“We're singing of solitude, but we're singing it to one another.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
The last time we talked in New York, the ARCs of Night Sky with Exit Wounds had just come out, but most people hadn't seen it yet, so you were just sort of anticipating the reaction. Now the book's out, and people are already pretty celebratory—you just had a piece in The New Yorker.
Yes. The piece in The New Yorker was nice. I worry, coming on the heels of that Calvin Trillin poem, that it looks like a piece reacting to that debacle. But it was an isolated columnist, Daniel Wenger, who did my profile, and he asked some really thoughtful, attentive questions, and I don’t want Trillin’s voice to cloud that sincere effort. What these two moments do speak to, however, is that this is very much our political climate—where a respected publication can celebrate and insult Asianess in one space—which seems to be an accurate microcosm of America as a whole. I don’t know whether this is progress of degeneration—but it’s where we live at the moment.
I was also glad the piece spoke of my background–how someone like me came into writing. The recognition of another life existing within these spaces is important because, as writers of color, we don't have a solid literary foundation to build on, whereas white writers enjoy the perpetual presence of a canon where their faces are faithfully reflected. For POC, the lineage is more tenuous, fractured, erased, cut out, and ghosted. So it's always important for me to say, "This is where I came from,” and that my making of this art is both an act of creation and survival at once.
One of the ways people whose bodies aren't necessarily acknowledged by history can preserve some element of themselves is through the stories they tell. And you talk about how your family was all functionally illiterate, and that's one of the themes of the book. But then you're about to preserve their stories and therefore preserve some part of them in this book.
Yeah, it's really interesting. I think my reckoning with the written word was also the reckoning with racism, which is sad, but also necessary and, in a way, a vital means of confronting the realities of my country, of America. You know, I didn't know how to read well until I was eleven, but I was fluent. I grew up here. I came here when I was two and I can speak and think clearly in English and Vietnamese. I think what I've learned is that for a lot of the white American gaze, to be illiterate is the equivalent of being unintelligent, of lacking in imagination and critical thinking. I’ve spent most of my life watching the way people look, with disdain, at my family when they fail to utter the language that permits their visibility, permits them access to the most basic levels of respect. I’ve seen cashiers literally reach their hands into my mother’s purse to count the money for her. At times it seems the crossing of physical borders is easier than that of the linguistic ones.
But I've been around the oral tradition of poetry since I was born. Even when I was in my mother's womb poems were spoken to me. And they were very complex, and wild, and imaginative works, replete with rich musical and associative intricacies. Through song and speech, they made a tangible personal and historical lineage that informed the way I think and write.
That's beautifully said. There are so many directions to take that but—you talk about poetry as both reckoning with the very internal and the very external, as an act of survival. That’s a major theme for the book too, like anaphora as coping mechanism. To me, one of the truly remarkable things about the book is the way that the poems feel so—I mean, to say "intimate" is sort of a cliché, and maybe coded language for saying "confessional," or something like that. But they feel like—you know how sometimes on a really lovely jazz track, you can hear the pianist's feet on the piano petals? It's almost as if you're intruding on these very private moments. These poems feel as though they are written for you. There's that Shelley quote, "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds." And I think of that when I read these poems.
Certainly, certainly. I think the Shelley quote is poignant. I do think of the poem as an act of self-preservation, but that is only the beginning, that's the genesis of the impulse. Personally, I want to quickly get beyond that if I can. The way I see it, to extend Shelley's metaphor, is that we're all in this dark forest and we can't see one another. And we're all these nightingales singing and the song is all that we hear of one another, all that we know, so that song needs to move beyond itself, it has to be your own private ark for language. We're singing of solitude, but we're singing it to each other. The poem is for self-preservation, but it is also written in the hopes of speaking to these private fears and joys that we all share, but that we don't get to talk about in public spheres. In that sense, it is also communication between people in order to build a space where we can recognize one another. I think that's what I love about poetry—it can be this and that. It privileges possibilities in action and in form, but also in how these potentialities are received.
Absolutely. In the past you've said, "To love a poem is to love a part of myself revealed to me by another person." And I think that that's so spot-on. To really immerse yourself in poetry is to find these bits of conversation that reveal points of entry into a more positive relationship with yourself, or a more positive understanding of your own humanity.
In some of your poems, there are extremely private details. I'm thinking of, "My Father Writes From Prison," that begins with the opening in Vietnamese, and there's no glossary, and there's no italicized translation. I did get my sister-in-law to translate it for me.
Is she Vietnamese?
Yeah, she is.
Yeah, she's a sociologist who studies Vietnamese immigration specifically.
So the poem opens with, "Dear Lily, how are you? Where are you now? I miss you and our child a lot," written in Vietnamese. But there's no guiding text to help break that down. It's the same way with the next poem, "Head First," where there's the parable at the beginning with no translation. These are gestures that tell the reader that this is an extremely personal moment, and that you're not necessarily serving the Vietnamese as an accouterment to the English. You're not privileging one language over the other. But then the poems open up in ways that are immensely accessible, in that there are opportunities for the reader to see themselves in the relationship.
Right. To talk about language is to talk about identity. And I don't see my work as a privileging of one identity over another because I think life is so much more complex than language allows. I mean, what does it mean to be Vietnamese? What does it mean to be a New Yorker? What does it mean to be Queer? To be a brother? A son? A lover of dogs? All of that is—and is not—contained in syntax. I see identity more as a thread being pushed through a piece of fabric as it's being woven, and that all of our identities are fibers woven in that thread. To write is to push all of oneself through that moment, through that space on the page.
Of course, no matter what I do or say, I will always be an Asian-American, Vietnamese, Queer, etc, including all the identities that I don’t even have the language for yet. Whenever I write in Vietnamese I just think, "Okay, it looks like this is my way into the poem." I don’t want to amputate my voice just to satisfy a limited projection of what a reader should look or be like. To translate is to assume an English speaking reader only, and I don't want to ignore all the other I’s. And so the Vietnamese comes in when it's needed and then it comes out. I think this is also true as an enactment of how we experience language in the world, particularly language that is not our mother tongue. If I were to walk down a street here in New York, I would hear Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Greek—untranslated. And it would look and sound just like it does in a text. Not understanding the words does not make the felt experience of them any less true.
Yeah, that's beautiful. That's so perfectly said. It reminds me of The New Yorker piece, where Daniel Wenger writes that reading you is like "watching a fish move," that you move through the "currents of English with muscled intuition." There's a deftness to the way that you pivot, to the way that the pivots work in your poems, that feels so much like an actual enactment of thinking. Like in "Notebook Fragments," the title tells us a little about how to read the poem, how to move from element to element in the poem, but there's still a real momentum that's built in those pivots. It doesn't feel arbitrary, even though the conceit might lead us to that assumption.
Right. Yes, that's the tension, that suggestion of arbitrariness. I think that's where, for me, the lines of verisimilitude and craft come into play. How much of life is created and how much meaning can we see in seemingly arbitrary spaces? In this sense, I'd like to think of it as an extension of the tradition and discovery that Ashbery works in. But also in the ancient Chinese poets, Du Fu and Li Po, who also create very mundane moments charged through various leaps and juxtapositions that might not at first appear to have any hypotactic tissue.
And the act of imagining then becomes all the more potent because of what you're enacting, because of what the poem is performing. In the poem "A Little Closer to the Edge," the speaker is imagining his conception, and it's the experience of imagining something, of opening it up, or making it real enough to be discovered again. And it has that fantastic line, "teach me / how to hold a man the way thirst / holds water". And imagining the speaker's birth, and the moments leading up to it, is sort of a charged interest of the book. "Immigrant Haibun" has that moment from the speaker's mother, "the ship rocked you as you swelled inside me: love's echo hardening into a boy. Sometimes I feel like an ampersand." It seems like there's this prolonged concern with birth, especially in that section of the book.
There's always, for me, an obsession of witnessing: what it costs, and how the images are carried, rendered. And I think of Milton's Paradise Lost, when he has Lucifer, disguised as a cormorant, spy on Adam and Eve. There's this sense of voyeurism that exists only in its re-telling so that the gaze is at once a witnessing as well as a preservation. But I’m also interested in the voyeurism of the “damned” viewer. Which is, you know —what does it look like to be the child of war? A product of war? What does it look like to be a queer child from a very traditional Confucian family? How does one feel to pay homage to a family but to also, in a way, betray those familial values?
There's also, in both of those poems, and throughout the book, the idea of hunger and what it means to satiate nourishment when that nourishment propels a body towards more destruction? What does it mean to feed yourself only to move towards elements that could destroy you? I feel that that is a very human tension, it's a part of the lizard brain that the poems try to navigate because it at once makes no sense, and yet we are geared, I think, to privilege survival above all else—and that's what we do again and again regardless of our idiosyncratic experiences. Our common ground, as animals, is our will to live—despite the fact.
Yeah. The concern of what it means to be a child of war and how do you maneuver in that space. Like, there's that really intense moment in "Notebook Fragments," "An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me." And it's like—how do you reconcile being alive with that, you know? You could spend your life writing about that one thing and not scratch the surface of it. It's just such a big question, and that the book manages to hold that as well as all the other questions is a testament to its capaciousness, its great breadth. I'm sort of just saying things I admire instead of asking useful questions.
I do like in "Immigrant Haibun," the moment where the pregnant mother says, "Sometimes I feel like an ampersand," because I've always thought an ampersand kind of looks like the Pieta, like the mother holding the son, the shape of it. And I like the way that she says, "Sometimes I feel like an ampersand," which corresponds literally, in how she actually looks like an ampersand, and also in terms of the more esoteric and associative meanings of an ampersand.
Right. I insist on the ampersand in my writing because, to me, it is a symbol that feels truer to the word "and" than the word "and" itself.
How do you mean that?
In a way, it enacts the plus sign. It performs the figure holding two words together. So the ampersand feels more like itself than its worded rendition. And, also, it is something that illiterate people, like the mother figure in that poem, could recognize. It's a symbol. It's a tangible moment. And I think my insistence on it in my writing is a nod to the tangibility of language and how it has possibilities to be more than itself outside of the alphabet—like, say, in the body.
Oh, I like that very much. And interestingly, I think that the ampersand symbol came to us through the Latin word "et," and the Romans, or whomever, just transcribed the 'e' over the 't,' and created what would become the ampersand. And so even the ampersand was a process of our language becoming more accessible and more visual, which is what we see happening with cellphone chatty technology. And people lament it and say, "Oh, what a tragedy it is that our language is eroding." But what it’s actually doing is becoming more democratic and more accessible.
Yes, absolutely! I think that's happening all the time. I'm very interested in the moment where language collapses, because it always collapses. The idea of a standardized "pure English" is a delusion. If you want to speak in standardized English, or "the original English," we would all be speaking Middle English. And if you look at how Middle English was developed since Chaucer, it was dependent on whoever was able to write at the time. Those early writers sounded the words out for themselves, each catalogue of spelling unique to its author. They sort of winged it. And so the idea of a holy grail of English is false in its very conception. David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant essay called “Authority and American Usage” on the arbitrary ways in which English is standardized, and particularly how standardization is an act of political exclusion of poor and brown bodies.
But anyways, I'm very interested in where language collapses. What happens, for example, to "LOL" when it no longer signifies "laughing out loud?" It's very interesting now, because the LOL is almost a period, or rather, a signal in which to say, "I'm not angry at you, I'm just okay." Right? Like, "Oh, where are you?" "I'm outside lol." So it's losing its original purpose, but it's changing into something else. And I'm really interested in that shifting of meaning and usage because it feels innately Queer to me—how language, like people, can be perpetually in flux. That words are, in a sense, bodies moving from one space to another. Our very cells, too, are always moving. They are just overflowing, and dying, and being reborn. What is seemingly so static is actually constantly in motion.
And then how that language gets shifted. In "Notebook Fragments," you see that there are many phrases that are charged differently as the poem progresses because of what happened in-between them. For example, the word "Yikes." On the second occurrence, it starts to gain different calibers, volumes, and tones based on what had happened in-between. And I'm excited when I can push a single word through a poem and have it completely change at the end depending on the contextual pressures that occur. Nothing stands completely by itself. It is all interconnected. If anything, language is standard or true only in the sense that it mirrors that impermanent nature of our lives, our world.
Absolutely. I love that whole movement of thought. And I think it's so true to the experience of the book too, both with the way that you employ words in individual poems, and with the way you employ themes throughout the book. Like what Vietnam is in one poem, isn't necessarily the historical, by the books, experience of what was literally happening in Vietnam in any given year. But the place that you're writing about still feels very true; it's just not necessarily bound to some historical record.
On a technical level, the book negotiates obsession, which was something I was worried about with it. But I was happy to see how poet and critic Christopher Soto, AKA Loma, wrote about it in Lambda. They understood my hope of employing the same words/images through the book to see if the friction of juxtapositions would change their meanings. And it's risky in that, in a very workshoppy way, we're trained to look at the repetition of words as a lack of creativity, or as a sign of a limited vocabulary: "Oh, you're repeating yourself here," "This is a crutch," etc. But what I did discover, which surprised me, was that one could look at a single object again and again in each poem, and the “landscape” of that poem could inform how an image could be seen differently.
A word possesses multiple discoveries depending on the various manipulations of its world. In this sense, it resists a sort of capitalistic gaze of being used and then disposed of, depleted. When we say, "You're using too much of this. You’re wearing this idea or phrase out,” I hear echoes of the market anxiety for newness, for “fresh new products.” So I wanted, in a way, to remove the words from their definitions, or identities, as products, and make them energies that could be charged differently according to what's around them, to recycle them towards a multiplicity of uses. I don’t know if I succeeded. But the experiment was exciting enough to try.
Totally. You articulate very well what I think any reader will sort of just naturally feel moving through the book. Like, in the poem, "Aubaude with Burning City," there's the repetition of the images and of the phrases, but each time they're repeated they've got a new context, like, "Milkflower petals on the street," and "Open, he says. / She opens." Those appear at different places in the poem, but they mean totally different things with each encounter, and they're charged and potentiated by the reader having previously encountered them.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a book that's going to get a lot of attention and rightfully so. I think that it deserves all the praise that it receives, and more. Is there something in the book that feels really important to you that people might not have picked up on yet?
No. It feels weird to say, but I think the biggest gift that I can give myself as an artist is the permission to turn my back on a body of work. To turn my back on my book is to know that I gave it everything I had. I gave it all my care and attention to the best of my ability. And I see it as a raft that I get to send down a beautiful river, but I can't be on that raft because I can't create there anymore. There's no material on the raft to fashion new work without destroying it. So I see myself standing by the shore and sending my little book off. And wherever it picks itself up, whoever finds it, I'm okay with that. To me, it's a great gift to know I can turn away from what I love to build something else worth loving. It's a very liberating act.
Interview Posted: June 6, 2016
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