She could take exactly six-and-a-half steps from one end of the room to the other, and that’s considering she has really short strides. The room was smaller than any room she’d ever imagined herself living in, but she supposed a small room would louden her thoughts, and she reminded herself to find a dictionary to see if louden was a word because it didn’t really sound right. (Though her vocabulary tested remarkably, it often failed her when she tried to be poetic).
Six-and-a-half steps, one outlet, and eight wire hangers. Her room.
“It’s only six weeks,” she said. Or thought.
It was already happening. Things, her thoughts, were getting louder.
She’d be in Boulder for six weeks, surrounded by poetry MFA’s, the looming scent of patchouli, red sandstone Flatirons, and an all-consuming desire to write her memoirs. 22 years old, a recent Ivy League graduate with no job and two tattoos, she already knew the title of her autobiography: Confessions of a Mexican Sushi Eater. Modeled after De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, she’d write about the addictive properties of elitism, and her own attempts to free herself from its fetters. For four years she learned to rely on pretentiousness when she felt anxious, uncomfortable, inadequate. It had become a nice crutch when she was “randomly selected” (in her head she heard “racially profiled’) to have her bags searched at the airport. She loved telling the woman frisking her that she was in a hurry to get back to school, back to Princeton. It was a nice crutch wearing her Princeton flip-flops (that cost $20, twenty of her own dollars, but she pretended it was her parents’ twenty) when she visited her friends back home during Spring Break. (Girls at state schools tend to be more attractive than the girls at Princeton, but she thought she could step up her game with her Princeton flops). And it was especially nice when she was home last summer and ran into her ex-boyfriend. When he asked if she wanted to hang out sometime, catch up, be friends, she suggested they go out for sushi. When he knew her, when she loved him, she didn’t eat sushi. She was from Texas, Hispanic, went to public high school; she didn’t eat sushi. Yes, it had all become so addictive. But she graduated, two tattoos and no job, and she wanted to free herself from the elitism.
A six-week writing program a couple of time zones away from home would be just the place to foster her Confessions. Looking around the room, she decided she’d dedicate a chapter to the therapeutic small room and eight hangers. Though in her book, she’d write that the room was five steps long with only six hangers. A memoir should be exciting.
She’d heard about the summer writing program from her friend Danny, who had taken a year off from school, which upset his parents who had nonetheless paid for twelve months of his self-exploration. During that year, he’d gained perspective and an interest in Buddhism and learned about the writing program while meditating at an expensive campground in the Rocky Mountains. It was a six-week program, held at a four-acre Buddhist-inspired university, and taught by a Blake-inspired staff. Though the program was designed primarily for the university’s graduate students, a limited number of other applicants were accepted, and she was among them. Danny helped her pack and told her about the tourist spots to avoid and how to hide her Ivy-League education. Before leaving home, she stowed away her class ring and pinned her vintage tee with a “No Blood For Oil” button, hoping it wouldn’t set off the metal detector at the airport and that it would help her meet people once she got to Boulder.
She unpacked, hung up her favorite eight shirts, and collapsed on her new bed that was described in the brochure as twin-sized but felt smaller. She thought about what she should wear to her first writing workshop, and drifted to sleep, clinging to ambitions, dreaming about the realization of those ambitions, about finally being happy because she could rid herself of the autobiography she’d been thinking about for the past four years.
She was fifteen minutes early and the first person to the writing workshop, but she was glad no one else had arrived because the twenty-minute walk to campus made her sweat more than she anticipated. The first person in the room, she was able to pick a seat that hid the sweat penetrating the back of her shirt. For the next ten minutes, she pretended to flip through her planner, and as it approached nine o’clock, people began filling the ten other seats, smiling and nodding a kind of “hey” to everyone else in the room.
“It kinda smells like incense in here,” one of the girls said.
She blushed, wondering if she overdid it on her patchouli oil earlier that morning, or if maybe her $14 patchouli oil smelled different than the oil they used.
The instructor walked in, holding a stack of papers that threatened to escape his frivolous hold. His silver hair followed behind him, as if he were walking against a breeze. He seemed so excited to be there. “Hi, I’m Greg. Welcome to Deforming Poetry,” he said. He placed the stack of papers on a seat, patted his hair down, and looked around the room, smiling. “Shall we do introductions?” he asked.
She was the eighth person to introduce herself and the first person who was not a graduate student getting a Masters in poetry.
“Hi, I’m Mandi. I’m not an MFA student, just someone who thought it would be cool to spend my first summer out of school trying to write,” she said She thought that by throwing in the word “cool,” it’d sound nonchalant, as if she wasn’t nervous or wasn’t practicing while everyone else told their names. But after hearing herself actually say it, she realized that her interest in writing may have come across as trivial.
“So you’re not doing this for credit?” Greg asked.
“No sir, just for fun,” she said. The back of her shirt became wetter and her thighs were beginning to stick to her seat. Despite Danny’s advice, she wished the instructor or someone, anyone, would ask her what school she went to, why she wanted to spend her first summer out of that school writing. It wouldn’t matter so much that she wasn’t a poetry expert if they knew where she’d spent the past four years. She secretly wondered if there was a place to get California rolls around campus.
“Well, welcome to our campus,” the instructor, Greg, said. For the next hour he talked about language as a social act with conventional rules, and how as writers, they must dramatically extend the poem’s domain. “We need to see the poem as Imago Vocis…the image of the voice,” he said.
She wondered if he added the translation for her benefit, if everyone else in the room had been studying the image of the voice for years, if they understood what that meant.
“Language is largely oppressive. Its linguistic system represents social structures, so by deforming poetry, we break down traditional notions of society and self, as well as the idea that these notions are natural or real,” Greg said.
Three days later Greg continued talking about language as a construct and the students took turns deforming those constructs. They talked about transforming the poem from the linear to the spatial, disorienting the line, syntax, the agency. Mandi turned Whitman into:
N and loafe
At my ease
Of summer grass.
The class loved it, and so did Greg—“your deformation has become a visionary reminder that there are other points of view besides the narrator’s,” “by destroying the long line, you’ve revealed a new social consciousness,” “your confusion of line length has become conceptual,” –and she accepted the praise, but didn’t understand why she had made the changes or what they meant. She was disoriented, playing with a language that now seemed foreign to her, pretending to understand what the MFA’s understood, pretending she was attacking the oppression of society with her deformations, desperately wishing she could do the same with her Confessions.
Mexicans don’t eat anything
that has not been fried, deep fried, baked, or covered
in melted cheese.
You don’t wake
up one morning and
decide to eat raw fish. No one wants
to be an addict.
If you have never been addicted, you can
what it means to
to talk about and eat
cucumber rolls, or brie, or lox with the addict’s special need.
She was destroying her imagined memoirs. She wasn’t a poet. She saw nothing wrong with writing until the end of a line, or with using prose to tell a story and not as a means of deconstruction. It had been three days and she was becoming increasingly frustrated. Things were never so hard in school. Sleepless, sure, shallow, of course, but the Ivy League was never so crushing. Boulder was all wrong. She wanted to be surrounded by writers so that she could become a writer herself. She wanted to become a writer because she had a great story to tell. She already knew the title, and all she needed was the right atmosphere to pump out her memoirs, to jump start the recovery process. Instead she was experiencing withdrawal symptoms, Boulder making her miss superficial conversations over fondue.
Mandi skipped lunch, retreating to her room to be alone with her screaming passive-aggressive thoughts that were cultivated by her residual self-righteousness. It’s difficult to pace in a room when you have to turn around every six and a half steps, so Mandi crawled into her bed, suddenly disgusted by the fact that her linens were rented. She had an hour (not counting the twenty-minute walk back to campus) before the next scheduled event, a panel on non-fiction featuring an expert on the memoir.
“Finally,” she thought.
When she woke up, Mandi was disoriented. Rolling over, she almost fell out of her bed, her twin-sized bed, and grabbed her clock that taunted her with its glowing red numbers.
“FUCK,” she thought. “I’M LATE,” she said.
She threw on her Princeton sweatshirt, which she’d brought just in case, and made the twenty-minute walk in fourteen minutes. Almost an hour late, she snuck in to the lecture hall without anyone noticing. (Though if anyone did notice, they hopefully noticed her sweatshirt too). As she settled into her seat and searched for her notebook, she heard sporadic words—“writers’ responsibility,” “reclaim,” “cheapening,” Finally ready, she spread her notebook across her knees, clicked her pen, and sat back, eager to hear the speaker.
“And that is why the memoir is dead.”
Applause. The MFAs were applauding. The Blake-inspired instructors were applauding. The fifteen-foot Buddha painted on the lecture hall wall looked like he wanted to applaud too. Everyone was applauding the expert on the memoir, the memoir that apparently had died.
Mandi, frantic, itched for a precept, for a debate over brunch, over cocktails, anything that might allow her to argue that no, the memoir is not dead.
“You become an addict because you lack strong motivations in any other direction,” she thought. “You remain an addict until you begin seeking other motivations.”
She needed a new motivation. Something new to seek. She was tired of raw fish, of conversations about raw fish, about being motivated by things associated with the elite. She was tired of her habit, tired of her inclination toward elitism every time she became nervous, uncomfortable, lonely. She needed to write her memoirs in order to truly rid herself of her habit. She needed to see it in print, see her sickness in its brutality and its disgust, in order to be cured of her addiction. She decided, at that moment, in front of the painted Buddha, that she would resist the addict’s special need by finding another motivation.
“I will sleep with him. I will sleep with the expert and I will change his mind about the memoir, and I will write my Confessions, and I will be cured.”
She felt better already.