This month, we were delighted to have had the chance to converse with poet and professor Patrick Rosal about the recent release of his fourth collection, Brooklyn Antediluvian. In our discussion, recorded below, he reflects on the themes and mythologies that shape the book as well as on the publishing process and the influences that music and young people have had on his work. (For yet more on Rosal’s process and inspiration, you can find our previous interview with him here.)
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LANTERN REVIEW: In Brooklyn Antediluvian, water is a central motif. It serves as a force that sweeps the movement of the collection along and is a metaphor for the violent submersion of identity enforced upon the colonial subject under the auspices of imperialism. How did you come to settle upon this motif? Why water, and what was it about the image of destruction by flood that compelled you?
PATRICK ROSAL: First, thanks for reading the book and doing this interview. I feel real lucky to have Lantern Review make space for this new collection.
Growing up in New Jersey, we were always in and around water. And I think we have a special relationship to water as Filipinos in America, having been the descendants of monsoon rains and of people who had to cross miles and miles of water (my grandfather was a sakada, a sugar laborer who sailed from Manila to Hawaii for work). Also, I have real specific memories of water—like my brother almost drowning when he was a toddler or the image of me and my cousins heading out to the Jersey shore mid-week to dive into the waves. And then there were the storms like Katrina and Ondoy and Sandy all in a relatively short period of time, each of which touched me in very personal ways. At some point, probably after I got a sense of the title poem, “Brooklyn Antediluvian,” I realized this book was going to be about waters and floods—which is to say, literal floods from those storms, but also the floods of memory, of roses, of violence, of joy, of names, of gentrification.
LR: The collection draws its name from the final piece in the book, a long poem that commands nearly a third of the text. What appeals to you about the long poem as a form? What was the process of drafting this particular long poem like for you, and what motivated your decision to structure the collection in this way, with the shorter poems up front and the long poem as a finale?
PR: My poems have been getting longer over the course of my four books. In Boneshepherds, I had a poem, “Ars Poetica: After a Dog,” that felt massive, and in a lot of ways it’s a heftier poem than the title poem of Brooklyn Antediluvian, though the more recent poem is a lot longer in terms of pages.
In “Brooklyn Antediluvian” I loved having enough space to make things disappear and then suddenly show up again. I loved getting lost as I was writing because the language kept leading me away from any static subject. And just when chaos might take over, some small connection to a previous image—a rose or horse or name or the boy whom the speaker meets in the first line—would come back. It’s a different kind of lostness from [what you might find in] a short lyric. It’s a study in departure. Also, it gave me a big enough world that many histories and continents—especially in small narrative scales—could exist in the same text. All of this, for me, is a metaphor for seeing and living. I want to see if it’s possible to build a world in language that accommodates epochs and landscapes that seem to have nothing to do with one another. This seems to be the source of a lot of our trouble—parts of our world are so belligerently segregated from one another. What does a Berber pope have to do with a Filipino dietician who died in New Jersey, anyway? A long poem doesn’t just reveal those unusual and often wonderful associations, it finds a music—a pleasing sonic pattern—with which to connect them.
When I first started compiling the poems I wrote after Boneshepherds, I felt a real strong impulse to make a book that could still reach people who don’t consider themselves poetry readers. When I drafted the long title poem, I knew I had something that was going to be challenging even for audiences that consider themselves aficionados of contemporary poetry. I sent the manuscript out to friends, and they made it clear to me that I needed to set up a world of images, places, figures, and rhythms to help prepare the reader for the long poem at the end. Originally, I had the long poem at the front of the manuscript. In the final version of the book, [in which the poem’s at the end], I think readers have a stronger relationship to the ways of looking and singing that the title poem tries to sustain for a longer period of time and on a much bigger scale, with much trickier leaps.
With this month’s interview, we’re delighted to feature poet, librettist, and creative writing professor Janine Joseph. She currently teaches at Oklahoma State University and is the author of Driving without a License(Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. In this interview, Joseph reflects on the book-length poetic projects that influenced her first collection, Charles Wright’s notion of sottonarrativa, and the separate (yet related) “neighborhoods” of her brain where she composes libretti and poetry.
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LANTERN REVIEW: First off, congratulations on your debut poetry collection! It’s such an accomplished work—so deeply engaged in the current political moment and your sense of personal and cultural history. Can you tell us a bit about your literary influences? Who have your models and mentors been, and what shadows do they cast across your work in Driving without a License?
JANINE JOSEPH: Thank you for the congratulations! The book is two months old now and it still feels so strange to know that it is out, living its own life in the world.
I’ve written before about how long it took me to write Driving without a License—how it began, fifteen years ago as a novel, and how the first poems that made it into the final version of the manuscript were written ten years ago. I start by saying this because I amassed a number of influences in those years.
Here is one model/mentor thread: At a summer poetry retreat in Idyllwild, CA, just before my junior year of college, I attended a panel with Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, among others, and first learned about the poetic sequence and the long poem. Trethewey discussed her recently published (at the time) poetic sequence, Bellocq’s Ophelia. Sitting beside her on the panel was Woloch, who talked about her book-length poem, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem. This may have been the year that I stopped thinking that the only way to tell my story was via the novel. That I could, as Stanley Plumly writes, wholly surrender myself “to the material, its memory and the time it takes to reiterate how impossible it is to approximate, let alone articulate, pain” through poetry (which I was already writing) was, if you’ll forgive the pun, a novel idea. I knew even then that what I was writing about refused completion. I was not, in other words, done with what I had to say about identity and undocumented immigration in one, two, or three poems. Each poem begged another’s precision, and before I knew it, I was revising everything I’d so far written, hoping one poem would “get it right.” It was much later that I learned that one poem may get one aspect right, but I needed a cohort of them, together, to get a much larger idea “right.”
What Trethewey and Woloch taught me is that there exists a form that, perhaps with more deliberate intention, allows poets to revisit a specific theme, image, idea, or event. Poems suddenly, to my younger self, had stamina and could endure an identity that, as Whitman would put it, contained multitudes. I grew ravenous for these sustained meditations.I built a list of “project books” that, many years later, shaped my third comprehensive exam when I was working on my Ph.D.
In addition to reading Natasha Trethewey and Cecilia Woloch, I studied Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Nicole Cooley’s Breach, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly, A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, Laura Kasischke’s Space in Chains, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, Maurice Manning’s Bucolics, Thylias Moss’ Slave Moth, Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, and Derek Walcott’s Another Life, among many others. All of these books, without a doubt, have varying preoccupations—from the Vietnam War to Hurricane Katrina to the home sphere, etc.. However, much like their musical and prose counterparts—concept albums and composite novels, respectively—these books organize an experience or idea with the goal of enhancing our understanding of that experience or idea by asking us to consider the poems in the collection as a group, as a unified whole.
LR: We’re impressed by the way your poems evoke deep anxieties in the personal realm, but also take on large political issues, as in the lines “The spouse / battered by a U.S. citizen spouse Find the widow(er) / The one you will petition to marry The headless / bodies in the Arizona desert” from “Between Chou and the Butterfly.” How do you manage these shifts between the private and the political realm?
JJ: In an interview by the Paris Review, Charles Wright discusses how when he was writing China Trace, he experimented with something he calls a subnarrative, or undernarrative. The sottonarrativa, he explains, is, “The smaller current in a larger river. The story line that runs just under the surface. It’s broken, interrupted, circuitous, even invisible at times, but always there.” A sentence later, he explains, “It’s a continuous story line by someone who can’t tell a story.” When I move from the private to the political, and vice versa, it’s because both occupy the same space, exist at the same time, in me. My position in the world has been, and continues to be, one wherein the personal is political, and the political personal. I cried the first time I was able to vote, at the age of thirty. I am both the person in the newspaper and the person reading the newspaper. Sometimes, the personal is the smaller current; sometimes it is the larger river—and the other way around.
LR: One of the many interesting features of your book is the use of initials to refer to various friends and family members. Can you tell us more about the significance of this naming device?
JJ: To explain how/why I arrived at the decision to use initials requires some backtracking. Here goes:
Because I was thinking always about the bigger picture, or what my individual poems would coalesce into, I allowed each poem the space to deal with whatever needed dealing with without having to clear my throat at the beginning each time to announce that I was writing about an undocumented American experience. I do not, for example, explain why the speaker has no license in the poem “Driving without a License.” As expected, relying on my project’s backbone sometimes proved difficult when bringing a poem into a new workshop with peers. I remember clearly the day I brought in “Always Hiding,” a poem that begins in medias res, as if overheard, and how the conversation of the group was immediately derailed. One person argued that the speaker of my poem, “clearly an immigrant,” was therefore “a nonnative English speaker” and that what we were overhearing was not the voice of someone struggling to explain why she was constantly lying to protect herself, but, rather, the voice of someone who couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in English. The thesis posited, of course, became complicated by the fact that the poem begins, “which kept me in school and was, of course, / a lie.” This was “inconsistent,” she explained, being “too grammatically correct,” and needed to be revised. Luckily, being far enough along in my project, I knew when to shake off such suggestions.
…the aspect of self such poems most forcefully represent is its uncatchability, its flittering, quicksilver transience… It is a self that does not stand still, that implies a kind of spectral, anxious insubstantiality. The voice is plenty sharp in tone and sometimes observant in its detail, but it is skittery. Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.
For a time, especially in the earliest stages of Driving without a License, I was a poet in hiding and, as a result, wrote poems with a voice always in hiding. While I wouldn’t say I was “skittery”—my poems ached and strove for a “center of gravity… body… [and] emotional value”—I was guilty of sometimes being purposefully evasive, relying on a charming voice that could lie its way out of any sticky situation. I was also guilty of writing poems that refused to reveal what on earth they were actually talking about.
Many of the failed, early attempts at the poems that would eventually make their way into the book read like I had blindfolded the reader and spun them around—as if playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey—and let them go. What this impulse was ultimately an indication of, of course, was a young project and an experience that was still too close to me. I had not yet learned how to be an effective storyteller who could remake new stories with fragments of others. I also had not yet developed a voice or a speaker that could carry the weight of the story. I was still the “I.” As a result, I was afraid of disclosure and of my imagined readership. When Hoagland says, “Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence,” I thought about the dangers of withholding the very information I worried would give me, or others, away. I identified areas in my poems where I filled omissions with tangential storylines—I was free-associating, so to speak, as a method of diversion—and revised. To omit names, leaving behind only a single letter, was liberating. It allowed me, complete with my story, to “come out.” I invented a character of myself. Then, out came S., D., B. (who arrived, unexpectedly, in a poem I thought was about S.), and the house of J’s.
LR: We found ourselves swept up by the dreamlike, incantatory quality of poems like “Landscape with American Dream” and “Wreck,” and noted that in addition to being an accomplished poet, you’ve written a number of libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco. What’s the relationship between song and verse in your work?
JJ: All three libretti written for HGO/HGOco were commissioned pieces, so song and verse have so far occupied separate neighborhoods in my brain. My poetry education came first, though, and I know that being a noisy writer, one always attuned to (and muttering aloud) the music of my words and lines, helped me transition into the world of opera. Still, when working on commissioned pieces, I do have to be mindful of the constraints and scope of each project. For my third libretto, for example, I had to be sure that what I wrote would be accessible to junior high and high school students (we even had study guides), as well as the general public and Houston-area lawyers (the piece was designed to tour the city of Houston). I do not think of audience in the same way when writing a poem, and I certainly can compress much more into a line composed for the page—relying, for example, on what happens at the moment of enjambment—than I can in a line meant to be sung.
When writing a poem, too, I think about diction in terms of choosing the exact word; when writing a libretto, I think about diction in terms of how a word might be enunciated. Sometimes, I land on the same word, sometimes not—and then I make a revision.
It’s almost as if my brain is a child moving between two amicably divorced parents living on opposite ends of town. I’m doing similar poetic work in both genres, of course, and in fact, with my second chamber opera, I worked with a composer who asked me to scan my lines so that he could see the stressed and unstressed positions/syllables of the words. Here, my worlds very much overlapped, and all of the rooms in both houses, as well as the streetlights in both parts of town, lit up—under a Supermoon, no less!
(I suspect I will have to write an essay about this one day.)
LR: While your book ranges across a variety of geographic spaces and times in the narrator’s life, there’s still a clear structure and chronology to the poems. Can you tell us about how you sequenced the collection? What advice would you give to emerging poets working on a first book?
JJ: It’s amazing to me that you are complimenting me on the sequencing of the collection, as I got it so very, very wrong for so many, many drafts. Once, the collection was in three sections. Once, it was in five sections. The four-section version—the version that is the book—was born when I was asked, “Why is this written in five sections?” and all I could muster was, “Symmetry.” Imagine, now, that I answered with an uptalk.
When assembling the collection, I thought quite a bit about the beginnings of Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and Martha Collins’ Blue Front. Long before I knew how the individual sections would be structured, I knew how I wanted the book to begin, what kind of precedent I wanted to set. I remembered the advice that one of my teachers, Eamon Grennan, had given me—about how before I could invent a new landscape for my readers, I had to first pave the streets and erect the signposts I wanted them to follow. I thought a lot about world building. I thought about Charles Wright and how I might establish the sottonarrativa.
In earlier versions, figuring out the political situation of the speaker felt much like the way Rubén Martínez describes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Crossing Over: “You have to hike in total darkness, through mountains that block out the beacon of city light…. You take a long walk in the dark.”
Some, perhaps, helpful-but-not-helpful advice: Read, a lot. Specifically, read books similar to the one you want to write or are writing. Study the choices made by those poets—learn both the how and why. Be open to shuffling and reshuffling, to knowing what doesn’t feel right as an opportunity to move toward what does. Listen to the advice of your most adept reader-friends. Stand clear of the closing doors.
LR: So much of the language in Driving without a License is breathtaking. We were particularly struck by these lines from “Soup Kitchen”: “the leaves on our trees / were a hundred jazz hands, the sun a cow, or a moon, / depending on the day, the time, the tendered / sashay of this earth.” Where did these images come from? In writing these lines, how did you access such luminous, lyrical language?
JJ: I am so in love with this question, and feel my years and worlds colliding! When Lantern Review asked me to contribute a “Process Profile” in 2010, I wrote about this very poem (though in 2010 it was called “Postcard”). More, the poem first appeared in Nimrod International Journal—a journal that comes out of Oklahoma.
LR: What are you reading right now? Any recommended summer reading?
JJ: Because I am in the throes of moving from one landlocked state to another, my summer reading list, this year, is short. I just finished Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Right now, I am in the middle of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which has stimulated my brain into a bioluminescent creature. I am also a quarter of a way through Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian. Soon, I will have a copy of Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK in my hands. Soon, I will be reading folders of information about my new health insurance, what new retirement planning options I will have with my new job, etc.. All very important, necessary (and recommended) reading.
LR: So, what’s next for you? Any exciting projects?
This summer, my partner, beagle, and I are headed to Stillwater, OK, where I will be joining the creative writing faculty at Oklahoma State University. I am hoping, too, to have more time to do more serious work on poems about traumatic brain injuries, and what it was like to become a naturalized citizen.
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Janine Joseph is the author of Driving without a License (Alice James Books), winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays about growing up undocumented in America have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, Waxwing, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a- Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother’s Mother. Janine is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we interviewed leading scholar and poet Timothy Yu, author of 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues Press, 2015), Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 (Stanford, 2009), and the three chapbooks 15 Chinese Silences (Tinfish Press, 2012), Journey to the West (Barrow Street, 2006), and Kiss the Stranger (Corollary Press, 2012). Yu is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he spoke with us, among other things, about the need for greater historical contextualization of Asian American poetry, the process of writing 100 Chinese Silences, and the vibrant relationship between his creative and scholarly work.
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LANTERN REVIEW: Within the literary and academic world, you function in a variety of roles. What’s it like to wear so many different hats? We’re especially curious about the ways in which these roles (poet, cultural critic, scholar, teacher, editor, etc.) overlap, or if there are times when you find them in tension with one another.
TIMOTHY YU: I’ve always written poetry, but for a long time my identity as a poet was peripheral to my professional identity as a scholar. I did a PhD in literature, not an MFA, and until pretty recently I never really published much of my poetry. There’s a lot I could say about this, but I think that it was my scholarly training, and in particular my study of Asian American poetry, that gave me a greater sense of confidence in my work, and ultimately a clearer sense of what I wanted my poetry to do.
But it was definitely a struggle along the way sometimes. In grad school, although quite a few of my classmates were also creative writers, there was an old-school sense among faculty that being a creative writer was not compatible with the “serious” identity of scholar. I kept my poetry going largely by finding a community outside of the university—I went to readings, joined a writing group, sometimes took creative writing workshops elsewhere during the summers.
It’s really only in the past few years that my roles as poet and scholar/critic have begun to converge. A lot of that has to do with my finding a community of other Asian American poets through Kundiman. Although I had studied Asian American poetry for some years, I don’t think I began to see myself as an Asian American poet until I became a Kundiman fellow and saw what being part of an Asian American literary community could mean. I think this understanding has allowed my scholarly work increasingly to feed my creative work, which is basically what led to 100 Chinese Silences.
Now I think I’m experiencing this wonderful feedback loop where my creative work is also pushing my criticism to new places. Probably the best example of this was in the controversy around Calvin Trillin’s poem in the New Yorker, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” My response was both creative and critical: I wrote a parody of Trillin’s poem that was published on Angry Asian Man, which led to me getting interviewed on NPR, which was followed by my being asked to write an essay for the New Republic. And in that piece, I tried to combine my scholarly knowledge with the emotion I was feeling as a member of the Asian American poetry community—which I think made all the difference to its success.
LR: You’re the author of the chapbook 15 Chinese Silences, which was published in 2012. Four years and eighty-five Chinese silences later, the book-length 100 Chinese Silences is in print. Can you tell us a bit about how this project evolved? How did it find its trajectory?
TY: The Chinese Silences began when Billy Collins came to Madison to do a reading. There were something like 1,200 people there! Anyway, Collins read a poem called “Grave,” in which he is standing at the graves of his parents, and he says that his father’s silence was like “the one hundred different kinds of silence according to the Chinese belief.” Now, I’m not an expert on all things Chinese, but that didn’t sound familiar to me. And then at the end of the poem, Collins admits that the idea of 100 Chinese silences was something he had “just made up.” In my annoyance, I immediately vowed that I would write these 100 Chinese silences, although at the time I didn’t know what I meant by that.
I started off by simply writing a parody of “Grave,” one that tried to turn the idea of “Chinese silence” on its head. I quickly discovered that Collins had, in fact, written a lot of poems about China (or Asia), and so I continued by parodying those poems. Collins provided me with more than enough material for the first fifteen poems in the series, which became the Tinfish chapbook 15 Chinese Silences.
I soon realized that the project, which had started off as a bit of a lark, was leading me into deeper waters, and that to explore them, I was going to need to move beyond Collins toward a broader investigation of how China and Asia are portrayed in contemporary American poetry and culture. It turned out that there were many more poems than I expected, by a wide range of poets; some I just found by doing things like searching the Poetry magazine archives for “China.” The poems I found ranged from elegant invocations of Chinese poetry to cringingly offensive uses of stereotype and pidgin. After a certain point, people actually started sending me examples—“here’s a good one for you!”—and so I pretty much had an inexhaustible supply of material.
Of course, the tradition of poetic orientalism I’m exploring isn’t just a contemporary phenomenon; it goes at least back to the dawn of the 20th century and modernism, so at a certain point, I had to begin delving back into that earlier tradition. I did this a bit tentatively at first, starting with a parody of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” (No. 38) and eventually reaching back to modernism: Marianne Moore, W.B. Yeats, and, of course, Ezra Pound, whose poetry is the subject of the final dozen or so poems.
So, the sequence unfolds pretty much in the order it was written, but that order does represent a fairly conscious movement from contemporary poems about Chinese stuff back to the modernist roots of American poetic orientalism.
LR: Given the book’s wide variety of source material, how did your creative process differ with poems responding to, say, Collins and Tony Hoagland (living, contemporary poets), as opposed to Marianne Moore and Pound (deceased, “canonical” voices)? Or did it? What about your responses to more journalistic sources, such as the speech by Newt Gingrich or David Sedaris’s piece on China?
TY: Rewriting Moore and Pound was certainly more intimidating than rewriting Collins or Hoagland! For the more contemporary writers, my tone sometimes bordered on the snarky. But of course, there was some element of reverence in my approach to figures like Moore and Pound, even as I was trying to mount a critique of their work. It’s probably why I put off grappling with them until much later in the series, when I felt I had more confidence in what I was doing.
Responding to some of the journalistic sources was actually fun, because those were the places in the series where I had a bit more freedom. Much of the series was written under fairly strong constraint; I strove to mirror the style and even the line structure of the originals. But with something like the response to Sedaris, I was able to play around more freely with the grotesque imagery of disgust Sedaris uses in his description of China. The most fun piece in this regard was No. 26, which collaged reporting on Wendi Deng (the then-wife of Rupert Murdoch, who made headlines by slapping down a protester who tried to hit Murdoch with a pie) to the tune of Blake’s “The Tyger.”
LR: How have audiences responded to 100 Chinese Silences?
TY: People seem to like and respond to these poems more than anything I’ve ever written—which of course I have mixed feelings about, since nearly all of them are rewritings of other poets’ work! But I think that is part of the project—trying to use the pleasure and humor of these parodies as a Trojan horse for a certain kind of critique.
I’ve been very gratified by the way that Asian American readers, in particular, have responded to the work—they’ve really embraced it warmly as a way of talking back to a certain tradition, which has been so important to my being able to complete it. I’ve heard a little skepticism from some readers about the way I take on certain poets, Pound in particular, who are not as easy targets as, say, Collins. I certainly think that the poems where I’m rewriting canonical writers are the riskiest and the most open to ambivalent interpretation.
LR: As a literary journal dedicated to the promotion and publication of Asian American poetry, Lantern Review has thought quite a bit about what it means to be an advocate for change in today’s literary climate. In your opinion, what is the most pressing cultural work that needs to be done right now?
TY: I think there is a growing awareness that the voices of people of color need to be heard, and indeed, need to be front and center, in contemporary culture, but there is also awareness of how far we are from having the kind of cultural discourse where that is the case. I think it’s absolutely vital for Asian American writers and other writers of color to continue to build their own spaces—whether that’s publications like Lantern Review or organizations like Kundiman—while also demanding more mainstream representation; the two are not mutually exclusive but go hand in hand. I also think it’s crucial for us to provide a greater sense of the history of racial discourse; the conversations and conflicts we’re having today are not new, but emerge from long histories and deep contexts. This is where I think scholars/critics and poets absolutely must be talking to and learning from each other. Simply having a sense that there is an Asian American literary tradition is an incredible boon to a young Asian American writer.
LR: What are some of the most exciting things happening in Asian American poetry today? What are you currently reading?
TY: The breadth and depth of what’s happening in Asian American poetry is just astonishing. To me, Asian American poetry is a space where the lyrical, the experimental, the performative, the political—things too often separated in the larger poetry world—can engage and infuse each other. Just looking at my nightstand, I see amazing new and recent books by Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Brandon Shimoda, Khaty Xiong, Nicholas Wong; books by international Asian writers like Sarah Howe and Fred Wah. And the wider world is taking notice.
LR: After 100 Chinese Silences, what’s next? Can you tell us about any new projects currently underway?
TY: I’m working on a new sequence called Chinese Dreams, and yes, it’s another rewriting—this time of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. I’m fascinated and deeply troubled by Berryman’s framing of his anguished personal lyrics through racially stereotyped language, and I’ve been trying to see what I can do with that from an Asian American perspective.
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.
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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.
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.
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?
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).
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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 chapbooksYellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) andRadio 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.
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[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.]
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 chapbookAnatomy 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.
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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.
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) andHossannah Asuncion (author of the chapbookFragments of Loss).
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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.
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 ofKala Pani,which was recently published by 1913 Press) and Cathy Linh Che (author ofSplit,forthcoming from Alice James Books in April).
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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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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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?
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