Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.
Workshop has become my favorite class. Maybe because I genuinely enjoy reading other people’s work and sharing my own. Maybe because the literary critic in me likes playing with the writer, or maybe it’s because on day one, my new piece, “The Red Frame,” caused some controversy. There’s nothing like starting off by making waves!
The piece begins:
What is my life concept? What is my story?
I need a new frame, but I don’t know the old frame.
Two students got into an argument about who the audience of the piece was, why it provided no answers, and what was going on in general. Two students argued, but the class itself was split in their views pretty evenly down the middle: one camp loved it, the other was confused. To the people who asked who the audience is and what the conclusion, or the answer, was, I didn’t respond because it doesn’t matter what my answer may be. It’s about their answers, and their answers were all valid. The piece is schizophrenic. It’s disjunctive. It wants to be dark and dwell on its darkness. It is, and I say this as objectively as possible, beautiful. Ultimately though, it is whatever the reader wants it to be. I come from the school of the Language poets . The point is to play with conventional literary structures, language and ideas to find out what the reader brings to the table.
Our instructor told me that she thinks what was really going on in workshop was that the students were discovering what was essential for them in their own writing. It’s a great question: what is essential for you in writing?
For me, it’s structure and imagination. Structure because organization is essential for framing the theme, and imagination makes it beautiful. Both create a worldview.
In college, I spent a good deal of time searching for a form that felt both: natural and imaginative, lyrical and concise, fragmented yet whole. I love essays but couldn’t find an organizing principle to make them work. I like prose poems, but thought them too suppressive at the time. I wanted to sprawl and sing across the page! Sonnets, villanelles, and iambic pentameter are all great… when written by other people. Let’s face it, I’m lazy. I’m also tone deaf. But most importantly, I needed a form that was dialectical, not just in its content, but in its very structure. I wanted organization to mirror self-expression, which required a form that uses dialogue, process and contradiction.
Why contradiction? Why dialectics? As political Asian Americans, we cringe at the East vs. West binary because our very existence (as Asian Americans) contains both. It’s an old, false construct, and yet, as a Korean adoptee, nothing else encompasses my lived experiences. By “lived experiences,” I mean the dichotomy of being born in Pusan and being raised as a white American, being told I’ve been chosen by my family and being told I’ve been given up by my family, or being told how much I am loved because one set of parents wants me so much they won’t let me go and being told how much I am loved because one set of parents loved me so much that they let me go. What sort of form allows such paradoxes to be beautiful and not messy? What sort of form allows such paradoxes to be messy and still beautiful?
In college, I found the answer in Kimiko Hahn’s book, The Narrow Road to the Interior: zuihitsu. It’s an ancient Japanese form. Some of the earliest examples are Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. When I was a senior in college, I created an independent study on Asian American Poetry. I had reached the point where I couldn’t read any more white American authors because I wasn’t hearing their work in itself. I was hearing white oppression everywhere and in everything. So, my instructor gave me the freedom to find my own poets. I found Hahn. Then I found an article called, “Modern Japanese Fiction: ‘Accomodated Truth,’” by Marleigh Ryan for The Journal of Japanese Studies in the Summer of 1976. Ryan writes:
Japanese fiction assumes qualities totally different from the fiction of the West, and it is from the perspective of these qualities rather than any other that the fiction of Japan must be read. Most striking among these differences would be one suggested by the nikki-zuihitsu form itself and by what we know of formal classical Japanese poetry: the need to use materials from the author’s own experience as the basis for literary expression. The formal classical poetry, the nikki and the zuihitsu are each in turn lyrical, derived from the artist’s intense, immediate response to his world. The Japanese author however will not, perhaps cannot, report what has been experienced exactly as it was experienced; he must be permitted to select, rearrange, expand or attenuate until he has the effect of the emotion rather than the raw emotion itself.
Laurie Sheck interviewed Kimiko Hahn for Bomb magazine in the Summer of 2006. Sheck says: “The Japanese form zuihitsu that you use a lot in this book means ‘running brush’… It incorporates a sense of process, movement, juxtaposition, collage.”
I like to think of the zuihitsu as a fungus—not plant or animal, but a species unto itself. The Japanese view it as a distinct genre, although its elements are difficult to pin down. There’s no Western equivalent, though some people might wish to categorize it as a prose poem or an essay. You mentioned some of its characteristics: a kind of randomness that is not really random, but a feeling of randomness; a pointed subjectivity that we don’t normally associate with the essay. The zuihitsu can also resemble other Western forms: lists, journals. I’ve added emails to the mix. Fake emails.
I’m expounding now on this form with these quotes because I’ve been having trouble with my writing these days, and the problems are all structural. I’ve moved away from the zuihitsu. Maybe it was time. Maybe I’m not inspired enough anymore. Maybe the trouble is that I need a new frame, but I’m still in love with the old one. In any case, if I have any answer, it is this: experiment with structures (read: worldviews) and make them into your fungus.