Tao Lin's development as a poet (2001-2013)

University of Illinois at Chicago, 22 Mar 2013

about this presentation

1. I'm going to focus on poetry. But ask questions about anything.

2. I was most immersed in poetry the 2 years after college.

3. So I'll focus on what led to that period.

4. Then I'll talk about my 3 poetry books:

1. you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books, 2006)
2. this emotion was a little ebook* (bear parade, 2006)
3. cognitive-behavioral therapy (Melville House, 2008)
*ebook, 8 poems


1983 - 2001: before college
· read/wrote poetry the same amount as my peers: never, except for school
· 17(?) wrote what seemed to be song lyrics (via boredom/loneliness)
· enjoyed lyrics by The Weakerthans, The Lawrence Arms, I Hate Myself
2001 - 2005: NYU student
· freshman/sophomore: wrote poems & was encouraged
· but couldn't (via poetry) find what I wanted to read
· eventually found it in prose: Jean Rhys, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis
· junior/senior: focused hard on studying/writing prose
· what I remember most from college about poetry:
1. Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs (1999)
2. Nick Flynn
3. Bukowski line: "frogs of my mind [something] [something]"
4. Tony Hoagland
5. Matthew Rohrer reading (Dec 2004) <---- *IMPORTANT*
· gained non-temporary interest in poetry
· began finding/reading poetry on my own
2005 (May): graduated with degree in journalism
· was reading poetry with interest (Fence, Verse Press)
· but had little/no interest in writing it because
a. more focused on prose (short stories, novels)
b. knew (via studying prose) how little I knew about poetry
· probably wouldn't have written poetry after college but then:
a. Opium Magazine asked me to do a reading
b. I wrote "things" specifically to read
c. I was asked to do more readings, wrote more "things"
d. because [reasons] I focused on forming a book
2005 (May - Dec): wrote/edited/submitted you are a little bit happier than i am
· Action Books' "December Prize" (1st or 2nd book contest)
· Joyelle McSweeney: "Fence Modern Poets" winner (2002)
· surprised I won

you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books)

some of my happiest moments in life occur on AOL instant messenger
if i get hit a little by a truck tonight i'm okay with that
i want to pour orange juice on my face
that night with the green sky
poems that look weird
spring break
things i wanted to do today
i want to start a band
i am unemployed
January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November
my favorite book of poetry right now
i saw you on the street
loneliness is just a word that means you are feeling alone and depressed and starting to think about how difficult and strangely impossible it is for you to be interested in the same people who are interested in you and how if you don't change your worldview and personality soon then you will probably always feel alone and depressed because you can't remember a time when you haven't felt alone and depressed but really you can and that is when you were a small child but that small child seems like a different person, really, than who you are right now and you can't become a different person anymore because you are over twenty years old and people this age don't change unless they fall off a barn and get a long metal rod through their brain and then they change drastically and get studied by scientists and never have to get a real job again but always look very alone and far away and doomed on TV even if they and all their friends and family and an international team of doctors, neural surgeons, and psychologists—cognitive, behavioral, courtroom, and analytical—say that they aren't at all
pessimism? or robotics?
it'll get different
i am about to kill my literary agent
4:30 a.m.
Appreciate Me For Everything Good I Have Done In The Past
i honestly do not know who this poem is directed at but i still somehow wrote it with conviction
I Am 'I Don't Know What I Am' And You Are Afraid Of Me And So Am I
i hate the world and i'm not immature
i am about to express myself
The Poem I Wrote In My Room After We Fought On The Internet And You Called Me A Dick And Said You Had To Go To Sleep And Said You Would Email Me Over Thanksgiving From Home But Then Said 'Forget It' After I Said About You Emailing Me Over Thanksgiving From Home That 'I Doubt It'
My Dreams Are Almost Always Nightmares In Retrospect
you were a martial arts master and you worked at circuit city
you published a one-page comic where someone freaks out while eating breakfast
an instant messenger conversation we had about how my dad was in jail
you are somewhere in florida right now
things you have emailed me
in manhattan on 29th street across the avenues then over a railing there is a little beach
book reviewers always praise books as 'life-affirming' because the more humans there are on earth the better
promise i'll vote for you
poem to end my head off
i see million dollar baby, starring clint eastwood, with my mom
you are my mom
when i think of grapefruits my heart beats faster
i am 'you' to you
Washington Mutual Is A Bank That Is Everywhere
I Will Like The Things I Dislike, Hate, Or Am Indifferent Towards
walking home in cold weather
my brother is vacationing on a mountain with his girlfriend and i found out from my dad
At That Leftover Crack Concert Two Years Before I Met You

some of my happiest moments in life occur on AOL instant messenger

i will create a new category
on my instant messenger buddy list

i will call it
'people i like who don't like me back'

and i will move your screen name into that group
and i will invite you to my house and show you
and you will say, 'if i didn't like you why did i come over'
and you will look at my face
and i will have an honest answer for your question
i will tell you that you came over to be polite

and after a while you will go home
and you won't call
and i won't either
and after a while i won't like you anymore
and after a while we'll forget each other
and after a while you will be beautiful and alone inside of your coffin
and i'll be cold and alone inside of my coffin

i want to pour orange juice on my face

i want to pour a carton of orange juice onto my face and body
when i am lying on my bed, in the morning
and i want it to be sunday and i want to go back to sleep
and when i fall back asleep i want the orange juice to quickly evaporate
and take me with it

you are my mom

you cried in your bedroom when your sister's husband died of the flu
you came out of your bedroom and told me that your sister's husband died of the flu and you grinned
and i ran away
and i ran away upstairs into my room and played the drums and used a lot of cymbals and my ears rang

I Will Like The Things I Dislike, Hate, Or Am Indifferent Towards

My head is a car. I drive
a different car. People laugh at me
from skyscrapers. I buy one-thousand-
page-novels. It hurts to move. I stare at things
that are close to me physically. My brain
was at Wal-Mart. It was on sale. It wasn't
fair. The weekend is lonely. For lunch
I have dinner. Instead of feeling sad, I transform
into a nerd. It is just a matter
of semantics. Don't ever
do what you are doing right now
again, I tell myself, each moment, thinking.


I stood outside St. Mark's bookstore and you wore a colorful shirt. I wanted to hold your hand. We went to the movie. I couldn't talk and maybe I refused to talk and you said, 'Stop being an asshole.' I was shy and you made me hate myself.

The movie had a message. It told me to enjoy my life while I was alive. 'I know,' I said to the movie.

It was raining outside and you walked faster than me and I wanted to sit down. We stopped to say goodbye. 'Come with me to the grocery store,' I said. You said okay and you seemed happy and we went and I was happy.

In the grocery store you stared at me from a distance. 'What are you doing?' I said. I wanted to play. 'I have homework,' you said from a distance. I bought a banana.

I told you I didn't want to walk home. I ate my banana and I said it was disgusting and I said, 'I hate bananas,' and I complained a little about life and you left and I walked home.

2006 (Feb - Mar): wrote/published poems in many different styles, read a lot of poetry

· didn't want to repeat you are a little bit happier than i am poems
· felt unsatisfied (or lost interest after one poem) with most styles
· sustained interest in the "reoccurring/'shuffled' idea/phrase/image/etc" style [example]
· had 8 poems (4 or 5 in above style) that felt like a book to me

this emotion was a little ebook (bear parade)

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 9.54.51 PM

i'm going to touch you very hard

i'm tired of not being
an out-of-control asshole
i could destroy a $200,000 house
with an aluminum chair
and it would be the greatest week of my life
the only reason i exist
is because it feels like someone is licking my heart
after an insane killing-rampage people are less lonely
loneliness can fly a helicopter through a cut-out shape
of a helicopter the same size as the helicopter
and that's its only skill
and it isn't good enough
but it's still amazing
whoever owns an amazing $200,000 house
is an out-of-control asshole
the only reason i exist
is because my heart wanted to stab things
but didn't have arms
in an insane killing-rampage
i believe the lonely would survive
by digging holes
lonely people are clever
i am afraid of helicopters
that they were invented
by some out-of-control lonely person
the only reason i am not an out-of-control asshole
is because it feels like an amazing person is licking my heart
i'm going to prove the existence of amazingly lonely hamsters
that throughout history have gone on insane killing-rampages
and killed entire neighborhoods and cities
before the government came in to seal things off
like in that movie

i am going to pay someone a lot of money
to turn around and go home

a young hamster

a hamster opening its mouth slowly closing its mouth very slowly

4 a.m.

3 a.m.

standing at the refrigerator

the peanut butter is floating a little

a hamster running behind the orange juice continuously

a close-up of a hamster's face

2 p.m.

an enormous bear sprinting across a parking lot leaping over a car

a hamster sprinting across a parking lot up a light pole into the sky

five hamsters looking at you from above

a red hamster

a boss walking up to you firing you walking away

it is not your boss

close-up of a parking lot's face

the parking lot is insane

5 a.m.

the peanut butter is floating a little

the hamster is floating a little

Aug 2006 - Jul 2007: wrote/edited cognitive-behavioral therapy
· "companion book" to my 2nd novel Richard Yates (2010)
· similar to you are a little bit happier than i am:
a. focused on 1 "you" (a specific person)
· different than you are a little bit happier than i am:
b. none written to be read aloud
c. poems/pieces function web-like in service of the single unit of the book

cognitive-behavioral therapy (Melville House)

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i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know

seen from a great enough distance i cannot be seen
i feel this as an extremely distinct sensation
of feeling like shit; the effect of small children
is that they use declarative sentences and then look at your face
with an expression that says, 'you will never do enough
for the people you love'; i can feel the universe expanding
and it feels like no one is trying hard enough
the effect of this is an extremely shitty sensation
of being the only person alive; i have been alone for a very long time
it will take an extreme person to make me feel less alone
the effect of being alone for a very long time
is that i have been thinking very hard and learning
about mortality, loneliness, people, society, and love; i am afraid
that i am not learning fast enough; i can feel the universe expanding
and it feels like no one has ever tried hard enough; when i cried in your room
it was the effect of an extremely distinct sensation that 'i am the only person
alive,' 'i have not learned enough,' and 'i can feel the universe expanding
and making things be further apart
and it feels like a declarative sentence
whose message is that we must try harder'

[eleven page poem, page one] [image]

i looked away from the computer with a slight feeling
of out-of-control anger; i saw you wearing a coffee-colored star-suit
there was a barely perceptible feeling on my face
that i was being crushed by the shit of the world
then i saw beyond the window to the tree, the house, and the street
the house and the street made mysterious binary noises
that negatively affected the tree's immense happiness
i observed this neutrally, without falling out of my chair

[eleven page poem, page two]

energy drinks help me achieve worldviews that allow me to forgive you
masturbation is underrepresented
in my poetry, it's a scientific fact
that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors
and there is a tingly sensation on the surface of my face
that feels like the binary nature of the universe
i feel severely confused and unable to function, i'll be right back
something behind my forehead is trying to crush my 'good feelings toward you'

[eleven page poem, page three]

my favorite emotions include 'brief calmness
in good weather' and 'i am the only person alive'
without constant reassurance i feel terribly lonely and insane
i have moved beyond meaninglessness, far beyond meaninglessness
to something positive, life-affirming, and potentially best-selling
i have channeled most of my anger into creating and sustaining an 'angry face'
i have picked up a medium-size glass of coffee
and used it in the conventional way
because i am conventional in all situations, i'll be right back

ugly fish poem, part one

i have licked the ashen barnacles of the low ports of melbourne
low in elevation (when viewed from the highway)
i have swam with the handsome redfish of the small piers of melbourne
i have been to jetty park near cape canaveral, mackeral, jewfish,
the little mermaid, and journeyed deep into the rocks, at my own peril,
to stare at the handsome feet of young caucasian humans
i have felt a love of life that i believe is good
and i have felt it alone; i have always felt alienated from my peers
i am an alone ugly fish
the concrete manifestation of my emotional center is a skinned red onion covered
by local newspapers under a boardwalk at cocoa beach
i know many terms but speak only in concrete specifics
from afar i have appreciated the manatee for its round body
from within i have appreciated the manatee for its veganism
my favorite poets include mary oliver and alice notley
i am a playful companion, a tactful friend
and compassionate lover; a mutant sturgeon sniffs a seahorse with a nose located on its stomach
i have lain on the ocean floor alone at night on my birthday
and felt very aroused and ugly
i have willfully and simultaneously subjected myself to multiple irreconcilable philosophies
i have held my body with my little fins
on the fourth of july
and made excruciating screams of despair
i have my grotesque appearance and my small mind to accomplish these many tasks
i have made small noises of despair in the presence of those i respect most
i have suffered unseen in the nooks of jetty park
and i have swam unseen
and i have swam fast; any speed that exists i have swam at that speed; i have been wild with loneliness
and felt the generosity of loneliness
i have seen a hammerhead shark strike a manatee then flee in confusion
i have seen a manatee strike a baby hammerhead shark repeatedly
until a small brown-gray paste floats away
i have seen a blue whale scream in joy then wake from a dream
i have seen a giant tuna swim upside-down with lust into a concrete wall
in frustration, and i know how it feels,
as i have felt the center for international studies of subatomic particles inside of me
and swam with it in the foamy waters of cape canaveral
i have tasted the still-frozen midsections of bulk shrimp and fought away other shrimp with my fins
conversely i have tasted the artificially flavored centers of soy meats
i am almost nine years old
i have seen the decapitated heads of pigfish
drop into the ocean: their faces were shiny
thank you for reading so far
i'll finish the rest of this poem very soon
i hope you like me so far

the power of ethical reasoning

the most callous, stupid things were done
just because regulations required them
and no one thought to change the regulations
there are many human beings locked away
in special wards throughout the country
some of them abandoned by their parents
and sometimes unloved by anyone else
just as a hamster can be conditioned to press a lever for food
a human being can be conditioned by professional rewards
to ignore intellectual contradictions and the suffering of others
professional prestige, a vague sense of progress, cash money
all-stars, and the opportunity to travel
were the maintaining factors
in our society the mildly obese are respected
for their stability, fortitude, and excuses
they make a tiny difference by voting
but a big difference by spending $10,000 on things
and the voting and spending are for opposite things
the out-of-control behavior of meat-eating human beings
is actually admirable, because it's comforting to mothers
articulating intellectual convictions, isolating irrational behaviors
in emails and poems, and shoving the pultizer prize in your mom's face
saying, 'i won the pultizer prize bitch'
to humble her into being a better person
are a few of the tasks that now control my life
alone at night i turned away from the computer
hit my face on the bed, made a noise
and turned back toward the computer
with a neutral facial expression, thinking
i knew how it felt not to be in control of one's life
the next day i said, 'if you really wanted to change
you would have changed by now'


In its room the hamster stared at a book by an author who had died. 'What if I died?' the hamster thought a little confused. The hamster had not yet met its hamster friend. The hamster was alone. It was an urban variety of an uncommon species of vegan hamster. Its room was small.

It had stacks of stolen books. The hamster had organic green tea extract that was stolen.

The hamster's toothpaste was stolen and it used stolen flaxseed lemon soap on its hair, which it cut itself. The hamster had an eleven-dollar toothbrush.

post cognitive-behavioral therapy (2007 - ????)

"Ben Lerner-esque (The Lichtenberg Figures)" poems (2004)


In Japan sushi is served warm. Children are born with social anxiety disorder.
Parties are viewed through high-powered binoculars. Ketchup is used carefully.
English is spoken accidentally. Communication is attempted in angles

perpendicular to the ground, a sign of low self-esteem, a premonition

of binoculars, a list of fetishes, a family of indigenous people
enjoying the electronics district for the last time
in two fun-filled days and sleepless nights.
Desperate yearning is attempted idly before bed time

after breakfast. Alienation has a revitalizing, electrolytic effect
and depression is diagnosed by megaphone and stadium lights

to groups of thirty-thousand or more
in two fun-filled days and sleepless nights, a motif in Japan.

"i feel the need to apologize for doing this" poems (2008 - ????)

i see cupcakes exploding

i see myself laughing a lot
and cupcakes exploding
then something dangerous happens
my face panics a lot
and i get cut really badly

big macs

i opened my kombucha
it tasted like big macs
that hasn't happened before
i thought about how i felt
i think i felt really bad

"limited to one-time"/"one off" poems (2004 - ????)

hot amoeba ass

at kinko's i blew-up the slide of the amoeba's ass 10,000,000 times; i took the amoeba

ass photos out in the taxi cab and quietly said, 'oh my god'; at kinko's i said

'are you sure you can't make it any bigger?' i sweated and fell down

screaming 'it can't go any bigger, it can't go any bigger!' i called my mother

and hanged up sweating; i removed the bed, table, desk, and chair

from my room; i pasted amoeba ass photos on the floor

ceiling, and walls; i fell down masturbating; i stared

at the $100,000 electron-scanning microscope on the computer screen; driving home

from the biochemical store i fell out of the car screaming, 'amoeba ass is so hot!'

in my room i broke the microscope and rubbed the slide sample on my face

i very quietly went to the corner of my room and sat down shaking

i hugged myself and stared with a worried expression

and quietly thought 'there are five billion amoeba asses on my face'

i am a mime

[hand motion]
[leg motion]
[raised eyebrow]
[sarcastic smile]
[fake smile]
[hand motion]

i went fishing with my family when i was five

when i was five
i went fishing with my family
my dad caught a turtle
my mom caught a snapper
my brother caught a crab
i caught a whale

that night we ate crab
the next night we ate turtle
the next night we ate snapper
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
[repeat that line as desired]

Twitter (2008 - ????)

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i don't want to sleep but i don't know what i'm waiting for (????)