The world is full of paper. Write to me.
~Agha Shahid Ali, “Stationery”
Many writers have a complicated relationship with the postcard. At some point you encounter a writing fellowship or contest that requires you to include a self-addressed stamped postcard (the dreaded SASP) to notify you that your application has been received or if it has been rejected. There is a certain kind of poetic cruelty in receiving a rejection addressed to you in your own handwriting. The postcard is the perfect vehicle for said rejection–tiny, sharp and decisive. If only all break-ups could be so clean! Still, I have a huge affection for this category of stationery.
Postcards were the very first pieces of art I could buy for myself. I started with postcards of cute kittens, cartoons with witty sayings and then reproductions of paintings by Picasso, Bearden and O’Keefe. The postcard was the only piece of art in the price range for a dreamy kid. I brought home postcards from class trips and family vacations as souvenirs. When I returned home I would tack the postcards to a corkboard or tape a card to my notebook to travel beyond my Memphis neighborhood. I started to collect picture postcards of people I admired. I still have a copy of Black Writers: A Book of Postcards by Jill Krementz. I bought that book in the 90s when I was just beginning to try to imagine myself as a writer. I only tore a few cards from the book. Toni Morrison at her desk with her arms thrown up to the sky made it to my own writing desk. I sent James Baldwin off with a present to a lover. I still flip through that book of postcards several times a year, my fingertips grazing the torn perforations of the missing cards. The book is long out of print. I should have bought a spare.
My friend F. pointed out that I am always building altars. I had never thought of these groupings as such, but postcards are almost always a part of my ad hoc sacred spaces. Postcards are everywhere in my home: on my bookshelf, on the entry table tucked behind the incense holder, tucked among my jewelry. Right now there are postcards of musicians, artists and political figures affixed to my refrigerator with magnets. I do send an occasional picture postcard through the mail, but they mostly provide a portal to my dreams.
I’m not really an impulse shopper, but last year I was beset by a kind of fever during one of those flash sales where the clock ticks down to zero. The object of my obsession was a set of Crane’s correspondence cards in a cool celadon. The lot of 100 cards felt like an investment, a commitment to becoming the kind of elegant person who dashes off a postcard instead of sending a text message. I imagined my cool green cards appearing in the mailboxes of my friends and becoming a kind of signature. Whereas my old picture postcards were about the ephemeral land of dreams and potential, these new postcards were about the vulnerable space of now.
I once wrote to my friend S. that a letter provides a certain kind of safety that isn’t available any other place. What I wanted when I clicked the “buy now” button for those celadon cards is the opposite of that privacy, that safety. For me, the small, comely postcard is the very symbol of vulnerability. With postcards, the sender is exposed. The sentiment expressed is on display for each person it encounters on the way to its final destination. The postcard journeys without the protection of an envelope at the mercy of the weather, overstuffed mailbags and manipulation by hands and machines. How easy it is to forget that the postcard is just paper, after all. What a wonder that something so small, so fragile, could travel so far and endure.
I can only hope to journey so bravely, so well.
*This piece is partly a response to this article “The Postcard vs. the Future” that heralded
the demise of the postcard.