A Conversation with Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su is the author of three books of poems, Middle Kingdom (Alice James, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), and Having None of It (Manic D, 2009). Among her awards are a Puschart Prize and an NEA fellowship. She is poet-in-residence and chair of the English department at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Recent poems are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, New England Review, and Hawai’i Pacific Review.


LR: In the 1990s, you participated in the slam poetry revival, even going to the nationals for the NYC team in 1991. How did you move from the poetry slam world to your current place in academia?

AS: I fell into the poetry slam by accident when I was too young to have a writerly identity and the slam was too young to have specific expectations of contestants. There was less of a page-stage divide. I saw no contradiction in reading my poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café while sending them to university-based literary journals. And the Nuyorican was a revelation. I’d never experienced writing in such a social way before. So while it may look as if I made a major transition over the years, I was really pursuing what I loved all along in whatever venues would have me. The people I met in both worlds had the same passions, though they may have been expressed differently on the surface.

Getting into academia was a different story: you don’t get an academic job by accident. Even there, though, I thought my presence might be temporary. I started out as a sabbatical replacement and only gradually began to identify myself as a member of academia. Departing from the slam scene happened organically: I no longer lived in a city, I had children, and the slam itself had changed, requiring acting skills. Not long ago, I went back to the Nuyorican and saw a whole new generation of poets doing what “we” were doing twenty years earlier. It was terrific. For me, its time had come and gone, and that was fine.

LR: You have stated in the past that your days in slam poetry taught you the value of connecting with people through the spoken word and reaching the non-university audience. How do you maintain that sense of the social in your work now?

AS: I think I do this mainly by continuing to write poems that on some levels can be read by anyone.

LR: Poetry of the academy and poetry that is accessible to non-literary audiences are often perceived as contradictory. As a poet of the academy with a spoken word past, how do you reconcile the two?

AS: I think I address this somewhat in question 1, but I might add that academic institutions can also be great home bases for students to create spoken-word events. Students are doing this at Dickinson College, where I teach. I’d also suggest that as educators, we don’t have to treat “page” and “spoken-word” poems the same way in class. Some poems you need to pick apart. Some you can just listen to or watch, and discuss in a different way: that too is instructive. The poems that don’t need much interpretation can be the hardest to use in class. That requires some adaptation on the part of the teacher.

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Review: AALR, VOL. 2, ISSUE 1

The Asian American Literary Review | Volume 2, Issue 1 | Winter/Spring 2011

In Gerald Maa’s interview with Arthur Sze in this issue of the Asian American Literary Review, Maa quotes from Auden: “Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good [anthology] can be an invaluable instructor.” The same can be said of this 300-page journal, with its wide range of material including: a forum discussion with some of the editors about the “check all that apply” race option on the 2010 Census, an enclosed DVD of Kip Fulbeck’s video short Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids, and a complete bibliography of Carlos Bulosan provided by the Library of Congress’s Asian American Pacific Islander Collection. This is all in addition to fiction, memoir, poetry, interviews with Arthur Sze (on editing Chinese Writers on Writing) and Chang-rae Lee (on his most recent novel, The Surrendered), book reviews, documentary photography, and a short graphic piece.

This issue’s theme is “Counting Citizens” and begins with a discussion about the question of multiracial self-representation on the Census. Jeffrey Yang takes a stance against the very structures of any representation and rejects claims for a ‘post-racial’ present: “not representation but transmutation, alchemy. . . . Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules.” Srikanth Reddy uses the development of Walt Whitman’s poetry as a model, charting his expansive ownership of multitudes to his subjective position as an individual: “This progression—from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience—might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.” He suggests an alternative perspective: that of the Other. Yang riffs on this and together they broach the aesthetic of language arts and “the problem of form—the ‘logic and order’ of an artwork” which seems to find friction between the canon and the margin. A different take on Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” perhaps, in which the artist is in constant tension between the codified mastery of forebears and the yet unnamed mystery of the present/future individual. Linguistic and cultural transplantation complicate loyalties, heritage, assumptions about audience, and formal considerations. Reddy writes:

To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor [as Asian American writers] has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment.

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Cerise Press | Vol. 2 Issue 5 | Fall/Winter 2010-11

Nietzsche once wrote: “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” This dilemma poses a particular challenge to new poetry: can one ever speak truly—much less write?, much less sing?—when language is a prejudice of precedent, when there is nihil sub sole novum and all sayable things seem already said? This question is also poetry’s great virtue, for no other medium is so self-aware and self-justifying. Successful poems are their own apologia, and, by exhausting the fecundity of words, strike at the experience of mystery that lies behind words. I want to keep this in mind while examining some of the poems in Cerise Press‘s fall/winter issue. Every poem published in this issue is written with a mature handle on craft, which means each is already pushing the limits of the medium and approaching quiddity. The poems are of high quality, and for me to select one over another will be merely a matter of taste. For this reason, rather than praise what is already self-evidently praiseworthy, I want to approach this review with rhetoric in mind, with the goal of evincing how my favorite poems from this issue work and what they have to say about their own process.

Retelling the Expected

Patty Seyburn’s “A Year on Mars” is a kind of model of the conflict I’m describing. Seyburn takes up a tired theme—disillusioned love—and makes it linguistically new. Thematically, the human world is narrated with a vernacular of astrology: “I orbited you,” “this igneous adventure,” “everyone . . . bumping into the sun,” “lass stranded on that mythic isthmus,” “Mission Control // is still giving orders,” and so on. This naturalization of metaphor is a conceit of modern poetry, a fantastical irony: we know that people do not orbit one another, but the poem’s liveliness convinces us that indeed they do. The poem’s speaker narrates her courtship and breaking-up, which we can generally deduce, and makes it vivid precisely by depicting what it is not. Each time we ‘get it’ and connect metaphor to perspective, we undergo a constructive experience that brings the poem to life. The language of the poem (at its most distancing when “stranding a preposition, / widowing a noun”) is regulated and balanced by the speaker’s playfulness. The opening fact about Mars stretches into a metaphor—“as I orbited you / before I began to degenerate”—which would be hard to take if not for the next line, which is cute and colloquial and grounds us in the speaker’s personality: “You must be awfully affable . . .” Thus the language keeps us straddling what we may call the common and the poetical. Alone, either would be prolix; juxtaposed, we synchronically experience both a relationship and a cosmos. Metaphor functions on a physical level, as studies have long shown; when we think of ‘hot’ as in ‘sunny,’ we are activating the same part of the brain that thinks of ‘hot’ as in ‘spicy.’ So, when the red color-theme emerges in this poem, our perception is adjusted to include all that it encompasses, not merely that which it refers to.

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