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On my belly.

FIVE OUT OF THE LAST SIX YEARS I'VE lived outside the US, more or less out of a suitcase, away from most of my books. I used to feel exhilarated just looking at the spines of all the books in my library. Now I have hardly any books, only memories of books.

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I write with a laptop while lying on my belly (like Jarry!). I revise directly on the computer and do not print out working drafts. I am entirely a paperless writer.

The view outside my window is of olive trees and vineyards and the distant towers of San Gimignano but I don't see them, because I'm lying on my belly. Vallejo: life would be worth it even if one were reduced to lying on one's belly.

Trained as an artist, I enjoy scrutinizing paintings in museums and galleries but I prefer to keep my own walls absolutely blank. Blank walls are like blank pieces of paper, an inducement to defilement and violent, unhinged expressions.

I do not mind natural noises--bird songs, children whinnying, old men clearing their throats--filtering in through my window but I cannot work with any sort of mechanical din in the background whatsoever, such as canned music or even the ticking of a cheap clock. I own neither a TV nor a stereo. I don't think we were ever meant to hear the same song sung exactly the same way more than once in a lifetime. People who enjoy listening to canned music 24 hours a day must be the unhappiest of creatures.

I always write while perfectly sober. I don't write drunk anymore. Before I was married, I kept irregular hours and would often work at night, sometimes through an entire night. The night is truly a different country. Now I can write at any time of the day, because I always carry the night inside of me.

When I lived in Philadelphia I used to love to leave the house, dazed, at the first break of light, after a night of writing. At that hour the street lights would still be on, and a teenage male prostitute, pale, scrawny and rather underdressed for the cold weather, could be seen bending over to peer into the crazed side mirror of a parked car. He was fixing his stringy hair.

"What are you doing out so early?"

"Just walking. What are you doing?"

"Making money!"

Underage whores and writers mirror each other in their raw beauty and foolishness. They are only put here on this earth to give older men unsatisfying oral attention. Artaud: "And you are quite superfluous, young men!"

Harold Brodkey said that once you're satisfied with a piece of writing, once you think it's "publishable," then you can really toy with it, just to see what happens. And Isaac Babel said that he could revise a story any number of times, even years later. And Pierre Bonnard was once caught in flagrante trying to retouch one of his own paintings hanging on a museum wall. Last thought is indeed best thought.

Living in non-English-speaking environments I must rely on the Internet to stay in touch with the English language. E-mail provides me with an outlet for virtual English conversations. Otherwise I speak no English whatsoever, just Vietnamese (with my wife) and bad Italian (with strangers). It is interesting to note that e-mailing encourages everyone to write more, a spur to literacy, but the casualness of e-mailing permeates everything we write nowadays.

The Internet allows us to converse without looking at each other's face. Like Philip Guston, I've always preferred to look at the side of a face, instead of straight on. I also like the back of the head. Am I a coward then? No, just discreet. O the tyranny of a human face!

Talking of tyranny, I've come to realize that I much prefer to live on the periphery of the English language, so that I can steer clear of the tyranny of its suffocating center. In this sense, I am a quintessential American. A Unapoet, I like to homestead just beyond the long reach of Washington.

How tiresome to always be expressing oneself! Wouldn't it be better to express other people's longings and secrets? Faulkner: I am tired of everyone's individualities, and nauseated by my own.

I have always been inspired by amateur writings and the Internet provides me with instant access to the underbelly of the language. Simply by going online I can plunge into a vast ocean of heartfelt confessions by sappy child molesters and frank racists and uncontrite murderers.

A bigot becomes infuriated when he hears the rapid syllables of a foreign language because he is reduced to the status of an infant. Poets, on the other hand, should welcome all opportunities to become befuddled. To not know what's happening forces one to become more attentive and to fill in the blanks. Hence, poetry.

One may start with a rather stupid idea, but if one expresses this stupid idea just right, with finesse, then one may still end up with an interesting poem. With irony, everything is possible.

One may begin writing a poem in complete freedom, that is, in complete randomness, but one should end the exasperating process in abject submission.

LINH DINH is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press, 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press, 2004), and a collection of poems, All Around What Empties Out (Tinfish, 2003). He is living in Certaldo, Italy, as a guest of the International Parliament of Writers.
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Title Annotation:In the Studio
Author:Dinh, Linh
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Words:928
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