Whenever people ask me when I started writing poetry, I am taken aback. It is the most logical question, but I react as though that question has never crossed my mind, not even once. I laugh my laugh and say I have a funny answer and a real answer, although they are the same. 

*

One answer: My best friend Kia and I wanted to be rappers. We wanted to be famous. We wanted to be sexy. We thought we would be good at this. We wanted to impress each other with our deep meanings and rhymes. We alliterated our stage names. We wanted, most of all I think, to show people how much we liked each other. 

*

Whenever I share an origin story, the beginning feels like a lie and the end feels unimpressive.

*

I do what I call my “secret exercise” in my creative writing classes, and the room tenses. It is a simple one. We draw a small circle in the middle of our page and confess something there. Arms start to cover the page or nervous glances left and right. Write something you’ve never told anyone, I ask the class. If that’s too difficult, something you’ve only told your best friend, a few people you trust. I can’t help myself. Just don’t confess to murder in writing, I joke. Not many laugh. I try to fix the vibes I’ve ruined—write something you haven’t even admitted to yourself, yet. 

*

Like all good millennial high school students, we wrote each other notes between class periods. We wrote little acrostics with the other’s name, first and last because our names were too short. Then, once we had minimum wage jobs, you a hostess at Le Peep and me working at Noble Romans Pizza, we gifted each other greeting cards. The content was the same, and they were tiny odes in praise of each other’s beauty, brains, and bods—wasn’t that unique! 

*

I moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the last two years, and I have emptied so many drawers and boxes and envelopes stuffed with cards, all in Kia’s distinct handwriting. One is from a birthday of mine I don’t remember. Another, a stark black and white card of a flower and inside it says ____________ ! I remember this one most, and I am most frustrated right now, not being able to find this stash I surely tucked away, separate from everything else. She had slipped it, envelope and all, into my high school locker through the little vents or with my combination. I felt the most loved when I found that card because I wasn’t expecting it. 

*

Another answer: I love the power of taking anything small and making it the most important thing in my life. Poetry lets me do that. Hold anything I want sacred.

*

Two people have secrets to keep and they keep them. That’s friendship, is it not? That’s intimacy, how could it not. It sounds very neat to say we became best friends at sixteen and we are thirty now. It’s difficult to be precise with relationships. One night we both drove to our high school parking lot, and before we really told each other what was wrong, we just cried into each others’ scarves, your eye liner leaving a black stain that I still can’t get out, on a pale pink knitted scarf I can’t bring myself to throw away. I think it started here.

*

My secret exercise consists of many circles and points and connections and tangents. I like using this exercise because it not only shows my students how the small moments of their lives matter but also shows how they have connections to other people and places they’ve never been. The world is large, and you are a part of it. 

*

I am bad at taking my own advice. I have already gotten up twice to rummage through moving boxes I still haven’t unpacked, and of course, I can’t find the cards from Kia I want. Instead, I find others that I don’t know why I kept. Instead of thinking of this essay as a circle, there are only direct roads, and she is on all of them.

*

It’s the people who know you best you want to impress the most. Perhaps that’s because we all like an impossible challenge. I wrote exactly one poem for Kia because that’s all I could manage. “My Bed Shakes and I Assume the Ghosts are Finally Getting Me” was one of the hardest to write, took the longest, and ended up being the one I’m most proud of. But for every line, I left out another. 

*

We know exactly who we are and yet we always try to impress the other. You visited me in Milwaukee, in the little studio apartment with a weak AC unit, dirty floors, no dishwasher, not much in it, and it felt like home. You even stopped by the Korean grocery store to buy kalbi because I said I would have the marinade ready if only you brought the meat. For my thirtieth birthday, you drove up to Milwaukee with your now husband to celebrate in the tiny studio. I asked if you could stop by the Korean bakery and pick up the matcha strawberry shortcake I love and you text back bitch, of COURSE I was going to get you that! And then something about me ruining my own surprise. 

*

These mundane intimacies are what lets me write, even if they rarely show in my work. I like to say, my best friend Kia is a scientist, a senior scientist (I had to search through our texts to remember this right). Kia is the one who would be elated whenever I said I had a small poem accepted, would ask me what the journal’s name was and order it directly from the journal. Would drive down to Bloomington with her boyfriend for my MFA graduation reading and take me out to dinner after. Never once hesitate to offer a ride, to drive her dad’s truck down to Bloomington to help with a move across town. Nothing is too small a gesture for her, and everything I know about intimacy is from her—even though I think she should do less for others and more for herself. 

*

We started talking on the phone again after being too depressed or sad to text each other. So we left each other alone. Our I love you’s when we hang up the phone have become so easy and routine that I want to write a poem about it. 

*

We checked into a hotel in Chicago to spend the day together before we flew to Lake Tahoe for your birthday/post-pandemic-wedding bachelorette party. After opening the curtains to let the light in, we fell in our beds, tired from the pre-travel travel, and my phone buzzed from an unknown number. I ignored it. I got a voicemail, and you shot up straight while I listened to it. As soon as you saw my face, the way my breath got caught in my throat—I can see your face clearly, holding a pillow asking, “What, what?” with a half smile, pretty sure it’s something good but only half just in case. I remember thinking it was so perfect that we were there, together, before a big trip, before telling you that my book was going to be published, before you tackled me with a hug. This feels like a gratuitous story, a way for me to brag to the world—isn’t my best friend the best? But it was too perfect. 

*

The end of the secret exercise goes like this:

Lake Tahoe was beautiful. The blue, the mountains. I’d never been out west to vacation. I didn’t know I was incredibly allergic to the trees and thought I was getting sick. I didn’t know that you and the rest of our friends were also going to surprise me with a “Congratulations, Dr. Cho” cake next to yours. Or that we would all have trouble sleeping because it was so hot. We waited until it barely cooled down to cook the ramen we packed. We sat around the table, the lake sprawling behind us, laughing and crying. This was the fanciest vacation with friends I’ve been on. We pitched in to rent a boat with a waterslide for half a day. You rarely let yourself be the center of attention, but you let us that day while we manually blew up floaties, tried to drive this boat right, set up the music, and danced. Finally, when we were in what felt like the middle of the lake, we dared each other to use the waterslide and take the plunge. The wind kept rocking the boat and everyone was so brave, so I thought, what the hell, closed my eyes, and let go. 

***

Su Cho

Su Cho is a poet, essayist, and the author of The Symmetry of Fish (Penguin Books 2022) which won the 2021 National Poetry Series. Her work has been featured in Poetry, Electric Literature, and New England Review; the 2021 Best American and Best New Poets anthologies; and elsewhere. A finalist for the 2020 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Poetry Fellowship, a recipient of a National Society of Arts and Letters Award, and a two-time Pushcart nominee, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Clemson University.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply