-on-the-Titanic, and of course, an unsinkable and unbreakable Titanic pinata. The birthday boy, now age six, is obsessed with the Titanic. An impressive lego Titanic sits prominently displayed in the house. He knows about the lack of life-boats and that only three of the four funnels functioned. I figured this was a birthday party I could ill afford to miss.

In the six months that I’ve I had a part time (he spends half the time at his mother’s) five-year-old roommate, I’ve gotten to know him well. His lego creation skills are only matched by his dedication to minecraft. And while he is usually prompted by his father, his “Hello, Brendan!” and “Goodbye, Brendan!” are energetic and genuine.  I was excited to help celebrate.

photo 1But walking in, it dawned on me how strange it was to be going to a birthday party of five and six-year-olds as a thirty-three year old without a child of my own.  I have to admit that I was a bit nervous, just like I had been when arriving to a birthday party as a child. Luckily, I recognized a few adult faces as I walked in, and then was immediately set-up glueing and painting a wooden  model Titanic next to two friends and their sons. By the time the unsinkable and unbreakable Titanic piñata was launched, the party was in full swing.

I chatted with people from time to time, but painting a model Titanic takes time, so I ruminated on past childhood birthday parties. Mostly, I remember the awkward moments. Once, I was served pizza and soda at party at a local arcade, but unlike the rest of the kids I didn’t like soda yet and was too shy to tell anyone or ask for another beverage. After scarfing down two slices of pizza I was very thirsty little boy. Or, another time in elementary school at my birthday party, I asked my dad to run the party and play games like “Red Rover,” which I thought were still fun, but apparently were no longer “cool.”  As the other kids laughed and being asked to play, I had to pretend like it wasn’t my idea. Read more »

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