Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press (2013). She also co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook of poetry from Diode Editions (2013). Brynn’s work has been anthologized by Helen Vendler and Ishmael Reed; it has also appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Pleiades. Brynn was born in the Central Valley of California to a Korean American mother and a Japanese American father. She is the recipient of a Kundiman Asian American Poetry Fellowship, the Poets 11 award from the San Francisco Public Library, and the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award. Currently, Brynn lives, writes, and teaches in the SF Bay Area.
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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.
The Saints of Streets by Luisa A. Igloria | University of Santo Tomas 2013 | $17
“Hokusai believed in the slow / perfectibility of forms” (3), begins Luisa A. Igloria’s newest book of poems, The Saints of Streets. She has been writing a poem a day since 2010, a project archived online and from which this collection was born. Given how prolific she is, I could not help but find in these opening lines a reassurance that the poems collected here are not merely practice but are a practice. For perfectibility, the poem goes on to say, is “the way, // after seventy-five years or more, the eye / might finally begin to understand / the quality of a singular filament—” Indeed, this is a book of single filaments, and in these poems are so much delight and wisdom, often beginning in the mundane but nearly always spiraling inward to the sacred.
We see this spiraling quality first of all in the poems about place, which is one of what I’ll call three clotheslines bending with this collection’s poems: clotheslines, I say, because of the quality the poet gives to everyday activity, weighted with meditations even as it flutters in the wind. The place poems nod most pronouncedly to the collection’s title. In “Repair,” for instance, we begin in the present moment: “Almost at the alley’s elbow, I know the gate . . .” (9). Shortly after that, we move to the wistful past tense, each sentence beginning “There used to be” as a litany. Just as we first graze the alley as a kind of body, so does the speaker name the ghosts of objects as though in mortal lament, counting down structural losses, strippings, and repairs along with the absences of people. But the magic of this poem is in its concluding grammatical shift. See how, in the last three lines, the past tense makes way for something closer to the timeless:
across the south wall, even on the night the child
ran out the side door with bare feet, crying after the figure
disappearing halfway up the rise, beyond the street.
Line by line we move from a definite point in time (“on the night”), to an ongoing and simultaneous action (“ran out . . . crying”), and finally to an image marked by its remove from the rest of the action (“disappearing . . . beyond”). The medial caesura of each line helps us rhythmically, step by step, as do the definite articles. The final “disappearing” is a present participle, non-finite: not quite past and not quite present. And that last image of what is “beyond the street,” in its ghostly way, takes us through the longing into something even greater than the object of the longing, greater than the body of the street.
Amulet by Jason Bayani | Write Bloody Publishing 2013 | $15.00
After a Jason Bayani poem, sometimes all you can say is, “Damn.” At 84 pages, Amulet may cause excessive cursing. And not just to God, but to other “thing[s] just out of reach” (45), all the hollering forged into an object that will protect us from harm. His hands both a curled fist and a prayer, Bayani waits . . . waits for this noise to take the shape of language.
Amulet‘s epigraph invokes Jose Garcia Villa and gestures toward the romantic brokenness and terrific terror of the poems to follow, which are birthed from a lineage of great Filipin@ American writers. I’m not one to go in for beauty in poetry, but damn, the way Bayani “remak[es] the line” (as he suggests in the opening poem to this collection) is beautiful. Consider the lines “Give me the petal that hits like a heavy brick” (35) or “My body is a projection of stone that remembers the mountain it ran away from” (76). Feel the tidal movement of the earth and of time in the line: “all this history in the open veil of your body, / this seed, this push, this silt, / how we been built by a blood procession of so many hands / pulling plough over poverty” (67). On the back cover, Barbara Jane Reyes says that “the language of Bayani’s poems pops and bangs, punches, hurls bricks, and then does not flinch from tenderness,” and I agree that there is a surprising vulnerability here that disarms as much as it reveals its own strength.
The weight of this book is in its silences, in the words “just out of reach,” as it contemplates the impact of silence among men of color when no one really teaches you “what to do with your hands” (75). The palms, then, and the mouth, become heavy weights. While Bayani knows that “A man’s ability to feel is overvalued in Art. / I’ve cashed in on it. / Every woman who loved me / hates me a little for that” (24), he also urges us to “Imagine we’re in a room, and everything in this room / has a mouth except for me. I feel that most days” (22). It is Bayani’s humor and grief made vulnerable, and the felt sense of the body “fall[ing] into a hard focus” (37), that makes us listen to the ringing in that place inside ourselves. read more…
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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?
Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen | Black Ocean 2012 | $14.95
MULDER: When Victor Frankenstein asks himself, “Whence did the principle of life proceed?” and then as a gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the Postmodern Prometheus: the genetic engineer whose power to reanimate matter (genes) into life (us) is only as limited as his imagination is.
—The X-Files Episode 5×06, “Post-Modern Prometheus“
Emptied peanut butter jars are evidence of The Great Mutato’s presence in The X-Files episode “Post-Modern Prometheus.” A rejected genetic creation of Frankenstein-like scientist Dr. Pollidori, The Great Mutato’s deformities banish him to a dark cellar, where he eats peanut butter sandwiches and hungers for human connection. Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree excavates the cavities in which such mythic, hybrid and feral figures as The Great Mutato, Prometheus, Wukong and Grendel dwell and,
by placing a mouth to the opening, “eat[s them] up from the inside” (5).
Chen writes of feral creatures that are “[p]eeled from living rock” (65), birthed from stone, petri dish or sea, whether genetically engineered or spiritually divined; that share a certain “fall from grace;” and whose bodies (or whose power to create living forms) usurp the dominion of the immortal. As such they blur the lines between “god” and “man,” and as myths are imagined to possess monstrous shells, scales and hideous skins, but no souls. They are imagined as cavities, or as caves. In these hollowed spaces, creatures (the created) fill the emptiness with hunger. Chen writes, “[s]ilence, which is not additive, / can be filled with anything” (58). This hollowness is completely full of “everything that waiting breeds” (49), like the “trigger of longing” (44) and “alive loneliness” (32). In these cavities, “hearts [grow] teeth” (4).
A series of poems centers on Wukong, a shape-shifting Monkey King born from stone and the main character in the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Chen writes that “he felt like a salmon inside a bear” and that “[e]ven in his dreams it was something else that moved / through him”—”[s]omething watched himself dream” (17). The nodes or root beings of Chen’s Butcher’s Tree share the desire to be inside something else, or are outside watching themselves—”When the soul steps from the body // and watches the body / and the body is flayed” (7). They are beings through which other energies move, and are constantly rearranged by grammar and outer skins. In all their hunger, they wish for “the world to pass through [them]” (91), but what they eat is not often easily digested, or easily let go.
When [Wukong] looked at the girl with transparent flippers, he knew that if he looked at her underneath side, he would be able to hear a sound of the wind leaving, or water falling. It would be salty. It would be alive. It would contain a creature with a heart that used no arteries or veins but whose blood bathed its organs in a single cavity. He thought of doors as smacking, windows as puckering. Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea. (18)
Chen’s image of rooted trees or fish bones, with their fern-like accumulation of branches and spines, speaks to a mathematical yet organic pattern. Of all possible reconstructions, Chen invites the reader to reconstruct the body out of “hall[s] of tongues, corridor[s] of knees […] some with just the scalp” (15). In so doing, we question origin. What is birth, really? To be hatched. Chen’s writing is a poetics of mutation and molecular gestation, of cell membranes and excretions, replicating in all cavities of the body. We come to ask, is the generative force of life hunger? And we learn how hunger itself reconstructs the body, how hunger becomes grammar.
But Grendel was hungry. He was hungrier than all the rest. His hunger
made his body magnetic with the rhetoric of hollowness:
Little tiny spikes, little tiny scrapes, rippling with tiny implosions. (66)
In the book’s final section, Chen gorgeously and wrenchingly re-imagines the creature Grendel from Beowulf, not as half man or beast, but as a woman—a trans/gender body. Grendel hungers until all he/she/sie is is hunger, until the body reconstitutes. “[T]his liplessness opened further into the labyrinth” (79), “two silences traveled and made interference waves” (82) and his/her/hir “beautiful beautiful body felt a massive echo” (98). Through each page, each abrupt insertion or amputation or aborted negative space, Chen’s Grendel surprises us with “new splatter” (82), touching us like “a pinprick of sand / within rounded numbness” (81).
Chen’s creatures are here flayed out, “woven into a delicate verge” (60). Take this book and “tuck it in a pocket. / Feel it all day, like a new organ” (41).
As the days have begun to grow shorter and colder, I’ve found myself delving more and more into “housekeeping” mode. Perhaps the barrage of commercial hoopla heralding the distant holiday season is partly to blame (astoundingly, the “seasonal” marketing seems to have started in September this year), but there is also something about the circumstances inherent in this particular change of seasons that seems to have kept me in a constant state of culling and curating, collecting and planning. This month, I’ve found myself flipping my closet; ruthlessly meal-planning to accommodate busy weeknights; moving and arranging furniture (I’ve just moved into a new office space at work); plotting out a steady stream of gifts (baby gifts, wedding gifts, Christmas gifts); and in the midst of it all—editing poetry.
These past couple of weeks, Mia and I have been hard at work puzzling out the order in which the poems in Issue 6 will appear. “Ordering” the poems in an issue is often one of the toughest parts of the editorial process for us, but it’s also one of the most significant (and the most rewarding!). It’s the first time in the process when an issue begins to take on a rough shape, and it’s this shape that serves as a guide for us as we develop and implement the visual elements of the issue (decisions about layout, typesetting, etc.) during the production process. When we think about ordering an issue, we consider not just the overall “arc” (with respect to things like theme, sonics, pacing), but also how each poem will speak to the poems on either side of it. Some poems automatically suggest points of entry, or finality, while others can help to build the energy of a sequence, or to create needed moments of breath or pause. We’re aware, of course, that as we are an online literary magazine, most people who encounter us are probably not in the habit of reading a given issue straight through (such is the nature of the internet, in which content is infinitely compartmentalize-able). But it is still important to us that there be a type of logic to how each issue is arranged—a sort of underlying lyric argument, if you will—to delight the reader who does choose to start at the front matter and read straight through.
Every time we finish ordering an issue, it feels like a red-letter occasion. I feel as if we’ve been given our first glimpse of a baby via ultrasound: the issue has begun to grown limbs; soon we will be able to see its tiny fingers and toes. Something about the outcome of the process feels life-giving, sustaining. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from experimenting with different arrangements, from asking how different configurations of the pieces in front of us might communicate differently as a whole, depending how they are arranged. Perhaps it’s partly my obsessive nature speaking (I am, after all, the kind of person who does not like the salad to touch the rice on her plate), but I think there is also something to be said for the benefit of this process of ordering, of arrangement—essentially, the act of editing—as a discipline for myself as an artist, as well. In stepping back from the work before us and considering how it operates in a greater context, I’m forced to think outside of myself and my own experience of any particular piece. I’m forced to think about the argument of the work we are presenting as a body, to craft an experience for the reader that is not only enjoyable and surprising, but also strategic in its emphasis. Do we want to place this very short poem between these two much-longer pieces? Perhaps yes, if there is enough of a sense of space in the short poem to create a needed pause or breath—but then again, perhaps not, if the shorter poem will be unfairly dwarfed by the longer pieces on either side of it. Do we want the reader to enter the issue in medias res—with a poem that provides the feeling of being invited along on a journey that’s already in progress? Or will the overall arc of the issue be better served by an entry poem that can serve as a sort of prologue for the trajectory of the work to come? If we place these two poems next to one another, do we risk the reader misunderstanding the first line of the latter because of the way that the former ends? If we don’t keep this group of poems in the order in which they came to us, are we violating the author’s intended sense of narrative? Or do we need to arrange these poems differently in order to create a more seamless transition between the group and the mood of the pieces that come before and after it?
In some sense, this type of conversation is not so different from the ongoing one that I, as a writer, must continually have with myself about my own work—whether on the level of the line, or on a more macro scale (at the level of a manuscript, or even at the level of archetype, or genre, or the critical fields of study with which my work is concerned). How do the elements that make up my body of work speak to one another, and how do they speak to the conversation that is already being held out there in the rest of the world? This is a set of questions that I must constantly ask myself if I am to remain engaged and grounded as an artist. Editing the work of others—and in particular, working on each new issue of LR—has simultaneously sharpened me as an editor of my own work. I’m a better artist for it, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me to challenge myself and to grow.
Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.
The title here is taken from a phrase by Laura (Riding) Jackson, from one of her prose writings after she abjured a successful career in poetry. I’ve been contending personally with her claims against poetry since the publication of my first chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe Press 2012). Jackson makes the case for a language with intrinsic truth-value as a pure means of expression, free from sliding signifiers, free especially from the generic constraints of literary form. She argues that poetry is a medium for accepting the “good enough” under the illusion of a truth that is ultimately inexpressible. This illusion is consummated by the aesthetic gesture, providing, at best, a sense of formal completeness. Poetry, then, is a closed circuit, which never stretches outward to communicate truth or to connect truly through words. In her essay “What, If Not A Poem, Poems?” Jackson writes:
A poem emits something that delights, seeming truth-like. But one learns, at long poetic last, that the poem cannot yield truth itself, truth unqualified: it is too much committed to yielding the semblance to be capable of yielding the pure reality. This, it is hard for the poet to know, for, though the poet perceive that, here and there, truth did not get its full due, such perceptions would lose themselves in the growing satisfaction felt in the coming to be of that extraordinary thing, a poem.
To put this another way, when Yusef Komunyakaa was once asked what sentimentality was, he answered: “Passion without form.” Jackson wants to champion this passion and not the form. Let me rephrase this once more. Toi Derricotte has said that her writing process is the transmutation of an inner storm into an outer object—like a mug—which she can then place on the shelf. Again, the well-wrought form, its source in reality become a regardless matter. The poems I wrote for Paradise Hunger followed a series of family funerals, emerging from what I felt was a sacred process of grief, loneliness, and self-definition. The process came from a “crisis of universal utterance,” a groping in language toward some manner of truth, understanding, consummation. But what I ended up with instead was just a form, an object in my hands. An object for the shelf, yes, but also an object for sale, a suddenly profane thing.
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
because I am sinew and she is ancient as trees
As Long As Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen | Wave Books 2012 | $16
Hoa Nguyen’s As Long As Trees Last is not a book for the city. Shouting concrete and signal siren screech, emit exhaust, make it difficult to “string and feel // wind of wing beats / in your face” (1). Take these poems into the grove and let the “trees be the church” (32). What you have reads like the diary of a hapa witch, a cross-section of all seasons. The shortness of line and breath in Nguyen’s work makes for ritual incantations in a forest clearing, for songs for invasive seeds.
Nguyen utilizes the Chinaberry tree, indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia but later introduced to the southern United States, to hint at a larger discussion around diaspora, transnational economies, transplants, and transracial intimacies. Born in the Mekong Delta, Nguyen has lived for some time in Texas. Of Thai ancestry, I was raised in West Virginia and Virginia. Like Nguyen, I am also a person of mixed race and understand the kind of odd resonance between the Southern states and Southeast Asia that occurs in the humidity, leafy foliage and rolling mountain ranges. The speakers in Nguyen’s poems often feel like invasive species with toxic fruit, growing wild with distant roots, endangered but tasked with “rag laundry day” and “beans on toast,” no stranger to the poetry that halts and swings from their throats.
I am interested in the contraction of line that works in Nguyen’s poetry, which is also apparent in the way her breath designates measure when she reads her work. Her short lines are fragmented by breath patterns, and the breakages are defined by elongated exhales and sharp inhales. Spaces between lines and phrases often expand abruptly and then contract, like a lung muscle.
Green bathroom floor
rug and the yellow mug
you loved Cutting stop
Stop her there like a
We love are
We love are folds
around the stripes of being
We can We love
are slung nests
(from “Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt,” 7)
In the excerpt above, notice how “rug” and “mug” snugly bookend a line, yet how the line immediately following (“you loved Cutting stop”) offers a break, a brief but scary expansion between “loved” and “Cutting,” and a “stop” to counter the preceding rhythm. Notice how “We love are” could be read as “We love our” and how the syntax breaks the relationship between verb and object. In the excerpt below, watch the turns between “pen,” “Open,” “born,” “Horn,” “gown,” “torn” and “train,” as well as the ones between “feathers,” “violet,” “insides,” “heart,” “held,” “cup” and “dark.”
So obvious feathers on a heart pen
or beneath violet insides Open
center when your heart is a
small baby born
Horn cup held inside and you wear
a gown with dark torn
a dark train
and starry yellow
flags for me maybe also
(from “So Obvious,” 12)
As Long As Trees Last writes the stubborn, sassy and slicing survival of a woman that listens to the rage and whisperings of the land—”My soil: alluvial / the fertile where my mother birthed” (25). Nguyen examines the bottom of a pioneer’s foot and knows what it means to be two [verbs, languages, adjectives, emotions] at the same time. From “Adopted” to “Native” to “Thatch,” “Trust” and “Vine,” these are some “Words You Should Know” when learning about the binding contracts and rapid contractions caused by diaspora’s intimacy with our world.
* * *
IMMA by Ji Yoon Lee | Radioactive Moat Press 2012 | Sold Out, Free Download Available
Ji Yoon Lee’s chapbook IMMA is an explosion. It’s a minefield of samples spitting up in your face. It’s your life on a weapons of mass destruction diet. It’s pissed off, cocked and ready to rock. If war wrecks language, then IMMA has been reloaded from the wreckage.
I first saw Lee perform at this year’s Delta Mouth Literary Festival at Louisiana State University. In one piece, she spoke in Korean through a tiny bullhorn that made her voice tinny and mechanical, while playing a recording of the text (put through Google Translate several times) read in English by a computerized voice. I was blown away by her strategies of translation and her efforts to make language strange, a tactic that she uses in IMMA. These poems are made of a mangy, mangled, ”commingledlanguage” that is fused and unwilling to be pulled apart. Words merge and clump in the mouth, unapologetically yelling.
The United States’ historical participation in war in the Pacific theater, and all that comes with it (R&R, mail order brides), has shaped so much of what Asian/White and Asian/American intimacies have become and continue to look like in the western imagination. War has directly contributed to the ways bodies of “the other” are carved and cut into and has influenced the readiness to feast on fear and feed into narratives of domination. “[Y]our synergistic globalization is my conglomerate prostitution:” writes Lee, who drops glitter bombs on gendered and racialized fantasies of supremacy and submission in this book and stares you down until you take it.
I’m ok being your diversity plan;
It is my mode of existence: It is my mode of insistence
There is the cityplan under my belt of explosives;
It is my mode of modification: It is my mode of fornication
Defamation of American flag: Defecation of unidentifiable flag
An unidentifiable body surfaces on the level of cheap alliteration
Please do not litter; be a good noncitizen
Please use the container provided; be a good conartist
Is it ok that I am your diversity case? Is it ok that I am your basket case?
Is it tolerable that I am your varsity case? Is it permissible that I am your it-girl showcase? [...]
Is it okay I’m in your suitcase? Is it ok I’m your cold case? […]
My belly is warm and I am your forensic case
In the opening poem, “To:,” I love the way “existence” becomes “insistence,” “modification” becomes “fornication,” “Defamation” becomes “Defecation,” “alliteration” becomes “litter,” “container” becomes “conartist,” “flag” becomes “body,” “basket case” becomes “showcase” becomes “suitcase” becomes “cold case.” Each word has a volatility of sound that threatens to transform, changing its molecular structure and its meaning. The references to “diversity plan” or “diversity case” hint at some kind of tokenization or exotification that the speaker fights against through the course of the piece—fighting even past death, the belly still warm.
Imma manhandle my fatbags like a boss
Imma boorish catcall your funsacks like a man […]
Imma torch your house; lit with your beeswax
Imma rugburn your place down; like a boss on the secretary desk
Mind your own baloney business
& Go make me my balcony suicide sandwich
(from “you can’t handle my bloodhole”)
In “you can’t handle my bloodhole,” Lee lets fly more of her “commingledlanguage,” and like a “balcony suicide sandwich” you thought was baloney, it can be hard to chew. Words like “manhandle,” “fatbags,” “catcall,” “funsacks,” “beeswax” and “rugburn” roll around in the mouth but won’t break in two, just like the full-throttle, contractive force of “I am” and “gonna” in “Imma.” Ji Yoon Lee’s IMMA barrels on. It’s not water-soluble, “but you may need to swallow it.”