A Conversation with Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, named by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the best small press books of the year, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Tin House, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Drunken Boat, and Language for a New Century. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden and the core faculty of Drew University’s low-residency MFA.

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LR: Let’s start with a straightforward one. Which poets have influenced you the most, both living and dead?

PR: Amiri Baraka, Anne Sexton, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, June Jordan, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Wright, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Paul Genega, Thomas Lux, Marie Howe, Joan Larkin, Suzanne Gardinier, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, my Uncle Charlie. Could I say, too, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Afrika Bambaataa, Kid Capri, The Latin Rascals, Rock Steady Crew, et. al.


LR: A musical sensibility (as in the poem “A Tradition of Pianos”) features prominently in your latest collection Boneshepherds, along with trauma, despair, loss, and love. What poetic decisions did you have to make in order to successfully navigate the intersections between those topics?

PR: Reading June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye early in my writing life (I was in my mid- to late-twenties) was a revelation to me about the ways fury and tenderness could occupy the same poetic space. Also, reading and re-reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time gave me a literary/ethical/philosophical model for the conjunction of love and rage. I’m confused and compelled by the ways music, violence, terror and tenderness intersect. This means, poetically, I have to be prepared to complicate whatever comes out on the page. A love poem couldn’t simply be a love poem or at least a love poem would be more interesting to me if it were also, simultaneously, an interrogation of history and the body and the role of music.

LR: You often evoke the political in your work: in poems like “Ars Poetics: After a Dog,” you use a rhetorical tone to address the politics of violence, while in “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” the political is melded with the personal. How do you envision the politics of your work as a whole? From a craft perspective, what strategies have you found to be most helpful when engaging with politics through poetry?

PR: To be a political poet doesn’t have to mean that you are only interested in convincing or converting people to a particular viewpoint. The sensual itself is political. It is a way to interact with and interrogate one’s world.

You might ask what the sensual has to do with power (i.e. the political), but it seems to me the official history and the public record, useful as they are, often contradict sensual experiences, if not erase them all together. What political rhetoric says about being poor or black or an immigrant is often directly challenged by the smell of our own fingers after a day of work, the way we kiss, the way we hold a knife or trombone. A kind of history resides in the sensual. And poetry, in sound and sense, is a way to record that.

Poetry, at its best, is a sensual experience. It is bodily—especially in my own work, which I envision as a direct descendant of oral and musical traditions. So what I’m making in a poem isn’t so much a message or a story, but a sequence of sounds and silences which have trajectories and dynamics—like a piece of music has melodic/harmonic trajectories, cadences, tensions and resolutions. Hearing (of poetry, music, and sound in general) happens by the vibration of a drum, a hammer, a stirrup, and an anvil in the ear, which cause the cilia to vibrate too, sending them along a nerve to the brain. Music, then, literally moves us. By music, we are moved.

If, as a poet, I let the music of a line lead me during composition and revision, then the very process of making becomes political. I am being led by the unknown. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, though the opportunity for an experience of the numinous is possible when writing poems. What I mean is, to consult the delights of the music of a poetic line is a radical response to a world which often wants us to consult strictly logic, reason, money, fear, etc., each of which has its own allegiance to certainty. Music is not loyal to certainty. When it works, it follows surprise.

LR: I love your comment that one of your biggest writing challenges is in “the truth-telling,” or “how you get the poem, the essay, the story that is complicated and true, rather than the easy language, the fashionable language, the language of effects.” How do you keep challenging yourself to write new poetry that tells the truth in new and fresh ways? And what sources of inspiration do you turn to when you’re looking to create surprise in your poetry?

PR: By following a poetic line by its music, by which I mean its percussiveness, its internal rhyme, consonance, assonance etc., I can be led to saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I’m led to something I didn’t even want to say. For good reason, we don’t deal with trauma or extreme exuberance in every waking hour. Our will and reason help us keep that in check. But that also means that we potentially have whole lakes of desire, joy, anger, etc. that we are out of touch with. Music disarms us from the mechanisms of safety (logic being one of those mechanisms, the will being another, among many). Music can challenge us into speech that is difficult and strange. The poetry happens in the interrogation of that music and its strangeness and the simultaneous interrogation of the world we live in, i.e. an interrogation of how a poetic line sounds and what it says. That’s how poetry becomes an argument with what we think we already know, how it gave Hikmet an opportunity to say, “I didn’t know I loved the rain…”

LR: Breakdancing has been a large part of your life, and has featured in your work, most notably in Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. What is it about breakdancing that inspires you as a poet, and what poetic strategies have you employed to bring its essence into your work?

PR: I’ve been working on an essay called “The Art of the Mistake” which is about some of the lessons I learned from breaking. Because a breaker is mostly making things up in front of an audience, often trying things with his body that he hasn’t necessarily tried before (a sequence of moves improvised on the spot), he’s prone to screwing up. Sometimes he thinks going into a particular floor move from a toprock is going to be dope, but it might be harder than he expects and he could trip or his foot could end up somewhere he didn’t intend for it to go. Thing is, there are people watching so he has to turn that accident into something—not as a way of hiding the accident, but as a way of letting the accident in. Every good breaker makes a contract with the unexpected: that it will inevitably come, and that he will do his best to say yes to it. Sometimes you invent the illest moves that way.

LR: Hip-hop has also been a big influence in your work, and you have spoken about how the best hip-hop carefully manages energy, rage, syncopation, rhythm, and unusual juxtapositions. A similar thing can be said for poetry—how do you infuse your poetry with these elements?

PR: You’ve hit it right on the nose. Aside from breaking, I also DJ’d and produced dance music. A lot of that composition was done by assembling very disparate pieces of music and sound.

I love thinking of the DJ as a metaphor for what a good poet does. First, the DJ has to practice—a lot. He also has to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music. He spends his time digging through crates (he used to, before Spotify and Shazam, etc.). He’s always looking for new sounds.

And then when he’s actually DJing for a dance floor, he has to feel. He has to listen while he’s making and what he’s making (a groove) has to be informed by what he hears and feels from the people in front of him (a good portion of a groove is sensed beyond simply listening). The DJ has to remember what he’s played so far, has to hear what’s playing now, and has to imagine what song might make the floor jump next. He is, in that way, a conduit of time. He is looking forward and backward at once—and never leaving the present moment. He is not manipulating time: he’s trying to find the way asynchronous expressions of time might converge to make a single beat. The poet/prophet has to do the same thing, has to look forward and backward at the same time, has to listen while he’s making, has to be asking questions about what came before, what’s to come, who is dancing and who isn’t. He has to figure out how many bodies can he get out on the floor.

LR: You seem to wear several different hats between your writing and your professional life. Your poetry is fluent in the language and imagery of the street and you also maintain a prominent role in the academy as an educator and gatekeeper. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between those two elements in your life?

PR: Sometimes it’s a troubled relationship. The language of poetry (or the language of the cee-lo game, for that matter) doesn’t often work well in faculty meetings. But principles of justice, love, play, honesty, curiosity, and interrogation inform the work I do as a member of an academic institution. It’s all a life, isn’t it? It’s the mastermix (if I ain’t killed the analogy yet) of all the things I’ve learned as an artist, musician, dance-floor participant, son, brother, knucklehead. I’ve had good teachers and I’ve had shitty teachers. The good ones gave me space to figure out how all this non-traditional living connects to ideas we often consider as erudite. Truth is, the sources of erudition are everywhere. They always have been. The greatest ideas and works of art have always been informed by something on the edge or in the hinterlands or on the margins. The academy doesn’t always want to recognize that and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to be the one who has to do the reminding, but it’s part of the work. And I’m happy to do it.

LR: You’ve been with the Kundiman organization since its very early days. How have you seen it grow and develop through the years?

PR: I’m really proud to have been witness to this. We were at a lounge somewhere in the Lower East Side (is it 9 or 10 years ago now?) when Joseph and Sarah told me their idea and asked if I would be involved in an organization that would hold a retreat for Asian American poets. Everybody has a good idea. Few people act on it. Joseph and Sarah have busted their behinds to grow this into an amazing community of poets. They’ve done a great job to preserve an atmosphere of compassion and openness and a dedication to the work of writing poems. The notion of an Asian American poet is complicated. How do you craft a space that welcomes vastly different histories, aesthetic inclinations, wacky personalities? The bigger that Kundiman gets, the more it has to confront the challenges of these contradictions. I think they’re handling it beautifully. Not to mention, the logistics of an organization, i.e. the infrastructure to the very dream of Kundiman, are a massive undertaking. It’s a credit to Sarah, Joseph, the board and support staff that they get this together the way they do. What a gift to be part of a generation that has that kind of both vision and commitment. I imagine Kundiman will go down as a major achievement in the history of Asian American letters.

LR: You have said that as a poet, you have to be willing to make mistakes. As your career progresses, how do you maintain the willingness to keep making mistakes?

PR: I’m blessed that my audience has grown quite a bit in the decade-plus I’ve been writing poems. So I guess I could feel somewhat self-conscious and shut down. Of course, that happens from time to time. Ambition and shame in a professionalized world of writing are not uncommon. I think I’m sort of a risk taker though. I’m hungry. I want to make poems that surprise me and there’s no doing that without making mistakes. All my errors hold my work as a writer together. They are the very mortar of the good poem. It’s impossible to know which failure will lead me to the next awe, so I try to be curious about all of my fuck-ups and trust that the wonder will come, that astonishment is just another category of mistake.

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

PR: My main focus right now is a collection of essays that I’m co-editing with Ross Gay. We’re collecting work by poets of our generation on the work of Robert Hayden. Teaching, too, is a main priority. As far as writing is concerned, I’ve got a couple of projects, including a long poem about a man (named Willie), a woman (named Yolanda), and a bridge that connects the towns of Paz and Pelea. It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come out of it. It’s been both a challenge and a blessing to try and write this convergence of politics, magic realism, and love story. I’ve got a few other projects in the air that are mostly just ideas and notes right now, including some research on Philippine history, specifically on torture and combat during the Philippine-American War. Maybe Paz y Pelea and the Philippine history research are all the same thing. I’m still figuring it out. And figuring it out is a good place to be.

A Conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of Lucky Fish, winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize, and At the Drive-In Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize. Her first book, Miracle Fruit, won the Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. Her poetry and essays have been widely anthologized and have appeared or forthcoming in: American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, FIELD, Shenandoah, Mid-American Review, and Tin House. Her writing has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in poetry. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia where she was awarded a Chancellor’s Medal of Excellence. She lives in western New York with her husband and their two young sons.

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LR: Your first book, Miracle Fruit, won the 2003 Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. Could you describe the journey that Miracle Fruit took from birth to publication?

AN: A good third of it was from my thesis from The Ohio State University (my MFA is also in creative non-fiction) but I had a magical and productive year as a poetry fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing in Madison and that allowed me the time and resources to write the rest of it. I queried a few publishers directly and received lots of positive feedback so I decided to try my hand in two contests—one of them was, at the time, a relatively new press—Tupelo Press—and I about fainted when I got the email that Greg Orr selected my book as the eventual winner that year. I hadn’t even completely unpacked yet. I was twenty-six and had just moved to western NY for my first year teaching at SUNY-Fredonia.

LR: Your poetry often uses fanciful imagery and direct tones of address (as in “First Anniversary, With Monkeys” and “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?”) to relay moments of intimacy and elements of personal experience. What kind of poetic decisions do you find yourself making when you work with autobiographical subject matter?

AN: I try not to bore myself. And talking solely about myself bores me. And I admittedly have a relatively short attention span. And I’m always thinking of two or three things at once when I write. So, the trick for me is to be able to type or write as fast as the images leap in my head. I know I’m onto something if a metaphor startles or surprises me—I’ll try to hang on and follow that golden thread for as long as it will let me. I believe in an underworld littered with gems. In another life, I have to.

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A Conversation with Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of the Hongo Store in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951. He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret. He complained so, his parents sent him back when he was nine, where he lived in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who so hated him, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. when he was ten. He grew up fighting from then on, all the way through Gardena High School, where he encountered Shakespeare, Camus, and Sophocles in English classes. They convinced him to try higher education, so he went to Pomona College, managed to graduate, still fighting, and found poetry there under the tutelage of Bert Meyers. He wandered Japan, Michigan, and Seattle thereafter, supporting himself through wits and lies, directing the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77, becoming poet-in-residence at the Seattle Arts Commission in 1978. He then gave up wit and went back to graduate school at UC Irvine, studying with the poets Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, and Howard Moss, all of whom averred he deserved hanging. Hongo has subsequently taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, and Oregon, where, fool that he was, he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. He has written three books of poetry, including Coral Road (Knopf, 2011), edited three anthologies of Asian American literature, and published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are two fellowships from the NEA, two from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is now in semi-retirement and fights no one, having lost all his teeth and suffered from tapioca of the hands. He plays with his daughter, scolds his two grown sons, and loves his wife Shelly Withrow. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo. In Eugene, where he lives, they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.


LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?

GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.

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A Conversation with Tina Chang

Tina Chang

Brooklyn Poet Laureate, Tina Chang, was raised in New York City. She is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses and Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books) and co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) along with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar. Her poems have appeared in American Poet, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The New York Times among others.

Her work has also been anthologized in Identity Lessons, Poetry Nation, Asian American Literature, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems and in Poetry 30: Poets in Their Thirties. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation among others.

She currently teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.


LR: You have spoken of how your role as Brooklyn Poet Laureate has led to a greater sense of moral responsibility, and at Sarah Lawrence College, you even teach a class called “Poet as World Citizen.” How does this sense of responsibility play out for you in your writing?

TC: In my role as poet laureate, there is a public connection and recognition of matters that are important to me: education, literacy, the Asian American experience, the female experience, motherhood. These are only a few of the topics to which I pledge loyalty, and those communities have helped me feel a firmer footing in a sometimes uncertain world.

When I conceived of the class “Poet As World Citizen,” I envisioned a student who never loses their sense of themselves as an active participant in a world in flux. I can no longer live in a vacuum, and I think our literature and the study of it must reflect that. I can no longer write a domestic kind of poetry which doesn’t call attention to the complexities outside of the United States. Because I teach and I engage in my community, I feel invested in ongoing dialogue, a dialogue of exposure, questioning, and investigation. I bring all of this to the page when I write.

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A Conversation with Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su is the author of three books of poems, Middle Kingdom (Alice James, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), and Having None of It (Manic D, 2009). Among her awards are a Puschart Prize and an NEA fellowship. She is poet-in-residence and chair of the English department at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Recent poems are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, New England Review, and Hawai’i Pacific Review.


LR: In the 1990s, you participated in the slam poetry revival, even going to the nationals for the NYC team in 1991. How did you move from the poetry slam world to your current place in academia?

AS: I fell into the poetry slam by accident when I was too young to have a writerly identity and the slam was too young to have specific expectations of contestants. There was less of a page-stage divide. I saw no contradiction in reading my poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café while sending them to university-based literary journals. And the Nuyorican was a revelation. I’d never experienced writing in such a social way before. So while it may look as if I made a major transition over the years, I was really pursuing what I loved all along in whatever venues would have me. The people I met in both worlds had the same passions, though they may have been expressed differently on the surface.

Getting into academia was a different story: you don’t get an academic job by accident. Even there, though, I thought my presence might be temporary. I started out as a sabbatical replacement and only gradually began to identify myself as a member of academia. Departing from the slam scene happened organically: I no longer lived in a city, I had children, and the slam itself had changed, requiring acting skills. Not long ago, I went back to the Nuyorican and saw a whole new generation of poets doing what “we” were doing twenty years earlier. It was terrific. For me, its time had come and gone, and that was fine.

LR: You have stated in the past that your days in slam poetry taught you the value of connecting with people through the spoken word and reaching the non-university audience. How do you maintain that sense of the social in your work now?

AS: I think I do this mainly by continuing to write poems that on some levels can be read by anyone.

LR: Poetry of the academy and poetry that is accessible to non-literary audiences are often perceived as contradictory. As a poet of the academy with a spoken word past, how do you reconcile the two?

AS: I think I address this somewhat in question 1, but I might add that academic institutions can also be great home bases for students to create spoken-word events. Students are doing this at Dickinson College, where I teach. I’d also suggest that as educators, we don’t have to treat “page” and “spoken-word” poems the same way in class. Some poems you need to pick apart. Some you can just listen to or watch, and discuss in a different way: that too is instructive. The poems that don’t need much interpretation can be the hardest to use in class. That requires some adaptation on the part of the teacher.

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A Conversation with Janine Oshiro

Janine Oshiro

Janine Oshiro holds degrees from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University), Portland State University, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a Kundiman fellow and the recipient of a poetry fellowship from Oregon’s Literary Arts. Her first book Pier was the winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize and was recently published by Alice James Books. She lives in Hawaii and teaches at Windward Community College.

LR: In Pier, which is so richly evocative of the complex emotions surrounding the illness and loss of a loved one, you strike a fine balance between confession and creative license, authentic experience and fantasy. How did you find this balance? And how did you avoid sentimentality?


JO: I’ll first respond to the “S-word.” I didn’t think consciously about avoiding sentimentality; while I don’t want to be sentimental, I do think that sometimes the fear of sentimentality can inhibit the exploration of emotions. Sometimes the truth of a person’s experience can come off as sentimental in a poem. There is no way around that. I would much rather read a poem that strikes me as authentic and a little sentimental than a poem that is just hip and ironic or detached and intellectual. I think about a poet like James Galvin, who in his latest book has a poem called “Two Angels,” featuring a boy with a mental disability and a dog. It walks the fine line. I truly admire that he doesn’t shy away from what might be construed as sentimental. In a way I think the fearlessness to even approach the sentimental is what makes some of his poems so powerful for me. I know that I have written some sentimental poems and poems I would never want anyone to read, and those poems have been important in my development as a writer and as a person.

I don’t really know that I can answer the question about balance. Did I have a strategy for finding a balance? No. I had all these questions about losing my mom, seeing my dad’s health decline, experiencing invisible presences, having a distinctly marked body, and feeling an “other” to myself. Writing the poems was my way of trying to answer these questions—even though I wasn’t really aware of that as my “project” at the beginning. Of course, I could have chosen to answer these questions through journaling and therapy, which I did to a certain extent. But then there is this—making a word-object with sound constellations, reimagining experience, creating a new and authentic experience in the word-world. What really happened? I didn’t really see a school of spoons swimming in the ocean though I write about it in the poem “Setting,” but I really did experience something crawling out of a zippered compartment in the wall and running down my body as I describe in “Next, Dust.” In the world of the poem what really happened doesn’t matter. It is all really happening in the world of the poem.

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A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn

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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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”.

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A Conversation with Jenna Le

Jenna Le

Jenna Le was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the youngest child of two Vietnam War refugees. She obtained her B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University and her M.D. from Columbia University. Her first book of poetry, Six Rivers, was published by New York Quarterly Books in August 2011. Her poems and translations of French poetry have been published by Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, Post Road, The Raintown Review, Salamander, Sycamore Review, and other journals.


LR: Many of the poems in Six Rivers riff on classical characters and themes while preserving a conversational use of language. Likewise, you often work in form while eschewing formal language. What do such dualities aim to achieve?


JL: Many of the characters in Greek mythology seem quite real to me, especially the sorceresses like Circe and Medea, who in my mind embody the tragicomic situation of the 21st-century woman who is brimming with intellectual resourcefulness but who is still anguished by her dating troubles. Like, I see Circe as a sort of precursor to Napoleon Dynamite: although she had plenty of “great skills….like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, and computer-hacking skills,” she was still totally hapless when it came to romantic relationships. This is such a thoroughly modern theme that it only makes sense for me to talk about it in colloquial contemporary English.

I use traditional verse forms for much the same reason: because I feel they have a lot of relevance to our modern-day plight. The tanka, for example, is a verse form that was historically used by aristocratic Japanese poets to treat such subject matter as clandestine assignations with illicit lovers. Well, I always thought it would be interesting to repurpose this verse form and use it to address contemporary sexual practices that really don’t differ all that much from ancient ones (“hooking up,” etc.).

LR: There is a strong geographical trope in your book with literal journeys along rivers that are both real and fictional. How do these journeys serve your narrative?

JL: Well, immigration and displacement played big roles in my family history. All the journeys in my book recapitulate that, in a way. And, in a way, it’s this small-scale recapitulation of a large-scale narrative of escape, of striking out on one’s own in an unfamiliar and sometimes hypo-oxygenated territory, that drives the narrative of Six Rivers.

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A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh
Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of three books of poems, including the recently published Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press) and Best Gay Poetry (A Midsummer’s Night Press), and in journals such as Cimarron Review and PN Review. Born and raised in Singapore, he lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.

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LR: Seven Studies for a Self Portrait is divided into seven chapters, with seven poems in each chapter, and forty-nine in the last. What is the significance of the number seven?


JLK: Seven days in a week. The practice of writing a poem a day is important to me. The days when I don’t write feel empty to me, incoherent, lost. A day, like a poem, is invaluable for itself and also for being a part of something larger, like a week or a life. I wrote my first book Payday Loans, a series of 30 sonnets, in the month before I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with my MFA.

One of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin, asks in a poem, “What are days for?” He answers himself, as poets have the habit of doing, “Days are where we live.” A day is an on-going project. At the moment I am reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. She speaks of Nietzsche’s will to power as a project of self-transcendence. When Larkin considers transcendence, he says in his typically sardonic manner that the question brings the priest and the doctor running. Because I have lost my faith in organized religion and have yet to place my life in the hands of medical science, I am working out my daily transcendence in writing poetry.

I wrote Seven Studies for a Self Portrait in two years. As I wrote, the number seven acquired and transformed its Christian meanings—the days of Creation, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eshuneutics, who reviewed my book, puts it well, “This silent structuring … evokes a tradition running from the mediaeval period and sets a context for the spiritual enquiries within the book.” Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from which my book got its epigraph, was an inspiration for the post-Christian enquiry.

As vital as the spiritual quest was for me, so was the musical composition that the number enabled. A sequence of seven poems has not only a beginning and an end, but also a well-defined middle. It also breaks up into two unequal parts—four and three—half of the sonnet’s proportions. The first six sequences in fact culminate in two sonnet sequences, one English, the other Italian. Breaking through and re-working that framework is the final set of 49 ghazals, each made up of seven couplets about love. The ghazals raise, in my imagination, a 7 x 7 x 7 cube. In planning this structure, I was thinking very much of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, in particular, the last game that the Magister Ludi builds from the floor plan of a Japanese house.

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