You know how you read. You come across a line or sentence that slaps you. You underline it, read it to a friend, perhaps even tweet a quote with a bunch of hearts. There’s a serious amount of pleasure in this, and I mean serious. Neurologists at Yale and UPenn are burning grant money to determine whether the pleasure of art is the same as scarfing a handful of Cheez-Its. And as with a handful of Cheez-Its, the sooner we’re done enjoying it, the sooner we can resume our lives. The commute. The funeral. The blind date.
In a recent essay, “A New Way of Living,” Jericho Brown reminds us of what art “can do.” He says, “A poem causes in readers an emotional reaction. This no small thing. As a matter of fact, our ability to create emotion in people who were numb may be the greatest of our abilities.”
We forget this. Writers sometimes forget this elemental gift, too—that the best work evokes pity, fear, and even action. Instead, we hurry to find the “pay-off,” whether it’s a swoon-worthy image, an outrageous revelation, or the punch line.
But let’s be real—an emotional reaction that quick isn’t an emotional reaction. It’s just flattery. (Better have a Cheez-It.)
Now I’ll say something old-fashioned—don’t read this issue on your phone. Don’t read it on the bus, on the train, or while carpooling with your shitty coworkers. Don’t read it in a tiny airplane seat, or in New York City’s disintegrating MTA system.
Sit with your laptop—or, fine, your phone—in the privacy of your home or cubicle, and sink in. Go from one short story or poem to the next by clicking the arrows at the bottom of each page. Don’t wander off to the text message buzzing for you. Don’t look for the quick hit.
Brown’s essay closes with an injunction: Art “is a force that means to move us now.” (The emphasis is mine.) How can we move into action, from calling our mothers to surviving this administration without that emotional response?
I call it the Slow Reading Movement, a movement that changes the way we read. If we let ourselves sink into the poems and short stories that we know have the power to evoke fear, pity, joy, and/or relief in us, we could be stirred into action. That can be whatever action you want—noble or ignoble, doesn’t matter (provided you don’t hurt someone). Whatever it is, it’s art moving through you.
The Slow Reading Movement allows for a capaciousness and complexity of thought that we don’t always allow ourselves to exercise. Because we’re tired. Because we don’t have time. But Slow Reading reminds us that the literature of your peers is alive and is here to fuck with us.
Adroit 25 makes this easy. The following poems and short stories are thoughtful and pulsing with their own pain and delight. Lines like Kristin Chang’s: “My mother says / women who sleep with women / are redundant: the body symmetrical / to its crime.” A linchpin like John Jodzio’s: “Before Lucy and I left for Jamaica, my court-ordered therapist told me to look into people’s eyes and think I like you even though I may not like that person at all. My therapist said if I kept staring at people and thinking I like you, I like you, over and over, any anger I have would leave my body.” This is an excerpt from a story called “No Chicken Fighting in the Infinity Pool”—and I won’t say any more than that.
These are the perfect lines to tweet. But when you excise the rest of the piece in favor of these lines, what’s lost is what hammered the narrator to reach this point of desperation—in which they must say this, or combust. You lose what comes next—that potent moment that allows them to yank away, maybe leave a few limbs behind.
You don’t want these lines without the forces that brought them there or delivered them from there, babes in the wood. Let me close with Richie Hofmann’s poem “Courtly Love,” which speaks to sexual mores we like to imagine are of a dust-dry past:
was in the making love.
That is to say,
how both to fuck and to maintain
of one’s virginity and one’s good moral
standing. Not that anyone
expected to find innocence
among the loves of kings, did they?
Never mind. Not all
of this is of consequence
or will seem useful
in this modern age.
If “not all / of this is of consequence / or will seem useful / in this modern age,” why is Hofmann talking about it? Evidently something continues to live in our microbiome, from the pre-smartphone, pre-Twitter lifestyle. Perhaps Hofmann challenges our smug stances, perceived liberalities on sex and romance: whom to love and how. But I’m going to take it all out of context and claim this something is our need to slow down.
Swim in the work. Feel it. Sit with it. Don’t come up for air, at least not right away. Your lungs will adapt. You’ve got time. The F train ain’t coming anyway.
* * *
Esther Lin as born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years. She is the author of The Ghost Wife, winner of the 2017 Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, Indiana Review, the Missouri Review Online, Triquarterly, Vinyl, and elsewhere. She was awarded the Crab Orchard Review’s 2018 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize, was a recipient of the inaugural Undocupoets fellowship, and a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship in 2015. Currently she is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and an organizer for Undocupoets. Please visit estherlinpoems.wordpress.com for more information.
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