Project Description


I look at what I have to do with my day
and derive no particular value from it:

edit poetry videos, comment on creation
myths, update events gallery. What value do

these things put into the world? Students
get a response to their work—some value

there, depending on how much they value
the work. The poets in the videos get to see

themselves reading, which they’ll value
depending on how into themselves they are.

Hardly anyone else will watch these videos
that will take me several hours to edit

and involve no lasting creativity on my part.
Hardly anyone will look at the photos

in the events gallery, which have already been
posted online in several different places.

The supposed value is to Brooklyn Poets,
my nonprofit—not even “my” nonprofit, as

technically it’s owned by the state of NY—
which appears then to be putting value

into the world by creating these unprofitable
videos at cost to itself simply for the sake

of the readings: the value, supposedly, is in
valuing something that would otherwise

be neglected or perish if it wasn’t there
to value it. So Brooklyn Poets goes up

in community estimation, brings in more
students for workshops, more people for events,

more potential members & donors, and ultimately,
more grant money. That money gets turned

around to create more readings and videos
and so on. One can easily see that we are moving

in a circle. I make an attempt at value for myself
in writing about these things and reflecting

on their lack of value, or perhaps not their lack of
but their questionable value—I think I am

doing the work at least that I am “supposed”
to do: writing. Where does this sense of value

come from? Why do I think I am “supposed”
to do something I do so little of usually

compared to all these tangential things I do
daily? Is it because I feel the most me, feel

energized as an entity again if I do some thinking
articulated into writing? When I publish—

if I publish this, which I probably will—
will the value I derive from it be derived

from the sense that people are benefitting
from it, i.e. feeling pleasure from it, feeling

identified by it, feeling thoughts generated
because of it? Or will it simply be derived from

this sense that I had this vague, valueless activity
validated by a cultural third party, so that

my “value” as a poet continues to be confirmed
or goes on the rise, so that I can feel this

interior activity made into something external?
I was listening to Beethoven this morning

as I made coffee and English muffins,
thinking I wanted to hear a kind of thinking

on the air as I did these mundane morning
things, and I thought of Wilhelm Kempff,

whose playing of the sonatas I discovered
and loved in college, but when I got on Spotify

I searched for Beethoven and just played
the first piano concerto I saw, not knowing

who the pianist was but hoping it was Kempff,
Concerto No. 5, the fourth most popular hit

for Mr. Beethoven, and the playing, I could tell,
was subpar, or at least subKempff, it wasn’t

delicate enough, nuanced enough, kind of
an Everyman’s Beethoven, a bit blocky, too

obvious, which is maybe why this track
was so popular, listened to by over 1.5 million

people, and when I looked up the album
it came from I saw the predictably generic

Sony Classical cover art, rippling water
backing the title, The Beethoven Journey, played

by one Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler
Chamber Orchestra. They did a good job.

Or “Great job!” as my students would say.
But one note after another was produced

so mechanically, the piano keys pressed
as a computer might play them, or typed,

so I switched the recording off and found
Kempff, whose playing of Concerto No. 5

was conveniently #1 on his most popular list,
also listened to by over 1.5 million people,

which made me wonder why Spotify
was shilling the other recording over this one,

and from the first notes of Kempff’s piano
I could hear the difference, the shimmering

impression he was putting on the music,
the beauty he was bringing out of Beethoven

and I thought of how much little difference
one fine artist makes, especially when that artist

is interpreting another fine artist, who
wouldn’t appear as fine without that artist’s help.

Basically Beethoven is still coming through
in both recordings, but in one you are hearing

something distant and delicate, something
else, precisely where Andsnes gets most obvious

is where Kempff withdraws into the music,
into himself, where we withdraw into ourselves

as we stare into the distances of a world
created. How much discipline and holding himself

to high standards did Kempff have to commit
to on a daily basis to create this sensitivity

to the music? The standards are revealed
in just a touch of one fingertip to the keys.

Did Kempff ever spend a day editing videos
or updating photo galleries or commenting

on beginner piano compositions by students?
If so, which seems unlikely, did he spend

the whole day doing that, or wasn’t he probably
practicing piano for a major part of that day?

What is the cost to human creation of doing
these things that take time away from

your personal commitment to creativity?
Do you end up sounding like Andsnes, like

an And, instead of a Wilhelm Kempff?
Do I secretly just want to be German?

What is with all the highbrow German dudes
here? Are they my attempt to import

some sense of a higher cultural standard
into this space that doesn’t seem to have one?

Or am I simply not outside of myself enough
to see how high my own standards are?

Or how silly these reflections are? On Friday
I made dinner for C and talked about

some of what I am talking about in this poem,
this sense of how to hold yourself to a standard,

this question of what the standard even is,
and she cut all this highfalutin drama down

to the ground by saying I sounded arrogant,
entitled and anal, joking, or so she claimed,

when I expressed hurt at the reductiveness
of those terms. She said that she too was

arrogant, entitled and anal, and I kept saying
That is so cynical, and she kept laughing,

not understanding how serious these questions
were for me, how much I was questioning

the validity of everything I was doing in life
and how I might do it better, or be better,

what “better” even means, how we can know
it, and yes these kinds of questions only arise,

perhaps, for an entitled person, though I think
that is an entitled, arrogant person’s thought,

but is that how I come across to someone
I care about and respect who cares about

and respects me? What hope do I have then?
What is the point of any of this? We spent

the night and next morning and most
of the next afternoon in bed, kissing and fucking

and talking and cuddling and sleeping,
this is twice we’ve done this now, two dates

have really become more like four, when
I am with her I feel more value in my life

than I do now or when I am teaching
or running a Brooklyn Poets event, though

I am not sure where this is going, as she
is four years older than me and doesn’t seem

interested in starting a family and is taking off
for Mexico and California for the next six weeks.

Do I even want to start a family? Or is that
just cultural convention talking, is my sense

of meaninglessness here derived from feeling
that I am failing to meet a cultural norm

of manhood in my forties? My feeling that
this is not all a grown man should spend his days

doing? When we woke in the morning C
noticed it was snowing outside and I checked

my phone to see if my school had sent an alert
saying it was closed, and it had, but it said

only until 11 AM, which didn’t help me
as my first class was at 1 and the snow was

likely still to be falling when I left for work
at 11. I looked out the window again

and saw it was snowing really hard, the chances
were pretty good that I would get another

alert saying school was closed for good
a few hours later, but it was already 8 AM

and I had to make a decision to get up and
comment on student poems before showering

like I said I would the day before when I
didn’t finish them because I had to go get

ingredients to make C dinner, or stay in bed
with wonderfully warm C for another hour

and hope for that second alert, which I did,
because I could be warm with C and

still have time to comment on those poems
at 9, but at 9 the second alert didn’t come and

I had to make another decision: get up
or cancel my classes myself and stay in bed?

I thought about these new standards I was
setting for myself and the probability

of school cancellation, how much the students
really needed this Friday’s class, couldn’t

we cover what we were supposed to cover today
on Monday? And I thought about C,

wanting to stay in bed with her. So I got up
and got my laptop and got back in bed and

emailed my students that I was cancelling
class. And I felt a little guilty about it

but I knew not a one of them wouldn’t be
happy about it, I told C it’s not often

that you have at the power of your disposal
instant happiness for 38 human beings by not

doing something, and so we stayed in bed
and the second alert didn’t come and

we had more sex and the snow tapered off
as the weather forecast said it would and

the sun came bolting through, creating
a glistening from the trees and power lines,

and I got up to make us coffee, bacon & eggs,
which we ate in the sunlight, I complained

of the sunlight as well as the bacon & eggs,
which didn’t meet my standards, probably

because I was an arrogant, entitled, anal
asshole, and C smiled, we hugged and

kissed and I picked her up and carried her
back to bed, where we had amazing sex,

twice, napping in between, staying in bed
till after 3, which she predicted when I laid her

down, saying, If we have sex again we’ll be here
for several more hours, don’t you have things

to do? And I said, No, all I have to do is
comment on some poems, feeling a little guilty

but not much, and then I checked
my phone and saw that my school finally

had sent that second alert saying it would
close at noon, meaning it had only “opened”

for an hour, which was ludicrous, suddenly
I felt smart for cancelling my classes, if I hadn’t

I would’ve left wonderfully warm C and
commented on those poems and showered and

gotten in my car at 11 and would’ve received
that damn alert when I was already halfway

to school, driving through snow somewhere
in Connecticut, and I would’ve been extremely

fucking pissed, and I never would’ve had this
amazing sex, twice, in the afternoon, which was

like Wilhelm Kempff to the morning sex’s
Andsnes. Apparently the moral of this story

is sometimes not holding yourself to high
standards pays off, you save time you would’ve

wasted, you stay in a warm bed with a lovely
woman, you have mindblowing sex, twice, and

you end up having more time to do those
things you were supposed to be doing anyway.

Jason Koo

Jason Koo is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: More Than Mere Light (Prelude Books, 2018), America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009). He is also the author of the chapbook Sunset Park (Frontier Slumber, 2017) and coeditor of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press & Brooklyn Poets, 2017). He has published his poetry and prose in the American ScholarMissouri ReviewVillage Voice and Yale Review, among other places, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. An associate teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.