In celebration of our magazine’s ten-year anniversary, we’ve been catching up with past contributors via our process profile series. Today, in the last of this summer’s series, Issue 6 contributor Lee Herrick reflects back on his poem “The House Is Quiet, Except.”
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When my daughter first touched a book, she slid her tiny finger along the soft, padded page of the picture book like it was a kind of miraculous discovery. By the time she began to read, she often sat with her legs crossed on the ground near a bookshelf while she read. Once, on the occasion that inspired this poem, she was reading and whispering the words into the air, and it struck me: What might she be discovering? What worlds is she entering?
In “The House Is Quiet, Except,” I imagined her future life like I imagine most parents imagine about their children. More than anything, I want her to be happy and to have the fortitude to make it through the unhappy times. I hope she knows that she is loved. I hope she will find love or that love finds her, whatever form it takes. I don’t know if she will ever need saving, but I want her to know that books can save us in times of despair, isolation, or doubt, and that there is something living or holy inside of a book, like there is inside of us. She’s a teenager now, and she is still a voracious reader. It calms me to know how she loves books.
Watching my daughter read is watching her world grow. I think of the hundreds of years before us, the hundreds of years after us, and the gift of the present moment—how these merge into a good book and surge through us, our lives.
The biggest challenge in this poem was cutting it down, finding enough precision but letting it breathe enough. Speaking to the joys and wonders of fatherhood but not getting lost in sentiment. The last line of the poem was imagined, partially. I can’t be sure there was a light around her body. But I can’t be sure there wasn’t.
I wrote this poem almost as a meditation, and it became the last poem in Scar and Flower.
With her permission, when I read the poem to an audience, it’s often the final poem. There’s a hopeful finality that also opens back up at the end of a good book. I wanted this feeling in the poem, too.
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Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flowerand two other books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles from Desire. He is coeditor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books, 2020). His poems appear widely in literary magazines, textbooks, and anthologies such as One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form; Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, with an introduction by Common; Here: Poems for the Planet, with an introduction by the Dalai Lama; California Fire and Water; and Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, among others. Born in Daejeon, Korea, and adopted to the United States at ten months, he served as Fresno Poet Laureate from 2015–2017. He lives in Fresno, California, and teaches at Fresno City College and the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University.
As an Asian American-focused publication, Lantern Review is committed to promoting diverse voices within the literary world. In solidarity with the Black community and in an effort to amplify Black voices in poetry, we’re sharing a different book by a Black poet in each of our blog posts this summer.
In celebration of our magazine’s ten-year anniversary, we’re catching up with past contributors this summer via our process profile series. In today’s profile, Issue 6 contributor Brynn Saito reflects back on her poem “Dinuba, 1959.”
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Inspired by communion with a photograph, this short poem inquires into the life and spirit of my mother, Janelle Oh Saito. In the photograph, my mother is about five years old, appearing as the poem describes: bright-eyed before the Dinuba, CA, farmhouse in a white dress. Rereading it now, I see how much my “terrible need to know” has shaped my poetics over the course of the last decade, in the time since the poem manifested itself on the page. In my mother, I’ve forever intuited an unsheltered, untouched wonder—a powerful wonder that tips into joy and laughter so easily. Alongside this energy, I’ve felt a fiery rage, born from what she endured as a child and fueling her current community work. In trying to understand her life, her personhood, I was—I am—subconsciously seeking to know something elemental about myself and something true about the histories shaping our family and making possible the worlds awaiting us. The photograph, then, was a portal to past and future.
I’ve returned, after nearly twenty years away, to my hometown of Fresno, CA, to live. Fresno is the primary city in the middle of the sprawling Central Valley—the valley where my immigrant elders labored; to where my grandparents returned after the Japanese American incarceration of World War II; where my mother’s grandparents settled after fleeing Korea, which, at the turn of the twentieth century, was suffering and surviving under the brutal Japanese occupation. My “terrible need to know,” first articulated in this poem, has, in the short time I’ve been back, unearthed new stories from the memory trove. Closer now to the land that made us and living about a mile from my parents’ house, I’ve become a listener and recorder. (Visit Dear— to see one community-based poetry project that has bloomed into a living archive of letters and portraits.) I’ve also nudged my mother (and father) into writing and telling their own stories, which they’ve performed before large audiences—something I never expected to see.
“I know who she becomes and why,” goes the poem. “But the how will escape me / continues to escape me.” Will, perhaps, always escape me, as our knowledge of the past is forever incomplete. But a desire fills that gap—an imaginative power that drew me to the photograph and draws me still: to the wellspring of memory and feeling, to a place beyond language where I commune with the energies that came before me, where I remember and make whole the body of my future self.
“Dinuba, CA, 1959” was published six years ago in Lantern Review, scrawled (most likely) in a workshop setting, and chiseled down to its three sentences for its inclusion in my second book. Today, it continues to undisguise itself, reveal itself—as the most lasting poems (and people and places) do.
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Brynn Saito is the author of two books of poetry from Red Hen Press: Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She recently authored the chapbook Dear—, commissioned by Densho, an organization dedicated to sharing the story of the World War II–era incarceration of Japanese Americans. Brynn is assistant professor of creative writing in the English Department at Fresno State and codirector of Yonsei Memory Project. More at brynnsaito.com and yonseimemoryproject.com.
As an Asian American-focused publication, Lantern Review is committed to promoting diverse voices within the literary world. In solidarity with the Black community and in an effort to amplify Black voices in poetry, we’ll be sharing a different book by a Black poet in each of our blog posts this summer.
In anticipation of the ten-year anniversary of our first issue, we’re excited to return to our process profile series. Over the course of the summer, we’ll be catching up with past contributors as we ask them to reflect on their process for either a poem of theirs—whether one that appeared in LR or one that they’ve written more recently. Today, as we close out APA Heritage Month, we’re excited to kick off the series with a profile from Issue 4 contributor and former blog staff writerMonica Mody, who reflects on parsing both Motherlines and borderlands as she wrote her recent poem “Nani’s Letter” (first published in Kajal Magazine).
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“Nani’s Letter” was published in Kajal Magazine earlier this year. It appears, as well, in my 2019 PhD dissertation, “Claiming Voice, Vitality, and Authority in Post-Secular South Asian Borderlands: A Critical Hermeneutics and Autohistoria/teoría for Decolonial Feminist Consciousness.” I maintain that cross-genre and multi-genre writing makes space for the insurgent epistemologies of the borderlands—in this, I am joined by Gloria Anzaldúa, whose theory of the borderlands continues to animate new decolonized pathways.
“Nani’s Letter” is an epistolary poem, written as the letter that my grandmother might have sent to me across time—across the Partition of India—across the legacies of trauma and silencing. The violence my grandmother saw is not a matter of the past for the Indian subcontinent, which is yet to heal the national trauma of colonialism and of the Partition. What follows are synergistic excerpts that precede the poem in my dissertation.
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In 1947, my two-year-old mother lost her mother. Grandmother—Nani—was killed by a rioting mob during the violence that spread in the wake of the Partition of India and Pakistan. She was killed by the mob in her own village, along with her sister-in-law and nephew.
In 1947, I lost my mother’s mother. For a long time, I did not realize that this one loss imbricated multiple losses. Growing up, it was not only my grandmother who was absent from my life: entire lifeworlds she would have brought forth were absent too. Naomi Ruth Lowinsky writes, “Standing at the crossings of family history, generational change, and archetypal meanings, a grandmother locates her grandchild in the life stream of generations. She is the tie to the subterranean world of the ancestors; she plays a key role in helping a woman reclaim essential aspects of her feminine self. Standing close to death, she remembers the dead. She tells their stories, hands down their meanings and their possessions.”
Without a grandmother or grandmother figure around as a child, I did not have a guide into this wider circle of relationships. And yet, it was not a loss I fully comprehended. The silence around Ma’s family and what they had gone through shrouded my ability to perceptually be aware of the contours or depth of the loss. In writing about my grandmother, then, I am reclaiming not only her, but also myself from silence.
Crossing the Border
Before the Partition, Ma’s family lived in Dera Ghazi Khan, a district in the Punjab Province. The violence that erupted before the Partition took both Nani and the wife of Nana’s younger brother. The exodus also tore the family from the land they had lived on—their embedded histories.
These losses are also mine. The shared border between “me” and “them” is where silence has collected around these losses.
One way to recover the stories in this silence is for me to cross the border, return to Dera Ghazi Khan. I must recreate the borderlands to return to Nani—to mourn these losses and find healing. “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Heeding this guidance from Anzaldúa, I will perform the return first in memory and in imagination. As I articulate this journey in writing, I want it to light up the hauntings, relationships, narratives in my motherline. I want it to intervene in the improbability of an actual return to Dera Ghazi Khan.
For a while, I become a proto-colonial armchair traveller, travelling to Dera Ghazi Khan via W. W. Hunter’s The Imperial Gazetteer of India. It takes me a moment to recognize the irony in this. The Imperial Gazetteer was among the projects undertaken after the 1857 Revolt to provide relevant and reliable information to the colonial administration so as to better map, measure, and control the native populace. It is a prototype of systematized knowledge production based on an ethnological focus on race, caste, and religion. The ethnographic accounts provided in the gazetteer—along with census reports—reflected the nineteenth-century colonial policy of relying on racial science to justify British domination over India. India was the “laboratory of mankind”—and in this laboratory all kinds of cultural differences between different groups of people were naturalized under racial and ethnic categories.
Unhappily, projects such as the gazetteer and the census also eclipsed all other forms of knowledge production. The epistemologies behind such knowledge production are precisely what I am seeking to decolonize within myself.
The Imperial Gazetteer does not recount the dreams of the people living in Dera Ghazi Khan in 1885. It does not tell us the stories that were told to its young or the songs that were sung around the fire. It does not seek to see into their hearts or the soaring of their souls. It does not give any sense of what they cherished or valued, of who they really were. Being attentive to these would have meant giving the colonized interiority—and ascribing to them a fullness of humanity.
Thegazetteerwas not interested in Dera Ghazi Khan as a place, which in cultural geography is a social concept. Place designates that which is “created by people: it is lived experience; it is the ways in which people use and imagine space.” This is in contrast to space: the physical, three-dimensional expanse. Space is a configuration of geography that enables distance—rather than intimacy—to be an interpretive norm. Space exists within conventional awareness because distance can be identified as an interval between separating objects. Distance, detachment, disinterest: these are the epistemological attitudes through which positivistic colonialist logic comes to articulate what it claims are universal organizing principles—and comes to disarticulate dignity, embeddedness, intimacy.
The gazetteer, with its claim of presenting empirical and statistical data, created sufficient distance between the people being studied and the “neutral” administrators undertaking the study to legitimize colonization. Colonial expropriation and subjugation depends upon articulating sufficient separateness between the colonizer and the colonized; the “data” in the gazetteer made this separateness possible.
This goes against my intended goals for performing a return—to come to a deeper, more soulful knowing of my grandmother and her affective life, to locate myself in the life stream of generations. There must, then, be a different way than a colonial tool to find my way back to my grandmother.
To Know: To Reconstruct
I was made by my grandmother, even if I never knew her. To know her, I turn to the relational hermeneutics of creative reconstruction, to imagination. It is not graspability I seek, but evocation. Without lived or inherited memories—amidst so many fragmentary narratives and silences—how may I rediscover my connection to this ancestress, to my motherline? How may I center my grandmother’s voice and agency? How may I restore to myself a voice that knows its own falterings, silences, and cries as part of a stream of generations?
 Lowinsky, The Motherline, 115.
 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 87.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 208–13; Arondekar, For the Record, 12–13. In her monograph engaging with the colonial archive, feminist and queer/sexuality studies scholar Arondekar suggests that the massive archive of texts from this period relied on for imperial governance “literalized the distance between colonizer and colonized.” Ibid., 13.
 Pinney, “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind,’” 252–63. As I read historian John Marriott’s research on the construction of caste and racial typologies in nineteenth-century India, I was nauseated to realize that these typologies continue to pervade the mindsets of contemporary Indians: that I, too, have unconsciously internalized the taxonomy of what Marriott phrases “physiognomy, colour, and physique.” Marriott, The Other Empire, 211.
 Marriott, The Other Empire, 214.
 Van Schendel, “Spatial Moments,” 99.
 Lawlor, Voices of the First Day, 41.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera = The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Arondekar, Anjali R. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
Lawlor, Robert. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Lowinsky, Naomi Ruth. The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find Her Female Roots. Carmel, CA: Fisher King Press, 2009.
Marriott, John. The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Pinney, Christopher. “Colonial Anthropology in the ‘Laboratory of Mankind.’” In The Raj: India and the British, 1600–1947, edited by C. A. Bayly, 252–63. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990.
van Schendel, Willem. “Spatial Moments: Chittagong in Four Scenes.” In Asia Inside Out: Connected Places, edited by Peter C Perdue, Helen F Siu, and Eric Tagliacozzo, 98–127. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
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Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press) and two cross-genre chapbooks. Her poetry also appears in Poetry International, Boston Review, Indian Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, and Immanence Journal, among other places. She holds a PhD in East West Psychology and an MFA in creative writing, along with a more rarely used degree in law. She was recently awarded the 2020 Kore Award for Best Dissertation in Women and Mythology for her multi-genre dissertation which utilized theory, memoir, and poetry. Her previous awards include the Nicholas Sparks Postgraduate Writer-in-Residence Prize from the University of Notre Dame, Naropa’s Zora Neale Hurston Award, and the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing. Monica was born in Ranchi, India.Additional work drawn from her dissertation can be found here and here.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installment, we spoke with poet Soham Patel about punctuation, music, the rituals of preparation that surround her writing practice, and the James Baldwin story that inspired her gorgeous second collection,ever really hear it (Subito, 2018).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Where and how do you like to work when you write? What rituals help you to persist when you come to the page?
SOHAM PATEL: In my writing practice, I attempt to balance a fair amount of discipline and play. I like to write poetry in my home. My poetics believes that we embody language when we come to the page, so in terms of rituals I have several that persist: like these days, it’s making sure I do, even for just a few minutes, some kind of meditative exercise—like walk the dog or some yoga, even if it is just one concentrating breath to declutter my mind and detox my body. I also like to tidy up my home and then read as a way of honoring the work that’s been done before mine and has brought me to this privilege of being able to write. So today, for example, I skimmed these interview questions, folded some laundry and swept the floor, then reread James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” before sitting down to write this.
LR: ever really hear it takes its title from a James Baldwin quote: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” And, in fact, music, sonics, and performance are a central motif of the book. Why music? Can you tell us a bit about how you came to choose music as a connecting thread?
SP: The protagonist in “Sonny’s Blues” utters this sentence in the final scene while he’s watching Sonny play jazz music onstage at a nightclub in Harlem. Baldwin writes so beautifully about music’s power, its ability to be both a cure and a force that could break you into a bunch of pieces. Sometimes we burst into song like we burst into tears or laughter. When I was growing up, music was ever present because my family spent a lot of time in cars, where my parents would play their tapes from India between songs my sister and I asked to listen to on the local radio stations. Music is a mystery to me in terms of just how its power works—to change a mood, for example, and how it works on a disciplinary level because I don’t know how to read it. ever really hear it was born from my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh MFA, where I was using my time to explore these questions I had about music through poetry. Ben Lerner taught us about how Jack Spicer believed the poet was transmitting messages from radio static. Poetry was a chance to interrogate lyric’s limits and the possibilities of the speaker in many contexts.
LR: Many of the poems in the book are headed by a series of four colons in lieu of titles. And, in fact, the colon becomes much more than a punctuation mark throughout the book—it’s a linkage for analogous terms, a break, a permeable membrane, a connecting track, a beat or rest in the line of the lyric, a musical notation in and of itself. Can you tell us more about the thought that went into this choice? Why the colon, and how did you settle upon the internal grammar of its usage throughout the book as you were putting the project together?
SP: The project—as a book—for me is, most importantly, a made thing. Most of the poems are meant to sit on one page so that the physical act of the turning of the page becomes a part of the pause that occurs while moving through the book. There are five poems towards the beginning of the opening section that perform as a sequence across more than one page and are connected by the “::::” colons. In early compositions I repeatedly listened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Gold Lion” four times and wrote while trying to focus my listening to just the drums, then again for each guitar, then just focusing on Karen O’s words and vocables. At MFA school, Dawn Lundy Martin had us study Myung Mi Kim’s Dura, and that’s where I first saw the “:” on the page, hanging out at the top where a title should be, in a place where a colon traditionally would not be found. The subversion was so vanguard to me, and I began to think about how breaking punctuation rules might be necessary when building a poem’s structure in order to keep the language of it live. I am drawn to the stacked order and open space the colon holds, the way it is a parallel, mirrorlike. Four in a row is like a stutter to me and also an ellipsis turned to a stop. I wanted the colon to do all the things you list—and pay homage to Dura’s sequences.
LR: The work, as assembled, feels so beautifully seamless—like a continuous whole rather than a group of poems collected together. How did you go about approaching the shape of the project as you were composing?
SP: Thank you. In a manuscript workshop at MFA school, Lynn Emanuel suggested we make sure the last line of one page carried on somehow to the first words on the next page. After about four years of drafting the poems, the titles felt like a distraction, so I removed most of them, then titled each page “song:”—but that approach felt incorrect (like a placeholder), too, so I then removed titles and spent a couple more years moving each page into different movements. While I was doing this, I was also assembling the poems for my first book, to afar from afar, which was initially arranged based on the three Ayurvedic body constitutions, and so I decided to also try this structure out with ever really hear it. In the end I flipped the order and put the last movement first.
LR: A personal craft question for you: What are the road signs, the internal notes that tell you you’ve arrived, when you’re writing—whether you’re working on an individual poem or a larger project? How do you know when a poem is finished? How did you know when this manuscript was ready to go out into the world?
SP: In practical terms, I needed to send the manuscript into the world in hopes that it would get picked up so I could be considered for the kind of employment I was seeking after I earned my PhD. Otherwise, I practice poetry through large projects that require intense study, durational scope, and can take on various forms. I revise obsessively—and slowly. For this book, I approached the poem as I would a song. I used to play the guitar and sing, so memorizing lyrics and chord progressions has been embedded into me. A poem on a page is finished when I have it memorized—not always by heart but sometimes by sight or by ear; I can encounter the first line and anticipate what’s coming next, where and why the next en- or em-dash appears, and even where there’s space for spontaneity when performed. A good road sign for me is that when I can fully embody the poem (or it me), I have no doubts about each part of it and can account for every strategy made in building a thing that is solid but still porous.
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Soham Patel is the author of the poetry collections to afar from afar (The Accomplices, 2018) and ever really hear it (Subito Press, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, Soham is also an assistant editor at Fence and The Georgia Review.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent volumes of poetry about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. For this installation, we spoke with poet, translator, and zheng harpist Fiona Sze-Lorrain about the importance of listening, her belief in “time and erring from time to time,” and the pleasure of engaging Ye Lijun’s poems in her newest work of translation, My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: What first led you to the work of Ye Lijun? How did you come to translate her poems?
FIONA SZE-LORRAIN: This question is similar to “What first led you to writing a poem?” etc. Ye Lijun’s work appeals to me in part because we share similar preferences: music, visual arts, stargazing, a life outside the mainstream, and more.
LR: Your English translations of Ye’s poems carry a beautiful musicality to them. Can you describe your strategy for considering differences in sonics when translating across languages? What factors do you consider when translating Chinese sonics for the Anglophone ear?
FSL: The main thing I do is to practice listening, which might not be what one typically associates with translation when one translates. Some translators could be more concerned with the mot juste, the authenticity of texts, for instance, and these are legitimate concerns. I think beyond the technical, textual, or theoretical issues, there can be a more spiritual path. Once one starts focusing on differences—or similarities, for that matter—in sonics, and thinks about obtaining the “perfect pitch,” one is on a different path. To illustrate metaphorically, I cite two verses from Ye Lijun’s “Whereabouts”:
A mountain. Down the mountain a tunnel, sometimes echoes of singing late at night
LR: Did you have a favorite poem to translate from among those that appear in My Mountain Country? If so, what made the experience of working on it so pleasurable?
FSL: Yes, in fact, I do have several favorite poems: “Portrait at Forty,” “In Pingyuan Village,” “Grass-things,” “Back to Lotus Summit,” “Personal Life,” “Delirium,” and others. It isn’t difficult to share why the experience of working on these poems was, to borrow your words, “so pleasurable”: I like the poems, their narratives and simplicity. Beyond the “pleasure experience,” the poems themselves believe in contentment. They aren’t competitive and do not care about dominating others or being right. I am still learning much from the poems in My Mountain Country.
LR: You have also authored several original collections of poetry. How does your process for revising, ordering, and putting together a translated work differ from your process for putting together a collection of your own poems (if at all)? Are there any constant stars to which you find yourself returning time and again?
FSL: I have written three original collections of poetry. I don’t know if three is defined as several. I have written poems that can’t find a place in those three books. And I have written poems that are just terrible, even though they need to be written. The curiosity about one’s process of putting work together in aim of publication—in “book form”—is a results-oriented question and outlook. It produces a certain voyeurism. If one begins to figure a formula out for all these mysteries, in hope of applying it as frequently as possible to as many projects possible so as to achieve “success,” one is seeking a product and writing for a commodity culture or industry. It is hard for me to champion that sort of mentality. I believe in time and erring from time to time:
I have returned . . . Again and again in the backyard I plant seeds, mistakes, love —from Ye Lijun’s “A Mountain Hut”
LR: You say in your note at the end of the book that you first began translating Ye’s poems in 2011, nine years ago. When working on a project over such a long period of time, what helps you reorient yourself and gain a sense of overall trajectory each time you return to the work?
FSL: Why think of nine years as “long” or “short”? Three seconds can be short or transient, but three seconds in bed with a lover is another thing, another permanence. If you believe in time the way I do, this question will take care of itself. This goes for the anxieties of translation. The “kick” one gets out of poetry—and its translation—has to do with one’s willingness to take the path of and in an unknown spacetime.
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Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, Chinese, French, and occasionally Spanish. The author of three books of poetry, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, she has translated multiple volumes of contemporary Chinese, French, and American poets. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Her latest translation is Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019). A Blue Dark, a joint exhibition of Fritz Horstman’s ink drawings alongside Sze-Lorrain’s poems and translations handwritten in ink on treated washi, was held at the Institute Library in New Haven last summer. Sze-Lorrain is a 2019–2020 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. As a zheng harpist, she has performed worldwide. She lives in Paris.
— Note: This post was updated on 1/27 to reflect a corrected version of MY MOUNTAIN COUNTRY’s cover image and an update to our introduction: Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, and zheng harpist; not merely a poet and translator. Our sincere apologies for the previous errors.
In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. This month, we spoke with poet Eugene Gloria about writing into the political, the lyric impulse, and how the notion of “the book [as] a unified song” guided him while putting together his unflinching new collection, Sightseer in This Killing City(Penguin-Random House, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Sightseer in This Killing City responds to recent reactionary politics around the world, including in the Philippines, the US, and Europe. Did the project that became this book evolve into its political perspective over time? Or were its politics there from its genesis, and if so—was there a particular political moment that served as the igniting spark?
EUGENE GLORIA: Some of the themes that have emerged from my work over the years have explored masculinity and gun violence, displacement and grief, as well as beauty. I think I still find myself writing about these things. When I first imagined working on this collection of poems, I was interested in interrogating the person I have become after living in Indiana for many years. The initial title of my manuscript was “Karate, Guns, and Tanning,” named after a strip mall near where I live. But then the results of the US presidential election of 2016 happened around the same time the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as their president. I wrote a significant portion of Sightseer in This Killing City while living and teaching in the Philippines while on a Fulbright grant in Manila. I guess it’s safe to say that the book’s political perspective (when it was being shaped as a book) became a response to the collective grief many of us share in the era of Trump and Duterte and the mass killings we now experience with alarming regularity. So I ended up adding newer poems and taking out some older ones that no longer fit.
LR: Many of the poems in Sightseer are written in persona. How did Nacirema (the primary persona in the book) first find her way to you? Did composing in her voice shape your own process and craft at all as you worked on the book?
EG: The name Nacirema comes from Horace Miner’s essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” from American Anthropologist, published in 1956. It was a satire of sorts addressed to other social scientists. I loved the idea of a name meaning “American” except spelled backwards. I was working on a poem about a Filipino nurse I knew from my old neighborhood in San Francisco when I first encountered the name via the visual artist Michael Arcega, whom I met at the Montalvo Artists Residency. He told me that he stole the name from Miner, and so I didn’t need his permission to use it as the name of a character in my poem. From “Nurse Nacirema” came “Ave Nacirema,” then gang-banger Nacirema in one of “The War on Drugs” poems, then Camino Nacirema in “My Sad Economist on the Nature of Things”—and so on. Having a character to work with allowed me to extend my examination of identity as a performed thing and not rely so much on the “I” persona who is also a stand-in for myself. And so, yes, developing a voice through Nacirema allowed me to take various directions with my collection that I hadn’t originally imagined.
LR: Music heavily informs the syntax and sonics of the poems in the book. How does music factor into your writing process? How did it factor into your process for writing Sightseer?
EG: I often find myself revisiting my student days in writing workshop whenever I’m in the classroom with my students at the university where I teach. I find myself sometimes saying the same thing my teachers used to say to me about my poems: “So where’s the music in this?” I’ve always imagined music as feeling and sentences having their own level of sound in order to create “big” feelings. Sometimes you need to suspend sense in order to privilege music. As I’ve grown as a teacher who writes poems, I’ve allowed myself to experiment with formal structures in order to create new sonic possibilities for my narrative poems. “The Suitcase” is one example from the collection that comes to mind. Of course the lyric impulse takes over whenever I resist telling a story in my poems.
LR: The book is broken into four parts that function almost like dramatic acts or musical movements. Can you tell us more about the process by which the overall form of the book came together? For example, did you first decide upon the overall structure and then write into each section? Or did you begin with a looser assortment of poems that began to group themselves as you wrote?
EG: I once met a poet who told me that she was working on her latest collection, and she was starting with the table of contents, listing the titles of poems she still had to write. Knowing her work, I didn’t think she was kidding. I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting together a book in the same way. I write in this old-fashioned way of crafting one poem at a time until I think I have enough for a book. Conceptualizing the collection is an entirely separate process. At one point, I had imagined the book in the form of a two-album set and calling it “The Essential Nacirema”—each section of the book as one side of a vinyl disc. Arranging my poems in sections allows for significant pauses, breathing room, and allows for the ending poems to resonate until the reader moves to the next section. I go back and forth on creating sections or not having them. Somehow it made more sense to do it for this collection.
LR: This is your fourth book. Have you found that your approach and perspective to shaping a manuscript has changed over time? If so, how has it evolved? If not, what are the constant stars that have always seen you through your projects?
EG: I think it was Robert Frost who said that when you’re putting together a collection of poems and you have twenty-four poems written, the twenty-fifth poem will be the book. The idea of the book being a unified song is also a guiding principle for me.
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Eugene Gloria is the author of four books of poems—Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019); My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006); and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), a National Poetry Series selection and recipient of the Asian American Literary Award. He is the John Rabb Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and English professor at DePauw University.
Happy first week of autumn! Today, we’re excited to debut a brand-new blog series. In “Behind the Book,” we’ll chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. It’s our privilege to start off the series by chatting with contributor and longtime friend of the magazine Oliver de la Paz. Read on to learn how he pursues the discipline of returning to the page amid the busyness of family and academic life and how he grapples with writing about deeply personal subject matter—as well as about the long spool of a journey that led him to the heart of his breathtaking new collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth(U of Akron Press, 2019).
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LANTERN REVIEW: Can you tell us more about how the project for The Boy in the Labyrinth was born? Was there a specific generative moment, as in the encounter with Alicia Ostricker you recall in the Credo? How did the pieces of the story begin to make their way to you—and at what point did you realize that the boy in the labyrinth was your sons?
OLIVER DE LA PAZ: I had made a trip to read for the Slash Pine Festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 2007 or 2008. That was right around the same time my wife, Meredith, was pregnant with our first son. The poet David Welch had read a few poems, which really had resonated with me in terms of tone, so I tried my hand at a few prose poems that were operating at a similar tonal level. And I thought nothing of it. I kept writing these poems about a mysterious boy in a labyrinth. The writing got a little more frenetic as the magnitude of raising a neurodiverse child as someone who was neurotypical and completely uninformed about parenting started to sweep through my consciousness. But I didn’t connect the fact of the poems with the story of my sons until later, honestly. I continued with the strange little tone prose poems about this boy for almost ten years without looking up and realizing what I was doing. Once I realized their connection, I stopped writing them and started writing poems that ended up being the connective tissue—the questionnaires and the story problems started to trickle into the work about three years ago, and that was when I realized what I had in front of me. The poem “Credo” that opens the book was borne out of necessity. I realize that the book suffers a fatal flaw, and that is context. I had to acknowledge, in writing, my fumbling manner of writing around my anxieties and face them head on.
LR: You begin with apology (specifically, to your neurodiverse sons for writing about them)—something that, you inform the reader, is part of your writing ritual. What is the significance of apology in your writing process? While writing this book in particular, how did you weigh and wrestle with the implications and responsibilities of writing about your children?
OD: Well, I’m still quite uncomfortable about this book and that it’s out. Part of that discomfort is because I’m writing about my sons. At the time of the start of the work, they were really young and didn’t have a whole lot of say in what it was that I was doing. There was no correction from them in my wrestling with my understanding of neurodiversity. Now, my oldest kid’s almost a teenager, and he’s clearly delineated for me his boundaries. He’s read through the tricky parts, and he’s given me a nod, but further on down, I’m not sure how he’ll feel, and so we may have a very different conversation about this book. And so the apology is, in many ways, for the future. I acknowledge that this book is an artifact of a particular time that fixes my sons at a particular age with struggles that are/were particular to a specific moment in time, and in many ways we have all moved beyond that time.
LR: The impetus behind this book is so personal. Did you ever feel the need to give it space for a period of time when engaging with it felt too emotional? If so, what did those moments of space look like for you, and how were you able to keep bringing yourself back to the work each time?
OD: Oh, absolutely. I worked on other projects to get my mind off of this project. I published Post Subject: A Fable, and I worked on a sixth manuscript. The two projects outside of The Boy in the Labyrinth were much more observational, though what remained intact was the allegorical nature of the writing. I think that thread spreads throughout my work. But then I’d be reminded that I also needed to tend to the more personal work. I don’t know about how other writers work, but I’m usually juggling two or three manuscript ideas at once so that if my mind is fatigued by any given project, there’s always another work that needs my attention. Again, I had worked on the poems in The Boy in the Labyrinth for nearly ten years, so I took many breaks away from the book to get my mind right but also to accommodate being a dad and being a teacher.
LR: How did you find your way to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and the use of the Greek ode as a form by which to structure the movement of the book? What craft considerations informed your process while trying to shape the narrative within this Classical framework?
OD: The structure came later. Part of my responsibility in working on such a large singular work is to usher a reader through its girth. It’s extremely dense and seemingly repetitive, which is the nature of obsession and writing through accretion. By imagining the work as akin to a Greek ode, I was also thinking about how the structure of the Pindaric odes commemorated events and how there were predictable elements of ceremony and ritual. I take my kids to church, and there are always particular rituals that they understand (they especially know when mass is about to end). So the Classical structure helped me organize the large morass of writing that I had done, but I also wanted to help the reader through the journey.
LR: How, if at all, did your process of composing the narrative prose poems in this book differ from your process for writing into the other forms that surround and weave through them (e.g., medical questionnaires, “story problems,” etc.)?
OD: I usually alternate between writing in verse and writing in prose forms. As I had mentioned, I’m usually juggling several projects at once, and I had been writing Post Subject: A Fable concurrently with The Boy in the Labyrinth. Both of these manuscripts take their cues from allegory and fable, and I had always associated parable and allegory with very short, concise prose. I wanted to interrupt the fabulist tendencies by writing in a more clinical mode. And I wanted to interrogate the form of the standardized test or the medical questionnaire, but mostly, in my process, I truly and actually needed a break from the discursive mode of allegory. The first of the works to be written outside of the allegorical mode was the “Autism Spectrum Questionnaire: Speech and Language Delay.” And that opened my mind up to other possibilities of writing that were in dialogue with the allegorical stories. They were all written together as a chunk—I don’t write throughout the year. I wrote almost exclusively in the summer for a very short and dynamic amount of time. So, naturally, when I started down the path of writing out these questionnaires, more and more came about because of the intensity of my limited writing schedule.
LR: What were some of the joys and challenges of working on a project over such a long period of time? Do you have any advice for maintaining (or fostering) a sense of continuity among pieces written at very different points in time?
OD: Again, given my really limited amount of writing time due to parenting and all the other duties that are part of teaching in academia and being a spouse, I had to make some concessions with who I was as a writer, and so I developed a practice that grants me an immediate path when I take the task of writing up the following day. What you don’t see in The Boy in the Labyrinth are the cues that I left myself in syntax and structure that allowed me to continue the sequence. A number of them got cut in the final edits. I will say that Post Subject: A Fable shows many syntactic gestures that I used to help “warm up” my writing brain. I paint on big canvases. I almost always think of individual poems with respect to the poems adjacent to them—how a particular poem activates or negates the work surrounding it. I think in motif and pattern, and I love making bigger connections both in my own writing and in the work of writers whom I enjoy, either in individual poetry collections or a life’s work.
Of course the challenge of writing in such modes is almost always sustaining the work, and I suppose I enjoy the discipline of continuous project building. In the end, there’s something about working on a singular, sustained project that is akin to controlling one’s time.
My mother wakes up every day at around 4 AM, makes her coffee, reads, and then does her exercises. She has done this all my life. She is now in her late seventies, and she has Parkinson’s, but her ritual still persists. I admire her defiance, and in a way, writing in such an insistent, systematic, and sustained way is a kind of defiance for me. A way of making space for a ritual against the din of the world.
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Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth. He also coedited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. A founding member of Kundiman, Oliver serves as the cochair of the organization’s advisory board. He has received grants from the NYFA and the Artist Trust and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at PLU.
Aimee Suzara is a Filipino-American writer, cultural worker and educator who has been writing and performing in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1999. Her first play, Pagbabalik (Return) was produced in 2006-7 and featured at several Bay Area festivals, and she is developing her second, A History of the Body, both supported by the Zellerbach Arts Fund. Her poems can be found in several journals and anthologies, including Walang Hiya (No Shame): literature taking risks towards liberatory practice, Kartika Review, Konch Magazine, Lantern Reviewand her chapbook, the space between. She has been a featured poet and educator at schools, universities and arts venues nationally. Suzara has a Mills College M.F.A. and teaches English at Bay Area colleges. She has been a Hedgebrook Resident Artist and will be an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2011.
For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Aimee Suzara discusses her poem “My Mother’s Watch,” which appeared in Issue 2 of Lantern Review.
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Though I began writing it in 2008, three years after my parents’ return to the Philippines, this poem began on my first visit “home” in 1991. In the opening moment at the bustling palengke (market), my mother insisted that she keep on her beloved Rolex, despite the attention I felt it drew. Through the poem, I sought to gain empathy for her attachment to the watch and what it symbolized. At this crossroads where goods are sold and money exchanged, the watch became the entry point to my family’s journey as immigrants.
And so I traced back the genesis of this watch—more accurately, the events leading to the desire for the watch. I had been piecing together my parents’ story and was fascinated with their uprooting from the slow-paced life of their childhood, to the full-color Technicolor dream of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Elvis songs and surround-sound systems. I was interested in this proverbial upward mobility, how it swept these newlyweds, not more than a few dollars in tow, into a life of shiny hyper-Americana. We were an unusual Filipino family living up the nuclear-family dream, moving frequently, cut off from anything Pinoy. Racism was thick in the small desert town where I spent much of my childhood, and we were taught not to trust anyone. In the age of credit cards and microwaves, we were right up in it, and at times it seemed we lived on an island stocked, as if our ammunition against the world, with Betamax videos, Jiffy pop and Lean Cuisines.
In peer feedback, it was suggested that this was a poem about privilege and its contradictions. What had been lost, and what could possibly be gained in its place, when a sense of genuine status or acceptance would always be denied? In the attempt to return to our beginnings, what do we cling to? Now came the questions befit for memoir. Was I treating our story with enough compassion? I felt I had to ask permission; my mother read it, and she did not mind my candidness. In the writing of the poem, the roots of my parents’ desire for the “flashy” began to unravel. Images that pushed through marked my parents’ coming of age in America, and then mine.
The first draft of the poem was in three parts, but it was suggested that I separate it into more, that it was too rushed and condensed. This made sense for what I wished to convey about time. The watch, like a heartbeat, like our lives, ticked on its own time. In its final version, in five parts, the poem spans at least twenty-five years. In the remembering, and in the writing, time stands still.
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Excerpt from “My Mother’s Watch”
They do not yet miss their left-behind lives: Lolo’s rule in the house with the green metal gate where nine kids left for the West,one by one by one movie house in the little town by the sea popcorn sold out of recycled coffee cans
Sine del Sol burns to the ground: fatherless tensibling grudges
tsinellas shuf shuf shuffle across aged wooden floors timemeasured in sunrise and sunset
The ones left behind keep time in slow tick tock the clocks not turning digital
send us some Tang, cigarettes, M&Ms medicine, a change of the curtains
For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Barbara Jane Reyes discusses her piece “13. Black Jesus” [an excerpt of her longer project “The City That Nearly Broke Me”], which appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.
He emerged in my “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” series, which I started writing after this prompt: “Write about the city that saved you. Write about one that nearly broke you.” Rachelle Cruz posted this prompt on her blog while she was a PEN Emerging Voices fellow.
I’ve never excavated Manila, my birthplace; it eludes my understanding, it’s always spitting me out. That’s how I see it, and so I wanted to find a thwart-proof way in.
There is a general disdain Filipinos have for dark skin; we claim those precious few drops of Spanish blood. In this desire for whiteness, it’s ignored that much Spanish blood entered the Filipino via colonial rape.
The term “Buffalo Solider” has been around since the 1860’s, and refers to US cavalry and infantry regiments of African American soldiers. There are legends about the term’s origin, but I can’t get over the historical significance of African American men as animals. Moreover, these Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native Americans in the “Indian Wars,” and against the Filipinos in the Philippine American War. People of color pitted against one another in America’s formative wars of conquest. Some defected from the US military, became Katipunan/Philippine freedom fighters, as “posters and leaflets addressed to ‘The Colored American Soldier’ described the lynching and discrimination against Blacks in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their white masters’ ambitions to oppress another ‘people of color’.”
And of course, “Buffalo Soldier” is a Bob Marley song, whose form the poem borrows. It’s a narrative of transnational displacement, an anthem of survival and resistance:
And he was taken from Africa,
brought to America.
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
Say it was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta.
Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America.
It’s all of these displacements and reorientations that have allowed me to start the excavation.
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Excerpt from “13. Black Jesus”
After Bob Marley
The indio who carved me knew the drum and the heart are one.
He knew the song for hunting, the waiting song, the calling song.
He knew the song for planting, the song of earth’s open hand.
He knew the song for walking, the river water song.
Buffalo Soldier, Carabao Brother,
Stolen from the Americas, brought to the islands,
Sharpening machete, crouching in the jungle,
Born into slavery, son of revolution.
Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong to Swiss-British parents during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Later, he lived and worked in Shanghai for many years running an industrial design company. More recently, he moved to Iceland where he now works as a freelance journalist, poet, translator and literary critic. He is Poetry and Non-Fiction Editor for the international webzine Mad Hatters’ Review, Managing Editor of MadHat Press, and a member of the editorial board of the Boston-based Open Letters Monthly.
Marc’s recent poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming in Spillway, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poets/Artists, Nth Position, Möbius The Poetry Magazine, MiPOesias, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, FRiGG, the nervous breakdown, elimae and Inertia. A chapbook, Upholding Half the Sky, was published as part of the MiPOesias Chapbook Series by GOSS183: Casa Menendez (2010). A new chapbook, The Propaganda Factory, is forthcoming from Argotist ebooks later this year.
In this year’s May Process Profile series, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Marc Vincenz discusses his poem “Taishan Mountain,” which appeared in Issue 2.
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It happens sometimes, particularly if I am sitting up late at night attacking a blank sheaf of paper, I’ll suddenly hit upon a line, probably something totally unrelated to the piece I’m attempting, but a line that seems to ring true of its own volition. In “Taishan Mountain,” the particular line that arrived was: “It’s here, hovering on China’s precipice, / the Chairman proclaims the East is Red, / deems himself ruler of all he beholds.” When I’ve captured what I think may be at the heart of a poem, or narrative, I leave it for a day or two. I let it sit there, all alone on the page, occasionally going back to it, staring at it, meditating upon it. Quite often what I consider my better lines “arrive” when I’m dozing—not quite in sleep—but falling towards it; to quote my own poem, “hovering on the precipice.”
In this fashion, while considering the event on Taishan Mountain, this shadow appeared. At first I thought it might be a woman—perhaps Jiang Qing (Mao’s last wife and leader of the so-called Gang of Four)—standing beside the little-big man as he conquered the world atop China’s fabled Taishan Mountain. I soon realized that this persona, and consequently the narrator, was actually an unknown man. I’m not sure how; perhaps it had something to do with his posture. And this man was not even Chinese. (Actually, during the course of the Communist accession to power, numerous foreigners advised Mao). I wondered, of course: what if Mao’s most trusted advisor had been an unknown da bizi, and what if this person had been his secret lover? Now, it’s a fact that Mao liked the ladies, and had innumerable affairs during the course of his reign; but much of his cult of personality is still steeped in mystery—as it is, of course, with many fated or fateful leaders. There is this incessant need to expose something as yet undiscovered, that one might better grasp his actions. On Taishan Mountain, a foreign man with a moustache changes our perception of everything we’ve held true until now.
Finally, “Taishan Mountain” is a poem within a collection based on my own real and imagined experiences in China: an attempt at a deeper conversation with a country where I spent much of my life. At some stage I realized that you can only start to “understand” the Middle Kingdom by breaking down Western notions of its foreignness. In reality, love in China is as any love affair might be: passionate probably, heartbreaking maybe, but surely as potentially hard—or fertile—as any red earth anywhere in the known universe. And, of course, it too has the potential to change our perceptions of the world.
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Excerpt from “Taishan Mountain”
On Revolution: You must not move with excessive haste, nor use excessive ruthlessness against the people. – the I-Ching, The Book of Changes
On Taishan Mountain behind the fog
we wait for first glimpses of dawn.
It’s here, hovering on China’s precipice,
the Chairman proclaims the East is Red,
deems himself ruler of all he beholds.
I’m standing right beside him.
We’ve just fought a war, he’s so thin,
and he has this steely glint
as if he’s stumbled across some great illumination.
It’s a moment of connection with the universe,
a revelation beyond normal human comprehension,
something to make history, like Einstein
unravelling the universal laws
of energy and mass and motion.