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A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn

2011 December 19

Kimiko Hahn, by Nancy Bareis

Kimiko Hahn is the author of eight books of poems, including: Earshot (Hanging Loose Press, 1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award; The Unbearable Heart (Kaya, 1996), which received an American Book Award; The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006) a collection that takes its title from Basho’s famous poetic journal; and Toxic Flora, poems inspired by science (W.W. Norton, 2010). As part of her service to the CUNY community, she helped initiate a Chapbook Festival that has become an annual event; since then she has published the chapbooks, Ragged Evidence and A Field Guide to the Intractable. Hahn has also written text for film, such as the 1995 MTV special, Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She-Thing; also, the text for Everywhere at Once, a film based on Peter Lindbergh’s still photos and narrated by Jeanne Moreau. Honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/Voelcker Award, Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught in graduate programs at the University of Houston and New York University, and of course, in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York where she is a distinguished professor; also for literary organizations such as the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem and Kundiman. Among her current projects: a collaborative translation of Japanese zuihitsu and new sequences triggered primarily by neuroscience.

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TOXIC FLORA

LR: In the latest issue of The American Poetry Review featuring 13 of your new poems triggered by articles on science, you speak of the power of lists and the poetic momentum that can be generated by them in the context of individual poems. In Toxic Flora as a whole, how did you maintain a sense of urgency and intensity while using the same kind of source material (NYT science articles) for each piece?

KH: These poems are from a new manuscript that I began late summer of 2009 [i.e. not Toxic Flora]. I was preparing the Toxic Flora manuscript for publication and thinking that I was finished with science—but suddenly realized that science, at least the exotic language and realm, was not finished with me. I returned to several articles in the Science section of The New York Times and gave myself the assignments as described in APR.

Over ten years ago I wrote a sequence based on various articles (i.e., from [the] Science section of The New York Times). I soon had so many poems that I realized it could become a whole collection. So I kept writing—maybe over a hundred—and at a certain point began seriously revising. Then while compiling a manuscript, [I] began seriously cutting poems that were too weak. I have described the particular process in a W.W. Norton online column: “A Poet and Her Editor”.

LR: You are widely known as an exemplar of a poet who teaches. What relationship is there between your teaching and your writing?

KH: I take my students very seriously. I believe that is the greatest gift an artist can give a student. Obviously, if I hold a high standard for their work, say in the closure of a poem, I had better hold the same. I also find that I read a greater variety of poetry because I need to go beyond my own taste.

LR: What has been your experience teaching at Kundiman? From your perspective, why is it important to intentionally foster spaces of community for Asian American poets?

KH: There are cultural issues such as “saving face”/shame, rage/reticence, and so on that can censor a writer. These are in some respects stereotypes and do not apply to every Asian culture or every Asian American family. But I found similarities among those at the Kundiman retreat and I was grateful to be in the mix: to see how I fit in there and to be able to identify some of these aspects as cultural. Then to break open into rich discussions. Some were very painful. And equally necessary.

LR: How do you envision the roles of cultural and gender identity in your work?

KH: When I began writing seriously, the country was in the throes of the Civil Rights and Feminism Movements. Unlike some earlier writers of color, I didn’t feel that I had to write “like a white person”—like, say, T.S. Eliot. On the other hand, if I wanted to imitate Eliot, I also didn’t feel that I was betraying my growing sense of being an Asian American female. Maybe part of this comes from being mixed, i.e., Eurasian. In any case, I feel that whatever I write is going to have a cultural and gender imprint, directly or subtly. I can’t understand why this is an issue in 2011—to not want to be an Asian American writer—because it is not limiting. I feel extremely grateful that Toxic Flora was awarded an Asian American Literary Award from AAWW. The book isn’t obviously written by an Asian American writer—at least not typically so.

LR: How has motherhood affected your writing?

KH: I have an essay coming out called, “Still Writing the Body,” (Rankine, Claudia and Lisa Sewell, North American Women Poets in the 21st Century, Volume 2. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, Forthcoming, 2012). It is triggered by my abiding interest in French feminists’ “écriture féminine.” The mother’s body—which is to say my mother’s body and my own body as it is the mother—is an essential part of who I am. Why would I want my writing to be separate from my body? That would be to deny cadence and the texture of language! Not to mention genuine emotion.

On a practical level, and perhaps this is more your question, I had to compartmentalize my life very strictly to get any writing done. I hope in my driving ambition that I didn’t subject my children to my own madness. Hard to know where being a model ends and being a terrible-mother begins…. We are all three very loving towards one another so I think I hope! I was what is known as “the good enough mother.”

LR: Tell us about how you got your start in poetry. How was the poetry world different then? Would you have done anything differently?

KH: I’ve always loved the sound of words—even words that made no sense to me. In fact words that make little or no sense possess the kind of magic we expect in poetry. So, I’d say that I always loved poetry but truly fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe in third grade. My family was at an outdoor book fair and I found an old gilt-edged copy of Poe that my parents bought for me. My father kind of explained meter. On into high school, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics as well as Gertrude Stein, Eliot, and so on. Even in high school I knew that I wanted to become a writer and when I found that the University of Iowa had undergrad workshops off I went. I studied with Louise Glück, Marvin Bell, Charles Wright, as well as then-grad students Michael Burkard and Rita Dove. On graduation I returned to New York City and lived with my radical boyfriend who introduced me to social movements. I was introduced to a number of non-academic poets such as Sekou Sundiata and Jessica Hagedorn. You could work part time and find a run-down cheap apartment in Manhattan in the ’70s. It was a heady mix of studying Japanese at Columbia, radical politics, and clubbing. Overall: writing was at the center of my life. … What would I do differently? Hard to say. I wish I had stretched myself a bit and taken fiction workshops as an undergrad. I am sorry my Japanese is so rusty but I am collaborating on some translations now so I make [d0].

LR: You’ve written eight books so far. How do you move from one book to the next? How do you know when a book is finished?

KH: The collection is finished when I find myself doing other stuff. Then it’s time to arrange and rearrange; to show writer friends what I have; to revise even more. It’s been different for each book. Although I am not interested in “an idea book,” that is, a book that is made specifically with a project in mind, the fact is that I often work with a theme or focus or preoccupation in mind.

LR: How have your writing and your writing process evolved since you started writing?

KH: I noticed early on that the writers I really loved to read—such as Charles Wright—were working out their own styles. They have been teachers and models. My own writing initially evolved just from writing a lot; then, in The Artist’s Daughter and Toxic Flora I began to hammer out particular aesthetic concerns (as described in that APR). I am finding formal elements that have a lot of give.

LR: What advice would you offer to emerging poets?

KH: When asked this question, I always reply: toss out the map.

LR: Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

KH: I have several writing projects: a collection of “fake journals” inspired by the Japanese poetic diaries (nikki); a translation collaboration; and a collection of new poems triggered by science articles (APR poems are an example). There are a few other projects, but these are the ones that I’ve prioritized. Thank you for asking!

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