Postcard from the Ledge: 13th

img_5354Friends, I’m old enough to remember the Willie Horton ad. I’m old enough to remember when the Central Park Jogger –who was around my age, a jogger like me, white like me, educated like me– was raped and left for dead. I remember being terrified at the idea of “wilding” youths –who, somehow, were always black– out to get girls like me. And I remember three months ago, when I was stunned at the outcome of this election and none of my friends who aren’t white were.

I grew up in rural, northern, mostly blue collar, white America. I didn’t think much about just how unequally people who didn’t look like me were treated –I didn’t watch much television and I physically didn’t see it in my daily life– and I sure didn’t understand it on a visceral level. My ignorance about race changed fundamentally in my twenties, when I began living in cities, and I’ve spent my adult life playing catch-up. The documentary film “13th” places pattern to the past and present in a brilliant and succinct way. It’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. Watch it.

Poem of the Week, by Wang Ping

In a recent conversation between me and an abstract painter, he claimed that spellcheck is the only reason he can spell with any degree of accuracy. T14650223_10154741240944276_6632425684321910510_nhat before spellcheck, he would say the word out loud and then look through the dictionary trying to find it by first letter. A word like psychology, for example, he would sound out and then search through all the S words. Not finding it, he would then look through all the C’s even though he was sure that it couldn’t begin with C. It was a slow and agonizing process, and all his papers came back with low grades and comments like “Your insights are terrific but you must learn to proofread.”

In many years of teaching creative writing to students whose grasp of spelling and grammar is sometimes tenuous –usually because they are immigrants or because their brains work differently from mine, and less often because they are lazy– I have had to train myself to see the heart and soul first, and the mechanics second. This has not been an easy task for me, someone to whom spelling is instinctive and usually perfect, and in the back of my mind I always hold close this poem below, my favorite of all the many written by the wild, beautiful and fierce multi-media artist Wang Ping.  


She walks to a table
She walk to table 

She is walking to a table
She walk to table now 

What difference does it make
What difference it make 

In Nature, no completeness
No sentence really complete thought 

Language, like woman,
Look best when free, undressed.

For more information on Wang Ping, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Kevin Young

img_6221Yesterday I sprinkled some sliced almonds into a small pan and turned the flame on low. I stood beside the stove watching over the pan and occasionally flipping the almonds so that they would brown evenly and not burn. When they were dark golden I shook a little sugar over them and stirred until they were caramelized. Then I turned the almonds out onto a plate to cool and took the pan over to the sink. The sink is a strange, cheap, plasticky thing, scarred from hot pans, so I held the pan up to the faucet and ran water in it to cool it down first. The water hit the pan and steam billowed up into my face. Suddenly I was breathing in vaporized sugar – I could feel it in my lungs and taste it as it went down. It was the most amazing sensation. I stood there by the sink and thought, All these years I’ve been alive and this has never once happened to me before. Then I thought of this poem, which I have secretly treasured ever since I first read it because I love how words, if you toss them around in your mind and on your tongue, turn surprising and magical in that same alchemical way. 


     – Kevin Young

Baby, give me just
one more hiss

We must lake it fast

I want to cold you
in my harms

& never get lo

I live you so much
it perts!

Baby, jive me gust
one more bliss

Whisper your
neat nothings in my near

Can we hock each other
one tore mime?

All light wrong?

Baby give me just
one more briss

My won & homely

You wake me meek
in the needs

Mill you larry me?

Baby, hive me just
one more guess

With this sing
I’ll thee shed


Click here for more information about Kevin Young.

Poem-like Prose of the Week, by Kao Kalia Yang

img_3440A long time ago, I floated down a tunnel toward a light far away. The floating was slow and the sensation around me was warm and soft. I was conscious the entire time, not thinking but feeling, and the feeling was Here we go again. At a certain point, soft bits of metal touched the top and sides of my head. Nothing hurt. Everything was inevitable. What would happen, would happen. This is my memory of being born. (The soft bits of metal part had always confused me, until one day my mother told me I had been a forceps baby, pulled out at the end with metal tongs.) The below excerpt from Kao Kalia Yang’s beautiful, haunting memoir The Latehomecomer makes me remember it all over again, in a different way. From the sky, I would come again.


Prologue to The Latehomecomer, by Kao Kalia Yang

Before babies are born they live in the sky where they fly among the clouds. The sky is a happy place and calling babies down to earth is not an easy thing to do. From the sky, babies can see the course of human lives.

This is what the Hmong children of my generation are told by our mothers and fathers, by our grandmothers and grandfathers.

They teach us that we have chosen our lives. That the people who we would become we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong inside of us, we have always known.

From the sky, I would come again.


For more information about Kao Kalia Yang, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Michael Lee

img_61071) When I was young and had just lost someone I loved, I prayed one night for him to give me a sign from wherever, if anywhere, he was. The next morning I dreamed that his arms were the blanket over me and the bed under me. The sense of comfort disappeared the minute I woke up, but I’ve remembered it all these years. 2) Once, in a CVS, years after she had died, I smelled my grandmother, the powder she always wore. I followed my nose from aisle to aisle until I found her, a small old woman looking at birthday cards. She was not my grandmother, and yet she was my grandmother. 3) Last spring, my friend Kathi and I were on a television show that was being taped outdoors. As Kathi was talking, my friend John Brett, husband of my friend Gail, appeared at the edge of the set. He was smiling, of course, and a giant surge of happiness went through me at the sight of him and I waved at him and thought, I have to tell Gail I saw John! Then I remembered, again, that John had died. But I told Gail anyway. 4) I love this poem below for so many reasons, but most of all for these lines: The theory of six degrees of separation/ was never meant to show how many people we can find,/ it was a set of directions for how to find the people we have lost.


Pass On, by Michael Lee

When searching for the lost remember 8 things.

We are vessels. We are circuit boards
swallowing the electricity of life upon birth.
It wheels through us creating every moment,
the pulse of a story, the soft hums of labor and love.
In our last moment it will come rushing
from our chests and be given back to the wind.
When we die. We go everywhere.

Newton said energy is neither created nor destroyed.
In the halls of my middle school I can still hear
my friend Stephen singing his favorite song.
In the gymnasium I can still hear
the way he dribbled that basketball like it was a mallet
and the earth was a xylophone.
With an ear to the Atlantic I can hear
the Titanic’s band playing her to sleep,
Music. Wind. Music. Wind.

The day my grandfather passed away there was the strongest wind,
I could feel his gentle hands blowing away from me.
I knew then they were off to find someone
who needed them more than I did.
On average 1.8 people on earth die every second.
There is always a gust of wind somewhere.

The day Stephen was murdered
everything that made us love him rushed from his knife wounds
as though his chest were an auditorium
his life an audience leaving single file.
Every ounce of him has been
wrapping around this world in a windstorm
I have been looking for him for 9 years.

Our bodies are nothing more than hosts to a collection of brilliant things.
When someone dies I do not weep over polaroids or belongings,
I begin to look for the lightning that has left them,
I feel out the strongest breeze and take off running.

After 9 years I found Stephen.
I passed a basketball court in Boston
the point guard dribbled like he had a stadium roaring in his palms
Wilt Chamberlain pumping in his feet,
his hands flashing like x-rays,
a cross-over, a wrap-around
rewinding, turn-tables cracking open,
camera-men turn flash bulbs to fireworks.
Seven games and he never missed a shot,
his hands were luminous.
Pulsing. Pulsing.
I asked him how long he’d been playing,
he said nine 9 years

The theory of six degrees of separation
was never meant to show how many people we can find,
it was a set of directions for how to find the people we have lost.
I found your voice Stephen,
found it in a young boy in Michigan who was always singing,
his lungs flapping like sails
I found your smile in Australia,
a young girl’s teeth shining like the opera house in your neck,
I saw your one true love come to life on the asphalt of Boston.

We are not created or destroyed,
we are constantly transferred, shifted and renewed.
Everything we are is given to us.
Death does not come when a body is too exhausted to live
Death comes, because the brilliance inside us can only be contained for so long.
We do not die. We pass on, pass on the lightning burning through our throats.
when you leave me I will not cry for you
I will run into the strongest wind I can find
and welcome you home.


For more information about Michael Lee, please click here.