“Every poem is trying to tear down the empire.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How has your week been? What have you been up to?
It’s been good. Highs and lows. There’s been some good writing and reading happening but I also felt very visible on the internet in the past few weeks. And this week was really not an exception. Yesterday I was at the Providence Poetry Slam, which I help run, and it is just the most amazingly loving gorgeous space. But right before the show I got an email from somebody that was very filled with hate for things that I had said on the internet. So yeah, highs and lows.
It’s nice that you were in that safe space that you’ve helped build and curate over the years.
Yeah, definitely. It’s my entire heart and a half.
Did you come up in the slam scene?
Kind of. That was where my poetry became visible to other people, but I’ve been writing since I was a wee baby child. In high school I’d show one poem to a boy I had a crush on and he’d be like, “Oh, this is pretty good,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, thanks.” And that was pretty much it for sharing. In college, the community of writers that I found were all engaging in performance. That’s sort of how I fell into it.
That’s so funny. I think so many people find poetry through its romantic utility.
Yeah, totally. Except my poems, the poems that I was sending to people I liked—the boys I knew I liked and the girls that I didn’t quite understand why I liked so much—they weren’t like romantic at all. They were very philosophical and not even angsty. I was channeling the dead white men who had come before me for centuries.
That’s the path a lot of people take, I think.
Yeah. In college I kind of had these two different writing spaces. I majored in Creative Writing at Brown as an undergrad. They taught a very academic, a specific kind of academic poetry that was very avant-garde and kind of impenetrable. So there was that writing work I was doing, and then also spoken word poetry with all of these writers who were people of color and queer folks. So those were the big influential writing spaces I’ve been through.
That’s interesting, that those were the two wells upon which you were drawing. One is sort of deliberately impenetrable and elusive, and the other is designed to be heard exactly once by an audience, so it has to be able to be processed and metabolized quickly. They’re at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Right. I do think the formal experimentation shows up in my performance work. I think that’s where my impulse to experiment comes from.
How do you mean that?
My poem “Pussy Monster” is a poem where I take the lyrics of a Lil’ Wayne song and rearrange them in order of frequency, in order of number of times each word appears in the song. So it ends with the word “pussy” forty times.
So I guess I can see how conceptual writing shows up in my thinking for creating that piece. I also get frustrated that experimentation is used to keep people out of understanding. I think it should be used in order to make things, to expose things, and make them more legible. I don’t mean making poems more legible, but making the world more legible through experimentation.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I sent him notes on it a long time ago.
I figured, since you guys are both Dark Noise-ers. But he’s got a poem, "Ragtown Prayer," that reminds me a little of what you’re talking about, where he takes the Facebook post of a friend eulogizing a friend, and then he rewrites the post into this really really wrenching intense poem.
Super gorgeous. It just strikes me as a way to use the techniques of avant-sort of conceptual poetics to democratize poetry, you know? Similar to what you’re talking about. It’s building a path to bring in people who are outside of the academy instead of building fences to keep them there.
Totally, totally, yeah. That’s how I felt about—did you read Terrance Hayes’ new book?
How To Be Drawn? Yeah.
I think the way that he experiments with form is similarly satisfying to me. Conceptualism works when it’s not mean to preserve power somewhere.
It’s about creating a point of entry instead of closing one up. You mentioned feeling very visible online lately—probably a big part of that is the whole Best American Poetry fiasco.
It was this real ugliness, but in those situations I always try to look for the moments of positivity or community springing up, and there were lots of really positive things that came up from the collective response against the ugliness. There was Kazim Ali’s letter to Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Timothy Yu’s “I Am Michael Derrick Hudson,” and then there was your wonderful poem ("Regarding the Yellowface Poet") about names, which you dedicated to your parents. It’s become the definitive poem of the moment, and has been shared about as much as you will ever see a poem being shared online. Can you talk about writing that kind of response poem?
I think I do write poems in response to things, but I guess in the past I’ve just shared them with a few friends or read them at a reading that I was doing the next day and then just set them aside. In this case I had a reading that night that I was doing and I wanted to write something specifically around the whole Michael Derrick Hudson thing because I just felt so many things about it. People had been asking for my opinion and I was trying to write these little sound bites for articles, and I just felt bad. Reading all the things around it felt bad. Most of the things I was reading and ingesting in those few days just made me feel shitty. I was thinking a lot about my name and the names of my family members, and I wanted to write about it in a way that didn’t make me feel like shit, you know?
I want to be speaking in ways, speaking on painful things in ways that are feeding me and not just draining all of my life force from me.
It gets to that, “I’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine” idea the poem ends with. There were these voices purporting to speak for a community that you didn’t necessarily feel represented your sentiments on the matter. And so you sort of added one and it became this powerful poem of the moment.
I was both really fed and honored by the positive responses to it and reconnected with some people I hadn't spoken to in a while and connected to new folks who I’d never met before, which was so great. But I also think it was very overwhelming to be so visible. The last time that I was getting a lot of attention online was when my picture was included in a Buzzfeed article filled with messages that writers have for straight male white publishing world, and I got a huge stream of angry mostly white men tweeting awful racist things at me because of what I said. So it was both wonderful and anxiety-inducing to me to be like, “Look at me.” I kind of wanted to crawl into a hole.
I like how you say the positive side of that though, you reconnecting with people you'd fallen out of touch with. I was at Bread Loaf this year and I saw Peter Ho Davies give a talk where he said there are more people alive now than there have ever been alive. Like, the entire aggregate human community up until this point in the earth is less than there are currently living.
Is that true?
Sure, I can see how it’d be true with exponential growth and stuff.
The bigger point he was making was that, if you accept that we have more people alive now than people that have ever lived, it means we have more writers alive today than we've ever had at any point in human history, right? Someone could say that means that with all those writers, there's no chance of any one person becoming a definitive voice. But the flip-side is that there is an unprecedented opportunity for community among writers. I think your poem very much became the definitive voice of that moment. And then, there was this huge community of writers who rose up around it to support it and you.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know this, you just start a sentence and hope brilliance will strike.
I totally get that. And the gesture, the poem as a response to an ugliness, reminds me of the image from your "To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street," “squirming alive in your mouth, strangling you quiet.”
Yeah, that was from a video I saw of this Japanese dish that’s like a squid, but when you pour soy sauce on it, it activates the muscles and the squid crawls everywhere.
Haha yeah, I’ve seen that too.
I was like, I want to either be that or eat that.
But you gave it a voice. You sort of weaponized it in the way we get to do as poets. Even as people were criticizing your words, they would have to utter your words, literally give air to your words and hold them in their mouths and push them out their throats. The physical act of your detractors holding words that were conceived in your brain in their mouths—that is the genius of that poem. The subversion of their epithet.
Yeah, totally. I was just talking with a friend about the idea of bad press and whether that’s a thing. You know they say “no publicity is bad publicity” and we were talking about the scene in “Straight Outta Compton” where all these white people are stomping on their NWA records and Eazy-E says, “Well, they still had to buy them.”
I’m hoping to take some wisdom away from that and remember that if people are getting angry about my words, that still means they’re looking at this article of twenty people of color and women and queer folks yelling at them. They still had to look at that or read my poem or whatever. And if they send me a really hateful email that means they sat and thought about my poem for a long time, which is okay.
That’s a profound realization. I think a lot about the act of writing as kind of magical. The fact that you are putting these weird ink runes on a page and then someone looks at them and chemicals are released in their brain and they get angry or they get happy or their eyes water. It really is kind of alchemical. You’re making physiological changes happen in people without touching them.
It’s totally fucking true. And you know, maybe visibility and being hyperconnected to a lot of weird lonely racists is not the worst thing. In some ways maybe I’d rather have lots of people whose politics I know I disagree with and find hateful and oppressive, maybe I’d rather have them be angry at my work than ignore it. I’d rather that than feel tokenized by a white establishment that wants my work for the optics. There are worse places to sit.
Yeah, absolutely. And then, for all our conversation about this sort of literary antagonism, I do think that yours is a poetics that can be extremely useful for someone who reads a poem like “Halloween in 2009” and is dealing with a loss themselves, or someone who reads your poem in Poetry and has experienced that kind of racism. There’s a lot of opportunity to be found in your work.
Yeah, that makes me feel good.
I didn’t want to give the impression that I see your work as just deliberate provocation.
Oh yeah, I didn’t think you were. I wouldn’t say provocation is the main force entering me that fuels my work. I think it’s one of several. It’s more reflection than provocation.
I think there’s something that happens where sometimes my poems get hyped in part because a loud-mouthed Asian girl is saying a rare interesting thing. Like, this short Asian girl with glasses and bangs is saying “pussy!” That’s crazy, you know?
And so there is a particular kind of time when that happens, when people seem to only care about poems that seem like they’re trying to tear down the empire. I mean, every poem is trying to tear down the empire. But the poems about love or sitting on the beach feel just as important to me personally.
Absolutely. I think Floating Brilliant, Gone speaks to a desire to give body to a very complex identity.
Can you talk about putting that book together?
I was just reading through it the other day because there was a class asking questions about specific poems, which always just throws me for a loop. Sometimes I forget that people will read every poem. And so somebody asked a question about the last poem in the book, and I was just thrilled that they had gotten to the last poem!
I think the first book has so many jobs to do, there’s so much weight placed on it. It carries so many burdens. I remember knowing what I wanted the book to do and I wanted it to do so much. I wanted it to be a kind of anthology of all of my work up to that point, like a "Best Of" sort of thing. And also to be a coherent project, thematically. I wanted it to be a bridge, to accompany the performances I was doing. And also, this was my introduction to the literary world in general, so I was trying to say who I was as a writer. And then, because my brain wants to turn every project into a big experiment, I wanted to see what I could do in this book that was going to be different from books that I had read in the past. Like, what new thing was I going to be contributing with my books of poetry? It’s like a huge responsibility for one project to have all of those things.
That was very overwhelming, but I’m proud of what the book became.
As well you should be. I think it’s a book that’s important to a lot of people. How did the illustrations come to be?
It was my friend, a really good friend of mine. We’ve known each other for a long time and met in our college poetry group. I already knew her work and we knew each other really well just as friends and she’s a poet and so I asked her if she would like do the cover and then later I asked her if she would also do the illustrations.
The poems that are illustrated were originally supposed to be section headers. And I couldn’t think of a good, satisfying way to make them kind of distinct or to even name the sections. I struggled with how to structure the sections and then kind of landed on illustrating those pages. Now I think they operate less as section header and more as transition points in the book.
That makes sense.
I was really happy about that.
It’s cool that Derrick Brown and company were so amenable to the prospect of having those illustrations in there, because that’s a really cool element of the book that sets it apart from typical poetry collections.
Yeah, and it’s such a small press you know. The press is mostly Derrick and interns and few other contracted things, so it was really just being like, “Hey Derrick, I’m going to have illustrations,” and he was like, “Alright, cool.”
Yeah, it was really great.
We’re coming up on the end of our time. Do you have any projects in the works?
I’m working on a chapbook manuscript, but also looming in the nearer distance are grad school applications.
Yeah, and so I’m mostly concentrating now on looking back through all of my work, trying to put together a packet for my writing sample. But I think the new chapbook is coming around; it sort of has a sci-fi bend.
A lot is around robots and androids, symbots and also just things about the body and technology in general. Technology, sexuality. My tentative title—I come up with a bunch of titles every year, five times the number of titles than the actual products that require them—my tentative title is Death by Sex Machine.
I would buy that without knowing whose book it was. I would buy that based on title alone.
It probably won’t be called that by the time I actually get around to it. But it should be fun.
Interview Posted: November 16, 2015
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