Another Reason to Fast

For Benjamin Smoke

In the only televised interview
the one that flickers through
gutters of time. The one that
never happens. Or, folded into
future frequencies. You move through
dissonance. A series of desperate
gestures. Your hands, trembling.
The spectre of growing up poor
during the final, failing century.
Broken shards of glass, remnant,
excess. Your hands the hands
of Jean Genet, broken-
down Hölderlin. Queer, white
trash. Remainder. Alone, and never
not filling our small decadent room
with pills and boys and beautiful
but sound-less music. An endless
concatenation of crystal
methamphetamine, cigarettes,
black and white photographs,
and the prettiest
ripped thrift-store dress.
Quietness is not silence.
It is its own music.A bleaker
frequency, Rutherfordium,
non-radio. Antigone,
alive, just barely, in the high-rise
outside the god-forsaken
southern city.

-Cynthia Cruz

Filed under: Séance (Writing), Spirit LettersTagged with: , ,

To Sanyu

Dear Sanyu, 

Your old friend Robert Frank never wears socks because when he was a young, poor artist, he realized he could afford to buy more books if he didn’t buy socks. I learned this about Frank a few years ago on a sleepless night when I reached for my phone and read a long Times profile about him, which is also how I first learned about you and how the two of you became fast friends after a studio swap went awry, and you ended up living and working together for two years in his studio in New York City. 

Finding about you in this way—a footnote in someone else’s story—felt familiar. (Monique Truong wrote an entire novel about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cook based on a literary footnote. One day someone will write a novelization of the Donner Party as told by sixteen-year-old Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a half-Mexican, half-French orphan who joined the party as a hired hand. He will recount how the wel mel ti people of the Sierra Nevada tried leaving a deer carcass for the starving pioneers but were shot at.) 

After that first encounter, I went digging for more information about you. I learned you were a rich kid from a family of silk manufacturers in Sichuan. At 19, you moved to Paris to become an artist, spending your days writing, sketching and drinking in the city’s bohemian cafes and bistros. You had your portrait drawn by Picasso. You liked the poetry of Jean Racine. 

Of course I’ve looked at your work, too—the female nudes with their colossal thighs, pale potted flowers drooping lavishly on their stalks. The animals you drew—horses and the occasional elephant—tend to float in a near-depthless field, as though shot into outer space. Not so with your cats. You painted many cats, the lightness of your brushstroke matching their quicksilver temperament. Your cats are little proud and put upon as they drowse, peer up at birds just out of reach, or crouch over a saucer of milk in the full languor of life, as you were in your early years as a dandy in Paris.

 By the time you arrived at Frank’s studio in 1948, those years had ended. Things were not going well for you. The family money had dried up. To pay the bills, you did carpentry and painted screens and lacquer-ware for an imitation antiques factory. But still you had hopes for striking it rich. You had invented a new sport you called ping-tennis, part ping pong, part tennis, which you had dreams of turning it into an Olympic sport. In New York you insisted that Frank remove all his furniture from one room so you could paint the floor with the specifications of the ping-tennis court.

 Ping-tennis went nowhere of course. I fell hard for this hustle, even more so than for your art. But then I have always been attracted to failure, to artists and schemers who can’t quite seem to get lucky, get it right or get it together, the dreamers and idealists, the self-saboteurs, the shy ones who can’t be bothered or who insist on their freedom, who do not seek obscurity but find it anyway.

 The night you died, you had friends over for a late dinner at your flat in the Montparnasse and fell asleep with a book over your chest. The stove hadn’t been turned off properly. Probably you didn’t feel anything slipping from one state of unconsciousness into the next. I wonder what book you were reading. It’s taken decades, but your paintings are selling in the millions now. The Taiwanese are mad for you. In your later years you’d learned to live carefully within limits, budgeting your money, managing your hopes and expectations. Fate had conspired against your ever returning to China. I think some part of you must have wanted to go back, even as you must have known the world you knew no longer existed. Maybe that’s why in your last letter to your family you included a rather wistful request that they send along a jar of chòudòufu—stinky tofu—if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.

October 15, 2018

Lisa Chen was born in Taipei and lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of a book of poems, Mouth (Kaya Press) and is writing a book about the Downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh, work, and the life of projects.

Filed under: Spirit LettersTagged with: , ,


September 28, 2018

For Daddy:

 How to contemplate what outlasts what. How laughter is sometimes so involuntary nothing should be said about happiness. How companionship is not necessarily supplied by friendship, instead its central mystery. How a lamp is left on throughout the night, to keep wake, to keep wake. How a beard, months after being worn, fathers a face, that face orphaned when shaved. How to transfer a man’s consciousness to those he leaves behind. How I am still with you. How it is still too early to say however. How I dread the afterimage. How the palms, long after they are held open, resemble a book, hence letters. How a tree does not know you. How you will cease to be known by your body. How little you know of me, and how your estimations are right. How I love my mother. How I love my father. How I love my sisters. How I love my brothers. How long I would remain surprised that anyone reaches a great, old age. How long you must suspect that anything I write is rinsed in sentiment. How a son is a father doubled, or halved. How quickly I wrote this. How no two breaths are of the same duration. How God. How to recite a psalm without weeping. How I am still with you.




September 21, 2018

Dear Christopher Okigbo,

All day I am translating your other name. “Ifekandu.”

Something bigger than life,
Something better than life,
Something bigger and better than life,
This thing cannot be equated with life,
Life is too small in comparison,
Teach me to number my days, to apply my heart to something besides this life,
I have measured life and found it small in comparison,
Why speak of life in this world when you can speak of someplace better,
What is life compared to something vaster,
There is something better than life.



August 17, 2018

For Chinua Achebe:

In 1971, soon after the war, he published a volume of poems. “There is some connection between the particular distress of war, the particular tension of war, and the kind of literary response it inspires. I chose to express myself in that period through poetry, as opposed to other genres.” His explanation was published in 2012.

In his memoir, when he turns to prose, his sentences are written with restraint, without imaginative flourishes. The book, besides the poems he includes, is a compendium of personal and historical facts.

It has been said that he was silent about the war for forty years. And suppose it is true, that even his poems constitute silence—so what? So what, if on days when he attempts to tell a story, and senses afresh the depth of horror, he finds it difficult to write a novel that is not belabored by disenchantment. So what if he stands from his desk, shuts the door, and never writes a word for months.

Dear Chinua. Someone has whispered in my ear that it is possible to run errands for a previous generation. Send me forth from your silence.



June 27, 2018

Dear Isabelle Eberhardt

It comes to my mind like this. A crane, a migrating water bird.

Palamedes, it is said, invented the alphabet after watching the patterns made by flocks of cranes while in flight. That would suggest that each letter depicted corresponds to the spectacular swerve of a bird.

Some days everything depended on how well the crane could be observed. Their flight marked the turn of seasons, or remnant sources of water in the desert, where birds came to rest between Africa and Asia.

The metaphor gets even more multilayered: Ancient augurists believed that if you found a knowledgeable bird, who had flown high enough to have seen the whole world, it could tell you where Utopia was.

I can think of no other example to illustrate the fusion of nature with writing, the freedom of the migrant with the vastness of the world.



— Emmanuel Iduma


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Oh dear, June Jordan: Gertrude Stein: Emily Dickinson: Phillis Wheatley


In the midst of writing there is merriment.

– Gertrude Stein



Adopt a posture of merriment: become merry. Maybe reading could be a kind of merry-making with oneself, as in, I read this and even now, remembering reading it and re-reading it, I get a hollow, sparkling feeling in my chest and stomach. But more often than not “merriment” is something one does with others, and so merriment, bursting on the scene of writing, is an interruption of solitude and a demand that one recognize one’s accompanists. Merriment puts me in awareness of a relation, already in place, to an other, also already in place. Making merry, as at a party, one looks across one’s glass to toast or meets the eye of the other in conversation. In any case merriment does not happen in a closed circuit or without resonance. It requires something else than one’s self; maybe that’s writing (what one has written, or the ongoingness of writing itself) or maybe it’s what’s been written by others, or maybe it’s others themselves. In any case, Dickinson wrote that it is “internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are” (that is in the poem numbered 320). Merriment in the midst of writing is an internal difference, and so maybe also a place for Meanings.

Dear Gertrude Stein, you wrote that in the midst of writing there is merriment. Dear Emily Dickinson, you wrote that Meanings reside in what cannot be seen but can be recognized, internally, to be non-identical with itself or oneself.




Dear Éireann,

Name some (new) (possible) ways to be-reading and to be-read?

I have not been able to write, or wanted to write, for a few months. I read Twitter and feel more and more despair about extrajudicial killings and the disproportionate mortality rates of Black women in labor and the daily lessening, legal and cultural, of the value of trans people’s and Black people’s lives. I am not sure what value my writing (verb) could have. But maybe my despair is a question of how to be with literature, or how to make it. It has not led to merriment: I have felt aloner and aloner in writing (not-writing).

Rephrase. How one makes it. How I could make it. Who makes it? Who I make it with, because of, and for. If I feel lonely in the writing, maybe I need to keep more company. Or realize the company I’m in.

What company makes me feel lonely? And whose company might make a merry I could join in making?




Here is a story I was told. Maybe you have been told this story, too. The “Writer” walks out of the house and says to the world, look what I can do, while, back in the house, meals are made and children are raised without fanfare: and neither become Culture. That way of being “Writer” has happened for much of time: and by time I mean the post-medieval history of the West: and by “Writer” I mean for the most part a white man, probably married to a woman, almost assuredly cisgender, probably of some means or supported by someone of means, and of a Christian background.

So: narrow things, time and being, in this sense.

There are cracks in this sense of time, though. Internal difference, in Dickinson’s words, or as she also says, “Heavenly hurt” of which nevertheless “We can find no scar”. The hurt is a track, if invisible. We know it is there. (Who is the we?) Maybe “we” haven’t learned to see it, read it, or listen to it. But. Nevertheless. It points “us” to where “we” might go; it is speculative, radical, open, and other to a closed-down history of literature which has already settled and established how and what thinking can be, and by whom it can be done.




Dear Gertrude Stein, are there cracks in solid time?

She has given up the decorative function and devoted herself to finding out what language is.

Stein gives me a glimpse of the cracks in the time-being of the (white) (male) poet among the daffodils. Here is another possibility. And her suggestion that merriment bears relation to writing, which acknowledges a difference (an “internal” difference: merriment is “in the midst” of writing) between the two that might be tonal. “Writing” is not “merriment”. (We know that because the two things have very different names. We also know this because of the way merriment happens in writing’s midst. The location of merriment with relation to writing tells us they are not the same.) Writing might give us many things, including seriousness, self-seriousness, misery, gloominess, distress, heartbreak, melancholy, pleasure, joy… . Nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless, Stein proposes a break (both pause and rupture) in the midst of writing, which is gaiety, exuberance, cheer, festivity, pleasure, and togetherness. Merriment, unlike writing (verb), is something one generally shares. It is convivial. And whereas writing seems just to appear (the verb and the noun take the same form), merriment must be made. If merriment is laborious, it is not alienated from what it labors over.




Dear poet-siblings,

I have been looking for a way to be in the world, as a writer, doing something else than keeping time in that narrow, isolating way of the greater or lesser geniuses of the white Western canon. There has been enough wandering among daffodils while someone else, as June Jordan writes, “did the things that have to be done”. (This phrase is from Jordan’s essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America”, which Jordan subtitles “Something like a sonnet” and dedicates to Phillis Wheatley.) I am late to the train of poets who already know what it means to exist, in Jordan’s words, “beyond and without those terms under consideration”—terms supplied to the poet by or to the benefit of whiteness. But here I am. Nevertheless.

Jordan writes, in the same essay, that Wheatley “created herself a poet, notwithstanding and in despite of everything around her”. The creation of the self-as-poet, when one is also self-as-Black-woman, or, as Wheatley was, self-as-enslaved-Black-woman is what Jordan identifies as “miracle”. Miracle, from, linguists postulate, a proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to smile at’. To wonder at. Probably a shared root with “merry”. And miracle can be a verb as well as a noun: to miracle, meaning, to work a miracle on. Which is what the “difficult miracle”, the impossibility of the poet and Black woman Phillis Wheatley, is and does: Wheatley is a miracle. Because “she […] created herself a poet, notwithstanding and in despite of everything around her”. Yes. And Wheatley miracles the future (and her present) of poetry in the United States. She changes its course. She is its course. She renders it, in her having written, possible at all.

If merriment is both rupture (“internal difference” to the act and history of writing) and a site of togetherness (conviviality), then Wheatley’s poems make merry the literature of my country. Writing, Wheatley renders a conviviality possible, or even already achieved by her having written at all: she is the conviviality, the internal difference which indexes a relation that was always there (the relation of the one who prepares the meals or grows the crops to the one who, nourished and fed, can walk out into the world and transcribe it as poem). When Wheatley’s writing enters the scene, there is more to writing, and to “Writer”, than there was. “Following her ‘intrinsic ardor,’ and attuned to the core of her own person”, Jordan writes of Wheatley, “this girl, the first Black poet in America, had dared to redefine herself from house slave to, possibly, an angel of the Almighty.” Such that I sit here, two decades into the 21st century, my being and my writing made possible by Wheatley’s having written. And by Jordan having written about her.




Dear June Jordan,

I remember when you died. I was in my early twenties. I didn’t understand who you were; I knew your name but I didn’t realize your stature. I knew Phillis Wheatley’s name, too, and I had read her poems, but I had not read your essay-sonnet to her. For her. In which you mourn the loss of the poems of “Phillis the woman, […] who had chosen herself, free, and brave to be free in a land of slavery”, which were never published; which were lost. Now, looking back, I am amazed that I lived in a world and time when you were alive and I didn’t know it.

You identify the scar in this. You write, about Wheatley’s second manuscript of poems, poems of her adulthood and her freedom, “I believe we would not have seen them, anyway. I believe no one would have published the poetry of Black Phillis Wheatley, that grown woman who stayed with her chosen Black man […] an independent Black woman poet in America”.

You write, “Can you imagine that, in 1775?”. You write, “Can you imagine that, today?”.

There was a fault in my imagination: the fault was, I did not see you or Wheatley as historical. I had not been taught to perceive your lineage. As a tributary to mine. To what I learned to call the canon. Or in other words, I had been brought up without manners. I was incapable of being convivial in a way which you and Wheatley had had no choice but to be.

My education, like, I imagine, the education of most white children and young adults in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, had given me to understand an all-white history of literature as naturally occuring. Where Black writers and other writers of color appeared was a sort of scar. I do not recall being encouraged to trace that scar, to find out the “Meanings” there. Black writers and writers of color appeared as blips on a homogenous surface, a skin of writing which was otherwise white.

Dear June Jordan, you write about judging the Loft McKnight Awards in creative writing, awards that are administered by a literary organization in my home city, Minneapolis, and are open to writers throughout Minnesota. “Last week […] I read through sixteen manuscripts of rather fine poetry”, you write. You go on to list “lexical items” you encountered in the poems—“Rock, moon, star, roses, chimney, Prague, elms, lilac, railroad tracks, lake, lilies, snow geese, crow, mountain, arrow feathers, ear of corn, marsh, sandstone, rabbit-bush, gulley, pumpkins, eagle, tundra, dwarf willow, dipper-bird, brown creek, lizards, sycamores, glacier, canteen, skate eggs, birch, spruce, pumphandle”—and to say that these “are the terms, the lexical items accurate to the specific white Minnesota daily life of those white poets”. All that to say that you could and did recognize your accompaniment, even as Black poets “have been rejected and […] frequently dismissed as ‘political’ or ‘topical’ or ‘sloganeering’ and ‘crude’ and ‘insignificant’ because, like Phillis Wheatley, [you] have persisted for freedom”. Which is to say, even when white poets like me, from places like the one I’m from, could not and would not recognize you, or Wheatley, or the urgencies of Black poets writing in the United States.




Who am I with?

Who is with me?

“It was not natural”, Jordan writes, and “she was the first”.

In 1775, she was the first. Not the first to think, sing, want, dream. But the first we know of to write, whose writings were cared for and kept.

“And she was the first.”

Can I join in, even late? I am happy to stand in the kitchen, fill glasses and cups, wash dishes and do laundry. My first education was in learning to speak. Lately I have just been trying to learn to listen.

June Jordan’s essay is a scar indexing “internal difference” and also “Meanings”. Like “merriment” breaks through “writing”, it breaks through me, and there is a trace of it left once I finish reading. As a white poet and Jordan’s reader I am asked to awaken myself to the relationship I have always already been in to Wheatley, to Jordan, and to a history, lineage, and ongoing genealogy of Black poets and writers and artists who have “persisted for freedom”, theirs and mine. The conviviality pre-exists me. It has made everything possible: has been what made my writing “about wild geese flying over Prague” possible.

Dear Éireann, do you not owe what courage you have to the example of poets like Wheatley, like Jordan, who in writing “of the terror and the hungering and the quandaries of [their] African lives on this North American soil” have refused to be subsumed into similarity and invisibility, who have been the “miracle” and the “merriment”, the irruption and the Meanings, without whom you could in fact never have written at all, could not have learned to write at all?




–Éireann Lorsung

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Dear David

October 13, 2018

Dear David,

On September 8, I received an invitation from Madhu to write a spirit letter, “a letter to a dead writer, artist, thinker or public person who is important to [me] as a writer…” I accepted, but I didn’t know who my important dead person would be. You were still alive.

On September 27, Maceo was watching Play Misty For Me when Xing & I came back to the cottage where were staying. We’d been living out of suitcases since June 30 — cat-sitting, house-sitting, staying with family & friends. I’d been thinking of you more than usual because we’d been eating a lot of ramen.

Clint Eastwood & Jessica Walter were kissing. Xing said, “Ew! Is this a love story?” Maceo said, “No, it’s more like a horror film.” I could tell someone was going to die. Probably the black maid (black people are always the first to die in horror films) & probably someone else after that. Xing stayed with Maceo & I went to bed with a book, wanting, as always, to avoid horror. It had been a difficult three months.

I was reading Ling Ma’s Severance (Somehow, thinking about most of the world’s population dying was preferable to watching one or two people die up close.) a book you would love. It’s funnier than it sounds & moves skillfully back & forth between past & present. Underneath everything — the dystopian thriller, the immigrant’s tale, the critique of consumerism, the New York novel, the zombies — it’s a story about grief. Ma was born in 1983. Isn’t it funny that when I was in your fiction class at UCLA, she was only Xing’s age? Then again, it makes perfect sense. Time had to pass & the world had to change, in order for Ma to grow into the writer she is today, for a book like hers to be written.

After the movie was over, Maceo must have turned to the news on his laptop or phone. He called to me from the other side of the wall, “Did you hear about David Wong Louie?” As soon as he asked me, I knew you were dead, but I waited to prolong the moments in which I appeared to him not to know. I kept reading for a few beats before I answered, living for as long as seemed plausible in those unknowing moments.

Right before the black maid is killed, we hear a terrible scraping sound but can’t see its source. It’s the sound of the white girlfriend cutting at things crazily with a knife. The moments during which we hear, but do not understand, the sound are infinitely more horrifying than those in which we see her lunging at things with the knife.

“No,” I finally answered. By which I meant: No, I haven’t heard. No, I don’t want to hear. No, please don’t tell me. No, he’s not dead, he’s alive.

I want to say that knowing you were sick without being able to see you was like hearing the knife scrape, that our imaginations are infinitely more horrifying than concrete violence. But watching a film isn’t the same as real life. Reading your piece last year in Harper’s, David, I had no idea. The concrete violence of your suffering was infinitely more horrifying than I’d ever imagined.

The last time I saw you, Jackie was making you ramen with a fried egg on top. I was pregnant with Xing and Sogna was toddling around the house. This was, of course, before your years of not being able to eat. I was (we all were), without meaning to, dwelling in moments of not knowing, taking for granted the miraculous fact that you would, in just a few minutes, put the ramen in your mouth, chew it & swallow it. I even watched you eat it, but I can’t remember what that was like. I only remember watching Jackie make it for you & thinking how lucky the two of you were to have each other. The fact that you would eat the ramen was absurdly incidental, one of those everyday miracles like breathing air, seeing sky, hearing music.

On July 26, I made ramen with egg for Xing & thought of you. I told her the story of the last time I saw you. She was interested in Sogna.“I want to meet her,” she said. She was intrigued by this girl close to her age who’s Chinese & Korean. At her island school, Xing’s the only Asian girl who isn’t adopted. Telling her the story, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from you in several months. I was worried. I thought of all the bowls of ramen Jackie must have made for you over the years & all the bowls you must have made for her — you were a fabulous cook. I wrote what was to be my last email to you.

Having a teacher you admire can be dangerous. I followed your instructions like a schoolgirl. I was lucky. You were the best writing teacher I ever had & by that I mean the best teacher for me, for my particular work. You knew the right questions to ask, the right prompts to assign, the directions that, if followed, would blow the work wide open. A young writer’s dream. Students lined up outside your office to talk to you. I waited, as patiently as the next gal, because talking to you meant gossiping about my characters, which brought my work to life. You taught me to treat my characters like real people, people I loved, people I hated, people who made me laugh, people I wanted to feel closer to. In the beginning, you took them more seriously than I did.

You died on September 19, eleven days after I received Madhu’s invitation, twenty-six days in advance of the deadline. The invitation asked “that it be someone public— though not necessarily famous — simply so that a reader can find out more about the person, so that the private correspondence can refract more publicly.”

After Maceo told me the news, I stopped reading. I searched your hashtag on Instagram. There were only five posts, none of them related to your recent death. I hearted all five of them anyway. Who, reading this spirit letter, has read your books? Why or why not? You’d been writing about Chinese Americans & Chinese immigrants for years, since before it was fashionable, since long before my students were born. They haven’t heard of you, but they love the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, just as so many haven’t heard of James Baldwin but are starstruck by Ta Nehisi Coates.

I want everyone to read Pangs of Love.

David, I feel such pangs of love for everything you knew before we did, for the stories you left us, for the stories you might have told if you’d had the strength to eat, to speak, to write.

You were born in the year of the horse. Vivacious. Active. Animated. Energetic. Free spirited. Fashionable. Deft sense of humor. I never imagined we’d become friends. You were too witty, too glamorous, too fast-paced for me! Would we have remained friends if you’d never fallen ill? I don’t know.

It’s cold out today. It feels like fall. What I want most — your books — is in storage in Boston, along with my sweaters & socks. I want to hear your voice so I’m reading old emails, the food essay, the interview in King-Kok’s book, anything of yours I can get my hands on. My favorite line is from the note you sent after Sogna was born:

Came home yesterday and we’re running on bliss fumes.

May the bliss flumes take you to where you go next & when you get there, dear one,

may you eat.

With pangs of love,


P.S. Will you remind me what the names of your island friends are? It would be so lovely to see someone who knew you when you were alive.

David Wong Louie’s Obituary

— Jennifer Tseng

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