“All our pleasures seem kind of suspect these days.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I just read something the other day that said for the past month the record highs across America have been a ratio of 116 record highs for every record low.
Yeah, I’ve been watching the trees bud and the daffodils pop up knowing it’s all going to hard freeze again next week. My upstate district is mostly farm country. Years like this, the farmers take a beating. Not to mention the global ominousness. So, I’ve kind of been side-eying people who keep saying, “Enjoy the gorgeous weather!”
It’s weird, I saw someone on Twitter call it alt-weather, which is the darkest doomiest humor.
That’s so perfect! Like when you walk over a subway grating in the winter and you get this warm wet air that feels kind of good until you think of all the icky mold and ratshit. All our pleasures seem kind of suspect these days. But no shortage of doom humor.
For sure, I feel like gallows humor is all we have right now.
And on that cheery note.
Yeah, speaking of gallows...
Actually the first chunk of the book is really gallows-heavy! How old is the oldest poem in the book?
Probably 2011. I kind of wrote them in two clusters—I wrote most of the Hanged Men poems at a residency in 2011. And then I wrote most of the Blackacre sequence starting in 2013 and finishing the summer of 2014.
You wrote the latter bunch of those you while you were pregnant, right?
Yeah, I wrote the entire fourteen-part Blackacre sequence, and also most of the various Coloracre poems while I was pregnant. In 2013, while I was at a residency, I finished up the Hanged Men sequence and came up with the concept for Blackacre. I wrote the short Blackacre poem and one of the Whiteacre poems and then I had to go back into the academic year. I blocked out the summer and fall of 2014 to finish the book. I really wanted to finish the manuscript before the start of the third trimester.
The whole summer of 2014 I was writing the Coloracre poems and trying to figure out how to solve the long Blackacre sequence. I knew I wanted to write something that would track the Milton sonnet, would overlay it with thoughts about infertility and personal experience. I wanted to try to render that—the experience interwoven with the text. But I couldn’t figure out how to make that work as a poem. I had been just beating my head over it for months. On Labor Day, I called my husband. I had been spending most of my summer away from him, just holed up in a friend’s house upstate trying to finish the book. And I called him and I was in tears. I said, "I can't write this. I can't figure out how to do it. I’m just going to have to figure out how to finish this book without what I thought of as its core. It’s long enough, but I just feel like that major piece is still missing and I can’t figure it out. I’ve tried to write it in all of these different ways and none of them worked." And then finally I figured it out, the sequence proceeded from there.
It's interesting that the concept of the Blackacre poems sort of preceded the poems. You don’t often hear of it working that way.
Well I knew I wanted to write a book called Blackacre and that there'd be an overriding theme of infertility—or more like the societal construction of infertility, the stigma. The equation between women’s bodies and property. The whole idea that if John Doe wants to ensure that Blackacre passes to John Doe, Jr., he has to control the body of Jane Doe—to make sure she’s young, and fertile, and faithful. And so women’s bodies get commodified along those lines, and legal and social controls evolve to preserve the value of that commodity.
And even if you’re me, and you’re lucky enough to live in places that currently lack such legal controls—despite the Republicans’ best efforts—the social controls still come into play. All the stigmatization of women who are aging, or infertile, or unfaithful. The stereotypes— the bitter barren woman, the spinster, the old maid, the cougar, the evil stepmother, Miss Havisham, Lady Macbeth, Anne Boleyn, Serena Joy. All the nasty crap that my mom and all the Korean aunties were constantly drilling into me—about how women after 30 were like fruit starting to go rotten. Infertility as a medical condition is unfortunate, but looking back I think that what was really making me miserable was my own deep-rooted sense of shame. And so that was the launching point for a lot of the poems.
So this is a poem that riffs on Milton’s Sonnet:"On His Blindness," but it’s also examining the idea of infertility. It’s a long, expansive poem in fourteen parts, with each riffing on a line from the sonnet. You talked about spending ages on it, not being able to figure it out. Was there a specific stimulus that unlocked that for you, was there a catalyst?
I think I'd mostly been struggling with tone. There are various received vocabularies in which to talk about women’s bodies—from the clinical to the gurlesque. I went up and down the spectrum of tones and forms. I tried a hyper-formal sonnet sequence approach, and a crass and sassy approach, and a plain-speech approach, but nothing was working. And I remember the breakthrough was when I decided, "Okay, I’m just going to own the lawyer thing. I’m going to own the geekiness and I’m just going to go dry as dirt. I’m going to start this in my hyperanalytic lawyer mode and see where it takes me." And that’s when the poem started to open up for me.
I feel like most poetic questions are ultimately questions of tone. Form ends up being merely a manifestation, or expression, or consequence of tone. So, once I said, "I’m going to free myself to be boring and dorky rather than trying to be hip, or sexy, or lyric, or beautiful," then the form could start to take shape.
There are so many poets who are doing hip, and sexy, and lyric, and beautiful. I feel like the dorky lawyer thing is a currency that is unique to you. How many Yale-Law-educated poets are there?
Well, there are Reginald Dwayne Betts and Ken Chen. I’m probably forgetting some others. But I still think I’m one of the dorkier and lawyerier poets out there, so if I get to own anything, I’m going to own that.
That really is what makes the poems so powerful, and staggering, and surprising. It’s a vernacular with which we in the poetry world are mostly unfamiliar. It’s not just the language of desire, the language of the body, it’s also the language of—
It eventually verges into that lyric register. But why shouldn’t the analytic be just as much a legitimate register for poetry? I was also playing around with the question "How much does this want to be lyric essay versus prose poem?" It starts as lyric essay and ends up as prose poem, but I’m not sure where that tipping point is or why that started happening.
It seems like something you are generally interested in as you come into familiar themes. Ignatz was effectively a book about desire and love, but it was told by looking at this cartoon cat and mouse. We’re always focused on this third thing. In Blackacre it’s the language of law or classical texts and art or etymology. In Ignatz, it’s this old cartoon.
Yes. That makes absolute sense to me. It’s the way I move through the world. I’m not someone who, for example, has experiences that are unmediated by archetypes or stories. I’m always hearing the stories, and phrases, and lessons I know. It’s not just like a soundtrack to my life, it’s really foregrounded—like a filter on a lens that you can’t remove. The texts and stories end up providing the framework or storyboard for how I’m experiencing things. Really mixing metaphors here, but what I’m trying to say is that art patterns experience. It’s prior to it. If you know a story, you end up shaping your life around that story. It’s not like experience comes to me in an unprocessed way. So I say, "Okay, I’m having this experience." And then later I say, "So now I’m going to relate the experience to a third thing, an existing text." The third thing is how I’m living the experience.
That’s fascinating. It makes me think of Barthes talking about how even the greatest writers among us are still drawing from an already-written dictionary inside themselves.
Exactly. And a big question in the book is "How deeply rooted are these stories and archetypes?" If I think about what the method of the book is, or what the argument of the book is, it’s something like "We have to live somewhere." We’re always already situated. Each of us inhabits a body and we can examine that body and we can dismantle some of the assumptions we’ve used throughout our lives with regard to that body. We can tell ourselves that those stories we were told were wrong, invidious. Those desires and ambitions that we had were externally constructed and based on terrible values. Those understandings were false and damaging. But at the end of that, you are still in that same body. So, what is left of the self once you take apart the organizing assumptions of the self?
We live in a society, in a social structure, in a nation and we can criticize the historical foundations and the founding assumptions of that and we can start taking that apart and diagnosing its pathologies. That’s work we can and should do, but at the end of that, what are we left with? If the disease goes bone-deep, how can you continue to survive in a body without its skeleton? We still have to live in that same body, that same acre. It’s all we’ve been allotted.
That’s brilliant. How do you move through that? You’re heavily involved in activism, in organizing, and that seems very very tethered to thrust of the phenomenon of which you speak.
I’m not sure what we should do. The first step is to start to disentangle and identify a lot of these incredibly deep-rooted suppositions. But where you go from there is a question I wish I knew the answer to, both personally and politically. How do you regrow a skeleton inside a living body in a way that allows that body to survive? One of the unlocking points early on in the book for me was this image of the hanged man. I started writing it in 2011 because a lot of things had come to a certain point of crisis for me. I was recently married, but then found out that I was infertile, even though we kept fighting that diagnosis for years afterwards. At the same time a lot of things were happening to people I knew. My parents’ marriage was falling apart after 40-some years, my father-in-law, who was a very dominant figure in his family, had recently died. I was coming to the end of the legal career that had been the focus of my ambitions for my entire life, and I was soul-searching about what the point of all that work and striving had been—all the things I missed out on because I was lawyering. And so, in the middle of all of this, I go down to Mexico and I have my tarot read and the image of the hanged man comes up as the top card. The hanged man is pulled away from the earth. He’s hanging over the earth in an inverted perspective of suspension. I think that idea of being suspended temporarily outside of the body, away from the earth, in this kind of stoic detachment was the perspective from which I started writing the book. The hanged men poems were the poems of the diagnosis—the Blackacre poems came later. As I said, I wrote the Blackacre poems after we'd made the decision to give up on having "my" genetic child and to use a donated egg. So, the Blackacre poems are, I think, a little less dark. Though they're still plenty dark.
That’s fascinating. In the past you've mentioned that writing these poems was an exorcism to get rid of shame and guilt you felt about the infertility. You used the word “exorcism,” and in a literal exorcism there is the idea that a series of words, said in proper sequence, can vanquish the demon. I'm very insterested in the idea that poetry, if you could find the right sequence of words, could also vanquish those demons.
I think part of that has to do with the appropriative strategy of the book. There are these stories, these voices that were always in my head, which I think were the most negative aspect of the experience for me. I tried to include some of those voices in the book—like the insanely patriarchal C.S. Lewis epigraph at the beginning of the fourth section, or the Peter Pan story, or even the epithet "Twinkie"—by quoting and reworking those voices. You have to name something in order to exorcise it. Part of the person, like the hair or the fingernail clippings, has to go into the effigy that you burn. So there was a naming process and then a transformative process that helped me to reclaim that territory. This was especially true for the Milton poem.
You riff on Milton’s blindness, and at the end of the eighth section, "Prevent," you include a line from Milton's letter to Leonard Philaras, “the dimness which I experience night and day, seems to incline more to white than to black.” There and in other places, there’s a conflation of Milton’s blindness and your own infertility. It’s that braiding that’s the real work of the poem. It’s almost like you’ve re-written Milton to be explicitly about your experience, which I think is really fascinating.
Yeah. I didn’t want to make an equation between blindness and infertility. Obviously blindness is, by orders of magnitude, a much more serious condition. And Milton’s poem can defend itself on its own terms. But I did want to build from his poem. When I was in the middle of this fertility mess, I kept going back to that Milton poem. A high-school teacher made me memorize it, it’s always been my safety blanket, what I recite when I’m waiting for the subway, etc. But in the middle of the infertility thing—all that desperation—I just kept hearing those words—“spent,” “useless,” “denied,” “chide,” “prevent,” “wait.” It was like a taunt, like shaming. That was the textual experience I needed to render and repurpose in order to write the poem.
When I was trying to figure it out, I was thinking of the Milton sonnet—the physical text of it—as a field that I was living in. A field that had already been harvested, that was fallow, but that I was trying to glean. I was trying to reap a second crop, an unauthorized crop.
You mention the Peter Pan poem "Redacre," which begins with the Lost Boys asking Wendy to be their mother, and with Wendy saying, “Of course, it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see I am / only a little girl. I have no real experience.” It’s so interesting—these blank estates of the human body, and how some of these blank estates become property the way that experience can become transactional, and how all that can be gendered. There’s so much wrapped up in this poem, which is, on its surface, playing with these fantastical characters. But that’s the thing you do, that’s what we’re talking about. You're looking at the third thing and then you’re finding these pockets into the real emotional content.
I like that word—transactional! That’s what drew me to that particular moment in Peter Pan. The sensibility that pervades that story is the idea that women are born into a transaction that has already taken place. That they are born into a situation where they are told that they have a certain value and their value is their reproductive potential. And to resist that transaction in any way—to say, "No, no, no, I have other priorities, I have a career, my sexuality doesn’t go that way, I want to assert my right to control or delay this transaction"—is where the shame comes into play, is where both systems of legal control and systems of social control exert pressure on women’s bodies and women’s consciousness to remove that resistance, to allow that transaction to proceed. Part of the idea of Blackacre and the linkage to property is that this system of inherited property is dependent on women being the embodiment of that transaction.
Is dependent on women’s bodies being the mechanism that ensures the stable transition of property, what lawyers call the “free alienation of property.”
So much of the book is wrapped up in that idea. A lot of my favorite poems in the book, the poems that I think of most often, are the really slim ones. I think that there’s a lot happening in those poems. I think of the poem "Self-Portrait in a Wire Jacket," which is about the very literal process of sectioning off, and about this body that is being literally held into these strictures, “Wait here / in the trellised / garden you / are becoming.” It seems so in keeping with what you are talking about, with this idea of being bound up and controlled.
If you have had your entire self shaped and supported by this particular structure, and you start to attack and dismantle that structure, then what is holding you up? That’s the premise of that poem, and I think that’s a central poem to the book. I keep going back to the image of the trellis—whether and in what condition the tree can survive without it. The book is full of failed trees.
Even if you were to dismantle the structures you find to be in violation with your spirit, your life has still been supported by those structures, they have been the scaffolding upon which you’ve built your world. So what is left when you pull them away?
Yeah, exactly. And it’s something one experiences both at the level of personal identity and politically. What do you do? As a lawyer you are trained to work within the system, and once you start seriously critiquing the system, uncovering its fundamental failings, then what do you do? I mean, as a lawyer your source of power is the system that allows you to have some leverage. What do you do except wail in the wilderness if you relinquish that?
I feel like that is the struggle that we now face. I’m sure you can speak to this much more intelligently than I can, but I feel like there is this great confusion and bewilderment about what to do in a world where the systems we have in place to keep everything in check are just sort of being ignored entirely. When the hegemonic power structure has moved entirely outside of the systems we have in place to check the hegemonic power structure, you know what I mean?
Yeah, the check upon the hegemonic power structure is supposed to be other hegemonic power structures. And where do you put your loyalty then? Who are you fighting for exactly?
I think this is the situation with which we will have to reckon for the next four years, but also for a long time after. How can we prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again?
People have been wrestling with all of this for a long time, but I think that this election has made it apparent, drastically apparent, to a lot of people who had the luxury of disregarding it before. To the extent that it is just impossible to go through your daily life without thinking about it all the time. It’s totally colonized our consciousness.
Right, right absolutely. At any given moment I feel like a minimum of 25% of my consciousness is devoted to being very, very afraid.
Yeah, absolutely. Mine, too. Mostly on behalf of others, but also when I think about the world that my son is growing up in.
You've talked about growing up in Houston and being the only Asian person in your classes. I don’t want to mangle your words, but you've talked about how there is a sort of binary where people define themselves as either being not-white or not-black, and how your parents sort of aligned themselves with not-black, which was a problem in and of itself.
It’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about for a long time. I was trying to do that in the long poem "Greenacre," which ended up being a weirdly narrative poem for me. I rarely write poems that are that narrative, and I usually don’t write poems in which the first person is that readily identifiable as me. But I really wanted to put the reader into the particular perspective I was inhabiting as the daughter of Asian immigrants growing up in the South, which historically has often understood itself along that racial binary. It’s almost like going through the world and suddenly it flashes into negative, and you get this almost strobe-like, "Okay, now you’re not-black. Okay, now you’re not white." And I think the lack of agency of the speaker, the way the culpability of the speaker is a function of her passivity is something that I felt growing up: I am not part of either black or white, I am alien, I have no understood role here, I am witnessing these things, I am rejected by a hierarchical race structure that, in some weird way, I’m drawn to because that’s what I’ve been taught to desire.
Right, right. That’s beautifully said. I love the long "Greenacre" poem very much. Even just for the weirdness that the boy fronted a band called “White Minority.” It's so weird, but so perfect.
That was real. I remember going through junior high school and seeing flyers for that band being posted up on the walls.
That’s so weird! It’s almost so perfect for what the poem is talking about that you couldn’t put it in a poem, it’d be too constructed. That’s wild. In your conversation with Stephen Burt, you talk about how when you are writing a poem you always immediately try to sprint towards the light at the end of the tunnel, and how you're always kind of trying to get out of the poem, or figuring out your exit strategy as soon as you walk into the room. I feel the same thing. It’s difficult for me to write long pieces. I’m always trying to sprint towards the finish line and I have to coax myself into being patient. This poem and the long "Blackacre" poem were interesting to me because it seems like you had to have been working against those natural impulses.
It was against my usual writing process. Sometimes people ask me what my process is, but it’s been changing so much. When I was a lawyer I would get these concentrated periods of time off, like I would have three weeks at a residency and I knew that at the residency I had to maximize my poetic productivity, and so I would be working at the rate of a poem a day, sometimes two poems a day. I would be like, "Okay, I need to finish this, nail it down, and then get on to the next thing." Once I quit law and moved into an academic mode of life, I had more time. It’s funny—the book tracks this. Most of the skinny poems of the Hanged Men section were written before I finally quit law in 2013, and most of the fatter poems of the Blackacre section were written afterwards. And for "Greenacre" and the other long poems, I was trying to forcibly prevent myself from bailing out by using whatever techniques I could think of, whether it was sectioning, or looping, or whatever. For example, when I was writing "Greenacre," I was rereading Frank Bidart’s long poem "The Second Hour of the Night"—a poem I totally worship.
I love all of his Hour of the Night poems.
Yeah, exactly. The sort of recursive, repetitive structure of that—the way he keeps circling around the event, and then coming back to a particular moment as a touchstone, and then launching out at a slightly different angle sort of enabled me to keep the poem going for as long as it needed to go.
That makes total sense. Like tricking yourself into working on shorter bits. Maybe that’s a good segue into talking about what you are writing now. I know you are heavily involved with activism and maybe that’s more your focus right now, but do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Focus isn’t really the right word. Right now I’m all over the place with activism, and teaching, and poetry service, and administrative stuff, and baby raising. I'm judging a billion contests, and juggling a 3/3 course load, and chairing an academic committee, and helping get The Racial Imaginary Institute off the ground, and working on very grassroots political stuff within my upstate district, and spending time with my son. And thinking of what I can do once I have a little more time. I’m trying not to rush into writing anything. Had I been in the middle of a project when the election happened that would’ve been one thing, but right now I feel like it’s a time to sit back, take stock, be fallow for a while, and be open to a lot of different influences before I really try to think about a whole new project.
I think when I do write something I’ll continue along the lines of that "Greenacre" poem or the Twinkie poem. To write from a perspective of deracination, or to question the assumption of authenticity that versions of racial identity are often based upon. And to think, "Okay, well what is the actual source of racial “identity” for a relatively deracinated person who doesn’t speak what is supposed to be her “native” language?" I don’t speak Korean. I have very little experience of Korea directly, I’ve spent very little time there. I was at a panel at AWP of some younger Korean-American poets last year, and we had a great conversation about the perceived need to research one’s identity in order to write about it. The sort of paradigm of that is you get a Fulbright or some other funding to go back to the homeland and then you write about what you’ve learned as if it’s only now that you have the authority to do so as an “authentic” such-and-such. It’s interesting to think about the assumptions that are built into that perspective on identity, the paths that young poets of color are financially incentivized to follow. Research as the prerequisite for a kind of performance of “authentic” identity—and who is the audience for such performances supposed to be?
That’s fascinating. I can relate in that I am Iranian. I identify as being Persian, but I don’t speak Persian, and I haven’t been to Iran since I was two and a half. So I’m very interested in where that project takes you because it sounds like something that I will need to read.
Yeah, and there are all these prepackaged personae that Western culture wants you to occupy. It’s interesting to be, for example, Asian American and to have your sense of your own racial identity partially shaped by Ezra Pound, of all people.
Hah, yeah. That’s wild. I'm looking forward to that whenever it comes to you. And I’m glad you're also allowing yourself the time to focus on teaching and to be fallow. Your activism is obviously hugely important, especially with building The Racial Imaginary Institute with Claudia Rankine. That’s a huge project that I know a lot of people are keeping their ears to the ground on about.
It’s very much in its infancy now.
Sure, I’m just excited for it.
I am, too.
Interview Posted: April 24, 2017
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