A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh
Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of three books of poems, including the recently published Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press) and Best Gay Poetry (A Midsummer’s Night Press), and in journals such as Cimarron Review and PN Review. Born and raised in Singapore, he lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.

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LR: Seven Studies for a Self Portrait is divided into seven chapters, with seven poems in each chapter, and forty-nine in the last. What is the significance of the number seven?

SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT
SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT

JLK: Seven days in a week. The practice of writing a poem a day is important to me. The days when I don’t write feel empty to me, incoherent, lost. A day, like a poem, is invaluable for itself and also for being a part of something larger, like a week or a life. I wrote my first book Payday Loans, a series of 30 sonnets, in the month before I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with my MFA.

One of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin, asks in a poem, “What are days for?” He answers himself, as poets have the habit of doing, “Days are where we live.” A day is an on-going project. At the moment I am reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. She speaks of Nietzsche’s will to power as a project of self-transcendence. When Larkin considers transcendence, he says in his typically sardonic manner that the question brings the priest and the doctor running. Because I have lost my faith in organized religion and have yet to place my life in the hands of medical science, I am working out my daily transcendence in writing poetry.

I wrote Seven Studies for a Self Portrait in two years. As I wrote, the number seven acquired and transformed its Christian meanings—the days of Creation, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eshuneutics, who reviewed my book, puts it well, “This silent structuring … evokes a tradition running from the mediaeval period and sets a context for the spiritual enquiries within the book.” Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from which my book got its epigraph, was an inspiration for the post-Christian enquiry.

As vital as the spiritual quest was for me, so was the musical composition that the number enabled. A sequence of seven poems has not only a beginning and an end, but also a well-defined middle. It also breaks up into two unequal parts—four and three—half of the sonnet’s proportions. The first six sequences in fact culminate in two sonnet sequences, one English, the other Italian. Breaking through and re-working that framework is the final set of 49 ghazals, each made up of seven couplets about love. The ghazals raise, in my imagination, a 7 x 7 x 7 cube. In planning this structure, I was thinking very much of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, in particular, the last game that the Magister Ludi builds from the floor plan of a Japanese house.

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The Page Transformed: Fiona Sze-Lorrain on Ekphrasis

Man Ray's "Larmes"
Man Ray's "Larmes"

As we continue our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain, whose first book (Water the Moon) we reviewed last month, graciously answers some questions that we’ve posed to her about the ekphrastic elements of her collection.

WATER THE MOON

LR: How do you envision your work with ekphrasis with respect to the larger arc or project of Water the Moon?

FSL: Ekphrasis is indeed one of the many channels I turn to for building the muscle of my imagination. The Greeks say, “In the beginning was the verb.” How about “In the beginning was the image”? I remember having read — a long time ago — an interview with the French theatre artist, Ariane Mnouchkine, who (probably influenced by the Japanese theatre philosopher and pioneer, Zeami) perceived emotion as coming from recognition, which is an useful perspective for actors. In a way or another, I too define my experience of ekphrasis as emotion coming from recognition… for instance, by recognizing something in paintings that can transform descriptive clues to deceptively personal/emotional landscapes or narrative possibilities. Part of the larger arc of Water the Moon is about dialogues with artistic voices or consciousness that follow me like shadows over time. Steichen, Van Gogh, Dora Maar, Man Ray… these happen to be just some of them whose iconic images play a role in molding my sensibilities since a child.

LR: In “Steichen’s Photographs,” you write “Photos have no verbs . . . / . . .Verbs are those trying not to pose” (58). Indeed, it seems that your ekphrastic engagement with photography in the collection is more immediate in nature than your engagement with other artistic media, like painting — for example, in “Van Gogh is Smiling,” you continually invite a reconstruction of his iconic images, “Let’s imagine fifteen sunflowers” or “Let’s retrace your starry blue night” (51), rather than delivering a direct experiential response to a particular work. In what ways does the camera’s eye provide a different type of visual or interpretive experience than other forms of visual art (e.g. painting, sculpture)?  How did these differences influence your decisions about craft and perspective?

FSL: Perhaps this is just a personal preference. I am married to a man who knows much about the world and craft of photography. By chance and good fortune, I have also crossed paths with the work of a few important photographers of our times. So I tend to feel more intimate with photographs, though paintings, to be honest, always offer me the contemplative space whenever I need it. Photographs — less so. They tend to be more visceral for me, and contain specific social realities that I can more easily identify with or pinpoint. As you can see, the cover image of my new book of poetry, Water the Moon (italics) is also a photograph. (It is entitled “Cortona,” taken by American photographer, Blake Dieter, in Italy). The clock in it is a metaphor of the Moon – in terms of time. I like films tremendously too and sometimes imagine photographs as immortalised snapshots from an unknown film. In general, it is harder for me to be oblique when writing about photographs than about paintings. You do not see something just because it is visible. There must be something else. What is it? I don’t know.

LR: Both “Steichen’s Photographs” and “Larmes” balance deftly on the seam between the perceived and the perceiver — in other words, we are made aware of the strange subjectivities at work when our gaze as readers is directed towards the speaker, whose observations become the subject of the poem as a piece of art, even while she herself is engaged in a process of fixing another artist’s subject in her own gaze. How can ekphrasis be of use to both the poet and the reader of poetry as an exercise in gaze, perspective, and subjectivity?

FSL: Ekphrasis (like any form of writing) is all about distance, because ultimately even if emotion must come from recognition, there comes a distilled point when the lie of the expression becomes evident: the artist, the painting, the poem, the writer, the reader, the reading … all these can never exist in one same space of subjectivity. “Let it not be the medium we question but the man — painter and photographer,” summed up Sadakichi Hartmann in “A Monologue” that was published in Camera Work in 1904, around the time of Steichen’s early photography. If anything, what ekphrasis offers is a bridge between various agendas, intentions and temporalities, based on an unchanging image. This bridge is dynamic — it constructs and deconstructs itself all the time. Besides, no one gaze is identical. I suppose it really is just simply the evocative power of an image that defines what we would call ekphrasis. At least this is what I feel – for now…

To read more about Fiona Sze-Lorrain, please visit her web site.   Water the Moon was released by Marick Press in February 2010 and is available for purchase on their site.

Editors’ Picks: Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interviewed by Retort

Melbourne-Based Retort Magazine

We were recently given a heads’ up about this fascinating interview in Retort Magazine that Singaporean poet Desmond Kon conducted with Fiona Sze-Lorrain (whose book, Water the Moon, we reviewed earlier this year).  [Thanks, D.K., for the link!]

Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Here’s an excerpt (Sze-Lorrain on place and geography in her work):

Places permeate my writing since you may say that I am someone of travels — in exile and displacement, so-called. I’ve traveled, yes, and at times, without a choice, but I am never a tourist. Pierre Nora sees places as sites of memories; I see places as moments and years. I thought that writing about places as memories risks falling into the trap of flat sentimentalism, or a re-invention of the past. Unlike most artists in exile who eschew geographical precision, I look towards the porosity of borders — both physical and temporal — for inspiration. Otherwise, places are no different from identities, and any kind of identity will never fail to imprison souls.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.   Also worth checking out is the latest issue of Cerise Press, a magazine that Sze-Lorrain creates and edits with Karen Rigby and Sally Molini. It’s an intriguing space that beautifully mixes translation, art, and lyric — and is well worth the read.

Editors’ Picks: Voices From Southeast Asia

Voices from Southeast Asia

While browsing the library for new voices in Asian American poetry, I came across the book Voices From Southeast Asia: The Refugee Experience in the United States (Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1991).  Though the book is not new, it provides historic context for the experiences that have shaped and seeded much of contemporary Southeast Asian American poetry.  The 247-page volume is comprised of a series of oral histories, each of which features the life experience of a Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, or Cambodian refugee to the United States.  Though most of the book is written in prose, there are a few narratives in verse form.  The poem below, for example, was written by a Cambodian woman after her relocation to the Bronx.

URBAN LIFE

They take us and put us in boxes to live.

Each family lives in the same kind of box […]

Our boxes are not all in the same building […]

So we talk on the telephone and imagine

what this person does and

how he lives in his box

and I tell him about life in my box.

This poem, probably one of the earliest instances of Southeast Asian American poetry, captures in simple, unsentimental, and uncomplicated terms the experience of resettlement in the United States by a faceless “they,” a “they” responsible not only for “tak[ing] us” from Cambodia, but “put[ting] us in boxes to live.”  In the speaker’s sense of disconnection, her need to construct an imagined community life, and attempts to communicate across fractured lines, one begins to identify the beginnings of Southeast Asian American poetry.

The accounts in the book are, as US Senator Edward Kennedy puts it, “full of the agony of exile, the disruption of the refugee camps, [and] the challenge of starting over.”  Since 1975, over a million Southeast Asians have settled in the United States, established communities across the country, and begun to shape the voice of contemporary Asian American poetry.  The question for Asian American poets writing today, both those of Southeast Asian descent and other ethnicities, is how to engage the concerns of their history and to move forward.

If, in your own writing, you have struggled to engage historical material (family myth, oral narrative, historical text) in verse, please share your experiences here.  What forms and methods have worked for you?  What dilemmas and/or points of resistance have you encountered?  We look forward to hearing your thoughts.