A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Byer
Tamiko Beyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Conversation with Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann
Matthew Olzmann

 

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

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MEZZANINES
MEZZANINES

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

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

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

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

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

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A Conversation with Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali
Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation of Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011). His novels include Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010), and Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.

He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

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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?

SKY WARD
SKY WARD

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.

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A Conversation with Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia Faizullah
Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, and are anthologized in Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Wipf & Stock, 2012). A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as associate editor of Blackbird, and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing and is an editor for Asian American Literary Review and Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

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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.

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A Conversation with Bryan Thao Worra

Bryan Thao Worra

An award-winning Laotian American writer, Bryan Thao Worra works actively to support Laotian, Hmong and Southeast Asian American artists. His writing is recognized by the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota State Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has served as a consultant to the Minnesota History Center, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and the Minnesota Humanities Commission. He is also an active professional member of the Horror Writer Association and the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and represented Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the Poetry Parnassus of the London 2012 Summer Games. You can visit him online at http://thaoworra.blogspot.com.

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LR: How did you discover poetry and what led you to poetry as a vocation?

BTW:

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?

BTW:

It’s liberating.
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.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Bryan Thao Worra”

A Conversation with Don Mee Choi

Don Mee Choi

Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. More of her translations can be found at Action Books, Tinfish Press, and Zephyr Press.

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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.

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A Conversation with Lee Herrick

Lee Herrick

Lee Herrick is the author of This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including The Bloomsbury Review, ZYZZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd edition, and One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, among others. Born in Daejeon, South Korea and adopted at ten months, he lives in Fresno, California and teaches at Fresno City College and in the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.

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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”

A Conversation with Patrick Rosal

Patrick Rosal

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

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

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

BONESHEPHERDS
BONESHEPHERDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

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

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

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

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

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

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