Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize (C&R Press, 2009) and a Finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Django.
In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Jason discusses the eponymous poem from his first collection, Man on Extremely Small Island.
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I originally wrote this poem for a workshop on ekphrastic poetry led by Scott Cairns at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I’d written the first poem for that workshop on a Hopper painting, which was predictable—so many poets have written poems about Hopper paintings. I myself had already written three poems about Hopper paintings.
So I went to Acorn Books, one of the used bookstores near campus, and started browsing through art books, looking for something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to get away from the high tradition of Western art and do something unorthodox. After looking through shelves and shelves of books, I stumbled across The Collected Cartoons of Mordillo, a book of black and white cartoon drawings by this Argentine artist I’d never heard of before. His cartoons were hilarious, featuring little men and women with huge noses in various island and urban situations; they read like parables about modern life and relationships. I was drawn by his ability to tell whole narratives in just a few frames with no words. His sensibility spoke to me immediately.
One cartoon in particular struck me as something I could write about: a man sitting alone on a tiny island—about the size of a pitcher’s mound—imagining it was the kneecap of gigantic woman lying on the sea-floor below him with one leg folded in. The man on the island was at the bottom of the frame; the woman was in the huge thought bubble above his head. I’d been writing a lot of (failed) dramatic monologues at the time and figured I could do something in his voice, a kind of message-in-a-bottle poem. (Hence the underlinings you see in the poem; originally I had these underlined words in italics, but halfway through the poem I realized a guy writing a message on a piece of shirt wouldn’t be able to put words in italics.) I wanted to write a poem like Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” a poem I’ve always loved for its mixture of humor and despair.
The first draft of the poem was much longer than the final version—there was a totally different opening, one in which the speaker went on and on about the island as a pitcher’s mound. Here are the original opening lines:
I live on an extremely small—I
was going to say “island,” but I’m not
even sure you can call it that,
since I only have room to sit down.
More of a hump than an island.
Like a pitcher’s mound—but steeper.
Sometimes I stand and appraise the horizon
as if looking toward home
for the sign, cutting out a strike zone
of sky and sea; I go into my wind-up,
tilting back for a curve sharp
enough to plummet over the horizon-
line and scud the surface back—but
the mound wobbles, and I come out
of my wind-up without following through
—sit as still as possible, politely
touching knees to chest, hoping not
to disturb whatever underwater god
this hump belongs to. Because I’m certain
this can’t be land I’m sitting on—
too smooth, too white, too…bony.
Notice how in twenty-one lines the speaker still hasn’t mentioned the woman; there’s too much set-up. Nicky Beer—who was in the workshop with me—suggested I cut all of this and begin with the next line: “I think I must be sitting on the kneecap / of a gigantic woman.” Workshop is much maligned in our culture, and I’ve bitched about workshop as much as anyone else; but the comments I got on this particular poem were incredibly helpful to me. I couldn’t see the real beginning of the poem by myself. And my workshop mates also told me to throw out the title, which was originally “Message from Mordillo.” Yeah, terrible. Of course I couldn’t think of anything better for a long time, so eventually, out of exhaustion, I just slapped on a topical title: “Man on Extremely Small Island.” I thought the bluntness of the title was funny. Little did I know this title would eventually become the title of my whole first book.
Below is the final version of “Man on Extremely Small Island,” as it appears in Jason’s collection of the same name:
Man on Extremely Small Island
after a Mordillo cartoon
I think I must be sitting on the kneecap
of a gigantic woman: stretched out
on the sea floor, one long leg folded in,
triangulating heavenward, her knee
just breaches the surface enough to make
my seat. How she came to be here, how
I happened to wash up on her kneecap
shore, why she never puts her leg down—
these are questions I do not pursue.
Instead, I try to picture the woman’s face:
eyes lidded, mouth upturned in sleepy
pleasure, she can just bear the tickling
my body gives her; naturally, I’m afraid
that if I move too much a giant hand
will come whalebursting out of the water
to thwop me like a golf ball into the sea.
So, still as possible. Once, I did an experiment:
I got down on my belly—gingerly—
seal-wagged my upper body down
the eastern slope of the knee, and sent
my hands snorkeling—a distinct shudder.
Was that her thigh? That shudder
nearly broke my ribs, so I’ve never tried
the opposite slope for shin. Sometimes,
as is my way, I begin to feel ungrateful:
why couldn’t it have been a breast
instead of a knee? I could lie down,
feel cared for, sleep. I could relax…
The irony, of course, is that from the sky
the knee probably looks like a breast,
with me as a nipple, so, when you notify
the Coast Guard about my situation,
be sure to warn them of the resemblance.
Not that I expect anyone to find me.
By the time you get this message—if
you get it—I’ll have been swallowed up
by a storm; the fact that I haven’t been
already I would call a “miracle,” but
when you throw yourself off a ship, lose
consciousness, and come to on a kneecap,
can anything else go by that name?
Miracle. And all those years I asked
for a smaller nose. I said to God, Just
give me a chance. This isn’t a nose—
it’s a melon. Just make it a little smaller,
something a woman can convince herself
to live with if I am a good enough man…
When I came to that first strange morning
I thought I’d washed up on a giant nose.
I said to God, Very funny, very very funny.
Hilarious. I’m dying here. You kill me.
Then I put my nose into my hands and wept.
But now I think kneecap—I won’t give God
that satisfaction. And my sea-goddess,
she has no nose. Just a space where mine
I’m running out of shirt.
You might be wondering where I got
this bottle—someone must have thrown it off
the ship. There was another message inside.
I’m alone, it said. Find me, find me.
I threw it in the water.
I used to hate sitting in my apartment,
night after night, hearing murmurings
in the apartments around me; now
I stare at the endless, sunshot blue
and try to imagine walls.