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John Yau

Poetry reading From Barnum and Bosch

2013 Season

John Yau read his work at the opening of Gary Stephan’s exhibition, Recent Paintings and Works on Paper.

Some words peel off and get put back into the tank, where they dissolve, a flurry of particles
swirling momentarily before settling at the bottom of the translucent muck formerly known as
“grateful reality.” Others stick around until they enter the tunnel leading to dissemination to
the general public.

Neither outcome rhymes with infinite or granite.

This is when lethargy appears to take over, confining us to chairs, where, once settled in, we
stare at our screens, feel blue’s insidious tug towards dust and rain.

Days get chopped up and parceled out, with no one touched by the dispersal of spasms
purchased from the lower denizens.

Daisies climb the steps, according to plan.

Everyone wants to live in a tower, climb the ladder that will be lowered down from the stars.

Meanwhile, twirling on the streets, we are alarmed by the sudden increase in small
responsibilities, and their convening fleets, finding ways to pass them onto others. We grow
increasingly dubious about the images we are required to continually project into the space
between us. Solutions registered in curlicues of ink. Must we always look for the next doll to
throw into the fire?

This brings up the question of whether or not you exist in someone else’s dream if that person,
unbeknownst to you, calls out your name in the dark, and the person or animal (if such is the
case) lying beside said individual hears that string of sounds (vowels and consonants) in the
order they were intended? Or were they? Was that what was said or only what was heard?
Maybe there was a distortion between the conception (dream) and utterance (moan rising
from mouth of sleeper to take shape in room).

There is an institute where this realm of human behavior is closely examined, where courses
are given, and daily lectures on a wide range of adjacent topics can be heard broadcast in the
quadrangle: How to listen to your hormones when they get lonely; Needless revelations and
what to do with them; Why you don’t need to keep looking for an answer or even figure out
what question you should be asking. The goal is to have a lecture on every ailment, including
those that have yet to be a glimmer on the dark horizon.

Remember, it is important to wrestle with disaster, especially when it manifests itself in the form
of a favorite tune, something endearing. There is no telling when the imminent might reappear.

The guardrails near the Arcadia Motor Lodge have been removed, but nothing has replaced
them. The radios fill with squawking birds, yielding occasionally to outbursts of phlegm. This
is the new weather pattern. We listen to the snow gathering in the pillows above our heads,
the colonies of clouds being driven toward us.

What better way to collect visions than to sit on an all-night, long distance bus recording
the voices of those who talk in their sleep? There are sermons sparkling in the tongue. Stars
exploding. Even the sleepers listen to the boy with the incandescent whisper doing another
somersault in his sleep. The road we are on buckles like a wounded snake as it slithers across
miles of pockmarked upheaval.

Only in the sight of gas stations on the prairie do radio announcers selling coffins and
costumes, cough medicine and iron hats interrupt us. The ground beneath us is a jigsaw
puzzle waiting to be rearranged, with roses replacing raisins.

We no longer recognize what stares back at us from the depths of the mirror, those faces we
deposited in our youth. We enter the remnants of the forest and collect bones and inscribe them
with memories of miracles. We sit on the porch and watch ourselves being erased by the sky.

Navigation is no longer offered on the curriculum. “Drifting” has been excised from the

We are walking. We are going where we want. We are happy about it.

Soon we shall even sing old songs about new times, and new songs about old timesall
the words carried up – higher and higher – by feathers of insomnia.

Poet, art critic, and curator John Yau has published over 50 books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1950 to Chinese emigrants, Yau attended Bard College and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in 1978. His first book of poetry, Crossing Canal Street, was published in 1976. Since then, he has won acclaim for his poetry’s attentiveness to visual culture and linguistic surface. In poems that frequently pun, trope, and play with the English language, Yau offers complicated, sometimes competing versions of the legacy of his dual heritages—as Chinese, American, poet, and artist. A contributor for Contemporary Poets wrote: “Yau’s poems [are] often as much a product of his visual sense of the world, as his awareness of his double heritage from both Oriental and Occidental cultures.” Yau’s many collections of poetry include Corpse and Mirror (1983), selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series, Edificio Sayonara (1992), Forbidden Entries (1996), Borrowed Love Poems (2002), Ing Grish (2005), Paradiso Diaspora (2006), Exhibits (2010), and Further Adventures in Monochrome (2012). Yau’s work frequently explores, and exploits, the boundaries between poetry and prose, and his collections of stories and prose poetry include Hawaiian Cowboys (1994), My Symptoms (1998), and Forbidden Entries (1996).

A noted art critic and curator, Yau has also published many works of art criticism and artists’ books. Reviewing Yau’s The United States of Jasper Johns (1996) a Publishers Weekly writer commented: “If you already have a weighty, profusely illustrated book on artist Jasper Johns but are still a little bemused, this is the book to buy.” Yau covers the career of the controversial neo-Dadaist painter, from his 1955 Flag to the 1993 After Holbein, deriving much of his text from interviews conducted with the reclusive Johns over a period of fifteen years. “In graceful, accessible prose,” the Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, “Yau deciphers the many art-historical sources within Johns’s art …[and] is capable of crafting the single phrase, such as ‘visual echo,’ that describes the activity within Johns’s work.” In addition to Johns, who he also wrote about in A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (2008), Yau has written on artists such as Andy Warhol, Joe Coleman, James Castle, and Kay Walkingstick. He has also collaborated with artists Archie Rand, Thomas Nozkowski, and Leiko Ikemura in poetry and art books like Hundred More Jokes from the Book of the Dead (2001), Ing Grish (2005), and Andalusia (2006). Calling Yau a “genius,” Robert Creeley described Ing Grish as a “brilliant train of wildly divergent thought.”

Yau has received many honors and awards for his work including a New York Foundation for the Arts Ward, the Jerome Shestack Award, and the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by France. Yau has taught at many institutions, including Pratt, the Maryland Institute College of Art and School of Visual Arts, Brown University, and the University of California-Berkeley. Since 2004 he has been the Arts editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He teaches at the Mason Gross School of the Arts and Rutgers University, and lives in New York City.

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