This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Jason Koo. 


Extremely Poor

“Telling is a form of generosity,” Javier Marías
writes in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me,

a novel Josh Mehigan sent me for my birthday,
which surprised me, not only because I didn’t think

Josh thought about me that much, but because,
well, who receives real mail anymore, and I’d

never heard of this guy who ended up blowing
my mind. “We can always prove ourselves

to be right and everything can be told
if accompanied by some justification, some

excuse or by some attenuating circumstance
or even by its mere representation.” At first

I thought Marías meant generous to others,
usually what we associate with the word

generosity, what you give to other people,
then I thought he meant generous to ourselves,

telling is a form of generosity to ourselves,
absolutely right, look at how generous

to myself I’ve been over these 100+ pages
of poems, even calling them poems is generous,

I’ve been telling and telling and telling and
telling, helping myself to meanings and

understandings that make me feel better
in the end, I’ve never emerged from writing

feeling worse, that’s for sure, that would seem
to defeat the purpose, I started by trying

to write anything at all, as I hadn’t written
anything new in several months and needed

a new book project to work on, I tried
to make my nonthinking a kind of thinking,

to convert my feeling of being uninteresting
(because not writing) to being interesting,

I started reading Heidegger again to give myself
the feeling of real thinking and wrote about

what I was reading to make that thinking visible,
for myself primarily but ultimately for others,

if you can see yourself processing what you are
reading on the page you can tell yourself you are

thinking, telling is a form of generosity,
you look better to yourself and, by extension,

to others, because how we look to others
is a function of how we look to ourselves,

if we think we look good we think we look good
to others, despite what they may think, unless

they tell us otherwise, even then we’re not
convinced they’re right, we think maybe

they’re in the minority and seek other people’s
opinions, setting them up to prove the others

wrong, Don’t you think I look good in this
sweater? or Don’t you think that was the best

line in the poem? Can you believe she told
me to take that out? This kind of thing

happens in workshop all the time, eleven
out of twelve people may hate your poem

but if you like it and one other person does,
that person is a genius, your one true reader,

and, vice versa, if we think we look bad
we think we look bad to others, this is why

if you get a zit, or a tiny stain on your shirt,
you think everyone can see it and judges you,

when they haven’t noticed at all or maybe
have but don’t care, even if you ask them

if they can see it, basically imploring them
to reassure you that, no, they can’t, it’s not

a big deal, and they say that, you don’t
really believe them, you don’t feel better

about yourself, for years I’ve had this scar
capping my left elbow from when I picked

at an eczema patch and caused my elbow
to bleed, the skin will dry up and pucker over

despite my moisturizing it daily so that
it looks like a fleshy gum drop popping out

of my elbow, if a hundred people told me
they thought it looked good or didn’t notice it

until I pointed it out, I wouldn’t believe them,
simply because I think it looks bad, and thus

it looks bad to others. Gunny once noticed it
and asked me what happened and immediately

I said, Ugh, don’t look at it, and he said,
I thought it looked cool, like an old

martial arts injury, which sounded like
a good story, telling is a form of generosity

to others as well, but that wasn’t my story
and I didn’t believe it, it would be easy

for me to tell that story to people who ask,
giving the scar more character, but I don’t,

I think it looks bad and try to hide it,
once someone asked and I tried the story out

but couldn’t go through with it, laughing
and telling the person I was joking, it’s hard

for me to lie like that, which is not to say
it’s hard for me to lie, not at all, because

there are so many days when I think the scar
is looking better and not that noticeable

and tell myself it looks okay, when really
it’s probably the same, this telling is a form

of generosity, it’s an ongoing, quiet giving
in my head, you might think I’m not being

generous here by writing so frankly about
a scar that embarrasses me but it’s a way

of converting it into meaning, now that scar
serves a purpose in my poetry and has taken

on more character, who knows, maybe
one day someone who’s read this poem

will notice the scar and say, Hey! I read
about that in your poem, and I’ll still be

a little embarrassed but the embarrassment
will have value, adding to the mythology

of me, which is what we’re always doing,
building up this mythology, those vicious evals

I got were embarrassing, the denial
of my promotion was embarrassing, and so

I’ve told you about them in a way that makes
me look better, or so I think, I look better

to myself having written about these things
in this way, there still lurks the doubt

that I deserved those evals or that promotion
denial but I would never tell myself I did,

even here, I just mention the doubt as a way
of showing myself (you) that I’m being

conscientious about my teaching, about
searching for the truth, about self-examination,

it’s a way of telling myself I’m being honest
with myself on the way to being generous

to myself, “being honest” is already being
generous, so I’m wondering, How can I find myself

here? Telling is a form of generosity,
Marías keeps repeating throughout his book

like a kind of tolling, and what I like about
the translation is the word “telling,” how

it has that double meaning, you might be
telling a story that’s generous to yourself

but at the same time it’s telling, in the poker
sense that everyone has a tell, your way

of telling is revealing about you, your thought-
to-be-hidden motives, and what’s funny

is how obvious these are to people, despite
how masterfully generous to ourselves

we’ve been in the telling, and the more time
we take to tell, the more our tell gets revealed.

So somewhere along the long way here
I’ve certainly revealed myself, although

the problem is that everyone in my audience
is also telling stories generous to themselves

and perhaps to me as they listen, which makes
my tell a little different for everyone, if

you’ve been telling yourself, Boy does this
guy take himself seriously as you’ve read this,

you’ve been generous to yourself by assuming
you don’t take yourself as seriously, like

my friend in college who’d read a few pages
of Harold Bloom out loud then shake his head

and mutter in a disgusted exhale of breath,
Jeeezus does Harold Bloom take himself seriously,

as if about to discard the book in the trash,
then he’d read a few more pages silently,

ignoring my laughter, and later quote Bloom’s
opinions on authors as if they were infallible,

reading all the books he recommended
and making you feel like an idiot if you hadn’t

read them, proving he took himself just
as if not more seriously than Mr. Bloom

and proving he’d been more generous
to Bloom than he’d sounded, overrespecting

his seriousness, and of course I was there
listening to him and seeing his tell and feeling

sorry for him, telling myself I wasn’t that
deluded to think Harold Bloom was taking

himself too seriously then adopting all his thoughts,
I didn’t kid myself that I was smarter than him

or knew more about books, though I kidded
myself in that generous sense of superiority

I gave myself in thinking I didn’t kid myself,
and in thinking that reading those books

he recommended like my friend did would just
be copying my friend copying Bloom instead

of, you know, reading, which was good for me,
and so the truth gets deferred and deferred,

nothing ever gets truly revealed in this fictive
generosity we’re all lavishing on ourselves

and each other. “The name of this class,”
I told my 103H students on the first day,

“is The Unreliable Narrator, this is a term
we’ve agreed upon in literary criticism

but it’s misleading, as it implies that some
narrators are, in fact, reliable, when of course

all narrators are unreliable, simply because
all narrators are subjective, just as all readers

are unreliable because all readers are subjective,
so when we try to discern “the truth” about

a story we have to understand we’re only seeking
a truth, the truth does not exist, except insofar

as the truth is that we can only know a truth,
or multiple versions of the truth, that is perhaps

the only absolute,” and even that I am
questioning as I tell that truth in just this way,

as if I actually talked to my students in just
those words, we went around the room

introducing ourselves the way we always do
on the first day of class, I asked them to tell

us about a time they’d told a story about
something they’d done in such a way

that they came off looking better, and I
was floored by just how much bullshit

they were pumping into the world, nothing
a major lie, just all these minor moments

of being generous to themselves that altogether
compiled a catastrophe, or the world,

one student said that morning a friend
wanted to Facetime because she was having

problems adjusting at school and she told her
she couldn’t talk because all her roommates

were still asleep, when “the truth” was that
she was watching Netflix, another told us

how when she worked in a clothing store
all these customers would ask her to check

in the back for different sizes and she’d say
okay and disappear into a back room

and just stand there for a while taking a break,
then return and say, Nope, we’re all out

of those sizes, the problem was much worse
than I thought, it was one thing to talk

about every narrator being unreliable in theory
and another to hear so many actual people

reveal themselves to be unreliable, I told
my students I’d love to see a documentary

about this, people being captured telling
someone some minor fiction they believed in

then doing something different entirely,
we were just swimming in each other’s fictions,

or drowning, though the fact that I was
laughing seemed to reveal I found some joy

in this, some natural buoyancy, my story
was about how I’d beaten a distracted driving

ticket I got last spring when leaving campus,
I had my phone in my hand to GPS my route

when I saw some cops on the street slowing
cars down, one of them waved me to the curb

but at first I thought he was waving me by
so I drove past then he yelled so I stopped,

looking back, and he waved more vigorously
to the curb, I pulled over and when he came up

to my window and I asked him why he was
pulling me over he pointed and said, “Because

you have your phone in your hand,” which
I’d forgotten all about, of course if I hadn’t been

distracted by his waving and confused about
what he wanted I would’ve put that phone down,

I’m not an idiot, I told him when he told me
they were checking for distracted drivers

that the only thing I was distracted by was him,
which he didn’t find amusing, I kept saying,

I was just GPSing my route, but he didn’t care,
he disappeared into his car for ten minutes

then returned with a ticket and when I saw
the fine, $150, I pretty much lost my shit,

I was just GPSing my route, you were the one
distracting me! I repeated, and he said, You

can appeal this if you want, smirking, and I said,
I will, even though I’d never done that before

and it would be extremely inconvenient for me
to make a court date in Connecticut in the summer,

when I didn’t have to commute to school, and I
did, in fact, appeal the ticket, mainly because

I wanted to wipe that smirk off the cop’s face
and felt so wronged, like Josef K. all over again,

even though I was manipulating my phone
in a way that constitutes distracted driving,

in fact I do this all the time, and what’s worse,
I check my email and Facebook and Twitter

while driving to school, I text people, I read
whole sports articles, I’m like the worst “distracted

driver” ever, but I put that in quotes because
I don’t see myself as a distracted driver, in fact

I think I’m a good driver because I can do
all that without getting into any accidents,

I keep saying “in fact” because I’m trying to tell
you all this, Unreliable Reader, as factually

as possible, like this is what actually happened,
even though we both know that’s impossible,

to beat the ticket I had to go to Meridien, CT
on the day before my 40th birthday, not really

a trip I wanted to make, I had to dress up
in a suit in 90-degree weather because I wanted

to show the judge that I was a responsible
professor, a model minority, I was going to milk

the stereotype of being a trustworthy Asian
for all it was worth, I’d researched the distracted

driving law in CT and found I had a good case,
technically the law did not cover GPSing,

it only said you couldn’t be talking on your phone
or have your phone in proximity to your mouth,

shockingly it didn’t say anything about texting
or getting on social media, which shows how

this fictive world of ours is moving way too fast
for the law, but on the way there I realized

I had no actual proof with me that I was just
GPSing my route, which was dumb, I’d had

a month to prepare for this court date and
didn’t bother tracking down and printing out

my phone records, did I just expect the judge
to believe me? So of course I call Verizon

from my car to see if they can send me those
records, which is not as bad as it sounds

because my car puts my phone on speaker,
but what is bad is that Verizon said they couldn’t,

that I’d have to log into my account online
to get the records myself, and since I didn’t have

an account online, I first had to register for one
then try to locate those records from four months

ago, incredibly there I was in my car trying
to do all of this, driving to a court to appeal

a distracted driving ticket and just distracting
the fuck out of myself while driving, I took

several wrong turns as I clicked away from Waze
to try to create this damn online account,

which proved impossible, somehow this huge
bajillion-dollar company hasn’t gotten around

to creating a responsive mobile website
so I was trying to read and type tiny text

into a miniaturized web screen, but it kept
refusing my attempts, saying it had no record

of my Verizon account, so finally I gave up
as I risked being late for court, I gathered myself

and pulled the plastic phone holder a girl
had given me after I told her this story

(a version of this story) off its suction cup
on the dashboard (even though I was GPSing

my route to pick her up in another part of CT
when I got the ticket, she didn’t sympathize

with me because she’d seen me manipulating
my phone while driving before, perhaps

that’s one reason we stopped dating), I brought
the phone holder with me so I could prove

to the judge that I had such a device and that
my phone had slipped out of it and I was just

trying to put it back in when the cop waved
me down, but when I entered the courtroom

I was surprised to see almost no one there,
there was just an old cop, an old woman

(who was appealing her own ticket) and
a young man who turned out to be the judge,

he couldn’t have been much older than me,
or perhaps he was younger, he wasn’t sitting

on the massive bureaucratic throne where
a judge usually sits but at a small table,

he invited me cordially to sit down and tell
my side of the story, I showed him my phone

holder, I told him the phone slipped out of it
and I was putting it back in, he nodded,

he didn’t seem to care about the phone holder,
he said if you’re manipulating your phone

that’s considered distracted driving by law,
even though I knew from my Internet research

that wasn’t true, then he asked me how the cop
seemed, which surprised me, I said, Uhhh,

fine? and he said, How do you think you seemed
to the cop? and I said, Uh, angry? Confused?

and he smiled and said, This is why I ask,
showing me a sheet on which the cop had written

his report, and under the subheading Attitude
the cop had written “Extremely poor,”

which I found hilarious, as did the judge,
so he said he was gonna waive the ticket,

the cop in fact had backed up my story
by saying I’d said I was GPSing my route

and that was good enough for the judge,
he didn’t give a damn about my phone holder

or my version of events, I’m sure he’d heard
it all before and understood more than any of us

except judges more experienced than him
how full of shit we all are, which is to say, full

of fiction, maybe he was influenced by my suit
or my Asianness or my telling him that I was

a professor and decided I seemed like a good
enough citizen to let off, or maybe he was just

amused enough by that “Extremely poor”
I’d gotten from the cop, how that contradicted

the model minority myth I was trying to present
to him, in any case I’m sure he didn’t believe

my story, but he knew it didn’t matter, whether
he waived my ticket or made me pay the fine

I was going to go on being a distracted driver,
he told me that I was on probation for a year,

that if I got another violation it would be recorded
as the second offense, not the first, but that

didn’t stop me from checking my email and Twitter
on my phone on the way home, from texting

Ana that I’d beaten the ticket, that we should go
spend that $150 on early birthday celebrations,

didn’t stop me from telling the story differently
on my Facebook page that night, saying I’d

received an early birthday present in the form
of renewed faith in the American judicial system,

which got over a hundred likes, as I and all
my “friends” and all my “friends'” “friends” went on

believing in our mutual fictions, our social fabric
of fabrications, extremely poor but generous

to ourselves.



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