Today, we bring you the second installment in our mini series “2 Poets, 4 Questions.” Each week in this series, we’re pairing up two different emerging APIA poets and asking them to answer a set of four identical questions. Today’s installment features two New York—based poets who are both alumnae of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and Los Angeles transplants: Eugenia Leigh (author of the forthcoming Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows) and Hossannah Asuncion (author of the chapbook Fragments of Loss).
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LR: February, when we’re entrenched in the miserablest depths of winter, always seems to be a month of cravings: for indulgent foods, for human connection, for warmth, for light, for the coming of spring. (Margaret Atwood called it “a month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre” when one thinks “dire thoughts, and lust[s] for French fries with a splash of vinegar.”) As a poet, what are your literary cravings? What whets your creative appetite, haunts you, and keeps you coming back for more?
EL: My obsessions and “literary cravings” vary in accordance with my life seasons. They’re usually songs. Sometimes quotes. When I feel restless with those “dire thoughts” Atwood warns us about, I will expend myself tracking down the one song that resonates in both meaning and mood, then sit still and loop that song through my earphones for hours. Or I will stare at a quote for any length of time to absorb its meaning. This Franz Kafka quote, for example, carried me through bitter homesickness when I first moved to New York: “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.” At the risk of sounding insane, I’ll admit I would stare at these words for entire evenings because I believed I could will them to come true.
During the season that produced my first book, I spent hours alone with Brand New’s 2006 album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Especially “The Archers’ Bows Have Broken.” I was far from having any semblance of faith in anything at the time, but I couldn’t get enough of the idea of “a God that we found lying under the backseat” or a God in other mundane or sacrilegious positions and scenarios. In 2008, when I moved to New York, The Fray’s “You Found Me” gave me a similar haven. The God in this song is “smoking his last cigarette,” so I trusted this God enough to indulge the idea of him. Maybe it’s correct to say I’m always lusting after the other worlds beyond this one. The Unseen. Unless a piece of art has an element of the mystical or the supernatural or the impossible, it’s difficult for me to crave it. Love it and be moved by it, sure. But likely not lust after it.
HA: I experienced an almost hubris recently that I, a poet—an occupant in the field of emotional cryptology, am actually very not-knowing of my feelings. And so I like words that investigate and excavate—I like vulnerability and searching. I very much like the answer, I don’t know, but here is the doing and undoing of my world of questioning. The poets who are doing that for me right now are Ocean Vuong and Eduardo Corral.
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LR: Tell us about your book/chapbook: how did it come to be, and when did you know that the manuscript was ready to be sent out into the world?
EL: I didn’t mean to write the poems I ultimately came to write for Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows. I never intended to write about my family, for example. But two of my earliest poet mentors, Laure-Anne Bosselaar-Brown and Marie Howe, both challenged me to write as though everyone I loved would never see my poems. Laure-Anne also taught me that an element of craft just as essential as excellent line breaks is “emotional impulse,” which can be tested by asking, “What made the writer unable to remain silent?” She helped me parse the difference between the poems I wanted to write and the poems I had to write.
I’m an impatient human, so I sent my manuscript out a bit prematurely, almost as soon as I graduated with an MFA. I did have the blessing of several teachers who assured me that my book was “done” and that I should begin to submit the manuscript, but in hindsight, I’m grateful it took another few years (and several new poems) before Four Way Books accepted it for publication. The one positive thing about sending out an almost-but-not-yet-finished manuscript into the real world is that it instilled a severe urgency in me. Knowing that actual humans were reading my manuscript forced me to revise it obsessively and often albeit in a mode of near-panic.
HA: Fragments of Loss comes from another life—the poems in there were written right after graduate school about seven years ago—I was starting to work full-time and I was just getting to know New York City. I had read something and I felt this pang of creative jealousy—I wish I had written that, I thought. I then re-read it and realized I had misread. It was an amazing recognition—I wrote those poems down and fast. Also, the lens of looking at my world at that time was heavily influenced by Rachel Cohen’s essay, “Lost Cities.”
As for being ready—I didn’t think the manuscript for Fragments probably was ready, but I sent it on a whim, on the day of the deadline.
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LR: You’re both Los Angeles transplants to New York City. What do you enjoy most about being a writer in New York? How has the character and physical space of the city influenced your creative life?
EL: When I’m in California, I’m noticeably a fish out of water. In the New York I know—the transplant’s New York, which E. B. White calls “the city of final destination”—I feel understood by default. The New Yorkers I’ve come across—both artists and not—have a frenetic, ambitious energy I resonate with and admire. They’re not afraid of destroying themselves in order to constantly become better than themselves. I mean “destroy” in the most positive way possible. Maybe something closer to “sacrifice” or “reconstruct.” The physical space of the city is as ambitious as its inhabitants: I love how many humans and cultures are crammed into a relatively small frame. New York City offers every square inch of itself during every second of the day to be used and challenged and renewed. It’s no wonder New Yorkers do the same with themselves. For this reason, it’s also a dangerous city. You need to protect your journey here, even if it means retreating from external pressures from time to time. All New Yorkers need regular Sabbaths or consistent Emily Dickinson days to keep from burning out.
HA: I love New York City so fucking much. I love New York City as heartbroken asshole. I love New York City as kind weirdo. I think it’s a hard place, yes—it’s a sentient city—it can easily feel like you’re fighting with New York so you—not this tormented megalopolis—is writing your story. But everyone I know here is charged and electric with curiosity—and everyone is so specific in how they are asking their big questions—sometimes it’s with words, or with art projects.
That being said, it [was] in the 80s [last] week in Los Angeles. ::sigh::
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LR: A former teacher of mine [Iris’s] once recommended that writers should have at least one other creative outlet to which they can turn when they reach their wit’s end with their writing. Do you have hobbies or creative passions outside of your writing? How do you recharge when you’re feeling beaten down creatively?
EL: When I was a student, I asked Cathy Park Hong which books I should read in order to become a better poet, and she said, “Read nonfiction.” When I said, “What kind?” she said, “Anything that remotely interests you. Learn something new.” She’s a genius. It’s remarkable how well nonfiction recharges my creative batteries. I have a subscription to the Scientific American and am currently knee-deep in a 9-month-long course that involves hefty theological and philosophical texts. All this factual, nonfiction reading material pulls me away from my writing productively because they help me miss my writing and return to it with newfound fuel.
When I was younger, I dabbled in writing music (badly) and sewing purses and clothes (also badly). But now it’s difficult for me to transfer my creative energy to another art that also requires me to sit very still. I suppose now those hobbies have been replaced with kickboxing classes. Or I will have solo dance parties in my bedroom where I’ll blast music and shimmy around for a good hour before sitting down at my desk. One year ago, I decided to learn a new physical activity, so I took swimming lessons. I’m figuring out that a reliable way for me to recharge my mind is by challenging my body.
HA: I like projects. A lot. I like one-offs and short-term schemes. I’ve done one-line love letter bombs. I’ve stuffed poems in pill bottles. I like making literary-themed gifts every now and then. I’ve done a supper club with writers/artists. It seems I like my projects to inhabit a physical space and it’s even more satisfying if there’s a sense of an interaction. I like doing/making stuff that gets me out of my head—once that static is outside it feels a lot less lonely and the disorder can resemble a kind of pretty.
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Eugenia Leigh is the author of Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014), which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her writing has appeared in several publications including The Collagist, Indiana Review, and the Best New Poets anthology. The recipient of fellowships and awards from Poets & Writers Magazine, Kundiman, Rattle, and the Asian American Literary Review, Eugenia serves as the poetry editor of Kartika Review.
Hossannah Asuncion grew up near the 710 freeway in Los Angeles and currently lives near an A/C stop in Brooklyn. Her work has been published by the Poetry Society of America, Tuesday; An Art Project, The Collagist, Anti- and other fine places.