As we announced last week, we’re back and more excited than ever to embark on a new journey with Lantern Review. It’s been a fruitful, restorative two years since we published our last issue, and as we’ve begun to ask ourselves what’s next, we’ve found ourselves reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned by going on hiatus.
Here are a few things we’ve discovered from taking our much-needed rest.
Self-care is important. Nobody can do everything. There are seasons when it is necessary to attend to the non-art-related things in our lives—to family, to one’s health, to relationships, to the keeping of a roof over one’s head. These are the things that enable us to create making art. And it’s imperative not to neglect them if we are to live healthy, fulfilled, and sustainable lives both on and off the page.
Keeping a notebook is a poet’s lifeline. It’s a record of the vital, ongoing dialogue with oneself, one’s art, one’s reading. Observations, notes, drafts of book reviews, quotations—when kept in a notebook, they become a record of the poetic sensibility in motion.
Poetry can create family, but sustaining that family requires work. When we started LR in 2009, we were still MFA students, not too long out of college, and, like most young poets of color, hungering after a community to call our own. Over the years, our work on LR has provided us with a rare gift, in that it has made our chosen literary family uniquely accessible to us. So when we made a conscious choice to step back from the magazine, we had to find other ways to engage. What we learned in the months that followed is that often, community is one what makes of it. Sometimes it finds you on its own, but for the most part, one must seek it out, carving it out of the rock if necessary, to survive. How does one do this? By reading more books by poets of color. By writing to those poets. By bringing them into your spaces. By teaching their work in your classroom. Poetry knits artists together, but like any family, it takes effort to foster growth and belonging.
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?
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.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion began “The White Album.” Her words have been on repeat in my head during the months that I have been neglecting this column while putting the finishing touches on my thesis for Saint Mary’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. As I prepared to walk for graduation, I found myself returning to the beginning and wondering: Is that why I decided to tell stories? What exactly is the nature of telling stories?
This past January, I took a class that explored fairy tales from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective. I thought it would help me learn how to write stories since folk tales have both expository and narrative elements and follow set structural patterns. There is a hero or heroine who goes on a journey. There is a donor who helps the hero or heroine. There is a conflict, separation and ultimately a reunion. Things tend to happen in threes. In order to find the narrative arc in my own story, I decided to go back to the very beginning.
Some folklorists believe that the first stories told were tales of giant-slayers. In a Norwegian tale, seven brothers go off in search of seven brides, and the oldest six are turned to stone by a giant’s hand. Only the youngest prince and princess are able to trick the giant and destroy his heart. Or in the Portuguese version, three sisters go out into a field to pick flowers, then disappear. When the youngest brother comes of age, he goes off in search of his lost sisters and finds the first two married to the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes respectively. But his youngest sister is being held prisoner by an evil giant that wants to force her hand in marriage, and the brother must destroy the giant’s heart. Then there’s the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey or David and Goliath. Were these stories told in order for ancient people to live or were they just stories the peasants liked to tell to pass the time?
Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of the Hongo Store in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951. He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret. He complained so, his parents sent him back when he was nine, where he lived in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who so hated him, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. when he was ten. He grew up fighting from then on, all the way through Gardena High School, where he encountered Shakespeare, Camus, and Sophocles in English classes. They convinced him to try higher education, so he went to Pomona College, managed to graduate, still fighting, and found poetry there under the tutelage of Bert Meyers. He wandered Japan, Michigan, and Seattle thereafter, supporting himself through wits and lies, directing the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77, becoming poet-in-residence at the Seattle Arts Commission in 1978. He then gave up wit and went back to graduate school at UC Irvine, studying with the poets Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, and Howard Moss, all of whom averred he deserved hanging. Hongo has subsequently taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, and Oregon, where, fool that he was, he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. He has written three books of poetry, including Coral Road (Knopf, 2011), edited three anthologies of Asian American literature, and published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are two fellowships from the NEA, two from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is now in semi-retirement and fights no one, having lost all his teeth and suffered from tapioca of the hands. He plays with his daughter, scolds his two grown sons, and loves his wife Shelly Withrow. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo. In Eugene, where he lives, they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.
LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?
GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.
To this day, I still remember reading Seattle poet Koon Woon’s first official book of poetry,The Truth In Rented Rooms(Kaya Press, 1998) back in Rochester, NY. As I read more of his writing it was like watching the smudgy white walls of my studio apartment turn into a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I could tell Woon’s writing came from a place of strength and hurt, truthfulness and sorrow. These were human qualities I had taken for granted all my life before I started writing poetry myself.
Woon’s writing had the wonderful ability of convincing me to peer deeper into the well of mystery and to search for my own meaning in life. He writes in the poem “In Water Buffalo Time,”
When my little friends mocked me for my seriousness,
Our teacher, under the shade of the yung tree bursting with berries,
Told us Meng-Tse had dreamed he was a butterfly
Dreaming it was a man.
Without even knowing what a “yung tree” or who “Meng-Tse” was, I intuitively knew that as a poet of Asian descent I was on the threshold of a long literary tradition in this country I called home. I knew I had already missed much, but I soon realized that the curling waves of Asian American literature(s) populate a very large and deep body of experience, innovation and experimentation that only keeps on getting stronger.
The editors of the Lantern Review blog have asked me to review books of poetry, and I intend to employ my trusty reading skills and quirky powers of interpretation to the task of properly introducing poetic works by Asian American authors to You, the general reading audience. The kind of poetry that reels me in and makes me want to take another bite is one where the author simplifies the complex only to open me back up and engage my mind with the never-ending complexity of human experience and imagination.
Opening Nagra’s award-winning debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is a poem meant to be heard, not read, starring an Indian immigrant to Britain, a newly-married, drinking, dancing workingman, brimming with energy and appetite. A more lovable version of Berryman’s Henry/Mr. Bones, he is talking to us, we are almost certain, though we don’t know who he thinks we are. With a vulgar voice uncannily reminiscent of one’s Punjabi uncle, the speaker is of a sort rarely (successfully) rendered in Indian Diaspora poetry, which has hitherto featured elegant, editorial speakers who wield the Queen”s English with ease, self-consciousness, and occasional guilt. Not told through the mediation of second or third generation children, nor the subdued hindsight of a grandfather, the poem and its speaker make of the past the present.
On one hand, Nagra does what poets do with their immigrant speakers. Things exist in pairs: his English pop culture references are mixed with Punjabi syntax, he tangos to the Pakeezah record, his wife makes him roti at home while his mate Jimmy John’s girlfriend shoves “his plate of / chicken pie and dry white / potato” at him “like Hilda Ogden”. In nearly each line, Nagra gives the speaker both the ordering force of Old English style alliteration and conversational idiosyncrasies, making him at once a bard and an enthusiastic friend. This happens right off the bat, in the memorable first stanza: “Di barman’s bell done dinging / so I phone di dimply-mississ, / Putting some gas on cookah, / bonus pay I bringin!”