(Jasdev ⇒ Justin, 5/25/20)
004 has so much to unpack. I’ll narrow it down to two notes and leave the rest for when we kick it next. Part of me wonders if — after all these letters — our conversations will dilate or be met with that comforting silence when there isn’t the urge to make conversation for the sake of it.
The first note (from your quoting of Plath’s passage in The Bell Jar below):
> I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing the rest
Willa H. put this struggle incredibly well in “The one where you get to read my diary,”
> October 10, 2019 > > There will always be alternative paths, things and lives that could have been. I will always need to choose. And maybe that’s good. I could move all over, choose new jobs and new partners. There will always be the Sunday afternoons when I will be alone at home or walking in my neighborhood and just suddenly be struck with this feeling of “This isn’t enough. There is more.” But in those moments, what if instead of spiraling and plotting an escape, I just took a breath, looked at the sky, and said thank you to all the lives and choices that took me to where I am?
Willa hints at the limitation of the branching metaphor. Trees, well, don’t move (imagine if they did) and their branches are non-intersecting (or, at least in portrayal with details like choosing one and “losing the rest”). I wonder if it’s more fitting to imagine our days as a forward unfolding. Each step tendrils outward and following one path doesn’t necessarily rule out crossing another later on.
I guess this strange view is shaded by mathematics. The field is so rich and infinite that learning within it always feels like a sort of “day one.” Trying to mark progress with “day two,” “thirty nine,” or “seven thousand” doesn’t quite work because the domain keeps opening up beyond those points as if they were day ones in and of themselves that someone could spend a lifetime studying from.
> What about you? Are there any hobbies or habits you find yourself missing?
Shoot. I was going to say poetry but since you covered it, I’ll take things in a slightly different direction: scribbling in the margins of friends’ poetry.
I signed up for my first poetry course with Kate Angus back in January after having dabbled with the genre over the years by reading our beloved newsletter, Pome. It was one thing for me to experience doses of imposter syndrome in engineering and another entirely to meet weekly with a room full of incredibly talented writers, teachers, and journalists as a gigantic nerd (pictured below and swapping out “the party” for “poetry class”).
me, before the party: ok ok u got this. just try to fit in. talk to ppl. stay cool. dont turn into a big duck. ull be fine— jonny sun (@jonnysun) July 4, 2017
me, at the party: pic.twitter.com/iFZr103MXp
Still, the group’s welcoming and range of backgrounds made the time together heartening. Each of us had a different lens on the pieces we read together and that reminded me of what I love most about poetry: defamiliarization. For those coming across the term for the first time, it’s a technique where writers will present the ordinary in an unfamiliar way in order to make you see it with newer eyes — think using one part of speech as another, modifying a noun in an unexpected way (“ambiguous light”), or granting new affordances (“the moon is a spider tracking its white mud / across the sky”).
Scribbling in the margins?
Every week we’d rotate being “in the booth” — which meant handing out drafts and then hiding in a metaphorical booth where we listened to classmates discussing them as if we weren’t there.
But my favorite part was returning from the booth and paging through the annotated copies.
There’s something to seeing what others write in the margins of our work, and in that vein, here’s how your ekphrastic poem2 resonated with me (pardon the chicken-scratch handwriting that a doctor once hilariously noted is “worse than their’s”).
What’s timely is that the Ellen Bass poem you linked to in the previous letter, Indigo, mentions how tattoos are scribblings in the margins of our skin,
> to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
> that he [tattooed] it up like a book, underlining,
> highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Maybe the word “bookmark” is due for a defamiliarization. What if they weren’t just dog-eared pages and instead annotations on each other’s work we shared back? Robin Rendle had a similar thought seven years ago (!),
> [Bookmarking] might be mistaken for sentimentality, but this feeling has little to do with the hallucinogenic loveliness of print. […] It’s about remembering where you were, and perhaps who you were, when you read something.
Lastly, and as promised in 003, below are two drafts from the class — I’m tempted to provide context, yet I’m also curious how they read without.
The dream defrosted in terminal three. My heart arrived here in two after-winters, the plane in that many hours. Two years to realize I should’ve held your hand in the planetarium.
They’re precise / holding what needed to be picked up / placing me in a constellation of clarity / sometimes it’s okay to admit something is hard without silver ink / for somber and for-the-better to be adjacent / to admit I’m proud and not helicopter parent myself (…still working on this) / to remember I reflect further than mirrors know \ maybe then I can step out of, and sit next to, the waters.