Sunday, August 10, 2008

What I'd read before I started going to readings

I went to school in Washington, DC because I wanted to study politics, get out of New England, and because my brief visit to Barnard for accepted freshman freaked me out—I identified most with the butch dykes, but I’m neither butch nor gay, and the girly girls seemed so rich and refined. Undoubtedly it would have been better for my academic future to go to Barnard, but oh well. So, once I eliminated Barnard, GW was the place that gave me the most funding, so that’s where I went.

My BA is in East Asian Studies and Chinese, which means that I spent 6-10 hours a week studying Chinese language and linguistics, and the rest of the 16-21 hours each week studying East Asian history and politics. I also took several semesters of Chinese and Japanese literature, and a graduate seminar on Central Asian history because I was obsessed with Xinjiang. I wrote a historical senior thesis on Yakub Beg. I went to Asia almost every year during college—either to Beijing for the summer to work or to Harbin for a semester to study. I spent one summer in Singapore and Malaysia kind of travelling and building a website for a Singaporean publishing company with offices in an old, barely-renovated building in Chinatown.

I didn’t start going to poetry readings or writing poetry seriously until my last year of college. I was well-read, but not in any standard sense, and I had really no clue about the typical cannons of British and US literature. I’d read Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Rosario Castellanos (my Spanish teacher in Mexico City loved her), all the canonical Chinese and Japanese classical literature, a lot of classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, some classical Persian literature, the Koran, Farid ud-Din Attar, Hafiz, Rumi, Sadi, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and Letters to a Young Poet, and I loved Naguib Mahfouz—my favorite was Adrift on the Nile. In high school I was also a big Nikos Kazantzakis and Khalil Gibran fan. My international hippie background is a bit too obvious. I also read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but that was only because all my guy friends in my Islamic literature class were reading Beyond Good and Evil for some other philosophy class.

Because I went through an obsession with all things having to do with King Arthur and Celtic mythology, I’d read anything I could find having to do with that, including several translations of the Mabinogion and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Other than that, I knew nothing about British literature and history. I was in Mexico City and Guangzhou during my sophomore year of high-school—the year that I would have studied all of that.

By the time I got to GW, my knowledge of U.S. literature was pretty random. I took AP American English, so I’d read many of the classic high school texts. Predictably, maybe, I loved Hemmingway and Poe. I also read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Beyond that, I read T.S. Eliot’s Selected and Four Quatrains on my own, and a lot of e.e. cummings. I knew the obvious Frost poems. When I entered college, my favorite piece of U.S. literature was Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.

I suppose my point is that I really knew nothing about contemporary US literature when I started going to poetry readings in Washington, DC. I had a strong background in international literatures, comparative religion, and philosophy. After a reading at the Ruthless Grip in Dupont Circle in the fall of 1999, my friend Mike Zito convinced me to come hang out with everyone at the Childe Harold with the soapy tasting pints of Rolling Rock. I didn’t get the literary reference of the name, and I had no idea that I was sitting next to and talking with Carolyn Forché for much of the evening.

3 comments:

pop quiz kid said...

After a reading at the Ruthless Grip in Dupont Circle in the fall of 2001, my friend Mark Wallace convinced me to come hang out with everyone at the Childe Harold with the soapy tasting pints of Rolling Rock. I didn’t get the literary reference of the name, and I had no idea that I was sitting next to and talking with K. Lorraine Graham for much of the evening.

:)

Thanks for making me feel so welcome.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Aaw : ) Thanks Pop Quiz Kid!

Good luck with your move, and congratulations on the position at the Smithsonian!

Ryan W. said...

"predictably, maybe"

"I knew the obvious Frost poems"