A Conversation with Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Byer
Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer is the author of the award-winning poetry collection We Come Elemental (Alice James Books), and chapbook bough breaks (Meritage Press).

Her poetry has appeared in The Volta, Octopus, DIAGRAM, H_ngm_n, diode, Copper Nickel, The Progressive, and other journals and several anthologies. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective in New York City that performed across the east coast and led workshops at conferences such as the U.S. Social Forum and Split this Rock Poetry Festival.

She has received several fellowships and grants, including a Kundiman fellowship, a grant from the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and an Olin and Chancellor’s Fellowships from Washington University in St. Louis. She was a longtime workshop leader for the New York Writers Coalition.

With a background in communications writing and grassroots organizing, Tamiko has worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the news program Democracy Now!, feminist film distributor Women Make Movies, and San Francisco Women Against Rape. Today, she is the Senior Writer at Corporate Accountability International.

Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Tamiko has lived on both the East and West coasts. She received her B.A. from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and her M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently lives in Cambridge with her partner, architect Kian Goh.

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LR: Water is the element that is focused on in We Come Elemental, and you have spoken about your interest in the queerness of water. Could you please tell us more about how you envision water as representative of queerness? How does this manifest itself in the book?

TB: Today, just a few days after the Supreme Court struck down the federal “Defense of Marriage” Act, is the last Sunday in June, and New York City is celebrating Gay Pride in all it’s corporatized glory. And [I do mean] it’s.

While I understand and appreciate the many wonderful things about the growing acceptance of gay people by mainstream society in the U.S., I also know that acceptance hinges to a large extent on an idea that gay people are “just like us,” with “us” being (to generalize for sure) white, middle class, heteronormative Americans, coupled with children.

And I’m thinking about how, for me, queerness—well, queer. That is, queerness is: not normative, existing on the exciting and sexy margins of sexuality, constructing radical and meaningful family structures that have little to do with the nuclear family and everything to do with chosen bonds. For me, queerness finds its power in its freakiness. And queerness is everywhere, has always been around, and, as it exists in the margins and applies its critique on the mainstream, is critical to the vitality and vibrancy of humanity. Which is also what makes it so terrifying to so many people.

I’m not sure I would say water represents queerness per se; rather, I find an inherent queerness in the element of water, and particularly in the fluidity of the element. My friend, poet Oliver Bendorf, who also writes a lot about water, described its queerness perfectly: “[I]t shape-shifts, takes on different forms, flows in hardened cracks, expands to fill the space it’s given.”

Water, so soft and smooth, will, in its insistent force, wear away vast canyons. It will freeze into glaciers that last for centuries. It will wash away whole shorelines. It is damn powerful—and its power is sometimes on full display (the crashing waves [of] the ocean, hurricanes and tsunamis), but more often it is barely noticeable, yet pervasive and inescapable. It (or its lack) permeates and affects almost every aspect of our lives—from our environment to the weather to how we nourish and sustain ourselves to how we play. This is how I see the force of queerness reflected in the element of water.

The poems in We Come Elemental are interested in many aspects of water, its queerness and eroticism, its pervasiveness, its ability to both heal and devastate. They also explore the not-so-simple relationship between human power and nature’s power of destruction and creation, in which water plays a key role.

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Staff Picks: Holiday Reading Recommendations 2011

It’s become a little bit of a tradition for us to post a list of books recommended by the LR Blog writers and editors just before the holidays.  In keeping with that tradition, we’ve surveyed the staff team and have put together a list of  titles that we enjoyed reading this year and think that you might like, too. Here are our end-of -year Staff Picks for 2011:

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PEOPLE ARE TINY IN PAINTINGS OF CHINA
PEOPLE ARE TINY IN PAINTINGS OF CHINA

People are Tiny in Paintings of China
by Cynthia Arrieu-King
Octopus Books, 2010
Recommended by Iris:

“I lost my father in late 2010, and the delicate—almost brittle—transparency of this collection (which has much to do with fathers and familial heritage) struck me to the bone.  Arrieu-King’s language is beautifully evocative, but economical; her poems are rendered with slim, decisive strokes that are as breathtaking for their clear-eyed, precise minimalism as they are for their wry, sharply observant (at times downright blunt) commentary.  Acts of mathematical counting, division (or inability to divide, as in the case of the poem titled “Prime Numbers”), and serial repetition are motifs in the collection, as are colors, lenses or frames of vision, the contours of landscapes and language. Taken together, these themes serve to magnify and illuminate the speaker’s gaze as she negotiates what it means to claim a multiracial, transnational identity in a world that irrationally desires, even demands, perfectly divisible, concrete forms.”

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ARDENCY
ARDENCY

Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
by Kevin Young
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Recommended by Mia:
“Kevin Young’s latest book, Ardency, is at once epic and lyric, documentary and wholly imaginative.  Written from the perspective of various figures involved in the Amistad rebellion of 1839, the three sections of this book, ‘Buzzard,’ ‘Correspondence,’ and ‘Witness: A Libretto’ unfold in a dramatic reimagining of this moment in history.  While it’s true that with this collection, Young ‘[places] himself squarely in the African American poetic tradition pioneered by such writers as Langston Hughes’ (as the Washington Post claims on the book jacket), he also uses it to reinvent the tradition.”

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Review: Tamiko Beyer’s BOUGH BREAKS

bough breaks

The title of Tamiko Beyer’s first chapbook, bough breaks, evokes not just the creepy nursery rhyme, but also plant metaphors and motifs running through the poem-sequence. On the very first page there is “deep moss,” “bloomer,” and the “instinct” that “rises / late” from “whatever field”: whatever it is, this field has conceptual dimensions as well as spatiality. Shortly thereafter, the narrator tells us, “I construct syllabic fields,” suggesting with the simple present tense a habit, a pattern, perhaps something involuntary—and in this field, language itself, like foliage, must be attended to “like watering.”

These language-pastures seem to have once in the past(oral) contained the narrator until this instinct, to be a mother, escapes—pretty much like a protuberance—and causes a being-body to leak through. Queer desire is already a transgression, “chaotic.” By challenging the narrative that queer sexualities are non-reproductive, the maternal instinct turns the queer body excessive over and above its already-excess.

bough breaks seeks to interrogate this protuberance, this leaking, and its limits. It is fuelled by yearning: “will there be / between us a darling?” Yearning pushes through the body of the poem in the form of white space. Forms are invented to strike off authorized definitions of conception (biological as well as artistic), to prefigure the politics of a queer couple raising a child so as to question gender (“we would ….  open mother to repetitions”), to consider how options for child-getting are often embedded in contexts of violence and capitalistic greed (and is there really a choice), to destabilize both the “natural” and the “not natural” in “queer” and “motherhood” (and sneaky iterations of everything in between), to circulate even more questions around adoption and embryo adoption (check out that play with “play” and “pay” on page 24!).

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Weekly Prompt: Tamiko’s Prompt (National Poetry Month Contest 1st Place Winner!)

This week, we’re featuring the prompt submitted by the grand prize winner of our National Poetry Month Prompt Contest (sponsored by Kaya Press) . . .

(::drumroll::)

Tamiko Beyer!

We loved the freshness of Tamiko’s exercise, and the way that it challenges the writer to combine the particular vocabulary of one activity with the extremely close, almost manic, focus, of an “obsession.”  As poets, we all have obsessions to which we find ourselves returning again and again, and Tamiko’s prompt provides a great way to step out of the boxes we draw for ourselves in order to approach a familiar topic from a new angle.

Prompt: Obsession

  • First, make a list of your obsessions – the topics you find yourself writing or thinking about again and again.
  • Now, think of a specific thing that you know how to do well – knitting, rock climbing, photoshop, fixing cars, etc. Make a list of as many words specific to that activity – the specialized vocabulary of it – that you can think of.
  • Finally, choose one of your obsessions (not related to the activity you chose) and write a poem about it, incorporating as many words from the second list as you can.

Tamiko will receive a copy of Lisa Chen’s Mouth, courtesy of the folks at Kaya Press. Congratulations, Tamiko, and thanks once again to all who submitted!

Signing off for this National Poetry Month,

Iris & Mia

Summer Reads: Issue 1 Contributor Tamiko Beyer

For our Summer Reads series, we’ve asked contributors from Issue 1 to share what they’ve been reading or plan to read this summer.  This installment features a list sent to us by Tamiko Beyer.

Says Tamiko,

“Here’s what’s on my reading stack right now:

Cascadia, by Brenda Hillman
Incendiary Circumstances, by Amitav Gosh
Ida, by Gertrude Stein
the ecolanguage reader, edited by Brenda Ijima
The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (finally!)
Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip
And chapbooks by Jason Bayani and Bushra Rehman, which I got from the authors at the most recent Kundiman retreat!”

Many thanks to Tamiko for sharing these titles with us.  Check out her postcard poem in Issue 1’s special feature on Kundiman, or follow her online at her personal web site, www.wonderinghome.com, and at the Kenyon Review blog.

Process Profile: Tamiko Beyer Discusses “In this metropolis”

Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer’s poetry has appeared in The Collagist, Sonora Review, OCHO, and elsewhere. She serves as the poetry editor of Drunken Boat and has led writing workshops for homeless LGBT youth with the New York Writers Coalition. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective, and is a Kundiman Fellow. She is pursing her M.F.A at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her online at wonderinghome.com and blogging at kenyonreview.org.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Tamiko discusses her poem “In this metropolis,” which first appeared in The Progressive in February 2008.

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I think it was April. I was writing a poem a day and running out of ideas. I turned to Charles Bernstein’s Experiments and chose the first one: a “homolinguistic translation,” a translation from English to English. I chose to “translate” Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “A Toast” because I was obsessed with his book Dancing in Odessa and wanted to live in one of his poems for a while.

The result: a whole new realm of diction. And a tone of contemplative urgency from Kaminsky’s poem that infused itself into my own, even when I eventually let go of the constraint.

Themes of home and community (ones I return to again and again) also echo from the source poem. Early on, it became clear to me that I was writing about gentrification. Living in a dynamically shifting part of Brooklyn, I am hyper-aware that what I do and how I spend my money isn’t just about me. There are ramifications across the neighborhood. I would have never set out to write a poem quite like this in tone and voice, but the exercise brought out a persona that gave me a strange kind of permission to push hard into this reality.

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