I found out about the NEA the night before the election. Did I go out and celebrate? No--I graded papers so I could celebrate the next night. I didn't want to jinx Barack Obama by celebrating early. This is how Clevelanders think (it was bad enough I was planning on celebrating the next night). I know, pathetic, but you can all thank me for Obama's victory.
What the NEA means to me, like Obama's election, is possibility. Before winning an NEA fellowship, I'd never won anything for my poetry. I'd grown so cynical about my chances of winning book publication that I often forgot which book contests I'd entered in any given year. And I completely forgot about applying for an NEA, so when Dana Gioia called and introduced himself on the phone, I couldn't think of why he was calling me (to remind me to vote?).
President Obama's gift, as many have noted, is that he is able to make people see their stories in his story. I couldn't help but see winning an NEA as intertwined with his victory; I felt hopeful about the future again, and shed some (though not all) of my ingrown Cleveland cynicism. A month after the NEA and election news I found out my first book had been accepted for publication.
Now I feel as if a career in poetry is really possible. My first book is on the way, and the NEA gives me the time and resources to devote my energy toward a second. I will always be grateful to the NEA for opening this doorway onto recognition, and for blessing me with resources at a time when most Americans are without them.
SELF-REPRODUCTION WITH SCREAM PILLOW
I was lying in bed again, after waking again,
After sleeping again, feeling demolished but poised
When nothing occurred to me, nothing
Knocked on the door, nothing came swinging
Into my vision. The phone rang, I heard my voice
Saying I wasn't here; then staticking silence,
Then silence; then the phone rang again, again
I heard my voice, it sounded exactly the same.
I was trying to read the light in the room, the losses
It took as it passed through the dust-filmed
Blinds, from the leaves of the tree, the tailpipe emissions,
Every morning I wanted it to choose me, order
Me up, but it looked merely left there, on the stapler,
The rows of books, the soft calculator buttons,
It didn't come down from the heavens, it didn't
Break into the room like a fresh bull of beginning,
It didn't, it didn't, it made that sound, didn't.
I propped myself on my elbow and made a sail
Between my arm and my chest, but the raft
Of my bed stayed put, no wind came billowing
Across the beige ocean of carpet. Oh when
Did I enter this life of facsimile? The calendar said
May, said Water & Light, but those words lay
Over boxes, boxes and boxes and boxes
I wanted to break apart like ice cubes from a tray.
I saw my Scream pillow in the corner, facsimile
Of Munch's painting on the front SQUEEZE ME
AND I SCREAM THIS PILLOW DOESN'T JUST SIT THERE
IT EXPRESSES ITSELF But it was just sitting there,
A product, a birthday present, it required a hand
To squeeze it, a will to make the hand squeeze.
Inside the man cupping his face into a light bulb
Was no great, infinite scream passing through nature
But a little plastic box, and some batteries.
"Self-Reproduction with Scream Pillow" first appeared in Green Mountains Review.
Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review, and The Missouri Review. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He currently lives in New York, where he teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent.
Photo by Debra Mackay