08 February 2011

Standing Room Only

Zen, Part 2

 (Trigeminal nerve, CN V1,2,3: Superior orbital fissure, foramen Rotundum, foramen Ovale. SRO).
 (Single room occupancy; marginal/subsidized city housing. SRO).

It had been on my calendar for months.Historic bookstore (in the sense of..literary history). Reading. Writers recently published in The New Yorker. Including a physician-writer, Chris Adrian. Introduced by Deborah Treisman.

Nothing imperfect.

We arrived – less early than I would have liked, but still with plenty of time – and there was almost no one milling about the stacks. It was quiet. I thought we had time. Walking slowly through the store – there must have been time to savour it – I saw a group of four chatting in a corner. The writers. I knew only because I recognized the events coordinator. The writers. But where was the reading? I’d never been to one here before. We walked to the back of the store, to the stairs – and there was the line. The reading was upstairs. And the line was all the way down the stairs – two to a stair, leaning against the wall, ready to rush up and into each other when the words started to float down. So everyone could hear. We assumed that if everyone was lined up here, it must be backed up to… I had no idea how big the room was. How many people might have been in there. And whom. All I knew was that the writers weren’t, not yet, until they passed us, single-file, along the stairs.

The events coordinator walked quickly up and down. Hassled and unsure what to do. He said to the gathered (unseen-to-me) crowd “I can open up the larger room downstairs, but it will take me about 15 minutes.” Solidarity among readers – done. “You’ll have to carry your chairs down.”
Those of us lined up on the steps started to follow him down – “WAIT!” Patience, impatience. There were things on the walls and free newspapers enough. And it couldn’t be true that we would get to be in front this time…or would it…

He was ready, he went back upstairs to the invisible room, and people started to walk down with their chairs. And we followed as they passed by. Three, five, ten chairs were set up and someone asked “can we all just stand? There will be more room…”
The few who needed them, kept them. The few others who needed to sit, sat beside them on the floor. And I stood in a corner pressed into so many people that both the requisite sweaters came off and I was almost held up by the crowd. The writers, even, were sitting on the floor next to the single podium as they awaited their turns.

Standing. Room. Only.


Deborah Treisman introduced them, once she was introduced. Maybe she’s not famous to everyone – maybe not everyone had slight chills, an extra-attentive connection with the moment when she began to speak. Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, narrates the monthly fiction podcasts. For over a year, Deborah Treisman in my ears, walking, running, driving, it’s Deborah Treisman introducing the author, discussing literature with the author pre-and-post story. And here was Deborah Treisman. And here were the writers. I was eight feet away and standing, drawn in by her same-as-on-the-radio voice.

Writers are my fan-worshipped idols. Had I been this into poetry, younger, I might have been somewhat akin to the famous Beatles fans. And since famous poets aren’t very famous (I’m paraphrasing Denise Duhmel), I’ve met a lot of my idols. Of the triad of muses of my development (Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds), I’ve met two (and had a workshop with Li-Young Lee). And many, many others. I can’t remember what I stammered to Louise Glück after going up to speak to her after a reading (did she sign my book? Did I have the foresight to bring one?) I remember what I said to Li-Young because I’d practiced it. “You’re a writer who changes my breathing.” I assumed he would understand what I meant – after all, he’s Li-Young Lee – and I left it at that. I did think his quiet nod and thank you meant that.

This is one instance of poetry becoming visceral. When I read his work – and when I read Sharon’s, and that of many other poets – and when I read the middle section of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body – the words and the rhythm enter and my breathing patterns actually change. It slows, I think. I’m controlled by something exterior-to-interior. Whatever effect writing has on the brain (and meditation has been proven to do this. Yoga. Poetry is my meditation), it infiltrates the autonomic circuits and changes things. I’ve never counted a change in pulse, but it’s probably there. Good writing changes my breathing. Good writing is breathing. And good poetry is blood.
Poets sound very metaphysical-y sometimes. Perhaps too ‘new age’ or whatever (which I’m not. At all). But the visceral analogies make sense. Finding what parts of a poem are actually the poem? “Put your hand over it. Feel where it’s warm.”
It works, if you let it.
You can hear when a syllable is missing, or if you have one too much. I say this as one who very rarely writes in meter. It doesn’t matter. Things either fit or they don’t, and the reason is encoded past a readily-accessible place. 

Sunrise, Masai Mara, Kenya

Chris Adrian read first. Deborah Treisman introduced him. And her introduction was based around his other life – how impressive, how amazing, a pediatric hematology/oncology fellow (incredible and incredibly sad, the way his stories integrate children with cancer and fairy tales). How amazing, in medicine, and a writer, so many hours, so busy, so busy, so talented in multi-directions.
She said almost nothing about his writing.
This reminded me, in my very small way, of how I was introduced at my senior thesis reading (poetry). I had been waiting for this – a moment, a few minutes, to hear what my mentor truly thought of my writing, and how she would describe it. (The year before, a poet (now published!) a year ahead of me said something about knives. The sharpness of my words. I wish I remembered exactly). At any rate, I had been looking forward to this. It was part of the culmination of years of work, for me. Being introduced by someone I look up to so much, as a mentor and as a poet.
And what she talked about was science. How I do both. How that is special, just that viewpoint. Not even what I write about science (now medicine), I don’t think. I felt cheated. I felt like…that must mean I’m not a good writer, I’m just… good balance, good breadth for the program, or something. It wasn’t about me as a writer.

But what Deborah said about Chris wasn’t about him as a writer, either. (which made me feel so much better in a 6 year retrospection)… What stands out is how this other side stands out. Everyone uses both hemispheres, I think. Science is incredibly creative. Computer science is creative. Engineering is creative. (Math is…art and philosophy). Studying literature is analytical and systematic and difficult. History is the study of patterns. Sociology is the study of human patterns and how to, perhaps, move forward with them and enact change. Dancers count rhythms and have to figure out how to be exactly within them, with deliberate figures. Visual artists use scale. Study and application; everything requires creativity. If a job doesn’t – which is maybe possible – then the mind is wandering, and the direction it goes is probably to the right.

So why is the junction and science and art perceived – by people on both sides of the spectrum –
(think: Kinsey. I can’t believe that anyone is completely either a 0 or a 6) as something so amazing and unusual and novel? These days, physician-writers have known-names. Atul Gawande. Oliver Sacks. Jerome Groopman. As to poetry, everyone likes to bring up William Carlos Williams. It’s rare that people mention Michael Crichton, come to think of it… maybe they don’t know.
It’s not amazing or anomalous when this is just the way a brain happens to be wired. Maybe the corpus callosum looks more like swiss cheese, I don’t know. But a physician should be judged on merit as a physician and not for other accolades; a writer should be judged on merits as a writer, and whatever else informs the writing…informs the writing because it’s an innate part of the author. Period. Okay, so Junot Díaz sometimes writes about life in the D.R. And Chris Adrian sometimes writes about hospitals.

From a Chihuly exhibit. Scientifically exacting...and completely abstract.

So I was standing there, in the crowd, watching rapturously. As I always do, I closed my eyes to the beginning of the reading, to focus solely on the words, and then I opened them and I was within the narrative stream. I was within the collective…something. It’s a feeling. There’s a calmness that exists in that space. It’s the calm of exultation. It’s the calm of something larger in the room, a deeper connection, a collective unconscious connection (Jung) to a form or a muse or a Martian (Jack Spicer).

And I realized that it’s the same feeling as in African dance. Good writing means letting go, giving up and being completely open to whatever words come. They might not make sense for years. They might never make sense to anyone else, but they’re there. There aren’t drums dictating this, not exactly, but there’s…something. My selfish reason for going to readings is because it makes me write. Sometimes the words I write, there, are triggered by what’s being said, and sometimes they aren’t.

It’s the same feeling, and, as in dance, if you let it overtake you, let it in openly and willingly, that’s when the best, the truest things happen. I don’t have a better way to explain it, not right now.
It’s the same feeling. The zen, without a better coinage. Being within and becoming part of the music. Being within and becoming part of the words.


…and both literature and medicine are/can be insular worlds, while physical and virtual connection in the world is making things explode with a forward motion.

No comments:

Post a Comment