Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Octopus, The Missouri Review and The Yale Review. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he directs the graduate program in English. He lives in Brooklyn.
SHOPPING WITH MAYAKOVSKY
One morning I wake
not wanting to get out of bed,
and see a cloud
in my room.
“Mayakovsky?” I say.
“Find me some trousers!” he orders.
I scramble to the closet
and pull out a pair of jeans.
“Don’t know if these will fit,” I say.
“Of course they will,” he says.
“I’m a cloud.”
He puts them on and begins to look more like
himself, his cloudiness
into a column. “Don’t have much style, do you?”
he says. “Nevermind—
let us go out into the world and find ourselves
an ocean.” Before I
he’s kicked me out the door
into the sunlight.
“Ah, just what I was looking for,”
he says, reaching up for the sun and fixing it
like a monocle
in his eye. “Now, poet,”
he laughs, slapping me on the back
and sending me flying
into some pines, “take me to your supermarket.”
I point him down the street—
rain leaks from his legs,
flame leaps from his eye,
and as we walk he floods and scorches, scorches and floods…
“Marvelous!” he cries.
“Your window-flashing automobiles!
Your torrent of engines!
But these buildings are ugly.”
I slow him down
by telling him about my problems in love.
“What will it be?” he says,
his face softening,
the floodtide letting up.
“Love or no-love?
And what kind of love:
big or minute?”
He grins and nudges me with a feathery elbow:
“Girls are partial to poets.”
We arrive at the supermarket,
falls in love with the automatic doors.
He walks into the store over and over again,
each time announcing,
The people in the cash register lines
drop their products.
Mayakovsky bows and says,
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
present to you
Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy.”
One woman screams—
the rest smile and bat their eyelashes.
I grab a shopping cart
and Mayakovsky hops in.
We cruise through the aisles,
blackening the boxes.
“Look at all this food,” he says.
“Over there! The ocean.”
We roll into the frozen fish section,
slowing by freezer doors
so Mayakovsky can open and fog them
one by one.
He sees the lobster tank
and tells me to stop,
“This is how I feel,” I say,
Mayakovsky tells me to move
on, then, once out of view of the lobsters, wheels
and says, “Stop moping!”
“But what’s the point?” I say.
“I’m not you—I’m just wasting my time.”
“You think you’re wasting your time?
You don’t know what it is
to waste time
until you’ve written a three-thousand line elegy
on the death of Lenin.
Try drawing posters
and championing boiled water
for a change.” I apologize
and he says, “Who can blame you for feeling
with all these stores around?
Forget about them.
on the edge
of your own decision.”
“But what if nobody listens?” I ask.
“Hit them with hammer strokes
in stanzas like pistol points.
Make sure you sing.”
We pass the kitchen utensils
and Mayakovsky plucks
a long wooden spoon
from its rack, folds
a tuft of cloudfront
neatly back into a lapel
and inserts the spoon
like a boutonniere.
“Now, let us find some women!”
he says, pointing to the produce section.
But then: “Never,
under any circumstances,
set your heel on the throat
of your own song.”
As we turn toward the tomatoes
the spoon shifts, revealing
the tiny, clean bullet hole underneath.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in the fall of 2003, as an assignment for Lynne McMahon's workshop during my first semester in the PhD program at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The workshop was organized thematically around the ubi sunt poem--thinking about this, I feel like writing an ubi sunt poem for all the workshops lost over the years. As you can probably tell, "Shopping with Mayakovsky" is not an ubi sunt poem in the classical sense; it's a conversation poem modeled on Mayakovsky's own conversation poem with the sun and O'Hara's follow-up conversation. But I figured I'd stretch the parameters of the assignment, as I couldn't imagine Mayakovsky writing a straight-up ubi sunt poem, and just elegizing the loss of him didn't feel true to his spirit. By the way, I've had to write ubi sunt four times (now five), and every time TextEdit autocorrects "sunt" to "aunt." There, just did it again. Very annoying.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Unlike most of my other poems, this one didn't go through that many revisions. I can't say exactly how much time elapsed between the first and final drafts, but the poem was pretty close to its final form after the first draft--it came out all in one go (another rarity for me). Most of the revisions were pretty small, such as changing punctuation--I remember taking out a few of Mayakovsky's exclamation points prior to the publication of my book. The only fairly big change I remember making was adding the image of the lobster tank. I went to Gerbes (the supermarket where the poem takes place) shortly after writing the first draft and walked by the lobster tank and saw a missed opportunity. Can't have Mayakovsky in a supermarket and not have him look at the lobsters.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
No, I don't believe in inspiration in the sense that some gust from the heavens enters you and makes you spooge your genius onto the page. But I do believe in letting a certain amount of energy build up inside of you prior to writing a poem. You've got to let the energy build and build--this may happen through "sweat and tears." You want to write a poem about Mayakovsky. You know his poems well but haven't read them for a few years. So you go back and read them over and over again. You look back at some old notes on him. You look back over the biographical material. You prepare and prepare and finally you just make a starting point--hopefully it sticks. Sometimes it doesn't stick, and you know pretty quickly that it sucks because of all the prep-work you've done. In this case, I liked the opening I happened upon and the poem just flew from there.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I wanted to write very short lines after the type of lines Mayakovsky used in his own poem about talking to the sun. I wanted the poem to shoot down the page. This was a big change for me, because prior to this (and after) I used predominantly long lines. I didn't feel comfortable in short lines. But the thought that these were the type of lines Mayakovsky would've written in sanctioned them for me. I also tried to incorporate some formal homages to his stylistic hallmarks, such as isolating "I" by itself in a line, or using his titanic "But I" rhetorical maneuver. I also just, well, used a lot of his own lines or images in the poem, such as the one about him fixing the sun "like a monocle" in his eye.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Yeah, I mean, I was talking to a cloud. That was pretty unusual.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Published online by Shampoo in 2006, so I guess about three years. Not sure exactly when in '06 it came out.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don't have any strict rules, but I definitely sit with a poem for at least a month or so before sending it out. Even when I write a poem all in go (which, as I said, is pretty rare for me), I continue working on it for at least a week afterward, seeing how I can improve it or if I missed any opportunities (such as lobsters). And I know that some obvious little edits will only become clear when I haven't looked at the poem for a few days after this primary composition period. So, to be safe, I give every poem at least a month to congeal. When it looks like globbed spaghetti--that's when I send a poem out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, obviously my talking to Mayakovsky while walking through a supermarket is fiction. My moping like lobsters with their claws tied up in a lobster tank is fact. Mayakovsky shooting himself is fact. Sadly.
Is this a narrative poem?
Strange question. Yes.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I believe I was reading Mayakovsky at the time, but don't quote me on that.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I've talked about this in another interview, but yes, I have a reader in mind, a sleepy friend I want to WAKE UP. I believe Mayakovsky wrote for this type of reader--and he's my inspiration in this regard. I want my poetry to kickstart a reader into life, more life, more life.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, the people who were taking the workshop with me saw the first draft, of course. Some great people in that class: Steve Gerhke, Nadine Meyer, Nicky Beer, Katie Pierce, Christine Marshall and others. Steve was, and still is, an important reader for me, the one who seems best able to gauge just how good a poem of mine is--is it really good, or just so-so? Or crap? He was really behind this poem, as were most of the other people in the class, which sort of surprised me, because I thought it was fun but not that "big" of a poem. To this day I don't think this is one of my best poems, but several people have told me this is their favorite, or one of their favorites. I gave a reading last spring in Sacramento and a young woman came up to me afterward to tell me she had discovered this poem online and decided on the basis of this one poem to see me read. That was interesting.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Well, like I said, it uses very short lines. So that's different. But in other respects it's not that different, as it mixes humor and sadness and uses a conversational voice and has a narrative structure.
What is American about this poem?
Maybe the fact that I'm quoting Mayakovsky in English translation? The supermarket definitely. I thought it would be interesting to put this Communist poet, the voice of the Revolution, in a consumerist landscape. Also, I felt that I was following an American line of influence from Mayakovsky through the New York School, specifically O'Hara and Koch.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
This one ended with a click.