He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.
* * *
LR: As a writer, you have the unusual ability to move seamlessly between genres—poetry, fiction, and essays. Can you describe what it’s like to make those transitions? Does your creative process change between genres and if so, how?
KA: I always liked a musical, lyrical, rhythmic kind of prose. Anais Nin’s book The House of Incest was one of my favorite books growing up. I found myself attracted to brief prose forms, ones that could be taken in at a single setting, that acted nearly as music. I like transporting the shape of a lyric poem into prose, whether an essay or fiction.
The form of the “prose poem” per se has never been very interesting to me. First of all because I love the sentence more than the paragraph. And secondly because what prose—the novel or the essay—really offered was time. So I am not interested in brief prose forms, flash fiction or whatever.
There are times when the question of genre doesn’t matter. My book Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, for example—does it matter if it is prose-poetry or lyric memoir or whatever? I’ve often thought it should be taught in Urban Studies classes. It is about “cities” after all!
Does the category matter? Only if you are trying to sell the book, not for the reader or for the writer. It was written as a “book;” that’s pretty much what I have to say about it. Of course it’s prefigured by texts like “Event,” “Train Ride,” “The Journey,” and “Travel,” all published as poems in my first collection The Far Mosque.
I am not sure I think about genre as I am writing, but many times as I work on poems (I have been working on one about Varanasi for a long time) I will think: this needs to be in prose because I need more time.
Poems happen in a moment, like music, while prose creates an architecture of experience, like dance? Is that it?
LR: Your prose is often infused with poetry, and you sometimes work with prose poetry. What inspires you about crossing genres?
KA: Well, language is itself, queer, revelatory and unsettling. So it’s the “poetry” or the non-normative, the performative and oral, that I privilege always. Bringing the resources of poetry in the novel or the essay is my path. I barely write traditional narrative poetry, though some comes in here and there (for example, in my recent book Sky Ward there are many narrative poems, including “Fairy Tale,” but this is a new development! Who knows how long it will last).
LR: How has your background in music and dance informed your poetry?
KA: Sound and silence have always been critical to me in constructing a poem, often times coming before sense or leading me to some kind of sense. (Though I am still suspicious of nonsense, I confess). Dance (and yoga) helped me to learned the physical capabilities of the body and the length of a breath. Choreographing on a stage gives you lots to think about in terms of the shape of a poem and the shape of the page.
Do you know that reading series “Page Meets Stage”? I have never (yet) been invited to participate but I think I am both Page and Stage. In fact the page is a stage, isn’t it? I feel a lot of kinship with writers who work in both senses.
LR: Can you share with us some of the decisions you made around structure and narrative when you were putting together Seam?
TF:Seam centers around a long sequence entitled “Interview with a Birangona,” which imagines the process of a Bangladeshi-American female interviewer speaking with a birangona, a Bangladeshi woman raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. The sequence is woven with and bookended by poems interrogating the interviewer’s own heritage and personal losses.
I began writing the first of the interview poems my second year of graduate school, and put them away until two years later when I received a Fulbright to Bangladesh to interview the birangona and conduct further research on the 1971 Liberation War.
Seam is a book that narratively and structurally relies on distance: between two continents and cultures as well as between the year of Bangladesh’s independence and its modern moment. “1971,” for example, the first poem of the book, imagines the Bangladeshi-American interviewer imagining her mother as a young girl watching her mother bathe in a pond during the war. When I returned from Bangladesh, I had a stack of six years’ worth of poems. Only then was I able to begin the work of shaping Seam into a collection that tries to both enact and traverse that distance.
LR: How did your experience as a Fulbright scholar in Bangladesh influence the development of your manuscript?
TF: One of the main reasons I applied for a Fulbright to Bangladesh was because I had started to worry about the ethical consequences of “Interview with a Birangona.” So many of the women who were raped in 1971 are still alive in Bangladesh, and I began to question whether the project was appropriating the voices of the very women I was struggling to render and understand.
Seam could not have happened without my time in Bangladesh, where I spent a year researching the war and interviewing many birangona. My daily life also became part of the mosaic of my time in Bangladesh, and therefore part of Seam.
When I began to speak with the birangona, I realized how inadequate those early poems truly were. They could not encompass the full complexity of their lives nor mine. I spent a great deal of time with a family of sisters, each of whom had been raped during the war. At one point, while I was interviewing one sister, another sister came up behind me and gathered my hair in her hands. “You poor thing . . . you must have no one to comb your hair,” she said.
I still have no words for how I felt about a woman enduring such horror feeling sorry for me. In this way, and so many others, my time in Bangladesh made me rethink culture, victimhood, violence, and empathy.
LR: How did you discover poetry and what led you to poetry as a vocation?
It wasn’t quite Pablo Neruda’s storied hymn
Of how poetry arrived in search of him. No.
I began at an age some consider very young,
Just a scribble of a soul undrawn to poetry
Until my senior year in Saline High.
One night, like a stroke of spring lightning,
I began to comprehend what verse could do,
What straight narrative could not,
For knot lives of flux best writ with pencil.
My first poem was for a pretty girl in Michigan, a mask.
Something about Batman’s Joker quoting Pagliacci.
Probing unexpected intersections,
I didn’t end up with the girl, naturally.
Still, it was an early lesson.
LR: Your work has achieved much critical success, with an NEA grant among your many honors, but your path to publication wasn’t traditional, in that you were neither an English major nor an MFA student, and your two full-length collections, On the Other Side of the Eye and Barrow, were published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, a science fiction and fantasy publisher, rather than a poetry press. What do you think your non-traditional poetic pedigree has lent to your perspective as a poet?
I read what I want to read.
I write what I want to write.
That’s a great freedom not everyone has.
I’m humbled to have that opportunity in life.
As a Lao American writer, without naming names,
I didn’t always, sometimes still don’t, get invited to
“Join in any reindeer games.”
Over time, that gave me strength.
“Get my work out there anyway. Any way.”
I push myself to be rigorous, but not hidebound
To one leathery school or dogma.
My writing doesn’t have to be
Safe or conventional as a faithful hound by some sad fire.
I fret not for tenure tracks or professional posts to be happy,
Nor grand accolades or book deals the envy of fading fool Midas.
One dragon summer, I was a cultural Olympian,
The sole writer representing all Lao
During the London games.
Between that and other laurels of yore,
I’m obliged to think
“I’m doing something right, surely.”
But that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee.
LR: Before you published The Morning News Is Exciting, you were known as a translator of Korean poetry, having translated the work of three Korean female poets and published those translations in The Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women. Do the techniques you employ in your translation work play a role in how you write your own poetry, and if so, how?
DMC: There are a few overlaps. I think the primary one is that there is the process of translating my own voice, which is in Korean as well as English and sometimes all mixed up, depending on what memories I am tapping into. My English was strange for a long time. I’m sure it still is. When my younger brother was growing up in Hong Kong, he spoke Korean, English, Cantonese, and Japanese all mixed up together. He and his Japanese friends communicated perfectly in this mixed-up language. They were too young to censor themselves. The same thing was going on in my head except that I was older and knew how to censor myself. I only freely talked funny with my sister and a Chinese friend who also knew how to talk funny. At school, I wore my uniform and memorized and recited things perfectly that I didn’t understand at all. I always failed because that funny voice inside me always butchered my English. So translating and writing is like this for me. I wear my school uniform and try to memorize and recite poems perfectly, but I always end up butchering them. My primary technique for translation and my own poetry is failure.
LR: Of the poetry you have translated, which particular writers or works remain the most resonant and influential for you?
DMC: All three poets in Anxiety of Words—Ch’oe Sûng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yôn-ju—had impact on me deeply. It was very emotional for me to learn about their work, interview them, and translate them. It didn’t involve just knowing the language or culture. It was a difficult and painful process of sorting out my own dislocation, understanding how my own displacement has been translated by others and represented in the official narratives of power. So I understood and still understand my translation and writing work as a decolonizing act. Kim Hyesoon’s work never fails to excite me as I continue to translate her latest work as well as her older work. She is categorized and referred to as one of the “1980’s poets,” yet she remains prolific and brilliant, continuing to break down, subvert, or invert literary expectations and boundaries that contain and regulate women in South Korea.
LR: One of the themes in This Many Miles from Desire that stood out most to me is the notion of the liminal space. There is, for example, the dream space of such poems as “Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption,” the physical space of travel—of being in between here and there, linguistic space, and also spiritual space. Could you talk a bit about how you envisage this relationship between space and liminality in your work?
LH: When I wrote This Many Miles from Desire, I had only been back to Korea once since being adopted. My return was very brief–two days–and that return formed “Korean Adoptee Returns to Seoul.” Since then I have been back for longer periods of time, but the vast majority of This Many Miles from Desire was written in a time where Korea was one large, complex question in my mind. I did not know most of the major details of my early life: the day I was born, who my birth family was (I still don’t), or even what cities like Seoul or Daejeon looked like. In one sense, I felt fully alive, but in another sense, there were so many uncertainties. For example, I do not know my family’s medical history, so that contributed to the sense of liminality to which you refer. My adoptive family is my family, and we are very close. But national origins are vital, so much of the book explored that territory. You can see it in some of the poems. I was on a journey, literally traveling through Latin America and Asia and piecing together remnants of the world to reduce the gaps between my early years and who I had become.
“Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption” was a breakthrough for me both as a person and as a poet because it was one of the first poems I ever wrote about my adoption. The important part of the process was when I discovered Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, essential reading for any poet, in which he problematizes the often used teaching phrase, “write what you know.” I was rather paralyzed, then, because I did not know (about my birth country, my birth family). I couldn’t reference the streets, the food, the people, the sounds of my country. So it was a major turning point for me when Hugo says we should invent. You do not necessarily have to “know” (literally) to write the poem. We can imagine. And so I did. In “Three Dreams of Korea,” I even imagined the dreams. I never had those three dreams. I created them for the poem’s sake. It was incredibly liberating. We write in the direction of discovery. Maybe we float in and out of various states of knowing, and our poems represent that floating. Continue reading “A Conversation with Lee Herrick”→
LR: A musical sensibility (as in the poem “A Tradition of Pianos”) features prominently in your latest collection Boneshepherds, along with trauma, despair, loss, and love. What poetic decisions did you have to make in order to successfully navigate the intersections between those topics?
PR: Reading June Jordan’s KissingGod Goodbye early in my writing life (I was in my mid- to late-twenties) was a revelation to me about the ways fury and tenderness could occupy the same poetic space. Also, reading and re-reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time gave me a literary/ethical/philosophical model for the conjunction of love and rage. I’m confused and compelled by the ways music, violence, terror and tenderness intersect. This means, poetically, I have to be prepared to complicate whatever comes out on the page. A love poem couldn’t simply be a love poem or at least a love poem would be more interesting to me if it were also, simultaneously, an interrogation of history and the body and the role of music.
LR: You often evoke the political in your work: in poems like “Ars Poetics: After a Dog,” you use a rhetorical tone to address the politics of violence, while in “Boneshepherds’ Lament,” the political is melded with the personal. How do you envision the politics of your work as a whole? From a craft perspective, what strategies have you found to be most helpful when engaging with politics through poetry?
PR: To be a political poet doesn’t have to mean that you are only interested in convincing or converting people to a particular viewpoint. The sensual itself is political. It is a way to interact with and interrogate one’s world.
You might ask what the sensual has to do with power (i.e. the political), but it seems to me the official history and the public record, useful as they are, often contradict sensual experiences, if not erase them all together. What political rhetoric says about being poor or black or an immigrant is often directly challenged by the smell of our own fingers after a day of work, the way we kiss, the way we hold a knife or trombone. A kind of history resides in the sensual. And poetry, in sound and sense, is a way to record that.
Poetry, at its best, is a sensual experience. It is bodily—especially in my own work, which I envision as a direct descendant of oral and musical traditions. So what I’m making in a poem isn’t so much a message or a story, but a sequence of sounds and silences which have trajectories and dynamics—like a piece of music has melodic/harmonic trajectories, cadences, tensions and resolutions. Hearing (of poetry, music, and sound in general) happens by the vibration of a drum, a hammer, a stirrup, and an anvil in the ear, which cause the cilia to vibrate too, sending them along a nerve to the brain. Music, then, literally moves us. By music, we are moved.
If, as a poet, I let the music of a line lead me during composition and revision, then the very process of making becomes political. I am being led by the unknown. I don’t mean that in a mystical sense, though the opportunity for an experience of the numinous is possible when writing poems. What I mean is, to consult the delights of the music of a poetic line is a radical response to a world which often wants us to consult strictly logic, reason, money, fear, etc., each of which has its own allegiance to certainty. Music is not loyal to certainty. When it works, it follows surprise.
LR: I love your comment that one of your biggest writing challenges is in “the truth-telling,” or “how you get the poem, the essay, the story that is complicated and true, rather than the easy language, the fashionable language, the language of effects.” How do you keep challenging yourself to write new poetry that tells the truth in new and fresh ways? And what sources of inspiration do you turn to when you’re looking to create surprise in your poetry?
PR: By following a poetic line by its music, by which I mean its percussiveness, its internal rhyme, consonance, assonance etc., I can be led to saying something I didn’t mean. Sometimes I’m led to something I didn’t even want to say. For good reason, we don’t deal with trauma or extreme exuberance in every waking hour. Our will and reason help us keep that in check. But that also means that we potentially have whole lakes of desire, joy, anger, etc. that we are out of touch with. Music disarms us from the mechanisms of safety (logic being one of those mechanisms, the will being another, among many). Music can challenge us into speech that is difficult and strange. The poetry happens in the interrogation of that music and its strangeness and the simultaneous interrogation of the world we live in, i.e. an interrogation of how a poetic line sounds and what it says. That’s how poetry becomes an argument with what we think we already know, how it gave Hikmet an opportunity to say, “I didn’t know I loved the rain…”
LR: Breakdancing has been a large part of your life, and has featured in your work, most notably in Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. What is it about breakdancing that inspires you as a poet, and what poetic strategies have you employed to bring its essence into your work?
PR: I’ve been working on an essay called “The Art of the Mistake” which is about some of the lessons I learned from breaking. Because a breaker is mostly making things up in front of an audience, often trying things with his body that he hasn’t necessarily tried before (a sequence of moves improvised on the spot), he’s prone to screwing up. Sometimes he thinks going into a particular floor move from a toprock is going to be dope, but it might be harder than he expects and he could trip or his foot could end up somewhere he didn’t intend for it to go. Thing is, there are people watching so he has to turn that accident into something—not as a way of hiding the accident, but as a way of letting the accident in. Every good breaker makes a contract with the unexpected: that it will inevitably come, and that he will do his best to say yes to it. Sometimes you invent the illest moves that way.
LR: Hip-hop has also been a big influence in your work, and you have spoken about how the best hip-hop carefully manages energy, rage, syncopation, rhythm, and unusual juxtapositions. A similar thing can be said for poetry—how do you infuse your poetry with these elements?
PR: You’ve hit it right on the nose. Aside from breaking, I also DJ’d and produced dance music. A lot of that composition was done by assembling very disparate pieces of music and sound.
I love thinking of the DJ as a metaphor for what a good poet does. First, the DJ has to practice—a lot. He also has to be familiar with a lot of different kinds of music. He spends his time digging through crates (he used to, before Spotify and Shazam, etc.). He’s always looking for new sounds.
And then when he’s actually DJing for a dance floor, he has to feel. He has to listen while he’s making and what he’s making (a groove) has to be informed by what he hears and feels from the people in front of him (a good portion of a groove is sensed beyond simply listening). The DJ has to remember what he’s played so far, has to hear what’s playing now, and has to imagine what song might make the floor jump next. He is, in that way, a conduit of time. He is looking forward and backward at once—and never leaving the present moment. He is not manipulating time: he’s trying to find the way asynchronous expressions of time might converge to make a single beat. The poet/prophet has to do the same thing, has to look forward and backward at the same time, has to listen while he’s making, has to be asking questions about what came before, what’s to come, who is dancing and who isn’t. He has to figure out how many bodies can he get out on the floor.
LR: You seem to wear several different hats between your writing and your professional life. Your poetry is fluent in the language and imagery of the street and you also maintain a prominent role in the academy as an educator and gatekeeper. Can you speak a little bit about the relationship between those two elements in your life?
PR: Sometimes it’s a troubled relationship. The language of poetry (or the language of the cee-lo game, for that matter) doesn’t often work well in faculty meetings. But principles of justice, love, play, honesty, curiosity, and interrogation inform the work I do as a member of an academic institution. It’s all a life, isn’t it? It’s the mastermix (if I ain’t killed the analogy yet) of all the things I’ve learned as an artist, musician, dance-floor participant, son, brother, knucklehead. I’ve had good teachers and I’ve had shitty teachers. The good ones gave me space to figure out how all this non-traditional living connects to ideas we often consider as erudite. Truth is, the sources of erudition are everywhere. They always have been. The greatest ideas and works of art have always been informed by something on the edge or in the hinterlands or on the margins. The academy doesn’t always want to recognize that and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass to be the one who has to do the reminding, but it’s part of the work. And I’m happy to do it.
LR: You’ve been with the Kundiman organization since its very early days. How have you seen it grow and develop through the years?
PR: I’m really proud to have been witness to this. We were at a lounge somewhere in the Lower East Side (is it 9 or 10 years ago now?) when Joseph and Sarah told me their idea and asked if I would be involved in an organization that would hold a retreat for Asian American poets. Everybody has a good idea. Few people act on it. Joseph and Sarah have busted their behinds to grow this into an amazing community of poets. They’ve done a great job to preserve an atmosphere of compassion and openness and a dedication to the work of writing poems. The notion of an Asian American poet is complicated. How do you craft a space that welcomes vastly different histories, aesthetic inclinations, wacky personalities? The bigger that Kundiman gets, the more it has to confront the challenges of these contradictions. I think they’re handling it beautifully. Not to mention, the logistics of an organization, i.e. the infrastructure to the very dream of Kundiman, are a massive undertaking. It’s a credit to Sarah, Joseph, the board and support staff that they get this together the way they do. What a gift to be part of a generation that has that kind of both vision and commitment. I imagine Kundiman will go down as a major achievement in the history of Asian American letters.
LR: You have said that as a poet, you have to be willing to make mistakes. As your career progresses, how do you maintain the willingness to keep making mistakes?
PR: I’m blessed that my audience has grown quite a bit in the decade-plus I’ve been writing poems. So I guess I could feel somewhat self-conscious and shut down. Of course, that happens from time to time. Ambition and shame in a professionalized world of writing are not uncommon. I think I’m sort of a risk taker though. I’m hungry. I want to make poems that surprise me and there’s no doing that without making mistakes. All my errors hold my work as a writer together. They are the very mortar of the good poem. It’s impossible to know which failure will lead me to the next awe, so I try to be curious about all of my fuck-ups and trust that the wonder will come, that astonishment is just another category of mistake.
LR: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
PR: My main focus right now is a collection of essays that I’m co-editing with Ross Gay. We’re collecting work by poets of our generation on the work of Robert Hayden. Teaching, too, is a main priority. As far as writing is concerned, I’ve got a couple of projects, including a long poem about a man (named Willie), a woman (named Yolanda), and a bridge that connects the towns of Paz and Pelea. It’s hard to say what, if anything, will come out of it. It’s been both a challenge and a blessing to try and write this convergence of politics, magic realism, and love story. I’ve got a few other projects in the air that are mostly just ideas and notes right now, including some research on Philippine history, specifically on torture and combat during the Philippine-American War. Maybe Paz y Pelea and the Philippine history research are all the same thing. I’m still figuring it out. And figuring it out is a good place to be.
LR: Your first book, Miracle Fruit, won the 2003 Tupelo Press Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in poetry, and the Global Filipino Award. Could you describe the journey that Miracle Fruit took from birth to publication?
AN: A good third of it was from my thesis from The Ohio State University (my MFA is also in creative non-fiction) but I had a magical and productive year as a poetry fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing in Madison and that allowed me the time and resources to write the rest of it. I queried a few publishers directly and received lots of positive feedback so I decided to try my hand in two contests—one of them was, at the time, a relatively new press—Tupelo Press—and I about fainted when I got the email that Greg Orr selected my book as the eventual winner that year. I hadn’t even completely unpacked yet. I was twenty-six and had just moved to western NY for my first year teaching at SUNY-Fredonia.
LR: Your poetry often uses fanciful imagery and direct tones of address (as in “First Anniversary, With Monkeys” and “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?”) to relay moments of intimacy and elements of personal experience. What kind of poetic decisions do you find yourself making when you work with autobiographical subject matter?
AN: I try not to bore myself. And talking solely about myself bores me. And I admittedly have a relatively short attention span. And I’m always thinking of two or three things at once when I write. So, the trick for me is to be able to type or write as fast as the images leap in my head. I know I’m onto something if a metaphor startles or surprises me—I’ll try to hang on and follow that golden thread for as long as it will let me. I believe in an underworld littered with gems. In another life, I have to.
Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of the Hongo Store in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951. He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret. He complained so, his parents sent him back when he was nine, where he lived in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who so hated him, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. when he was ten. He grew up fighting from then on, all the way through Gardena High School, where he encountered Shakespeare, Camus, and Sophocles in English classes. They convinced him to try higher education, so he went to Pomona College, managed to graduate, still fighting, and found poetry there under the tutelage of Bert Meyers. He wandered Japan, Michigan, and Seattle thereafter, supporting himself through wits and lies, directing the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77, becoming poet-in-residence at the Seattle Arts Commission in 1978. He then gave up wit and went back to graduate school at UC Irvine, studying with the poets Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, and Howard Moss, all of whom averred he deserved hanging. Hongo has subsequently taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, and Oregon, where, fool that he was, he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. He has written three books of poetry, including Coral Road (Knopf, 2011), edited three anthologies of Asian American literature, and published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are two fellowships from the NEA, two from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is now in semi-retirement and fights no one, having lost all his teeth and suffered from tapioca of the hands. He plays with his daughter, scolds his two grown sons, and loves his wife Shelly Withrow. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo. In Eugene, where he lives, they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.
LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?
GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.
LR: You have spoken of how your role as Brooklyn Poet Laureate has led to a greater sense of moral responsibility, and at Sarah Lawrence College, you even teach a class called “Poet as World Citizen.” How does this sense of responsibility play out for you in your writing?
TC: In my role as poet laureate, there is a public connection and recognition of matters that are important to me: education, literacy, the Asian American experience, the female experience, motherhood. These are only a few of the topics to which I pledge loyalty, and those communities have helped me feel a firmer footing in a sometimes uncertain world.
When I conceived of the class “Poet As World Citizen,” I envisioned a student who never loses their sense of themselves as an active participant in a world in flux. I can no longer live in a vacuum, and I think our literature and the study of it must reflect that. I can no longer write a domestic kind of poetry which doesn’t call attention to the complexities outside of the United States. Because I teach and I engage in my community, I feel invested in ongoing dialogue, a dialogue of exposure, questioning, and investigation. I bring all of this to the page when I write.
LR: In the 1990s, you participated in the slam poetry revival, even going to the nationals for the NYC team in 1991. How did you move from the poetry slam world to your current place in academia?
AS: I fell into the poetry slam by accident when I was too young to have a writerly identity and the slam was too young to have specific expectations of contestants. There was less of a page-stage divide. I saw no contradiction in reading my poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café while sending them to university-based literary journals. And the Nuyorican was a revelation. I’d never experienced writing in such a social way before. So while it may look as if I made a major transition over the years, I was really pursuing what I loved all along in whatever venues would have me. The people I met in both worlds had the same passions, though they may have been expressed differently on the surface.
Getting into academia was a different story: you don’t get an academic job by accident. Even there, though, I thought my presence might be temporary. I started out as a sabbatical replacement and only gradually began to identify myself as a member of academia. Departing from the slam scene happened organically: I no longer lived in a city, I had children, and the slam itself had changed, requiring acting skills. Not long ago, I went back to the Nuyorican and saw a whole new generation of poets doing what “we” were doing twenty years earlier. It was terrific. For me, its time had come and gone, and that was fine.
LR: You have stated in the past that your days in slam poetry taught you the value of connecting with people through the spoken word and reaching the non-university audience. How do you maintain that sense of the social in your work now?
AS: I think I do this mainly by continuing to write poems that on some levels can be read by anyone.
LR: Poetry of the academy and poetry that is accessible to non-literary audiences are often perceived as contradictory. As a poet of the academy with a spoken word past, how do you reconcile the two?
AS: I think I address this somewhat in question 1, but I might add that academic institutions can also be great home bases for students to create spoken-word events. Students are doing this at Dickinson College, where I teach. I’d also suggest that as educators, we don’t have to treat “page” and “spoken-word” poems the same way in class. Some poems you need to pick apart. Some you can just listen to or watch, and discuss in a different way: that too is instructive. The poems that don’t need much interpretation can be the hardest to use in class. That requires some adaptation on the part of the teacher.