Tuesday, August 04, 2015

On Writing #68 : Jennifer Kronovet

Fighting and Writing
Jennifer Kronovet

            Last week, when I got into a taxi to take me to the Guangzhou Train Station (I live in Guangzhou, China), the taxi driver took one look at me and then put his playlist of American pop songs on the stereo. The car was flooded with English words, and for at least a full minute, I luxuriated in them. It felt decadent to not have to struggle to understand, and I slipped into the way hearing a familiar song in a car can make you feel like you’re listening to the soundtrack of the movie of your life—the box-office hit version. I felt a swell of affection for the driver of the cab, for his kindness in making his car a moving island of a culture that, for a moment, matched me. It was so gracious of him, and I wondered if he too had ever felt worn down by the effort it takes to be always foreign.
            But then I started to listen to the words of one of the songs. Idiom stacked on idiom. Cliché. Cliché. Of course. I mean, no one looks to American pop music for terrific language, and by all accounts these are great songs. But the pleasure I had originally felt in hearing what I could easily understand faded fast. I remembered myself—how hard it is for me to find beauty in what is familiar. The easily understood, for me, often feels like a lie—not because I appreciate difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but why? Why does a linear, earnest description of love—like in the song I heard as I passed by the half-built high-rises intermixed with older Communist style buildings—make me feel like a robot.
            I like to fight. I mean this literally. I have trained in martial arts on and off for years, and my favorite part of training is when things get loose, and we start to spar. I love trying to hit someone who is trying to hit me and we are both trying not to get hit, but I only love this when the fight is devoid of any context other than training: no anger, no feelings. Many people have asked me why I like to fight: the risks are obvious, and I do get hurt. I have many answers that I give, but they all feel like weakened versions of the truth, if not outright lies. Some things I’ve said: Sparring requires the most intense and active form of seeing, which is exhilarating. Fighting has allowed me to stop seeing myself, a small woman, as a potential victim. Once I met an old man who ran a convenience store at a strip mall in the Midwest who had been a former Kung Fu champion in Hong Kong, and when he asked why I train I said “because I like hitting people.” He replied, “that’s the only right answer.”
            But none of those are the right answer. None of those feel close to being adequate answers, because they don’t take into account the terrible underside of violence, the violence that takes place out of the studio. The pleasure I feel in fighting is always shaded by the horror I find in violence when it happens to others. The dread I feel at the threat of it affecting those I love, and strangers I can imagine, and those, even, I can never imagine facing violence I don’t understand. I am often proud of my bruises yet wince feeling momentarily gutted when I see photographs of anyone with bruises. In fighting, I get close to something that holds a complexity beyond words, something primal and social, beautiful and terrible. These fights are lies because of their context and true in that blows are exchanged. Inside them, violence becomes more familiar and more foreign. I answer the questions I have about my relationship to violence with more, getting as far inside of it as I can, not explaining it away.
           That is also why I write poetry. Just as in sparring, poetry offers a place to reach as far as you can in your thinking, a place that accepts the complexity of saying an idea and its opposite and having them both be true. When I write, I fight with language not in order to pin the world down into the big budget version of it, but because I hope that the more I enter the arena of poetry the deeper I can go into language’s capacity for wavering, unstable, accommodating ideas that can reshape thinking, even, perhaps expand what language can do. Sparring and writing poetry: both are safe contexts to explore what can be quite dangerous: violence and language itself. And I hope to come out of each context being able to wield my body, my pen, to protect and express the most fragile things.
            I still felt grateful to taxi driver even after I stopped enjoying the songs he was playing. He brought me back into my brain—my brain-culture of tearing language apart, fighting it, so as to break into language that can hold the position of being foreign and known, as this man saw me to be. He reminded me of what I love most when I find it in a poem, what I can’t find in a song that speaks in one direction at a time—a brightness that shines a light on its own dark underside. And so I’ll end here with how I ended that ride: thank you so much.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, and the recently published chapbook CASE STUDY: WITH. She co-translated The Acrobat, the selected poems of Yiddish writer Celia Dropkin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Aufgabe, Best Experimental Writing 2014 (Omnidawn), Bomb, Boston Review, Fence, the PEN Poetry Series,Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean), and elsewhere. She has taught at Beijing Normal University, Columbia University, and Washington University in St. Louis. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Guangzhou, China.

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