Timothy Liu

Timothy Liu is the author of eight books of poems, most recently Polytheogamy (Saturnalia Books) and Bending the Mind Around the Dream's Blown Fuse (Talisman House). He also edited Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (Talisman House). His poems have been translated into nine languages, and his journals and papers are archived in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. Liu lives in Manhattan.

What is (or has been) your favorite editing project and why?

The Masterpiece

If the masterpiece is put away in an attic, can it be said that someone has written a masterpiece?

If the masterpiece was put away in an attic that burned to the ground, can it still be said that someone has written a masterpiece?

If someone showed the masterpiece to someone else before it got put away, can it still be said that what was lost was a masterpiece that no one else had ever read?

If someone showed the masterpiece to someone else who thought the masterpiece was indeed a masterpiece while they stood in the attic reading aloud to one another as the house burned down, can it still be said that the masterpiece remains even after it has been destroyed?

If someone showed the masterpiece to someone else who thought the masterpiece was indeed a masterpiece while they stood in the attic reading aloud to one another as the house burned down, can it still be said that the masterpiece remains a masterpiece after someone or someone else has flung the masterpiece out of the attic window, its pages fluttering free?

If the house burned to the ground, if the masterpiece landed on a manicured lawn covered in dew, the droplets starting to work their way into its pages, very patiently, word by word in the shadow of the house burning to the ground, the cinders raining down, the ashes of the someone who wrote the masterpiece and the someone else also raining down, the clouds heavy on the horizon promising to fall on a masterpiece no one else had ever read, who on this earth would care?


to have published books
even if the royalty checks arrive
only every third or fourth year
when the ledger balance creeps above
twenty-five dollars. I feel
lucky to have been awarded prizes
no one seems to have heard of,
at least not at my high-school reunion
or on e-harmony or match.com.
Perhaps they’re all just
jelaous that I get paid for doing
basically nothing, that I also get paid
for teaching my students they too
might get paid for doing
absolutely nothing, that is, after
shelling out enough tuition
to put a down payment on a house
whose mortgage they won’t be able to
afford, at least not until they too
get really lucky. Some might call this
thing I do a pyramid scheme
or a ponzi scam, unable to forget
an Alamo like Avon or Am-Way, but I
know better. Someone told me
that Creeley’s course load near the end
of a long career at SUNY Buffalo
was 0-0. Isn’t that what we all want,
getting paid for doing nothing?,
what the founding fathers
envisioned as the American Dream—

Something Else

The sun is out. I double park in a single line across the street with all the other cars because it is that time of week again, that time of day. The exact hour in fact. A woman in curlers slams her car door, smiles, or else makes a pass. Hard to tell which when I’m holding a half-full mug of coffee. Soon it’ll be half empty. There’s a turning point in every mug. Do women still wear curlers? It felt like I’d gone back in time.

The apartments on this street were built in the Twenties. I’m not thinking that far back, but far back enough to when women still wore curlers, when they went out to move their husbands’ cars, their husbands at work, having taken the trains in. Today I can imagine a young man coming out in curlers to move his partner’s car. If such a man were to pass my father instead of me this morning, my father would say the man’s a bottom. Women are bottoms, men are tops, my father says. He’s already eighty, so what do I expect? Being something else would never enter his mind.

I lift my mug to the woman in curlers, a kind of toast. Some will say a toast is not a toast with a mug or a water glass. Or if you raise a champagne glass filled with sparkling water, water “with gas” as they like to say in Spain. Sin gas or con gas is what the Spanish waiter said. You cannot toast a bride or groom with fizzy water in a fluted gas, it’s just not done, my father says. My father, who knows a thing or two about tops and bottoms, sins and cons.

I cannot say for sure if the woman in curlers is pretty, not in her current state. Maybe I’d get a better sense if I saw her gussied up. I only catch her when I go out to move the car, twice in a day in fact, because after we’ve double parked our cars, we have to come back out within the hour and move them back. Sometimes you can see long wet tracks where the street sweeper has been if the day’s not too hot. Sometimes I wait inside my car just to watch the sweeper pass. The sun is out, so what do I have to lose?

Today I’m the only one waiting for the sweeper. It’s hard to see beyond the first several cars in front and back. The windshields and the rearview windows make a kind of tunnel I can look through. There may be others waiting for the sweeper, I couldn’t say. All I know is when the street sweeper comes, he’ll be led by a little vehicle with a flashing yellow light on top, a vehicle that looks half motorcycle, half phone booth, easy to spot when there are no cars on the other side of the street to block my view.

There’s a car across the street that hasn’t been moved in months. Maybe years. Maybe some evening when everyone’s home from work, the owner will remove the fluorescent orange citations tucked beneath the wipers. Perhaps he’ll light up a cigar and take a little stroll. What people do around here when they’re home from work is not for me to say. I don’t even know which car the woman in curlers drives.

There are only so many things to do while waiting for the sweeper to pass. If it’s cold outside, I can try the heater, but then I worry about the battery, so I leave the engine running. But then I worry about fumes from the exhaust pipe working their way back into the car, especially if the wind is blowing. It can happen. People can choke on their own fumes. Same’s true on days when it’s hot, but then it’s the A/C that I worry about, and on top of that, I have to worry about the ozone. Usually I just sweat it out or freeze my ass off, depending. But when the sun is out like it is today, neither too hot nor too cold, well, sometimes it just puts me in the right kind of mood.

Used to be people tried to be the lead car right behind the sweeper, parking their cars as soon as the sweeper passed on through. That’s the best way to get your old spot back. The rules have changed. Now we have to wait the entire hour before moving back to where we were, doesn’t matter when the sweeper comes through. Park too soon and you’ll get slapped with the same citation for never having moved the car at all. So fewer and fewer people have a reason. Have better things to do than wait for a sweeper.

This morning, I try the radio. No static, nothing. I duck my head underneath the steering wheel and check whatever wires I can reach. I check the doors, and there the speakers are. I check the rearview window, and there the speakers are. Was the radio ever on? Now I wonder if I’m even sitting in my own car.

The woman in curlers is knocking on the glass. She asks what I’m doing in here. The car smells a little newer than I remember, and there’s a plastic Virgin of Guadalupe glued to the dash that I don’t remember gluing there, but nothing unusual otherwise. Except for this woman in curlers banging on my door, yanking on the latch. It takes me awhile to catch my mistake.

The woman in curlers is a man. You should’ve saw that one coming is what my father would say. For some reason, the sweeper hasn’t shown up, nor the other vehicle with the little flashing yellow light on top. There’s just this woman in curlers who’s really a man knocking on the door, and the radio won’t come on. Maybe I should step on the gas? Maybe I should roll the power window down? The ignition won’t turn over. A single golden leaf hits the windshield before it comes to rest on the hood. Who is this man in curlers pounding on the glass? Why have I never been able to trust machines? Then it dawns on me: this man is not a stranger. This man is my mother!

What is she doing here when all I’m doing is waiting for the sweeper to pass, to leave its wide wet tracks before they disappear in the morning sun? Of course my mother is a man because my mother is a top, that’s what my father always said. My mother is motioning for me to roll down the window, but the ignition won’t turn over, and there are no handles, neither for the window, nor the door.

How did I get in here? I can’t hear a thing my mother’s saying, can only watch her arms making motions, her left hand moving back and forth in a jerking motion, her right hand giving me the finger. Whoa!, my mother has never given me the finger. What have I done, I ask myself, my mother making a telephone out of her hand and raising it to her left ear, mouthing words I can’t make out, something about calling the cops. Well call the cops! Call an ambulance while you’re at it! How else am I going to get out of here?

The car smells newer than I remember, but I still can smell my mother through the metal.

A mother fallen to her knees. The cold coming on. Another leaf hits the windshield, bouncing off the hood and onto the street, a street in need of being swept. Who is this woman in curlers clinging to my tires like some kind of road kill? Just wait until the neighbors! Just wait until my father! I get up on the seat, trying to see. I climb into the backseat but she’s dropped out of sight. The morning sun coming through the glass, the Virgin of Guadalupe gone. A halo of glue on the dash where our lady once stood.

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