Fuzzy at the edges

U-Chris

Meet our new kitten, Ursula! We brought her home from the SPCA yesterday and she’s charming everyone in the house (except our other cats, who are scared to death of her tiny rambunctious self). I thought of titling this post Cranky Poet Goes Soft, because that’s basically the mood around here, although I can’t entirely shake a little holiday anxiety. So much to do, as well as paradoxically worrying that I won’t find time to kick back–but at least I’m reading up a storm, catching up on poetry books I haven’t had time for. I’m hoping to post on the books I read in 2018 around the New Year. I’m also prepping like mad for the new term, which starts Jan. 7th; I have to get everything organized early because we decided to go to New Orleans for a few days right beforehand. The kids have never seen the city, and for me it’s been about 20 years, so we’ll just walk around, eat well, hear some jazz. Traveling is one of the few things that makes me really put work away and we realized we were all craving the break.

 

Another bit of good news: I’ll be seeing Portugal for the first time in July! I’m on a panel just accepted to the 2019 International MLA, held in Lisbon, so Chris and I will go together and extend the adventure by at least a few days. The panel concerns poetry and physics, and I’ll be talking about Samiya Bashir’s Field Theoriestwo of the other panelists are people I love hanging out with, my former student Max Chapnick and another dear colleague in the poet-scholar biz, Cynthia Hogue. I will have to write that paper (!), but that’s too far off to worry about, so I’m just happy to have a very cool trip to look forward to.

Other luck at the hinge of the year, as light finally considers returning: Flock has published two of my poems in its new “Vanishing Point” issue, which you can read online for free through Dec. 25th. “List from John Robinson, 1826” was one of their Pushcart nominees, which moves me for all kinds of reasons–it’s a few years old and was inspired by the history of a group of enslaved people at my home institution. You can see the actual document, which is far more powerful than my poetic response to it, here.

And my copy of Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, edited by Marilyn Taylor and James Roberts, just arrived–my poem “Return Path” is in its pages, as well as gorgeous work by Ned Balbo, Amy Lemmon, Jane Satterfield, Kathrine Varnes, and many others. I’ll close this post with one of my favorites, “Beach of Edges” by Annie Finch (photographed with one of the shells I keep in my office, although Ursula is doing her best to smash them, crash by fascinating crash). I also love the quote from Annie on the back of the collection: “Based in communal dance rather than individual song, spiraling back repeatedly to the same refrains, often moving from obsession to acceptance through the simple movements of repetition, perhaps the villanelle teaches us something about sharing and returning, integrating, and learning to let go: good lessons for our time.” That feels uncannily right about my own few successful ventures into the form–most villanelles don’t quite fly unless you’re willing to participate in that integration, even if it’s painful.

I’m still most dazzled with happiness to have placed my next poetry ms with Tinderbox Editions, but the smaller pleasures are nevertheless ratcheting up the general shine. Here’s wishing you the light and luck you most desire and a peaceful holiday, with kittens.

villanelle

Poetry and the archives by the sea

pbts sea rose

A lot of poets write from research, and there are myriad ways to explain why. Just a few of the reasons, for me: because the past presses at me as a citizen and as a human being. Because my particular history–of my current region or my ancestors–needs puzzling through. Because I want to look outward and escape my own head already. Because I have a PhD and research is an ingrained habit. Because I’m distancing myself from some difficult subject (responsibility or identity, often) by analyzing material intellectually. Because those documents/ objects/ photographs are just sitting there being fascinating and no one’s telling their story.

All this is on my mind especially because research–including traditional archival work–is a big driver of the poetry book I’m currently refining, with the working title “L.” (I’m infatuated with the weirdness of a single-letter title–of which 50 is just one of the meanings–but I’d be interested to know if you think that’s a bad idea. My second choice so far would be “Chronic Locomotive.”) I’m also planning a senior capstone seminar on Documentary Poetics for winter 2018.

So, as I often do when worrying a problem, I assembled an all-star team to talk to me about it. The panel I ran at the recent Poetry by the Sea conference was called “Poetry and the Archives,” and included Nathalie Anderson, Cynthia Hogue, and Cheryl Savageau. I can’t recap the whole rich experience, but here are a few thoughts, as well as a prompt from one of my brilliant co-panelists.

First: there are many kinds of archives. The term most narrowly refers to public records kept by institutions, but this little four-day conference was full of poets (well beyond my panel) working with parallel but different document collections. Claire Rossini is inspired by calls of extinct birds available through the audio archives of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cheryl, Nat, Cynthia and I talked about drawing inspiration from inherited objects, old newspapers, interviews, photographs, site exploration, museum exhibits, maps, dreams, and more.

Second: the research itself is challenging in ways one expects (sifting through massive arrays takes time and luck–there can be an enormous amount of chance involved in what one finds and when), and in ways that can take a person off guard.  Nat told us of an assignment she uses with her undergraduates to research the day of their own birth, using two newspapers, and then, further on, to reconstruct family histories using census rolls and other public records. What if you hit a wall, an absence? Or what if you find more than you’re ready for in those papers–say, an ancestor’s bill of sale? Impersonal documents can become terribly personal, and at the same time, no matter how much research you do, the archive is always bigger and stranger and less coherent than one researcher can comprehend, as Deborah Miranda explores in her poem “When My Body Is the Archive.” It’s terrible when other investigators get things wrong and thereby distort our histories, and we have a responsibility to do better–but getting things wrong, or at least understanding difficult truths only partially, is upsettingly inevitable.

Related to this: how does one transform what one learns without betraying complicated, fragmented, multivoiced sources? Answers from last week included collage, notes sections (possible in books but rarely in journals!), and writing oneself into the poem as a flawed, uncertain quester. Clearly the panelists do a lot of thinking about the ethics of what and how one writes. There’s more to say on this subject than I can shoehorn into one blog post, but see this older post for starters. I was teaching the controversy over Raymond McDaniels’ appropriation of Katrina-related materials at the time–a controversy all about ethics, power, and race.

Yet invention–an activity that would appall many scholars–is part of what a poet does with archival materials. I would argue it’s part of what any writer does, whether or not she admits it, but invention is certainly more obvious in historical poetry and fiction than in scholarly writing. When authors invent/transform archival materials well, I’m enormously grateful for their help in reconstructing a vanished past (Natasha Trethewey’s work is a touchstone for many of us here, and I would love to hear Camille Dungy talk someday about Suck on the Marrow). When authors do it badly, however, I get much more angry than I do reading your average personal, meditative lyric. The stakes feel higher.

And on that note: the ability to even access an archive can involve a lot of privilege. I was reminded of this when a friend outside of the academy’s protocols was recently worried about the letters of introduction some archives require. It also takes money to travel to a historical site or park yourself in an excellent library for even just a few days. Freedom from caretaking responsibilities, too. Sometimes I’ve had that money and freedom, sometimes I haven’t, but I do know privilege must be part of this conversation. Hurrah to all the librarians and others who are increasing our digital access to rare materials–it really helps.

Our panel ran out of time to give out prompts we’d designed, just as I’m pushing length limits here. For what it’s worth, my prompt was to write a backwards poem–start with the present and end with the distant past speaking for itself. Keep track of your sources and give them credit.

I’ll leave you with another from Cheryl Savageau. Sleep on it!

  1. Choose a natural object.
  2. Spend a couple of hours researching everything you can find out about it: its physical characteristics, its chemistry, physics, biology, ecology.  What odd stories or facts can you find? Are there any correlations to folklore, mythology? Is there a history? Take it all in. Make notes.
  3. Then dream around it. Let the associations happen.
  4. Write a short poem that synthesizes your research through association. Work in images. Avoid abstract words.
  5. Write a longer poem with a narrative.

Poetry at the Border 2: Cynthia Hogue

orconsPoet and translator Cynthia Hogue on how borders work:

Events today around border issues have brought back personal experience so eerily and uncannily as to seem to me the return of the repressed. The events recounted and per/formed in the excerpted poem that follows, “The Green Card Is Not Green,” happened twelve years ago to my immigrant husband and me, when we were navigating the complicated bureaucracy of post-9/11 legal immigration. I think that more Americans today are aware of the challenges—of late the impossibilities and indignities—of any attempt to immigrate to the U.S., than Americans were so long ago. I, at least—whose first husband had actually been deported for illegally immigrating to the U.S., but courteously, all-but-on the honor code, asked to leave the country at a time of his choosing—had a rude awakening discovering how things had changed in the decades since my first marriage. I naively thought that as an American, I could call Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and sort things out. No, indeed. Even for a native English speaker, the new Department of Homeland Security was a maze. I called again and again, only to end up confused and frustrated. My husband could not do it at all because he could not yet understand English spoken by Americans (including naturalized citizens). Or perhaps it was the bureaucratic diction and tone. I’m not sure. He could not understand, and although I am an English professor, I discovered to my shock and horror that I had trouble too. 

How in the world could someone who had no translator available, who was coming to the U.S. believing the glossy representations of the freedoms for all purveyed around the world, manage even to receive the information they needed?  

The poet of the Southern Border, born on the U.S. side of the Mexican-American border in Nogales, Arizona, Alberto Álvaro Ríos, observes that the border connects as well as separates. The power asserted at borders, however, certainly at U.S. borders today, tries to stabilize identities into “us” and “them,” and to separate off those who are categorized as “them” in order to impose an order and even a uniformity on those who are categorized as “us.” But as my poem tries to explore, borders are artificial and identities are nothing if not fluid at borders, which expose that fluidity as well as try to impose labels. Borders destructure “us” and all that tries to bestow order and clarity, exposing how disorder borders order. Borders are liminal zones, literally betwixt and between categories. In the terrain of suddenly visible edges and interfaces, the speaker of this poem issues a critical re-characterization of the newly marshaled, militarized border that the State, our State, had created. The State discovered all those years ago that borders disorder order, to invoke a poem by Harryette Mullen. The American citizen wife I was twelve years ago trusts that all the imperial will being marshaled to close U.S. borders will be similarly disordered, frustrated, enacting re-visionary connections it could not imagine were possible (because the imperial will lacks imagination) and did not intend (because, although authoritarian, it is blind).

Cynthia_The Green Card Is Not Green (003) hogue heuving me

The attached excerpt of “The Green Card is Not Green” preserves the poem’s visual play. Below is a still shorter passage to give you a taste, but you should really check out the whole book Or ConsequenceHogue is one of our best literary artisans of gaps and erasures, but for all her interest in pain and silence, I find enormous light and peace at the center of her work.

from “The Green Card is Not Green”:

A border that divides also connects,
the buffer imagined, arbitrary,
opening where one can cross the line
and become, quite suddenly, other.

I enter a strange country
and myself become strange. Étrangère.
At that moment, my Resident Alien husband becomes Citizen.
We are, between us,
two beings of determinate but shifting identities,
always in transit, self-shifting,
one of us word-less,
one of us defined by prohibitions

expressed in abstractions
all having specific consequences:

You are invited to submit
an application for an extension
of the red tape in which to encase
your green card.

You are not permitted to cross our borders
without an endorsement that the conditions
on your green card have been approved
for removal.

*

The permeable border is lethal without endorsement.

I wanted to endorse you but the Homeland must authorize your petition.

You will pay x and then go to z. You cannot go to y.

You can call us but the phone number we give you has been disconnected

(you will have to call to find this out).

A receipt must be with all questions, and we will tell you that you can not ask questions

in person without an appointment although you can

(you will have to come here to find this out).

If you make an appointment, we guarantee the directions we give you

will cause you to go to the wrong place,

and then we will have to say:

You have to go back to where you came from.

If it is happiness you are free to pursue it but there not here.

If it is unhappiness you must dwell there.

If you cross our borders we will hold you without charge,

for a time to be announced at some time

to be determined in the future.

Stealing the scholars’ wi-fi

The still eye of November’s hurricane was, improbably, a modernism conference in Boston. I scudded in a day late, only half an hour before my first meeting. I was recovering from illness, and my son and husband were sick, and I’d packed badly, especially considering how chic modernism scholars tend to be, with their Calder-mobile-style earrings and funky eyeglasses and fabulous boots. I often feel out of sorts at academic conferences, too—the poet-scholar failing at both sides of the hyphen. Yet the fancy hotel was full of friends: people who have helped me, people whom I have helped, and people I just like to talk and listen to. It was restorative and made me think hard about mentoring.

My autumn, as reported in the previous post, had the plot arc of a killer storm: the happy family was sailing along, backs to a swelling bulk of thunderheads. The first smashing wave was my mother’s sudden illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma with some dangerous complications. I think she nearly died twice, but was rescued by my sister driving in from New Jersey to drag her to the ER (my mother lives in eastern Pennsylvania, about a five-and-half hour drive from me). Double-crisis is the formula for a thriller; the danger seems at first to be averted, and then a bigger threat arises. Her treatment now seems to be proceeding effectively, but the past weeks taught us all vigilance. My concentration is terrible. I did finish my conference paper, write a few references, submit a micro-review. I know I drafted a few desperate poems, too, but haven’t had time to look at them—did I mention my laptop is also dying?

To help a little during the week before Thanksgiving—my sister is carrying most of the burden—I traveled to the Modernist Studies Association meeting by car, visiting Pennsylvania on the way. When I arrived at my mother’s hospital on Wednesday afternoon, they discharged her, and I spent a day and a half getting her settled at home: counting out pills into a dispenser, buying supplies, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, phoning the insurance and visiting nurses, and helping my brother move a bed downstairs. I still can’t believe how much we did, even while I was absorbing seismic changes in a lifelong intimacy. One of my earliest memories is being carried shivering out of a bathtub by my mother, who rubbed me dry and unrolled lacy white socks over my ankles as I protested the cold. Suddenly I was dressing my mother, fetching layers as she shivered. Age goes this way for most of us eventually, and it’s good when we can help each other along. Still, it’s tiring work emotionally and physically.

It was strange to arrive at the Boston hotel in this condition, put on my professional clothes, and launch a reading I’d organized. Yet it eased my mind to hear those poems and have a series of conversations with other people negotiating their own crazy lives brilliantly. One friend’s major health crisis, she told me, was immediately followed by her husband’s heart attack; she knew exactly what I meant when I described my own juggling of caretaking and professional urgencies. Her glance, that reassuring touch to the arm, helped me exhale. A lot of my friends, of course, are middle-aged people with mortal parents and/or still-needy teenagers plus their own ambitions, but I also sat for a few minutes on the lobby carpet with a former student’s sleepless toddler as she deconstructed a lily. I don’t know who is mentoring whom in some of these interactions, but it’s all reassuring.

When I departed on Monday morning, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s recent audiobook, Why Not Me? Kaling commissioned one mini-chapter from a mentor—perhaps improbably, a middle-aged white guy. In the audiobook, he reads aloud his own words, “On Being a Mentor,” a bit of which I’ve transcribed below. After describing his own role-models, Greg Daniels speculates:

“I know a lot of people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, good for you, but nobody’s ever wanted to be my mentor.’ I don’t think any one of them wanted to be my mentor, either. My advice is: you take your mentoring wherever you can find it, whether it’s being offered to you or not. Have you ever used your neighbor’s wi-fi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at their work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their wi-fi.”

I agree with Daniels. Since grad school, a mess to discuss on another day, I’ve hijacked my mentors’ attention against their better judgment, or jostled in close to busy people to learn what I could. Most but not all of them were feminist women, and I don’t know whether that’s because women were more open to helping me, or whether I felt more comfortable sidling up to them. But I’ve attended most MSAs since the organization started in the late nineties, and again and again I see women there modeling an intellectual generosity I aspire to. Linda Kinnahan, Cynthia Hogue, Marsha Bryant, Dee Morris, and Cris Miller not only give dependably rockin’ talks but attend small panels with warm engagement; direct questions to the speaker who’s getting the least attention; redirect blowhards; and do the behind-the-scenes work, too, of tenure reviews, anonymous reader reports, and cleaning up complicated professional messes. I’m singling out a few who have been models for me, but there are many others—plus people at earlier career stages who impress me with similar gifts. Most of them could probably say no more often, and I should, too. If you don’t get good work done, after all, your own ability to help others shrinks. I really want to just hunker down and write this December, ignoring everyone beyond my closest family and friends. Still, strong signal, no password: that is a beautiful way to broadcast.

For the pic below with Cynthia Hogue and her dashing handbag, thanks to Marsha Bryant. You can see more from the MSA reading at Aldon Nielson’s blog.

cynthia msa

Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.

Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.