On the Chapbook and the “Possibilities of Risk”: A Conversation with Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee

Chen Chen, Margaret Rhee, and Their Chapbooks
Chen, Rhee, and their chapbooks’ covers (Photo of Chen Chen by Jeff Gilbert)

Over the course of this National Poetry Month, we’ve been curating a conversation about Asian American poetry and the book as object. If you’ve been following along with our collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum these past couple of weeks, you’ll also have noticed our thematic emphasis on the chapbook and its unique relationship to the print traditions of poetry as a genre. Today, in continuation of that discussion, we’re pleased to be able to present a conversation with poet-scholars and two-time chapbook authors Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee. Chen, the author of Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015), and Rhee, the author of Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011), spoke to us about the delights and challenges of the chapbook as a form and shared some of their experiences from the process of shaping and finding publishing homes for their chaps.

* * *

LR: What appeals to you about the chapbook as a form, as distinct from the more traditional format of the full-length poetry collection?

CC: I love that you can read a chapbook in one sitting. I mean, I do that with full-length collections I love, but a chapbook feels like such a good, healthy portion of poetry. You have just enough energy to devour it properly.

I love working with small presses. And I’ve been so lucky. Porkbelly Press did my first chapbook, and I remember giving the editor, Nicci Mechler, all these different ideas for cover art (maybe a train? a moon? a single flower? multiple flowers but not too many?)—and she just knocked it out of the park. I think that’s the first time I’ve said “knocked it out of the park.” Well, written it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. I would say it out loud for Nicci Mechler and Porkbelly Press. Those cleavers. That perfect purple. Two of Cups Press did my second chapbook, and we were able to use Lizzy DuQuette’s fabulous image for the cover. I’ve felt so listened to, cared for, by these presses. At AWP this year, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, organized chapbook signings for her authors and a last-minute-but-really-fun joint reading in her hotel room. With both chapbooks, we ran into formatting issues (my lines just got too long!)—both times, the editors knocked it out of the park.

MR: I love the ephemeral nature of chapbooks, how artistic the chapbooks can be, and the possibilities of risk (as poet, as publisher) within the chapbook form.

Moreover I like how chapbooks are not tied to the capitalistic market (as limited as it is for po-biz); there’s something pure about them. This kind of poetry isn’t really about money.

I loved both presses I’ve worked with, Tinfish Press for Yellow (2011), and Finishing Line Press for Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love (2015). Both editors, Susan Schultz (Tinfish Press) and Christen Kincaid (Finishing Line Press), paid such close attention to the chapbook as form, and I am so greatly appreciative for the opportunity to work with both of them.

In addition to editing my first chapbook, Susan graciously wrote a blurb for my second chapbook, which also speaks to the generative relationships when working with an editor on a chapbook of poetry. I learned tremendously from Susan and count her as a formative mentor. A precious gift.

LR: Each of your chapbooks has a unique project or conceit that shapes and informs it. Can you describe for us how these projects came about?

CC: For Set the Garden on Fire, I was interested in the child’s voice, the queer child’s voice, the voice of a child of immigrants. So a lot of the poems in this first chapbook wrestle with childhood, early adolescence, and engage coming of age in this very intersectional way. Companion poems like “Write a Letter to the Class About Your Summer Vacation” and “Write a Letter to Your Mother About Your Longest Winter” helped structure the collection—echo and break, circularity as well as surprise, I hope. Flowers and fires, yes, but donuts also play an important role. The chapbook is full of questions about what tenderness means and what kinship or community could look like.

Kissing the Sphinx is much less autobiographical. Or less directly so. I think of it as my chapbook of wacky love poems. There’s a hot air balloon and fuchsia snow pants. There’s Eros and Mariah Carey. One of the speakers makes a trip from Helsinki to Shanghai that I’ve never made. I had to Google how many hours that flight is. The loose arc of the collection goes from early (attempts at) dating to this (attempt at a) more serious relationship. The chapbook wonders, what is “serious” and what is a “relationship”? There is also Tom Daley and a Russian driving instructor.

MR: I’ve spoken before about the project that became Yellow in an interview at Writing Like an Asian:

Yellow was a poetic investigation of . . . [questions] around meaning and difference. But it was also an experiment on poetic form and how formal qualities shape “the racial” and color. The title poem, “Yellow,” was my first conscious attempt to fuse the two (formal + racial) and signaled a turn for my relationship with poetry. . . . [At the time of writing Yellow,] I was inspired by French avant-garde poets of the 1960s such as the Oulipo and Stephane Mallarme, but I was also responding to avant-garde poetry and the privilege of racial omission when utilizing color in poetry, for example. With the exception of “Body Maps,” the poems in the collection were all written within a span of six months and with experimentation as a key focus of writing during that time.

The chapbook is a section of a poetry manuscript I am completing, tentatively entitled “I Love Juana” and Other Poemas, a collection on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, and protest.

Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love came about via various research I was doing on robots and culture for my PhD work at UC Berkeley. At the time, I found that poetry-writing about robots was an interesting way to engage and question demarcations of difference through the science fictional. It was also a reprieve from the scholarly research. In every sense, the robot love relations in Radio Heart are queer relations, but not explicitly so. It was refreshing to take a different turn from my previous writing, which deals pretty centrally with issues of difference (race, class, sexuality) and to explore how science fiction poetry can ask questions on difference, but through worldbuilding. However, I still write explicitly political poetry (Yellow is a section of a poetry manuscript [as mentioned above] I am completing on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, protest); it’s simply part of my orientation and practice, I realize—activism that seeps through into the poetic. But I also turn to science fiction as a way to worldbuild other possibilities. My next book is about space exploration and Mars.

LR: While writing each of your chaps, how did you go about deciding which poems belonged in the manuscript? Were there any poems that didn’t make the cut?

CC: The page limit that each press provides in their submission guidelines was very helpful. It seems the typical chapbook is between twenty and thirty pages. I like this. It makes the cuts easier for me, because I can just blame the press’s page limit. Sorry, poem about two male astronauts having a homoerotic moment right before getting blasted into space—it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the page limit. A bit more seriously, though: I consider which emotional notes have been hit and whether I’ve been banging one gong a bit too frequently. I think: the gong of sadness over a breakup has been hit. Or: the gong of being silly about homoeroticism has been hit. I want to keep the psychological or narrative arc of the collection clear and tight.

MR: All the poems in the original manuscript made the cut, but I would add, I have a section entitled “Radio Heart” that contains four-line poems. The section was inspired by the work of Descartes on the body (Discourse on Method). I decided to leave the poems on separate pages in the chapbook, but in the larger book manuscript, they are all placed on one page, as one poem.

LR: Of the poems that appear in your chaps, is there one of which you’re most proud? We’d love to hear its story if you’d care to share it.

CC: I’m pretty fond of “Race to the Tree” from Set the Garden on Fire. This fondness came after deep frustration. This poem took forever. I started it in college. Then I couldn’t look at it for a couple years. In the second year of my MFA, I looked at it again. Bruce Smith, one of my brilliant teachers at Syracuse, was teaching us about the ballad form. Something clicked. Or not really “clicked,” because the poem isn’t in ballad form. But something about quatrains and a dark night and a song that is also a narrative and then the three sections . . . it took me a long time to think of the poem in such formal terms. The emotions in the poem were/are so volatile. The night I sort of accidentally came out to my parents. The night of the argument that would push me back into the closet. The night I thought I would run away and never return. The night I saw my parents as strangers (and I’m sure they saw me that way, too). So. Then. Writing, rewriting. I revised it again when it went into my MFA thesis. When it went into the chapbook. Now the poem’s in my full-length book. I’m pretty sure it’s done, now. But when I say, at the end of the poem, “I was 13, I am 13, it is/night”—every time I read that aloud, it’s true.

MR: This is a great question! I’m pretty proud of “Beam, Robot.” It was originally published in Hyphen magazine’s literary section that is edited by Karissa Chen. Karissa is a fantastic editor, and she had some really wonderful words of advice on how to enliven and tighten the poem’s language and world. When I was interviewed on the poem for the magazine, it helped me reflect on the project as a whole. It is a rare opportunity to work so closely on a poem with an amazing editor like Karissa, and I’m really glad about how it came out.

LR: Figuring out how to navigate the publishing world can be a notoriously difficult process for emerging poets of color. Can you tell us about the decision process that went into choosing the publisher for each of your chapbooks? Do you have any advice for Asian American poets who are hoping to find the right home for a first chapbook manuscript?

CC: I’ve answered this one a bit with the first question. But yes. The right homes. The editors who will listen and care and listen. My advice to Asian American poets wanting to publish a chapbook: check to see if the press has published any Asian American poets before. More than one? Look at the submission guidelines. Are the editors explicit about seeking and supporting work by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color? Do they use this language? Are they explicit about being feminist, antiracist? What is the exact language of the guidelines page or the call for submissions or the “about” page? For example, Porkbelly Press describes itself as such: “We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.” And: ask folks who have worked with that press before. Their experiences.

Also, the design and production quality matter. The cover art matters. Not while you’re writing, of course. But while you’re deciding where to send the writing out. If you can, obtain a chapbook from a press you’re considering (and sometimes, the submission fee is a chapbook purchase because the press wants you to be familiar with what they do). Hold the physical object in your hands. Turn the pages. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it an artifact you want in your hands, your home? Is it a home for poems? Could you see yourself with a chapbook like that, reading from it, to an audience, one lovely day?

MR: With Yellow, I was lucky because my friend (and my formative mentor) Craig Santos Perez recommended me to Susan Schultz as a potential poet for her new series. It turned out to be the best home for Yellow, given Susan’s commitment to experimental poetics, Korean American poetics, and poetics of the Pacific. With Finishing Line Press, I submitted in part because I loved their chapbooks and the attention they give to women’s poetry. I am thinking especially of [LR editor] Iris A. Law’s chapbook Periodicity (which I taught and reviewed) and Karen McPherson’s Sketching Elise. Both are wondrous chapbooks.

For emerging poets of color and Asian American poets, I would recommend seeking out a publisher with a sensibility you feel kin to. This may mean seeking out chapbooks you love and checking out who published those collections, and submitting accordingly. Ultimately, you want an apt home that can take care of your poems.

I just received the second printing of Radio Heart, and it’s been interesting to think about the myriad of approaches to chapbook publishing. My publisher made some changes to the second version, and it feels more like a book. But in many ways, I miss the first version of Radio Heart, the staples (the second printing is perfect bound), the colored vellum (the second printing has a new image of the publisher’s logo), and the paper (the second printing is glossy). The second printing feels more like a book, while the first printing really feels like a chapbook (more porous in its paper materials and ephemeral in its staples).

I am getting used to this second version, but the first edition will always be dear to me, most certainly for the same reasons I love poetry chapbooks (as opposed to full-length books).

My friend the amazing poet Neil Aitken consoled me in saying that the second version just makes the first version more special. I will heed his expertise, as it makes me realize the experience of chapbooks: how limited they are, but also how special.

LR: You’re both academics as well as poets [Rhee is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon; Chen is an English and creative writing PhD candidate at Texas Tech University]. In what ways has your critical scholarship informed your creative work? How do you balance your scholarly pursuits with the labor that it takes to promote, sell, and market your chaps and other published creative work?

CC: I’ll start with the second question . . . when I first joined Twitter, I almost broke down and sobbed, I was so overwhelmed. Information overload. And although it was the reason I made a Twitter account, I just hated being self-promotional. Which, now, I understand is a necessary part of being an author, especially now, especially as a poet. I don’t have an agent or a publicist. Editors and presses help. But folks seem most interested in reading and/or buying my work if I’m the one telling them about it. I mean. I want to share the work. I want the work to do things in the world. I want the work to be useful, in some way, to someone. Still, the publishing author is different from the writing poet. I don’t know that I’ve balanced it, yet. Or maybe each day is a different attempt at balancing, some more successful than others. The poet Scott Woods made a beautiful and important post on Facebook the other week, basically insisting that you should “put your book on the table” at readings and other events. Take some healthy pride in this work you’ve made. Join the literary conversation, which is certainly happening on Twitter, as well.

My scholarly work focuses on contemporary US poets of color. Recently, I’ve written essays about Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Hayden, Nikky Finney, and Aracelis Girmay. These essays need more work before I can seriously consider sending any of them out. I’m interested in notions of the transnational and the planetary, transgressive conceptions (and enactments!) of space, and large scales of time that challenge me to see strange connections between poets and poetries (poetics and ethics, as well . . . ). When Finney excavates a prehistoric space in one of her poems, I follow and try to read the prehistory within the history, within the now. When Girmay suggests that the donkey is closer to “us” than we might first believe, I try to believe and read the donkey in how poets speak and sing and what this donkey song has to do with justice and grief. The poems I’m writing now are grappling with grief, are grieving—my partner’s mother passed away from cancer last fall—and asking questions about education or learning. What does the university provide? What does the university police? What other “schools” do I need to explore? Is there a “school” in prehistoric aliveness, a “school” in donkey song that I need to enroll in?

MR: Throughout graduate school, it wasn’t really hard to balance poetry and scholarship, because it all seemed to be part of the same practice: questioning, investigating, writing . . . looking back, I think it wasn’t challenging to balance both because I didn’t actively seek publication for my poetry. It really remained a practice, and I simply published when I was invited to submit and very occasionally sent out work (perhaps once every three months or so). I did very limited publicizing for Yellow, and ironically, because of my scholarship, I was at a critical theory seminar at the University of Hawai’i  that summer the chapbook was published (which is where Tinfish is based), and so it was poetic kismet in a way. I was able to have a “launch reading” in Hawai’i, with Craig, Susan, and others, because of the scholarly training I was engaging in at the time.

I guess though, now that I am out of graduate school, and teaching a full load—time, my time, feels much more limited. Two years ago, I was also given some formative advice from a cherished mentor to send out my work more often. I waited a few years between Yellow (2011) and Radio Heart (2015) and upon my mentor’s advice took more time to send out work, which is how Radio Heart came about.

I would say helping promote Radio Heart has taken more time in terms of interviews and other kinds of publicity and readings. I am grateful, because like this interview, it is a generative process. But the work of promoting and submitting is such a different animal than writing. I really prefer the latter rather than the former.

LR: One of the things that we love to do at Lantern Review is to continually highlight new work for our readers. What are a few of your own favorite chapbooks by APIA writers that you would recommend?

CC: Just out from BOA Editions: Li-Young Lee’s chapbook The Word from His Song (2016). From Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary (2014). From Manor House: Ngoc Doan’s For Not So Much the Love of Weather (2014).

MR: I second Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary. Neil Aitken’s Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl, 2016). [Also,] not APIA, but pretty fabulous and we have a Salvi-Kore connection, and I love her chapbooks: Raquel Gutiérrez, Breaking up with Los Angeles (Econo Textual Objects, 2014).

* * *

Chen Chen is the author of two chapbooks, Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His full-length collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in spring 2017. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.

Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her literary fellowships include Kundiman, Squaw Valley, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She holds a PhD in ethnic and new media studies from UC Berkeley and teaches in women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.

* * *

[Editors’ Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan Schultz’s name and, at Margaret Rhee’s request, to clarify Craig Santos Perez’s role as her mentor as well as a friend.]

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi

Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi
Neil Aitken (L) and Rumit Pancholi (R)

Today, we’re sharing the final installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’ve been pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s post features a pair of poet-editors, Neil Aitken (author of  The Lost Country of Sight) and Rumit Pancholi (author of the chapbook Anatomy of a Ghost), who reflect on the things that haunt their poetry, putting together their first manuscripts, and the joys and challenges of editorial work

* * *

1.

LR: What ghosts haunt your poetry? What are the voices and stories that dog you, the specters that find their way into your writing again and again?

NA: Landscapes, mostly. I hold fast to memories of Saskatchewan and the childhood I spent there working in the sun, or wandering through vast fields of grain in the summer, staring up at a sky that refused number or name. I carry all sorts of things with me in my work and in my life. Behind every new city lies an array of the ones I have left behind, large and small—but it’s always the prairies that end up dominating that view: the abandoned farmhouses, the forgotten roads, the fences that run the length of the horizon, everything speaks to something out of time, yet grounded to earth and sensation.

There are people that linger at the edges of my writing as well. My father, for one, now seven years gone into silence, and his voice, which I’ve kept preserved on a little tape recorder, stored in a drawer, waiting for the day I can bring myself to listen to it again. He was my first mentor—the first to encourage me to write, to draw, to imagine things beyond the world around me—and to value the power of language as a means of transformation and possibility. When I teach I find myself falling back on not just on what he taught me, but how—the ways in which he refused easy answers, but equipped me to search out my own.

As a programmer turned poet, I’m haunted the memory of my first encounter with contemporary American poetry, of standing in the aisle of a used bookstore and thumbing through a copy of Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems, and the way “Letters for the Dead” rose from the page and took over my entire imagination. How is it possible, I remember thinking at that time, that one can create so much longing, beauty, and music out of such plain speech? I wanted to write like that—and that yearning has carried me on a remarkable journey, page after page, through the minds and worlds of other great poets.

Lastly, I’m haunted by something the artist Kandinsky once wrote:

“Everything that is dead quivers. Not only the things of poetry, stars, moon, wood, flowers, but even a white trouser button glittering out of a puddle in the street… Everything has a secret soul, which is silent more often than it speaks.”

I love the notion of a secret soul that lurks in even the most mundane and forgettable of things and the way it opens up the space for wonder and surprise, even gratitude.

RP: I’m haunted by the inexorable draws of expectation, especially of Speaker = Poet. Often I feel that creative writers are expected to write, and do write, as I have in my work, about the issues that concern their race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—an innocuous trifecta that intersects with love, pain, grief, and other sentiments in modern poetry. Past scholars, instructors, and mentors have given valuable guidance in steering me toward more about my lived experiences as a young, gay non-White writer and to tap into those avenues for creative writing fodder, to dig deep and wide. I have, and the result has been forced, uncooked, and unsatisfying poems that are eventually stashed in a folder on my computer labeled “Pending” only to be sheepishly dropped into the Recycle Bin months later. What was inhibiting me from reaching poems that I could read and reread without sounding standard and cliché? Over the years, I’ve begun to learn and identify that simply writing about those themes doesn’t create the spark I seek. After having written and destroyed hundreds of poems about an unrequited love or a jilted lover or the nuances of growing up constantly responding to gayness, otherness, non-Whiteness, I’m haunted by the “I” Rumit voice versus the “I” speaker voice that has to grapple with being within the poem and apart from the poem while simultaneously being inviting, charming, sexy, relevant to a reader. When I return to those common themes as a springboard, and when I do gain admirable momentum, I ask myself how this poem is different from other same-theme poems written by another “young, gay non-White writer.” That harangues me the most whenever I think I see the Finish Line.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Neil Aitken and Rumit Pancholi”

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion

Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion
Eugenia Leigh (L; Photo by An Rong Xu) and Hossannah Asuncion (R; Photo by Naomi Miller)

Today, we bring you the second installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’re pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two New York—based poets who are both alumnae of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and Los Angeles transplants: Eugenia Leigh (author of the forthcoming Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows) and Hossannah Asuncion (author of the chapbook Fragments of Loss).

* * *

1.

LR: February, when we’re entrenched in the miserablest depths of winter, always seems to be a month of cravings: for indulgent foods, for human connection, for warmth, for light, for the coming of spring. (Margaret Atwood called it “a month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre” when one thinks “dire thoughts, and lust[s] for French fries with a splash of vinegar.”) As a poet, what are your literary cravings? What whets your creative appetite, haunts you, and keeps you coming back for more?

EL: My obsessions and “literary cravings” vary in accordance with my life seasons. They’re usually songs. Sometimes quotes. When I feel restless with those “dire thoughts” Atwood warns us about, I will expend myself tracking down the one song that resonates in both meaning and mood, then sit still and loop that song through my earphones for hours. Or I will stare at a quote for any length of time to absorb its meaning. This Franz Kafka quote, for example, carried me through bitter homesickness when I first moved to New York: “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.” At the risk of sounding insane, I’ll admit I would stare at these words for entire evenings because I believed I could will them to come true.

During the season that produced my first book, I spent hours alone with Brand New’s 2006 album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Especially “The Archers’ Bows Have Broken.” I was far from having any semblance of faith in anything at the time, but I couldn’t get enough of the idea of “a God that we found lying under the backseat” or a God in other mundane or sacrilegious positions and scenarios. In 2008, when I moved to New York, The Fray’s “You Found Me” gave me a similar haven. The God in this song is “smoking his last cigarette,” so I trusted this God enough to indulge the idea of him. Maybe it’s correct to say I’m always lusting after the other worlds beyond this one. The Unseen. Unless a piece of art has an element of the mystical or the supernatural or the impossible, it’s difficult for me to crave it. Love it and be moved by it, sure. But likely not lust after it.

HA: I experienced an almost hubris recently that I,  a poet—an occupant in the field of emotional cryptology,  am actually very not-knowing of my feelings.  And so I like words that investigate and excavate—I like vulnerability and searching. I very much like the answer, I don’t know, but here is the doing and undoing of my world of questioning. The poets who are doing that for me right now are Ocean Vuong and Eduardo Corral.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Eugenia Leigh and Hossannah Asuncion”

2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che

Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)
Monica Mody (L) and Cathy Linh Che (R)

We’re excited today to introduce a new, three-part mini series to the blog. For each part in this series, we’ve paired up two different emerging APIA poets and have asked them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two poets with very different aesthetic styles but intersecting thematic interests: Monica Mody (author of Kala Pani, which was recently published by 1913 Press) and Cathy Linh Che (author of Split, forthcoming from Alice James Books in April).

* * *

1.

LR: In the wake of Valentine’s Day, we’ll start with this: what are your literary obsessions, and what breaks your heart? 

MM: Literary obsessions // Poems that catch me by my throat & pull me into the heart/breast of the poem. That dwell in the mouth of the beast and its opposite, its wholeness. That trigger an ache in the body, or bliss. On whom the eye falls and there is nothing but light. Poems of the earth, troubled about the relationships of humans with non-humans. That peel the crust of indifference off my eyes. Some of these poems have not yet been written. Two collections that I am looking forward to being obsessed with are Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, Don Mee Choi’s new translation of Kim Hyesoon.

Heartbreaks // When poets write only to follow trends or to matter to the opinions of others, rather than let their hearts be broken in the writing of poems or dragged by wildness into that space that is of the animal the plant, relational, non-speaking, verboten. // When poets stay on the surface of poetry, stymied at the edge not jumping, stay with the dry husk of consensual meaning and consensual reality, stop themselves with rules and how-to’s.

CLC: Who are my literary obsessions? Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Srikanth Reddy, Jack Spicer, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin. I’m interested in precise, intelligent, beautiful writing that takes great risk. What breaks my heart (in the best kind of way): honesty. My own and other people’s ability to speak up and out about issues that feel exposing and vulnerable.

Continue reading “2 Poets, 4 Questions: Q&A with Monica Mody and Cathy Linh Che”

A Conversation with Brynn Saito

Brynn Saito
Brynn Saito

 

Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press (2013). She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook of poetry from Diode Editions (2013). Brynn’s work has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Pleiades. Brynn was born in the Central Valley of California to a Korean American mother and a Japanese American father. She is the recipient of a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellowship, the Poets 11 award from the San Francisco Public Library, and the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Currently, Brynn lives, writes, and teaches in the SF Bay Area.

* * *

LR: Travel, motion, and of course arriving and departing are recurring themes—the scaffolding of the book, even—in The Palace of Contemplating Departure. What was the process by which they became so significant for your collection?

THE PALACE OF CONTEMPLATING DEPARTURE
THE PALACE OF CONTEMPLATING DEPARTURE

BS: Basho says: “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander,” a sentiment that resonates with me. Almost more than the journey itself, I love dreaming of the journey–imagining the wonder and existing in the space(s) of desire. Some of that desire fuels the work in the book. Other poems were born out of actual journeys and travels–moves from east to west and back again, departures spurred by broken loves; stories of forced relocations. I wrote most of the book during the [previous] decade of my life, a decade in which I was saying goodbye a lot–to friends, cities, lovers, and myriad versions of myself.

LR: When reading and especially listening to you read from your book, one can hear some strong liturgical cadences, as in “Trembling on the Brink of a Mesquite Tree.” Can you talk a bit about what influenced these prayer-like sounds in your work?

BS: Ah, great insight! I’m only now realizing the extent to which poetry, for me, is prayer–a way of speaking to the unknown and collecting the echoes spoken in return. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I have a strong interest in religious cultures, most likely rooted in my upbringing in both the Buddhist temple and the Christian church. The “Word” was everywhere, in childhood: chanted during Buddhist death rituals, spoken by the pastor on Sunday mornings. I read the Bible and internalized the cadences: in the Bible, as in many texts created and passed along with recitation and song, the word “and” strings together the many passages, creating a fluid and unstoppable delivery. My poetry is influenced by these traditions, and strives for a sort of spoken quality: I pay attention to how the poem sounds–its rhythms and pacings–much like something sung or chanted.

LR: The Palace of Contemplating Departure is divided into four sections: “Ruined Cities,” “Women and Children,” “Shape of Fire,” and “Steel and Light.” Can you tell us a bit about what each section represents and what led you to this narrative structure?

BS: Organizing the poems was one of the hardest tasks. Two moments come to mind as pivotal in formulating the structure of book: first, sitting in a cabin in the Michigan woods with my dear friend and poet, Traci Brimhall, a bottle of wine, and the pages of the manuscript splayed out before us on the floor. It was so helpful to have an outside eye look at what seemed to be a mess of incoherent voices. The second moment that comes to mind is me in my home in San Francisco taping the pages of manuscript to the various walls in my bedroom, so I could see how it was all literally hanging together.

After much guesswork, the form emerged: four parts–two short sections comprised of persona poems (“Women and Children” and “Steel and Light”) and two longer sections comprised of dramatic narrative poems rooted in lived experiences (“Ruined Cities” and “Shape of Fire”). Once the structure emerged, it seemed fated, in some strange way, thought it took years to find itself.

LR: Do you find that your post-MFA writing differs from your pre- and mid-MFA writing, and if so, how?

BS: I’d like to think I’m becoming better at this poetry thing as I get older, but who knows. I’m trying to try less, if that makes any sense–I want the work to be more playful, and less conscious, at the outset, of what it is “about.” More improvisational and surprising. I think the earlier poems were more content-driven: I wanted to write about something and would try hard to do so. Now, I let the writing reveal the subjects; I follow the voices that emerge with curiosity. I hope that makes for fresher, livelier work.

LR: During your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, you met Traci Brimhall, with whom you co-wrote the chapbook Bright Power, Dark Peace. Can you talk a bit about your collaborative process with Traci? What did you learn about your own writing from the experience? Have you applied any of those techniques or lessons to subsequent work?

BS: Traci and I live in separate states (Michigan and California), so we co-wrote the chapbook using a shared Google document, each of us taking turns writing one stanza at a time until the poem was complete. Waiting for a stanza to appear is a little like waiting for the voice of the poem to emerge so you can follow the voice into the poem’s core energies and desires. It’s daunting, surprising, and a great exercise in letting go, in getting out of the way of yourself and your intentions for the poem. This was the greatest lesson of writing collaboratively: surrendering to the creative act, and seeing what emerges. I now consider all of my poems to be co-written, to some degree: it’s not just me and my intentions for the work in the creative space. There are other voices, other directions the poem might grow in, if I’m daring enough to give in to the moment.

LR: How do you balance your teaching life with your writing life? Does one feed into the other, and if so, how?

BS: As I see it, a classroom is a community–it’s a potentially imaginative, challenging, wild, and inspiring space in which all of us learn new things about each other and the world in which we live. Approaching a learning community with that mindset sustains my own artistic practice: I’m inspired by my students and the ways in which we converse and connect. On the other hand, I’m not sure if “balanced” can describe my writing/teaching (or art/work) life, at the moment! Like many in the arts, I’m in the position of holding a number of jobs, at any one moment, none of which are usually guaranteed past six months or so. There’s a kind of dynamism in the flux, which I’m grateful for–a flexibility allowing for travel and motion. There’s also a kind of low-grade anxiety which can hinder the writing process. I love teaching for the designated spaces of inquiry and transformation. I wonder, now, how to create more spaces like this in my life, in ways that are sustainable.

LR: As a member of an Asian American family that has been American for multiple generations, how do representations of your family’s experience come into play in your work, and what poetic strategies do you employ to handle them?

BS: This is one of the most alive questions for me, at the moment. I wonder how to write about past histories, those legacies of oppression and freedom that live in the present moment, using the tools of poetry. In The Palace of Contemplating Departure, I use persona poetry to tap into the voices of my grandparents’ generation; I hope to do more of this in the new work. There are blankets of silence, gaps in the narratives of my family’s past; there are fruitful tensions and polarities (Japan and Korea, East and West, the occupied cities and the dusty farmlands of my family’s arrival); there are ghosts. I am free–in a way that my grandmother wasn’t free, and my great-grandmother wasn’t free–to take up the pen and write write write into the silences. I aim to pursue that freedom to its end.

LR: You have spoken about the importance of community among poets. What do you think might be some practical measures that poets can take to foster community, especially post-MFA?

BS: I suppose a community is a little like a garden: it requires some tending to, in order to grow–a consistency of attention, accountability, investment. Sometimes, during certain “seasons” of my life I do this well; at other times, I don’t. Last August, for instance, Kundiman poets Dan Lau, Debbie Yee, Mia Malhotra and I formed a virtual writing community, in which we wrote a poem a night and emailed it to one another. It was such a fun and, ultimately, fruitful exercise. The new work that emerged there has formed the basis of my second book. I’d say to post-MFA poets: be diligent about forming online or face-to-face collectives with folks who will forever bother you with the questions: Are you writing? Why not? Want to write together?

Both my experience in the Kundiman fellowship and my friendship with Traci Brimhall have taught me that being a good literary citizen is about cultivating authentic connections and caring about one another. It’s about believing in and championing one another’s work. It’s a model that goes against the individualism so prevalent in a competitive, capitalistic North American social framework. Like many others, I wish I had more concentrated time for such invigorating and care-full spaces. But, as the poet Judy Grahn recently reminded me: little by little. Suddenly, you’ll look up from those stolen moments of writing and realize you’ve written another book.

LR: What projects are you working on now?

BS: I’ve become fascinated with the figure of the spiritual warrior–fighting monks, brave women, fierceness in times of brokenness. What are the myths that sustain such strength, such inner resiliency? What does it mean to fight for what you love? I see myself doing some reading, researching, journaling, and traveling, in order to trace this new inquiry. We’ll see what emerges when I “leave and leave into the questing” (as Linda Gregg puts it). More departures, more journeys. But this time, a focus on arrival: arriving to myself, arriving more fully to the things that I love.

A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee
Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, winner of the American Book Award, and Real Karaoke People, winner of the PEN/Open Book Award.

 * * *

LR: After working in the fields of fiction and playwriting, as well as journalism, how did you come to poetry and how did you eventually come to compose a poetry manuscript?

EBL: I wrote a poem about God when I was four or five, then didn’t do much of anything, until I was seventeen, and started writing again. Sometimes I think people who love poetry wander around this world missing a certain layer of skin that others seem to naturally have. Whenever I write a poem, I suddenly feel completely fortified, with language. Language, word by word, forms a kind of extra layer of skin, and, for a while, things seem to make sense. I think it has to do something with an impulse to preserve some lesser-heard, lesser-lit kind of integrity out there in the world and simultaneously within, that you feel is being compromised.

And then, after a while, you have all these shed skins accumulated, and it’s time to de-clutter and turn them into a collection.

LR: Do you find that elements of journalism and playwriting filter into your poetry, and if so, how?

EBL: It’s the opposite. Poetry kept creeping into those forms. It’s probably a two way street, I’m not sure. What I do know is if there isn’t poetry, or a poetic quality, or a poetic mode of consciousness filling the vessel, whatever genre/form, boredom begins to creep in for me.

LR: In your first book, Real Karaoke People, music seems to act as metonym for the voices, language, and preoccupations of regular people. What was it about those voices and sounds that asked to be written in poetic form rather than as a play?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee”

A Conversation with Molly Gaudry

MOLLY GAUDRY
Molly Gaudry

Molly Gaudry is the author of the verse novel We Take Me Apart (Mud Luscious Press, 2010), which was named 2nd finalist for the 2011 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry and shortlisted for the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil. She is the creative director at the Lit Pub.

* * *

LR: When did you start writing and how did you become a professional writer?

MG: I declared creative writing my major in high school—at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio—and graduated with a vocational degree. But I was always writing before that, making up little stories either in my head or putting them on paper. As for becoming a professional, I don’t know: does that come with your first publication (in my case, “The Bees,” in the now-defunct magical realism magazine Serendipity), or with your first book (We Take Me Apart, Mud Luscious Press), or does it start inside of you (I am a writer, I commit myself to this fully, I won’t quit until I have made it so)?

LR: We Take Me Apart stands at the intersection of poetry and prose, defying the conventions of either genre. Can you talk about the inception of the book and how you found its unique structure?

WE TAKE ME APART
WE TAKE ME APART

MG: It’s called a “novel(la)” on the cover, but that’s because it was the first of Mud Luscious’s “novel(la)” series. I’ve always called it a “verse novel” or a “novel in verse,” when explaining it to others: “It’s long like a novel, but each chapter looks like a poem.” I can’t say I was actively aware of subversion while I was writing it. I look at it now, after studying poetry for three years in the MFA program at George Mason University, and I can see how my line endings are somewhat subversive to more poetic line ending conventions, and I can see how having lines at all is subversive to prose conventions. But I wrote that book before the MFA, before any real poetry awareness. So really it was a fiction experiment. For me, a new way to tell a story, a different way to write a novel.

I realize something else now, too: I think that the form provided me with breathing room during a very claustrophobic time of my life. I had just left Cincinnati after graduating with an MA in fiction, and I was living in a room-for-rent in South Philly and teaching Pre-GED and GED courses in a halfway house for post-incarcerated men and women a few nights a week. It was depressing as hell. I felt confined to my room, and I felt confined in that jail, and I felt confined by my life. I didn’t know what next, where next, when next. The book’s form evolved throughout the drafting and editing stages, but in the end all that white space on every page probably gave me some peace, a place to breathe, to sigh.

LR: Although it had an indie publisher, We Take Me Apart received good deal of mainstream critical attention. What do you think this might say about the changing landscape of publishing?

MG: I’m going to cheat on this one and share a Q&A from an interview with Nicelle Davis at [PANK]. Nicelle asked: “How do you think the writing traditions of the past are manifesting themselves in the literary world today?” And my answer was (and still is): “When I see the phrase ‘writing traditions of the past,’ I think not of great literary movements but great literary partnerships (between writer, who dared, and publisher, who believed in that daring). This is the only tradition that matters. It is the one—not manifesting, but—being kept alive today, on an awesome and inspiring scale. And it is exciting.”

LR: What did you learn from the experience of publishing We Take Me Apart as far as the business end of producing a book? If you could travel back in time knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself before you first published?

MG: I think what I learned is how valuable it is to love your publisher, to trust in him (or her) wholeheartedly. This relationship is like a marriage—you are bare and vulnerable, utterly exposed. So do not enter into it lightly.

I was so lucky to have found J. A. Tyler. He championed the work from the start and signed on to publish it before ever seeing the first full draft. He believed in the promise of those early pages. He encouraged my creative process (even if it was maddening) and he actively and attentively read new pages every step of the way throughout the early and later drafts. He copy edited ruthlessly, lovingly, and midwifed the book into the world.

Love your publisher. Expect your publisher to love your work. Do not settle for anything less.

LR: In addition to poetry, you have also written a short fiction collection, Lost July, published in the 3-author volume Frequencies (YesYes Books). How does your process for writing fiction differ from your process for writing poetry?

MG: So in both cases (and actually in most cases for me), I write from word lists. We Take Me Apart began with jumbled words from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I pulled a word and wrote a line. The stories in Lost July began with a phrase-per-page from various zines—The Las Vegas Weekly, Washington City Paper, The Boston Phoenix, LA Weekly, etc.—and all of the zines were sent to me by friends from around the country. Although only eleven stories made it into the final manuscript, the project began as an idea to write thirty stories inspired by thirty city zines from the week of my thirtieth birthday.

LR: When you sit down to write, how does a poem come to you? What are you most aware of: story, image, or sound? How would you describe your writing style and what does it allow you to accomplish with your poems that other styles might not?

MG: I don’t like the blank page and actively avoid it. Word lists are a necessity. There may be other constraints I might like to try out in the future, but for now I love the intimacy of working with other writers’ words, reshaping them, reviving them into new forms. So, after the words themselves, which I choose quite selectively from selectively chosen books by selectively chosen authors, I’m probably most interested in finding the narrator’s voice—and quickly. If the words don’t get me to a voice I can love within the first 10 pages or so, the project usually stalls out and lands in my abandoned manuscripts pile. I don’t mind this, abandoning projects. It’s the voice that matters, that carries readers through a book. And maybe this is why I love the verse novel form—the narrator has an entire book length to live her life and tell her story, but she can do it any damn well way she pleases from page to page.

LR: Tell us a bit about the Lit Pub. What gave you the idea to start it and how does it work?

MG: Oh boy. Lit Pub started as something else entirely. That idea just wasn’t sustainable. Today, Lit Pub is a tiny little publishing company (we’ve published established authors like Aimee Bender and Miles Harvey, and we’re committed to publishing first books by emerging authors like Liz Scheid and Andrea Kneeland). We have a fancy website and we use it to recommend books you may or may not have already heard of.

LR: Having worked in both print and digital media, what are your thoughts on print versus online publishing? How do they differ? What are the pros and cons of each?

MG: It’s great to have a book in print. But just let everything else go free into the world, however or wherever it is released. There is no room in this business for elitism or snobbery. (This is my favorite thing to say, and I say it a lot: If the Buttcrack Review asked me for a poem, I’d send them three.) Release your writing into the world and let anyone who wants it (loves it) have it. Make sure you respect their work, their journal, the writers they’ve published (remember, it’s always a serious relationship), but just free yourself from the work and let it go home (to any home where it’s welcomed with open arms). Publications are cumulative. One leads to another and another and the next. I don’t like to think of print or online as majorly different things. It’s all just an editor on the other side, a publisher on the other side, and if you respect and admire them, and if they respect and admire you, what else matters?

LR: To what extent do you use social media professionally? Do you think it’s necessary for a poet’s success that they be active online?

MG: I used to be a lot more active on Facebook. Now I mostly just post pictures from my phone. But I like to check in every so often and see what others are up to, and I like to have it so I can find people and so people can find me and so we can keep some sort of connection alive.

I’m on Twitter, and although it’s more public than Facebook (because anyone can see it), I feel a lot more anonymous blurting things out into the Intersphere.

But these things come naturally to me. I like Facebook, and I like Twitter. I like connecting with people—commenting on their posts, sharing their good news, retweeting or replying to their funnyisms.

My advice is this: if you are a writer and you don’t like these things, don’t for the love of God try to fake it. You’ll hate it, it’ll take time away from your writing, and people will see right through your awkward, painful attempts. But if you are a great reader, be proactive and book yourself a tour! If you are a great organizer, plan an event! Whatever you like, find a way to make it work for you.

And most importantly: promote others. Share, comment on, retweet, plan an event for, write fan mail to, write a book review (or poem review or story review) for OTHER WRITERS! It’s not about you, it’s about the literary community and how to help it thrive. By celebrating others, you nurture the community that will in turn celebrate and nurture you.

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

MG: In the spring, I began Ogie: A Ghost Story (the sequel to We Take Me Apart), and I finished the first draft at the end of July. I let it rest all of August. But now, with the new fall season upon us, I’m getting ready to go back into it and begin revising. Here’s a teaser:

she has gone so long without water her mouth skin is cracking

it has been too lonely for her in this house

I ask how she feels today and she says BELOW THE WEATHER and that she is IN NEED OF MEAT AND SEX

she tells me she had fourteen children

her husband and their seven sons and depending on if the last girl lived or died their six or seven daughters survived her in a city far away

she wonders if they thought of her often and admits that anymore she does not think of them that often

even her great-grandchildren have grown old and died

if I could I would find them and ask them here and hold them for her

because I am sinew and she is ancient as trees

A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Byer
Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer is the author of the award-winning poetry collection We Come Elemental (Alice James Books), and chapbook bough breaks (Meritage Press).

Her poetry has appeared in The Volta, Octopus, DIAGRAM, H_ngm_n, diode, Copper Nickel, The Progressive, and other journals and several anthologies. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective in New York City that performed across the east coast and led workshops at conferences such as the U.S. Social Forum and Split this Rock Poetry Festival.

She has received several fellowships and grants, including a Kundiman fellowship, a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and an Olin and Chancellor’s Fellowships from Washington University in St. Louis. She was a longtime workshop leader for the New York Writers Coalition.

With a background in communications writing and grassroots organizing, Tamiko has worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the news program Democracy Now!, feminist film distributor Women Make Movies, and San Francisco Women Against Rape. Today, she is the Senior Writer at Corporate Accountability International.

Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Tamiko has lived on both the East and West coasts. She received her B.A. from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently lives in Cambridge with her partner, architect Kian Goh.

* * *

LR: Water is the element that is focused on in We Come Elemental, and you have spoken about your interest in the queerness of water. Could you please tell us more about how you envision water as representative of queerness? How does this manifest itself in the book?

TB: Today, just a few days after the Supreme Court struck down the federal “Defense of Marriage” Act, is the last Sunday in June, and New York City is celebrating Gay Pride in all it’s corporatized glory. And [I do mean] it’s.

While I understand and appreciate the many wonderful things about the growing acceptance of gay people by mainstream society in the U.S., I also know that acceptance hinges to a large extent on an idea that gay people are “just like us,” with “us” being (to generalize for sure) white, middle class, heteronormative Americans, coupled with children.

And I’m thinking about how, for me, queerness—well, queer. That is, queerness is: not normative, existing on the exciting and sexy margins of sexuality, constructing radical and meaningful family structures that have little to do with the nuclear family and everything to do with chosen bonds. For me, queerness finds its power in its freakiness. And queerness is everywhere, has always been around, and, as it exists in the margins and applies its critique on the mainstream, is critical to the vitality and vibrancy of humanity. Which is also what makes it so terrifying to so many people.

I’m not sure I would say water represents queerness per se; rather, I find an inherent queerness in the element of water, and particularly in the fluidity of the element. My friend, poet Oliver Bendorf, who also writes a lot about water, described its queerness perfectly: “[I]t shape-shifts, takes on different forms, flows in hardened cracks, expands to fill the space it’s given.”

Water, so soft and smooth, will, in its insistent force, wear away vast canyons. It will freeze into glaciers that last for centuries. It will wash away whole shorelines. It is damn powerful—and its power is sometimes on full display (the crashing waves [of] the ocean, hurricanes and tsunamis), but more often it is barely noticeable, yet pervasive and inescapable. It (or its lack) permeates and affects almost every aspect of our lives—from our environment to the weather to how we nourish and sustain ourselves to how we play. This is how I see the force of queerness reflected in the element of water.

The poems in We Come Elemental are interested in many aspects of water, its queerness and eroticism, its pervasiveness, its ability to both heal and devastate. They also explore the not-so-simple relationship between human power and nature’s power of destruction and creation, in which water plays a key role.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer”

A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito

Kundiman co-founders
Kundiman co-founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi

To round off our APIA Heritage Month celebration, we sat down with Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito, the co-founders of Kundiman—a nonprofit that serves young and emerging Asian American poets through its retreats, reading series, and community resources—to ask about their thoughts as the organization approaches its tenth year.

* * *

LR: Kundiman is coming up on its tenth anniversary this year. How are you feeling about its turning a decade old? What have been some of your favorite moments from your involvement with it over the last ten years?

JL:  Kundiman going on 10 years is astounding to me. Wow! My feelings are overwhelmingly mixed, all strong emotions: for the most part I feel elation and pride, partially with dread and anxiety because there is still so much to do. The question is where do we go from here? We have a decade worth of accomplishments—most prominently, nearly 60 books and chapbooks published by Kundiman fellows—but how do we get to the next level where we are more stable and branch out and empower more Asian American writers. Oh, it is a celebration, of course, but now we’re working on how to sustain Kundiman for the next 10 years, and the next . . . As for my favorite moments, there are just too many. Lawson Inada at the Chinese buffet. Marilyn Chin dancing. The fellows’ sandwich-making contest. All closing circles. The singing, the camaraderie, the poems. The poems. The whole roller coaster [of] experience[s] as some of the most joyous in my life.

SG:  I agree. It overwhelms me that it has been 10 years. We’ve now seen an arc of fellows coming into their own—literally growing up before our eyes. We’ve read their poems, their books, attended their weddings, celebrated the births of children. It has been such a privilege to be able to witness fellows mentor each other, to become each other’s best and most trusted readers. What I love is that we’ve become a family in ways that are mysterious and then not mysterious. (This past winter, I hosted around 15 fellows at my apartment and cooked huge pots of ma po tofu and fried rice.) As for favorite moments, there are so many. I loved the Kundiman reading where Bei Dao and a fellow who had never read in public before and was just finishing college, Yael Villafranca, read together. I was thunderstruck because I realized that I was witnessing something that was so hard-worn, rare and precious: the knitting of generations of Asian and Asian American poets. I love the fellow toasts at graduation where we get to see how fellows have been so aware of each other and are praising each other.  I loved Kimiko Hahn saying “I give myself permission to be a writer. I’ve worked too hard to not do this” and then watching the fellows invoke this throughout the retreat in their own ways, both literary and personal. I loved having Tan Lin at Kundiman and watching him blow workshops out of the water and seeing fellows reorient their relationship to what words can do.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito”

A Conversation with Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann
Matthew Olzmann

 

Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books), selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from the Kresge Arts Foundation, The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, he teaches at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.

* * *

MEZZANINES
MEZZANINES

LR: Some of the most pervasive themes that Mezzanines deals with are place, identity, and faith, all in the context of mortality. Can you talk about the relationship between mortality and some of the specific places, identities, and beliefs you grapple with in the book?

MO: I’ve heard it said that most of literature, in some way, grapples with only one question: what does it mean to be alive? I’m probably not capable of answering that question, but if the idea of mortality hangs over a lot of these poems, it’s because I often get stuck thinking in binary terms; I get at things by considering their opposites. What does it mean to be alive? Not a clue. What does it mean to not be alive? Now I’m sufficiently terrified. What I’m saying is I tend to be the type of writer who understands the dark only by flicking the lights on and off a couple dozen times. I understand the deep end of the pool by splashing through the shallow side. I know Eden is paradise only when I’m banging against the gate from the wrong side.

LR: Mezzanines is full of unlikely juxtapositions and contradictions; for example, the interplay between high literature and the intensely personal and emotional in “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth” or the pairing of sci-fi pop culture with a meditation on racial identity in “Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race During My Childhood.” What are your thoughts on contradiction and juxtaposition as poetic strategies? As the aforementioned poems appear side by side in the book, can you explain how they relate to one another?

MO: I’m interested in making connections between various points, in metaphor as a device that makes something abstract more tangible. As such, I’m constantly looking at things that might not overtly belong together, and I’m trying to find correspondences among those dissimilarities.

In trying to organize the book, I initially arranged the poems a little bit more thematically: here are the love poems, the poems about identity, the poems about weird stories from the news, etc. However, those thematic clusters quickly began to feel artificial and predetermined. So I deliberately broke them up and tried to spread them out over the book, hoping those threads that were related in terms of “content” would echo and speak to each other across the length of the book rather that exist back-to-back as next-door neighbors. I began thinking of the order “tonally,” and those two poems—while apparently dissimilar in terms of subject matter—felt similar in terms of tone and perspective, both in their movement from humor to emotional crisis, and from an outward gaze to internal reflection.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Matthew Olzmann”