“Questions kept stacking upon themselves. . . ” – Interview with Joshua Young

Joshua Young’s poem August ’82 appears in RHINO 2014.  RHINO Associate Editor Kenyatta Rogers interviewed him in September 2014.

Young is the author of THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE (Plays Inverse Press), 2014); The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press, 2013), co-written with Chas Hoppe; To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press/Nephew 2012) and When the Wolves Quit: A Play-in-Verse (Gold Wake Press 2012). His latest feature film, Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes? was official selection at Seattle International Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival, and Montreal International Black Film Festival (2011). He is Associate Director of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his family.


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KR: First off thanks for interviewing with us Josh, it is a pleasure to have your work in our journal.

JY: Thanks for publishing me then asking me questions! I’ve been a long time admirer of RHINO, so it’s been nice to have work in its pages.

 

KR: How is it you heard about RHINO?

 

JY: It was either AWP, while wandering the aisles of the book fair in Denver years back or seeing an issue on the bookcase of a friend. I remember reading a couple issues and really liking the work inside. I’m not sure exactly, but one day RHINO was on my radar. When I moved to Chicago I realized it was a Chicago journal.

 

KR: When did you realize you wanted to make writing a career? And was anyone else involved? Teacher, relative, friend, poet?

 

JY: I was playing in bands in Seattle and doing little tours, putting out records and whatnot. It was the late 90s and there were some really cool films coming out—Fight Club, Election, American Beauty, Rushmore—that had this literary quality or something. They felt like different films. Anyway. I remember sitting in the front room of my parents house and telling my dad I wanted to be a writer. He just reached over to his pile of books on the floor and handed me Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Later some folks recommended the-holy-ghost-people-spreadme a bunch of Generation X minimalism (Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palanuik) and that started off my fiction pretty fast.

I didn’t start really writing and reading poetry till later in college. In fact, my only real contact with poetry were the bands Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral lyrics. Yeah, yeah, I know. Lyrics aren’t poetry. On 107.7 The End (Seattle), Sunny Day was doing an interview about their reunion and new record, How It Feels to be Something On, when the interviewer asked, “What’s that title mean?” And Dan Horner (guitar) said, “It’s poetry; figure it out.” So that was my poetry. Even my poetry classes at community college were a bust. We just read the old stuff I had read in high school. Nothing excited me. I was like Yeah, Cummings is cool, Whitman is cool, but I can’t connect to this. I could connect to music. So that was my link to poetry, till I took Oliver de la Paz’s poetry class at Western Washington University. I almost failed it, but he had us read contemporary poets of color: Ruth Ellen Kocher, Victoria Chang, and Arthur Sze. I loved these books; they were nothing like the poetry I had read before.

It’s funny when I think about it, but once I started writing, I was always going to be a fiction writer; I was always going to films. But that started to change when I started reading contemporary poetry. Oliver is to blame for this. I still write fiction and make films, but poetry became my focus for a few years, or I guess poetry led me to start think about hybrid forms, and how to move between genres and modes. Sometime around there I started realizing that I wanted to teach. I went to grad school. I decided my career would be teaching, and that would allow me to write.

 

KR: Do you have any themes or preoccupations that you keep returning to in your poetry?

 

JY: For the longest time I’ve been writing about religion/ faith, and my many many many many issues with it. I grew up in the church and planned on spending my entire life hanging loose with Jesus, but questions kept stacking upon themselves, and when the answers (that I gave myself and others gave me) were mere excuses, rationalizations, justifications, hateful utterances, or flat-out flawed logic, I had to leave. Or I was kind nudged out. Basically I walked out, but I don’t think these people wanted me around. I once made my youth group kids listen to Tool for an entire Wednesday night service and talked about why they shouldn’t break their “secular” cds. If you haven’t heard of that, it happens. The funny thing is that these kids started breaking cds of bands that are secular but all their members are cool with Jesus. Anyway. I have been writing about that for the longest time. But after I finished The Holy Ghost People I felt done. Though all this recent shit with Mars Hill and Driscoll have dragged out some “feelings” because I was around Seattle when they were growing and a lot of my friends were enamored by this “leader,” and I think some of them are still at that church. So, yeah, this preoccupation is probably gonna sneak back in. There are also earlier books I haven’t published yet that deal with this, so in many ways I will never stop talking about religion. Sorry.

THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE | A Play in Verse | Trailer from Caleb Young | Director on Vimeo.

Another preoccupation I have is the idea of myth, especially in American culture, and the little sub-scenes of certain youth and art movements. My most recent projects tend to be centered on a historical figure who’s a part of some burgeoning movement (I’m being so vague), and the myth surrounding it. Examples: 1980s Hardcore Punk or Independent film.

 

Currently though, I think I’m writing about academia, poetry, and the lit scene. Probably out of frustration and love. Though, really, I’m trying to write “poem” poems, you know. Not a project or concept, but a poem about a chair or a moment or something. We’ll see how that goes.

 

KR: I know your most recent book The Holy Ghost People is a play. Can you tell us how that came into fruition?

 

JY: I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but I never get the facts straight. So in a way I’m creating my own myth surround this book. After I finished my first book, When the Wolves Quit, I definitely felt that as a hybrid collection it really worked. It was part epistolary fiction, part poetry, and part play. But the play of it was simply there for structure and continuity. It provided a space to couch a narrative in: A stage. I needed a stage because I 9780983700111_covneeded things to happen offstage.

 

I was writing these little pieces in notebooks and slowly typing them up. They were these little prose blocks about neighborhoods and religion. I didn’t know what they were. I was at the place where I was like, “I don’t know how to write a book anymore.” Which is complete BS. It was me being impatient and forgetful. All of my other books, I wrote extremely fast, but the format and structure came way later, after the books sat. The revision takes a long time and through that process, these books end up becoming something they’re not through that process. So, here were these pieces. I didn’t want to do a play again (even though it felt kind of play-like), and I didn’t want to do the film format either, because my second book, To the Chapel of Light was formatted as a screenplay/film. These pieces needed a structure. They weren’t just prose blocks. They weren’t little fictions. There was an arch, a roof that they needed to be under. They were speaking to each other. Little dialogues. Contradictions. So I emailed them to my friend, Daniel Scott Parker (a wonderful poet and multimedia artist from Chicago), and he was like, “Dude, this is a play.” And so I put it together as a play.
When it finally got to Tyler at Plays Inverse Press, I was just showing him as a peer. He said he wanted to publish it. But the manuscript was with another publisher for consideration. When they passed (no offense to them, but Thank God), I sent it to Tyler. He loved it. He loved it so much he wanted to edit it, and make it better, and bring my ideas out. Clarify. Question. We did maybe 30 revisions. I like to exaggerate, but I’m pretty sure we did something like that. I mean he’d send me a bloodbath of notes, and I’d freak a little, respond, and revise. Then he’ d send me more. Some were huge. Some were small. We had to have a dialogue. The final book is clearly better because of those conversations.

 KR: Do you have a writing regimen or do you just kind of squeeze it in when there’s time?

JY: I have a kid at home who’s about to turn 4. I can’t keep a regimen. BUT I will say that when I really need it, Emily (my wife), is really is cool about giving me time. But mostly, I just write when I can. In front of the tv, on the train, while walking I’ll write some notes in my phone or on a receipt or whatever. Lately, I’ve been writing at night while we watch Criminal Minds, or a Ken Burns documentary on Netflix.

 

I used to get up every morning make a pot of coffee and grab my cigarettes, and read for an hour or two, then write for an hour or two. That was in college. Then I got married, quit smoking, stopped drinking caffeine, stopped eating meat, became a dad, starting running (again). I just don’t have the time/I’m exhausted always. Now, I piece together whatever I can. It works. The idea has to live in my brain for a while before I actually commit it to paper/screen.

 

images-5KR: Do you belong to a writing community or group? If so, how has that helped you?

JY: People always ask me to join writers groups, but I just don’t have time. I love the idea of them. But my poet friends and friends from graduate school sort of operate as my writing community. We send each other stuff through email. My friends are amazing. I tell my students that you need a couple readers who really know your work. That’s all. I trust them to tell me when something is bad or not working. I think having honest readers has helped me prepare for working with an editor, especially if there are lots of edits forthcoming.

 

KR: How important are poetry workshops, writing retreats, poetry residencies, etc…?

 

JY: Workshops are key. But not forever. After you get out of a writing program, I don’t think you need them anymore. You just need your honest friends. Real honest. No bull-shitters. I think workshops aren’t about getting feedback or hearing what others think. They’re about learning how to frame your work, learning how to take criticism, and learning who really knows and cares about your work.

 

I’ve never been to a retreat outside of work retreats and (back in the day) church retreats, and honestly, I don’t think people want to hear my opinions of them. I guess I don’t like what they represent. It’s this magical place where you’re away from the world and you can just write without distractions, and there’s fellowship with other writers, and blahblahblah. I have friends and colleagues that go to these, so I hope they aren’t mad at me for saying this, but really, I tell my students not to waste their time. I tell them to work on writing and publishing and talking about writing. I’ve noticed that this a lot of this new generation of writers don’t need their retreats and residencies to write, they need to pay the rent and support themselves and their family. Sure they’d be stoked to have this privilege, but that’s not the reality. I tell my students to carve out time to write because that’s what they should do. The idea of needing “a writing space” and a “routine” is dying. This post-employment era makes that impossible. People write when they can. I guess I’m saying I don’t think people need the sunrise flossing the peaks of a mountain, while a mountain streams laps against rocks outside the  door, and a deer drinks from a mountain pond in order to type out that great American novel. Maybe it’s sour grapes that I probably won’t ever go to one (unless something drastically changes in my life).

 

Residencies are great though, especially those paying ones that gives poets and writers a chance to write and teaching. I get stoked about those.

 

I guess what I’m getting at is that grad school, retreats, and residences are places of privilege. I am complicit in this. I know this part of creative writing education is flawed and yet I support it (well some of it). I think MFA programs are good, but they are not there to help people find careers. To go to get an MFA you have to realize that it is an anti-capitalist decision. There’s not money in it. Probably not a job. Unless you’re lucky. I am lucky. I got a job. You get an MFA because you care about art, not because you need this to get a job. This is about craft and community. Sure, it’s required to get a job, but the market is so fucked right now, it’s just depressing to think about. Thinking of MFAs as trade schools makes them this kind of a conveyer belt to high-expectations that are never met. My students ask me, “What do I do with my degree?” I tell them find a job they don’t hate and work. Write when they can. Send their work out. If they want to teach, well that’s a longer conversation. I think the biggest issue is that this has become an industry and within that industry people take advantage of people. I’ve heard some horror stories about MFA programs, residencies, and retreats. I think those people who take advantage should be ashamed of themselves.

 

I don’t know. This is complicated. I’m gonna move on.

 

KR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a poet?

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JY: Read all the poems. Read everything. Go to readings. Write. Don’t think everything you do is gold. Keep pushing yourself. Also good poetry is not just what you think is good. Listen to why other people like the stuff you hate. It will make you a better poet, and honestly, a better human.

 

KR:  Since your most recent work is a play, how do you perform it? If you had the time and resources how would you envision it performed?

 

JY: With THGP there are two dialogues, so I read one a little calmer, logical; and the other like a preacher might. When the Holy Ghost People are speaking I preach. When the Speakers are speaking I just sort of read it.

 

If it were staged, I would like to see it on a decent sized stage. Each location built next to each other on the stage, like a tic-tac-toe game, but each location at increasing heights toward the back of the stage, so everyone can see each location as a scene unlocks. The locations are big enough to fit a few people, but small enough that when all the players on are stage it feels overwhelmingly crammed. The stage is dark for most of the show, the scenes work through the use of a spotlight. The players are constantly moving in and out of the darkness.

 

We need sound effects and the ability to harness and pull a big hunk of metal off the stage in darkness without affecting the other locations.

 

 

KR: How do you prepare for your readings/performances? Where do you like to perform? What venues, reading series or Open Mics do you particularly enjoy?

 

JY: I just read them out loud and at home; it drives Em and Elliot nuts. And then I read it how it needs to be read. I’ve seen pics and videos of me rocking as I read. I don’t even know I’m doing it. Basically I just practice out loud and then read it. I have these punk poems (you published one of them in RHINO) and they need to be read (at least most of them) like a punk singer. Kind of shout it a bit.

 

I haven’t read at Open Mics in a while. Mostly it’s a time issue. I like reading at bars and house readings. Something about those two crowds that allow for a certain kind of energy.

 

KR: Do you have any readings scheduled in the near future?

 

JY: I’m doing a mini tour thing with my friend Kat Finch who’s studying at Michigan’s MFA. She has a chap coming out. I think we’re doing Chicago, Wisconsin, and Ann Arbor. In November. We’re booking it now.

 

I’m also reading Wed, March 4th at 5:30pm with Craig Santos Perez at Columbia College Chicago.

 

I’ll be reading at AWP too. And I’m working on a couple other tours (Northeast and Southwest).

 

KR: Do you have an agent and/or publisher? How important are those relationships to you?

 

photo 1-9JY: I don’t have an agent. I would like one. For film and writing. So if you know anyone. My fiction friends tell me this is super important, so I’ve been sending my novel out for consideration. SO I can’t yet talk about agents, but I can talk about editors.

 

In terms of publishers: I worked with Gold Wake Press on my first and third book. Mud Luscious Press for my second book. Now I’ve been working with Tyler Crumrine from Plays Inverse. He’s brilliant. A lovely human and a damn fine editor and publisher. He publishes plays or play-like literature. I wish I had more of that for him.

 

The Holy Ghost People wouldn’t be what it is without Tyler and his editorial guidance. My ego definitely thought Who the fuck is this guy, telling me to change my work!? But he was right. And when he wasn’t right, he was asking the right questions. My advice to poets and writers: When an editor gives you a comment or suggestion, it is not personal. It is because they care about the work and want it to the best it can be. They are the intermediary between your vision and the reader. A lot times the work exists so much in the writer’s mind that without an editor to guide it, things can get lost. If your editor thinks you should change something, at the very least, you owe them a discussion about it. Usually, I’ve found, they’re so right it’s scary. Tyler really helped reshape The Holy Ghost People into the thing it is. It was good before. It worked, but some of the subtlety or contradiction that I really wanted to be known by the reader was lost or hiding behind these moments of language gymnastics—overwriting. I can’t even measure how valuable his edits and our conversations were. And I’m not just saying that because we are close friends now. I think part of why we became friends was the process of working on this book. I respect the hell out of him. Also he’s always a wizard with puns.

 

KR: Can you tell us a bit about your press, The Lettered Streets Press, and how it got started?

 

JY: I’ve been wanting to start a press for years. My dad and I were going to do it back before I started grad school. But that just kept getting put off. I met our prose editor and co-founder Ian Denning while working on my first Masters. We started the press and then I met Abigail in the MFA program at Columbia College, and saw her read, and thought, She’s my poetry editor. I asked her that night. Luckily she agreed. We solicited our first few releases, starting with Nicole Wilson’s Supper & Repair Kit. This book had been a finalist in all these contests, and we got to page three when we knew we had to publish it.

 

So we publish three books a year, four authors/poets.  So far we’ve published Nicole Wilson’s Supper & Repair Kit, and our Split Series Volume I: Aubrey Hirsch’s This Will Be His Legacy w/ Alexis Pope’s Bone Matter. Next up is Ryan Spooner’s Regret, followed by Robert Alan Wendeborn’s The Blank Target, and our Split Series Volume II: Melanie Sweeney’s Birds As Leaves, and Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s Seven Sunsets.

 

KR: Do you have anything else you’d like to add, or mention?

 

JY: No man, this covered everything. Thank you!!

 

For more information about Joshua Young, visit http://thestorythief.tumblr.com.

 

Do You See Colors When You Close Your Eyes? | Trailer from Caleb Young | Director on Vimeo.

October 4, 2014 | |

“The Poem is a Sort of Horse” – Interview with Rodney Gomez

Rodney Gomez won the RHINO Editors’ Prize for his poem Drag Racer,  published in RHINO 2013, along with his poem Cornelio Smith.   An Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize finalist and CantoMundo fellow, Rodney Gomez has held residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Santa Fe Art Institute. His chapbook, “Mouth Filled with Night” won the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize from Northwestern University.  I caught up with him in August 2014 about his writing, work life, and current obsessions.

~Valerie Wallace, Associate Editor

 

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VW: One of the things I love about your poems in RHINO (Drag Racer and Cornelio Smith) is the restraint of the narrator, or maybe in another light, the very subtle presence of the narrator. The story in each poem is so much bigger than the speaker. Can you talk about this in these poems/your work?

RG: Well, I suppose that to some extent I wanted the narrators in these poems to be slaves to larger issues, larger concerns, which they tell you in graduate school is a really a horrible way to write poetry sometimes, but you go where the poem wants to take you, since the poem is a sort of horse. I tried to balance the universal with the particular, and there are some very quotidian concerns running through these poems too; they aren’t just about abstract political concerns.

The tendency towards abstraction is mitigated by the reality of the stories — in these cases, I am writing about what I know to be the reality of Border living, of living in the interstice between the United States and Mexico. In “Cornelio Smith” for example, the inspiration stems from a friend of mine who lives adjacent to the border wall–the wall is literally in her back yard. I was struck by the immediacy of that wall, of that political construct come to life and bothering her, and the allegory of Cornelio came from my contact with her story.

 

VW: What is your everyday relationship with writing?

RG: Time for writing can be infrequent and brief. I write in numerous journals I keep and in my phone and tablet. I write whenever I can–during a lunch break at work or in the car at a stoplight.

It’s been that way since I was a child. I remember writing riddles for friends during lunch and writing during boring class time. I seldom write in long stretches. But I get cranky and anxious when I don’t write for a few days.

 

VW: Do I have this right – that you are an urban planner, and that you live in the South? (Please correct me!).  Is there a relationship with this work, and your creative language work?
RG: I am indeed an urban planner. My specialty is public transportation. I work for a regional council of governments in a town called Weslaco. We primarily serve very low-income people who are transit-dependent, which means that without our programs they would have no other way to get around to get to their jobs, medical services, education, shopping, etc. I do all the busy work that is required to keep the system running without having to actually drive a transit bus–I administer grants, coordinate projects, supervise, train staff, manage budgets, and so on. It’s a small public service job and I take it seriously. But it has very little connection to my writing.
I have managed to divorce my paying job from my writing, and it’s worked fine for me. They each exercise different parts of my brain. I do try to engage politically in most of my creative work, but I don’t fool myself into thinking that I can affect real political and social change through it, at least not in ways that are easily seen and felt. So I am happy to be able to do both. I may not be changing the world in my day job, but there at least I see the concrete results of my actions and I see a real benefit.
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VW: What themes or preoccupations are you interested in lately? (writing or otherwise).

RG: I have been working for most of this year on a book about loss. I’m approaching it from many levels, and I’ve collected many full-fledged poems, bits and pieces, scraps, drawings, and various odds and ends. I’ve written a few short stories too, and philosophical fragments (my formal education is in philosophy). This is the first time I’ve ever set out to create a book with a theme in mind. I’m not sure where it’s going yet.

VW: What kinds of loss? What led you to this project?

RG: The origin of my loss project is the death of my mother, who passed away on New Year’s Eve 2010. We were very close. She had suffered a stroke in 2008 that left her unable to speak, walk, or care for herself. My sisters and father and I took care of her at home until her passing. During the same time, I experienced several other kinds of difficulties–job loss, massive weight gain, divorce. There was a period there of several years that my mind sort of blurred the events of my life together into something like cotton, and it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve been able to get out of it. As with many other poets who’ve tackled this kind of project, I’m trying to make sense of what happened. I’m also trying to memorialize. The project is in its infancy, so I don’t know where it will go.

Another big idea I’ve been wrestling with lately has been the refugee situation here in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Living in Brownsville, right along the Border in Texas, I’ve been an eyewitness to so many women and children who’ve come to the U.S. to escape the violence and poverty of their homes in Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve watched the warm reception we’ve given them locally and seen the vitriol directed at them from places like Murrieta. I’m also aware of the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of coyotes, the Border Patrol, and others. (Just a few weeks ago, a mass grave of immigrants was discovered in Brooks County just north of here.) I’ve been writing, chronicling, responding.

 

VW: I’m so sorry to learn that your mother passed away.  Thank you for sharing what you’ve been through. 

For your Border in Texas project, how do you decide when to write a poem, and when to write a short story?

RG: Confession: I’ve never published a short story! I sent my first story recently to one market. I’m still very tentative about sending my fiction out for the world to see. I write narrative poems and prose poems and flash fiction, but I’m not too sure where the dividing line is between those different animals other than length. I suppose that if I can’t sustain the imagery or metaphor or language for a long period of time, the piece is closer to poetry than fiction. But poems can be very long. Or a whole series can spring up for a particular occasion. My stories don’t necessarily have plots, so that can’t be a divider. I guess I don’t know. This is a very difficult question.

 

VW: Does your creative writing contain influences from your philosophical training?

RG:  I don’t think that my philosophical training informs my creative writing to any great extent. The kind of philosophy I studied was what used to be called, sometimes pejoratively, “analytic” philosophy, to contrast it from other kinds of philosophy. I don’t think anyone uses that term seriously anymore, but its salient features were a copious use of formal logic, a concern for language and its uses, a great interest in science and the scientific method, and an attempt at clear use of language without jargon in presenting work. This does not mean that I don’t write philosophically. Certainly I have work that could be called philosophical in nature. This means that the poetry appears (on its surface) to tackle what might otherwise be the province of philosophy — metaphysical questions, for instance. But this is all just an unintentional rouse triggered by old habits of presenting work.

Some years ago I used to think that my poetry was just another way of doing philosophy–that is, trying to understand things using the tool of language. Those “things” were the deep perplexities of life, those absurdly huge things like love and death. But poetry is really a very poor way of doing philosophy, and it’s a horrible way to try to arrive at meaning. At least by itself. It needs to be propped up by music or religious affirmation or something. My poems were just bad. They sounded horrible. There was no music in them. I was writing those epiphany or observation poems where the poem tries to resolve itself in some insight or new perspective. But that’s the thing with philosophy–by its nature, philosophy is trying to get at some kind of understanding. But a poem shouldn’t necessarily do that. A poem is its own gem.

 

VW: How did you hear about RHINO and what made you decide to submit your work to RHINO?

RG: I think I remember how I first came upon RHINO: I discovered an issue at a bookstore somewhere — it might have been in Minnesota during a business trip–and I loved the work. I decided to submit when I had some poems I thought would fit naturally with the journal’s aesthetic. RHINO to me is about superb poems that have a wide appeal. The content is not arcane, and the work can be appreciated by an educated audience of non-poets. There’s no navel-gazing there.

 

VM: Please tell us what poetry events and poets have inspired you most recently. And, what do you do that is NOT poetry which feeds your creative life?

RG: Right now, I am inspired by all the great current work in Chican@ and Latin@ poetry in the U.S. I follow poets such as Eduardo Corral, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Sheryl Luna, and others. Locally, the Rio Grande Valley is experiencing an awakening, with new poets publishing books and new events showcasing their talents. Some of my favorite poets live and work here. My former professor and mentor, Emmy Perez, is working on a new collection and has been deeply influential in my own work. Jose Rodriguez (another RHINO poet) has published two outstanding collectionsmouth-filled-with-night. Edward Vidaurre, and Nayelly Barrios (who I hope will release a book soon) also live here. It is an exciting time to be engaged.

 

A few months ago I was a featured poet at the Valley International Poetry Festival which is a public poetry gathering of local and international poets, including several from Mexico. A few weeks ago I read at a release for my chapbook Mouth Filled with Night (Northwestern University Press, 2014) at South Texas College, which is a community college that has become a home to many different poetry-related events. Jose Haske, a wonderful poet in his own right and a very powerful fiction writer, has been key to this development. To have these activities take place in the Valley, an area with such low educational attainment and high levels of poverty, is a true sign of progress.

 

VW: I love this representation of the words: Chican@ and Latin@ . Can you say more about the usage of this symbol?

RG: To me, the use of the ampersand in Chican@ and Latin@ is inclusive. It’s another way to write ‘Latino/a’ or ‘Chicano/a’, but the shape of the symbol–with its curvature and melding of the a/o–is to me a better physical representation of the association claimed by use of those words. It’s an expression of solidarity with many different sorts of people who all share a common political and social struggle.
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For more about Rodney Gomez and his work, visit here and here.

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August 27, 2014 | |

“Letting Words Bear Down and Burn” – Interview with Dilruba Ahmed

Associate Editor Jan Bottiglieri interviewed poet Dilruba Ahmed, whose poem “In the Echo Chamber” appeared in RHINO 2011.

Photo credit: Mike Drzal


…Relinquish

your name, your story,

your life. Then sink


to the root of it…

From the poem “Evening in Mendocino”

At the root of things – that is where we expect to find dust, common and elemental. In her book Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, July 2011), poet Dilruba Ahmed helps readers reexamine, and re-imagine, that idea of commonality with each new image of dust – a dusty village road, memory’s dust on a photo album, the sweet taste of cinnamon on a market vendor’s lips – sifting it though her fingers to let the light catch and transform it. Dust is what clings or clouds; it is foreign and familiar, particle and apart, home and afar.

JB: Your bio mentions that you have “roots in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Bangladesh.” Please tell us a bit more about your background.

DA: My parents came to the U.S. from a region of Bengal known then as East Pakistan and later, as Bangladesh. I was born in Philadelphia, and I lived most of my childhood in Ohio and my adolescence in western PA. Much of my family’s early history in America is situated in Philadelphia, so although my family moved to Ohio when I was quite young, Philly is a home of sorts. I’ve never lived in Bangladesh, but the ties to my family’s homeland feel significant nonetheless.

JB: What led you to writing?

DA: I can only guess that the urge to write came in part from being an outsider in small midwestern towns. My parents and my older sisters were interested in creative writing, and my mother in particular was a strong influence on me. She had been active in poetry recitation competitions while she was in Bangladesh, and she continued to read, write, and recite Bangla poetry upon her arrival in the America.

JB: The New York Times book review of your book Dhaka Dust includes this quote from your poem “Dustcover”: “I let the words bear down and burn.” Please tell us more about what you feel gives language this type of transformative power. Do you feel language has shaped your cultural identity?

DA: Absolutely. Bengalis hold the Bangla language very dear to them. It’s a very soft, beautiful, expressive, and poetic language—and a matter of regional and cultural pride and political import. Bangla (Bengali) was my first language, English my second. I grew up in a bilingual household in which, over time, my parents spoke Bangla to my sisters and me, and we responded in English. (To this day, this is typically how we communicate.) While my siblings and I have retained our comprehension of Bangla, our spoken Bangla lags behind.

I think that growing up that bi-cultural and bi-lingual environment deeply shaped my cultural identity—my lived experiences spanned more than the small towns where I grew up, and I was keenly aware of my parents’ “ghost homeland” that seemed to exist just out of reach. My bilingual upbringing also heightened my awareness of language, I think—I discovered early that a very funny story relayed by my mother in Bangla sometimes failed to have the same richness and deliciousness in English, for example; or that certain English words had no counterpart in Bangla. I learned, too, that languages could provide access and power as much as they could create barriers to communication and belonging.

Most enduring were the experiences of hearing my mother recite Bangla poetry with great drama and expression. Much of the language was beyond my reach, but my mother would sometimes translate the formal Bangla into household Bangla, or into English. But without those translations—and even with them—those poetry recitations became incantations. I had a similar experience whenever I heard prayers called out in Arabic. Both of those languages functioned as pure music in my experience—deeply mysterious and powerful music that I could not fully comprehend.

JB: Reviews of Dhaka Dust all mention the sense of place that figures so prominently in your work. Your poem in RHINO 2011, “In the Echo Chamber,” is also very place-specific – but its landscape is the body. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write this particular piece?

 

DA: Long before I had a child, a colleague who was describing her labor and delivery said to me, “I miss being pregnant.” It was an alien thought to me at the time, but it struck me later that the experience of being pregnant was indeed so fleeting and, like so many experiences of parenthood, never to be duplicated in quite the same way.

While I was carrying my son, I felt so…plural. I was continually aware that, for a brief time, I possessed a bodily state that would only be temporary. The cutting of the umbilical cord released that physical bond, but the emotional and psychological bond is indescribable. In parenthood, there’s a kind of nostalgia for the present that’s hard to escape, imbuing many moments with both great sweetness and melancholy. I think of it now as an Instagram effect, in which snapshots taken 2 minutes prior can be transformed into objects of nostalgia, something from the long-ago, unrecoverable past. It’s that “Oh my God, remember when he was just [fill in blank]?” feeling of shock that many parents experience on an ongoing basis.

So I guess you could say that in this poem, the body becomes a landscape in which the speaker rues the loss of a particular kind of intimacy that results from the actual birth. Parenthood, in my experience, has often been a complex battle against time’s passing, with life moving at warp speed.

JB: I love the way “In the Echo Chamber” explores shifting ideas of connection and “otherness,” an idea that seems prevalent in much of your work. Can you share with us why those concepts are important to you, and how you address those ideas through your work?

 

DA: “Otherness” of one kind or another characterized many of my life experiences… I tended to feel both connected and apart in multiple contexts—both here in America, where I was born and raised, and in my family’s homeland as well. For example, in certain parts of America, others have expected (and in some parts, still do expect) me to be more “Indian” than I seem to be on the surface, or have been surprised that I’m fluent in English. In some settings, people distinguish whether one is Indian or Bangladeshi; in other settings, we are South Asians. While I was living in the cultural flux of the San Francisco Bay Area, a different set of questions arose about solidarity with all people of color. In Bangladesh, I experienced at times a profound divide, and in other moments a deep sense of belonging.

In my work, I hope I have conveyed how fluid those feelings of connection and alienation can be, whether through a speaker returning to Bangladesh and experiencing the comforts of reuniting with a family split by place and time, or via a narrator moving through an American homeland that is divided by racial tensions.

 

JB: What have you been reading lately?

DA: I have been reading Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God with an interest in unpacking her emotionally brutal distancing effects; Lighthead with great appreciation for Terrance Hayes’ sonic playfulness; and In the Surgical Theater, particularly for Dana Levin’s handling of a father figure in a medical crisis.

________________________________

Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize for poetry awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry.  Her writing has also appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review blog, the National Book Foundation blog, the Asian American Literary Review, and The Kenyon Review Online.Ahmed holds BPhil and MAT degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from Warren Wilson College.  She teaches in Chatham University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

To learn more about Dilruba Ahmed visit her website, or purchase Dhaka Dust here.

April 19, 2013 | |

“I am a ruthless reviser” – Interview with Erika L. Sánchez

Associate Editor Jacob Saenz interviewed Poet and Writer Erika Sánchez, whose poem, “Recession Poem #3″, was published in RHINO 2012.

JS: First off, thank you for taking the time off your busy schedule to interview with us here at RHINO. We’re happy you agreed to do so and even more pleased to have your poem, “Recession Poem #3″, in RHINO 2012.

I love the use of white space in your poem, which seems to me to represent the “silence // so tentacled            so deep” that seeps in throughout the entire poem.  I also love that poem ends with the sound of wind chimes that seem to shatter the silence.

How many Recession poems have you written? Do they use a similar form as that of #3? Do you feel compelled to write more of them in this economic climate?

ES: It’s my pleasure! I actually had three recession poems at one point, but I am a ruthless reviser, so now I only have one. Also, this particular one has been transformed into something different. Many of the images remain, but the poem became much more emotionally violent and kind of creepy. (I can’t ever leave my poems alone. I have probably ruined a few by being so compulsive.) I originally wrote the series because I had this god awful corporate job after grad school for about two years, and I don’t think I’ve ever hated anything so much in my life. The poems reflected the deep desperation I felt during that time. While working in the Loop, I also observed jarring economic inequalities and overwhelming consumerism. I was both repulsed and fascinated… But mostly repulsed. Haha. I think I’m finished with those kinds of poems for now. Things are looking up for me.

JS: In addition to being a talented poet, you also write articles for The Huffington Post and NBC Latino. How do you approach writing articles as opposed to poetry? Do you have a writing regimen for either form?  Do you find that your poetry and the articles you write have similar themes and/or topics?

 

ES: Usually, a poem begins as an image that gets stuck in my brain. I see or hear something grotesque or beautiful or both that startles me and then I become obsessed with it until it becomes a poem. Sometimes it takes me years to complete a poem. Sometimes they require me to leave them alone for months and months before I can revise them again. I know it sounds new agey and kind of mystical, but the poems tell me what they want. I also do a lot of writing exercises and free writing to make myself come up with fresh new language. Poetry feels like my brain giving birth to something painful and grotesque.

My prose, however, is mostly a reaction to anger. Honestly, most of my articles are about things I’m pissed off about. I can make myself sit down and write about domestic violence or racism, for example, but I can’t do the same with poetry. That always ends badly. I can also use humor in my prose, which I find nearly impossible to do when writing poems. Poetry is also so painstaking and image-driven for me. I find both genres liberating in completely different ways.

JS: Full disclosure: you and I both attended Morton East High School in Cicero, IL. I remember being an editor for Parchment, the school’s literary magazine, and how we had to turn down one of your poems because it had the word “cunts” in it. I remember liking the poem and feeling sad that we could not publish it but I also understood why we had to do so. I suppose it would’ve made some readers uncomfortable.

Do you enjoy that, making the reader uncomfortable or otherwise uneasy with your writing? What do you hope the reader to gain by such discomfort? In asking this question, I’m thinking of your article on The Huffington Post, “Why I Choose to be Politically Incorrect”.

 

ES: I love this story because it reveals how much of an asshole I was at that age. The hubris! Haha. I remember getting the response from the editor and I was all “how dare they censor me!” I remember I also got reprimanded after I read a scandalous poem at a school assembly. I suppose I haven’t completely changed because I still revel in making people uneasy sometimes. Part of it is that I think uncomfortable things need to be dissected and discussed so we can all heal both as individuals and as a society. To be perfectly honest, I enjoy joking about race, and I do it because it helps me cope and because it can make people examine their own privilege. (Or maybe they just end up thinking I’m a politically incorrect jerk. Who knows?)

I also don’t hesitate to let myself go to the weird and unsettling places of my psyche. I can’t tell you how many times I have creeped myself out with a poem. Recently, I wrote a poem about donkeys and when I was finished, I thought to myself– “did I really just write a poem about a donkey show?” I feel like readers appreciate that sort of vulnerability and honesty, though. I often get responses from other women, especially Latinas, thanking me for writing about this or that. I really appreciate being able to connect to people in that capacity. My articles have also pissed a lot of people off, particularly men, and I’ve received plenty of hate mail, but it doesn’t faze me anymore. I’m going to write about what I think is important regardless of the repercussions. I’ve always been brutally honest and it has both bitten me in the ass and served me well.

JS:  As a Latina poet, how do you feel about nature of Latino/a poetry as a whole?  Do you feel Latino/a poetry is well-represented in mainstream journals? If not, what could be done to address this?

 

ES: I don’t know what to say about the nature of it as a whole, because it’s comprised of so many voices and styles. I think it might take me a few months to come up with a good answer. I’m disappointed when I don’t see Latino/a poetry in mainstream journals, because there are so many talented Latino poets that I refuse to believe it’s because they don’t receive enough submissions. I think this is improving though. Latino/as have been winning big prizes and are being published by larger presses. The way that I personally address this problem is by submitting to these journals until they take my work. I’m very stubborn. I think it would also help if journals made an effort to make their editorial team more diverse.

JS: Who and what have you been reading lately that has inspired you? What books do you recommend? Do you have a go-to poet/writer?

 

ES: Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindberg is stunning– poignant and beautifully crafted. Wow. I love creepy poems so I really enjoyed A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín. Everyone and their mother, grandmother, and cat have been talking about Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, and I will be no different. It’s undoubtedly one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read. Larry Levis is one of my favorite poets. I can read his poems over and over. They are so good they make my heart hurt. I’ve been into Emily Dickinson ever since I was an awkward and solitary teenager and she still makes me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off.”

JS: What’s next for you? Any projects/books/plans for world domination?

ES: I would like to get my poetry manuscript published soon. I feel like it’s finished now and would like to see it in the world. Recently, I also started writing a memoir and then realized that I actually need to write a novel instead. I hope to one day have time to complete it. The ideas are bubbling inside me, but freelancing sucks up all of my time. I’ve also been approached to come up with some ideas for other kinds of media. I’m eager to tell the whole world more about it but I think it’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen with all that. I’m very excited about the possibilities on the horizon. I feel like I’m on the cusp of something.

—————————————————————-

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinasand a contributor for The Huffington Post, NBC Latino, and others. Her poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Drunken Boat, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. She has written book reviews for Kirkus Reviews and her nonfiction has been published in Jezebel, AlterNet, and Ms. Magazine.  http://erikalsanchez.com/

December 17, 2012 | |

“I brush away the poem’s landscape. . .” – Interview with Ocean Vuong

Earlier this year, RHINO Senior Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet Ocean Vuong, whose poem “Pedicures” appears in RHINO 2012.

photo by Peter Bienkowski

VB: We published your poem “Pedicures” in RHINO 2012, so I’d like to begin with a couple of questions about it. We love the sensuous and sensory language in this poem, and the deeply respectful—even reverent—portrait of the speaker’s aunt as she gives yet another pedicure to a perfect stranger: “Her fingers slide along each lathered / and tortured vein. […] She scrubs and scrubs. / She shines—until the foot gleams / immaculate”.

 

Can you speak a bit about what or who inspired you to write this poem? And about your favorite language used to describe her in the poem?

OV: The speaker’s aunt is my own. But she is also my mother, grandmother, uncle, cousin, and father. For many Vietnamese living in America, the nail salon is often the vital backbone behind each family. Thousands of lawyers, doctors, musicians, scholars, and writers can trace their achievements directly back to the humble little nail salon. However, the salon is also a lifeline for Vietnam as well: many salon workers send money back to the motherland, often supporting multiple families on a salary of as little as $12,000.00 a year.

photos by Ocean Vuong

This poem was initially written as an homage to these workers. And although the language can be described as lush and sensual, I found it impossible to beautify their difficult work. I think I used the language more as a vessel, chartering me through the work and its images. The last thing I want to imply with my work is that suffering, even that as minute as arduous labor, can be justified by rendering it beautiful—or worse, a writer adorning it with “poetic” language.

As for favorite words: I regret to say I don’t have favorite words. To me, language is a means to an end, and often a cumbersome and limiting one. I write the poem knowing that language will ultimately fail the work’s intent. This doesn’t mean that language (as well as the mastering of language) is not important, but as a craftsman is most skilled when he knows the limitations of his tools, the writer should know the depths of his words.

VB: It also seems to me that the poem makes a sort of argument that the aunt is an artist, even though her work is not appreciated as such and is cheapened by the exchange of money: “What artistry isn’t reduced / to the sound of money being counted? […] my aunt’s face / is swallowed / by clouds of sloughed skin.” Could you elaborate a little on the question of what counts as “art” and who counts (no pun intended) as an “artist”?

 

OV: This is a tough question and one I have been asking myself since I began writing. I don’t think I will ever have a precise answer because I think the answer changes; it’s a moving target. But I think it’s more of a personal question, one in which every artist should perpetually be asking herself: what do I want my work to do and how will my work reward me? If the answer to the latter is “fame,””wealth,” or even “happiness,” then perhaps it would be better to choose another vocation. This is not to say that an artist should have any one particular goal, but at the very least she should engage her artistic efforts with the hopes of capturing something greater than physical, financial comfort, or even mental comfort.

As for me, I have never considered poetry to be a means of living. I have lived below the poverty line all of my brief 24 years on earth—so the little money there is in poetry never disappointed me. In fact, any money I do get from lectures or readings or awards is treated as a bonus: a gift. But you’re asking of whether I think money deludes art. And in which case I would say—yes. But that doesn’t mean we have to be starving artists, and it surely doesn’t mean that the only legitimate artists are ones who live in poverty. Because we live in a capitalist society (world?), art must often operate within economic confines in order to survive. And an artist, regardless of the number in his bank account, can only benefit by confronting money and myriad ways it changes him.

VB: In your book Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press 2010), there is a thread of poems about the Vietnam War that remind me—not just in content, but also instyle—of Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. However, where YK’s work is sort of a soldier’s testimonial, your poems often call attention to later generations’ difficulty with knowing and representing the War at all.

For instance, “”The Photo” ends with a reminder that what might be outside the frame, outside the graphic photograph of “a yellow face” and “a yellow hand” “gripping the pistol,” is equally important: “Like where the bullet / entered his skull” or “a white man / was lighting a cigarette.”

How do you see the relationship between your poetry and the cultural memory of the Vietnam War?

OV: Whether one is writing about Vietnam—or any traumatic event in our collective past, it’s important to avoid a sentimental approach towards nostalgia, particularly that of place—which is what I appreciate most about Komunyakaa’s work: it seeks truth without the anxiety to force convenient conclusions to historic trauma. I think a lot of younger writers, especially those who were not born or lived in Vietnam, are more susceptible to depicting Vietnam as a convenient and often limiting trope, replete with palm trees, rice patties, buffaloes, the one-legged farmer hobbling along a dirt road, etc. The problem with this approach is not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s very reductive, offering little to the reading experience. What’s more is that Vietnam becomes less of a real, lived country and more of a collection of icons of which the poet uses to mend whatever personal and political agenda he’s negotiating. In this way, Vietnam is reduced to a tool used to resolve one’s own afflictions—or even worse, the poem’s rhetoric. I guess this is where the important question of “artist responsibility” is most relevant: as poets, we literally have the world in our hands; a few strokes of the pen and a city can rise or fall, the temperature and climate of a nation changes, a history is created or forgotten. With such great power demands greater awareness. It’s tempting to look for the end of the page or the last stanza as a space to answer some of our most impossible questions—but sometimes a poem is most powerful when it admits defeat, admits that it, too, is human.

VB: Many of your poems are also startling and achingly beautiful in their representations of sexuality and human intimacy. In “Revelation,” the speaker reveals that “fig leaves lay torn by our feet.” In “Moonless,” we find that “the ceiling has dissolved” and “the walls are crumbling.” In “More than Sex,” the speaker stops to note, “How quickly the animal empties,” and concludes by confessing, “I find what I came for: / a sea of lilacs / unfurling / their withered petals.”

Where do you find these gorgeous images? How do you arrive at a balance between literal narrative and imagism in these poems?

OV: Before I started writing I was practicing Zen meditation (Zazen)–which encourages one to approach the world as “a blind man approaches an elephant.” As he touches each part of the animal, he names a separate object: the trunk is drainage pipe, the leg the base of a great oak tree, the ears a dried, cool banana leaf. This is to say that by removing the word “elephant” we can actually see the elephant in its purer nature, freed from the connotative shackles we use to enslave the animal. We can see, after all, that the actual elephant is only “big” when it’s next to something small. Drop the creature into the ocean and it’s suddenly reduced to a minuscule grey dot. Of course, the elephant has never changed—the world has only shifted around it. I try to apply this principal to the majority of things I see, and the images come naturally from this perceptive. Although they do arrive at the strangest times: I would be doing something quite mundane: cooking or washing the dishes, sitting on the train, or singing in the shower and the image comes, wrapped in this precious language. I’d leap out of the tub soaking wet, rush to my little notebook to write it down, and then thank the poetry gods.

How do I find a balance between literal and narrative? I don’t think I have enough awareness of my own technique to answer this question properly. Maybe when I am older this will be clearer to me. But perhaps this is difficult to answer because, for me, the composition feels more organic than cerebral. I write the poem less as an architect and more an explorer, crawling on hands and knees through a dark and newly discovered world. I take the pen and brush away the poem’s landscape until something takes shape.

VB: The titles alone speak to a project focused on refusing conventional and heteronormative conceptions of sexuality and the body: “The Masturbation of Men, “The Touch,” “Self-Fellatio as Prayer,” etc. In “Song on the Subway”—a poem that echoes the voices of Walt Whitman and Mark Doty—the speaker is observing a musician during rush hour on the A Train. By the end, the speaker tells us, “I want nothing / but to put my fingers inside his mouth, / let that prayer hum through my veins. / I want to crawl into the hole in his violin.”

Could you speak about the importance of “desire” in your work?

OV: To speak of desire in my work is to speak of my devout Buddhist practice, which, in regards to poetry, is quite contradictory. For Buddhists, the root of all suffering is desire itself. I accept the fact that I’m not a monk, that my life is too often dictated by even the most basic desires: a job, a house for my mother, so and so’s new book, a man’s body, quiet, open spaces. What I find nearly impossible to accept, however, is being both a Buddhist and a poet at the same time. Yes, other Buddhist poets like Jane Hirshfield and Gary Snyder, both of whose work I admire, have pulled it off. But for me, what’s most problematic is the very desire to make poems at all. I feel, well, sort of guilty—dirty even, when writing. As I write this, hundreds of monks in Tibet are being beaten, killed, and persecuted by the Chinese government. How can my poem make a difference there? Poems take a lot of time to write (at least for me) and I just can’t help thinking that that time could be better used elsewhere. I already volunteer at Tibet Liberation centers but I catch myself, in the middle of a poem saying: “is there something more useful I can do with my hands, at this moment?” It’s hard to come to terms with my writing when the world’s on fire and here I am, obsessing over a handful of paper.

Like this very body I possess, the act of writing is, to me, just a means of translation, a place to store the soul. What’s more is that I have to face the fact that the poem will never be what I intended it to be—I can only get very close (if I’m lucky). I have to accept the fact that the very material I work with will ultimately fail me. Jack Gilbert perhaps said it most poignantly: “Love, we say, 
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words 
get it wrong.” They do, they get it wrong, and still we get up, we try to love each other, to resist our incredible ability to be cruel, and we try, we work and we mine language until it satisfies our need to make something meaningful. But the trying is what I fear. I pick up the pen and think: “could I be doing something better with these hands?” As I fix the flaws of the poem, the flaws of a man stack up around me, often times unnoticed. This scares me more than anything: the idea that I will end up using this precious time on earth making poems very few people will read, while there is still so much I can do with this body I am given.

But this, of course, is not to say that poetry does not change lives. It does. I know this. I posses one of those lives. In fact, there are many writers whose work hold that special capability. The problem, I think, is a lack of readership. I empathize with Whitman’s desire to make his Leaves of Grass a household book, a poetic bible of sorts. And I think it’s okay to not be completely satisfied until we achieve that feat, regardless if it’s with our own work or someone else’s.

VB: We also want to wish you congratulations on being awarded the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets for “Prayer for the Newly Damned” (featured in The American Poetry Review September/October). In addition to this poem, what other work do we have to look forward to? What styles and topics are you working on? What are your current obsessions?

OV: Thank you. The award meant a lot to me and I thank the American Poetry Review for their selection and for running the contest in the memory of such a fine and important poet.

I have just spent the entire summer in Vietnam helping my aunt immigrate to America, and right now my focus is helping her and my family settle in to their new lives. Right now, I am focusing on planning my move to Iceland (which I plan to do within the next 4-5 years) and eventually obtaining an Icelandic citizenship.

I hope my answers are helpful to you and your readers. I apologize for not being more eloquent in my responses. Thank you for your questions—they were very illuminating and provocative. May peace and poetry and be with you always.

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Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is the author of the chapbook BURNINGS (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) and is a recent graduate from Brooklyn College with a B.A. In English. A Kundiman fellow, he was a finalist for the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Other honors include a 2012 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets, an Academy of American Poets award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations. Poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Verse Daily, RHINO, diode, Guernica, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Collagist, amongst others. http://oceanvuong.tumblr.com/
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November 20, 2012 | |

Ask yourself: do I love words? – Interview with Kenneth Pobo

Ken Pobo is the author most recently of Ice and Gaywings (winner of the qarrtsiluni chapbook Contest, 2011), Trina and the Sky (winner of the Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest, 2009),

and Glass Gardens (Word Press, 2009).  He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and has published four collections and twenty chapbooks to date. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as such journals as Fifth Review, Hawaii Review, Atlanta Review, The Fiddlehead, Grain,Nimrod, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, and, we’re happy to say, RHINO 2011. Associate Editor Andrea Witzke Slot interviewed him in February 2012.

AWS: First of all, thank you, Ken, for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to interview with us here at Rhino.  I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know your work. You are a prolific writer and use a wide range of voices and styles, with each book having a clear focus and/or thematic structure.  I’m curious, though, how you might describe the defining features and writing style of your work as a whole?  Which of your books do you feel best represent you and why?

KP: I have several approaches to writing poems.  I enjoy writing character poems, but I also enjoy observations of the natural world, including the garden, poems about my life as a gay man, poems about growing up.  While I mostly work in free verse, I sometimes work in forms.  More recently, I’ve been working on flash fiction.  Reading other poets, no matter what I’m working on, is helpful.  I am particularly drawn to ancient Chinese poets: Du Fu, Li Bei, Wang Wei, among many others.  I am a reviser.  Sometimes I wish “first thought, best thought” would work for me, but when I draft, I have to almost “talk” the poem through, so much needless verbiage appears.  I work toward a lean, economic line and poem.  At 57, I am still learning how to trust the image, trust the metaphor or simile.

No book/chapbook fully represents who I am as a writer.  Right now, I feel a strong connection with Ice And Gaywings, perhaps because it is most recent, but also because it combines my interest in Wisconsin, my relationship with Stan, and a connection with nature (particularly the Wisconsin Northwoods).  Trina and the Sky took years to write.  At first, I was going to write a suburban satire, a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman done in poetry.  I saw Trina as a comedic figure—until she got more real for me, a person with losses, doubts, and fears, and the poems moved away from my initial ideas.  Characters always change, at least to some extent, as I write them.

AWS: As mentioned, your books use a wide variety of voices and styles. In Trina and the Sky, for example, my favorite of your books that I’ve read so far, you give one woman, Trina, a 3-D persona by letting her speak for herself in first person in some poems but by allowing a third-person narrator to speak for her in the majority of the poems. I want to note, too, how you very successfully avoid sentimentality even when the subject matter could lead us there.  Trina, it seems to me, could be a woman inside many houses in America, and yet she is so entrenched in the details of her life that she can’t see beyond those details.  What do you feel are the major themes, preoccupations, or concepts running through this particular book?

KP:Actually, Andrea, your comments say it very well, better than I could!  I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.  Trina could fit in there (if she “fits in” anywhere).  Can any of us fully see beyond “the details” of our lives?  I think Trina has a quiet courage and much of her life deals with various kinds of traps.  I don’t think of Trina as an “everywoman” (or her husband Frank as an “everyman”).  She’s a woman who faces difficulties partly due to lack of vital communication between herself, her two kids, and her husband.  It’s almost like the bridges have washed out and she’s calling to them from an island.

AWS: You have succeeded in gaining an audience for your work through many different avenues and publishers.  Your latest chapbook Ice and Gaywings won the qarrtsiluni chapbook contest in 2011, Glass Garden was published by WordTech Press in 2011, Trina and the Sky won the Main Street Rag chapbook contest and was published in 2009, and your chapbook Tiny Torn Maps was published with Deadly Chaps, a book that is available for immediate (and free) download through LuLu.  Tell us about the choices you’ve made when considering contests, small presses, and self-publication. What you think of the publication market today and the opportunities and/or pitfalls for poets?

One challenge that many poets face is the “business” aspect of being a poet seeking publication.  Much time goes into choosing a magazine which, one hopes, will be a good venue for one’s work.  Over the years, I’ve grown a thick skin to rejection.  I get a rejection and tear it into tiny pieces.  Then I’m over it.  One online site I use often is Duotrope.  One could fall into Duotrope searching for possible magazines to submit to and never be seen again.  Hours slip by.  I’m pretty dogged.  When I get work back, I always go over it and see what revisions could be helpful.  That makes rejection more of an opportunity than a negative.  William Stafford said that an editor is your friend if the editor prevents you from publishing work that shouldn’t be published.

A pitfall poets face is making the “goal” of publication more important than the growth of craft and the contemplative time that helps a poem to come alive.  A funny thing about getting work accepted is that in poetry there is no arrival.  There’s still a new idea, a new draft—and the work it takes to bring the poem to fruition.  Winning contests is gratifying—and afterwards one goes back to a draft and sees how much more work is needed.

I am pleased that we have print and online journals.  Both have much to offer.  I like how online journals make poetry more accessible than the print world could do.  How amazing to think that someone in India could be reading my poem because it is online.  However, I love the feel and smell of a magazine that one can actually hold in one’s hands.  A print journal feels warmer to me than something on a screen.

AWS: How has social media and new forms of communication and connection affected your life as a poet?

I’m thinking this through right now.  I’m on Face Book and haven’t decided why it has become as much a part of my life as it has.  It is great for connecting writers, though the connection often is in short “status update” snippets.  I’m an email-aholic too.  I find I check email quite often.  I hardly ever write letters anymore.  I have a friend who still has no computer, so I write him letters, but he is the exception.

AWS:You are a very productive poet, publishing no less than 20 chapbooks and four full collections to date.  What is your writing regime?  How do you manage (and balance) the administrative side of writing with the creative side?

KP:It’s fairly simple: butt in the chair.  If I can’t generate something new, I try revising something old.  In that way, I never have “writer’s block.”  Some days are more productive than others, and I think with creativity one learns to respect the ebbs and flows.  If I feel stuck, a prompt helps me.  Sometimes I’ll sit down and look out the window and cull an image from what I see and start writing.  Some of my poems have political content—those are often begun in instant fury over something on the news.  Poems centered on a character can grow numerous once I get more of a handle on who the character is.  Trina, for example, required many more Trina poems to be written than ever got published or published in the chapbook.  They needed to be written for me to better understand her.  I’m fairly bloodless about deleting work that doesn’t feel focused or my commitment to it is weak.  Some drafts just don’t work and never will.

By administrative side, I think you mean making submissions.  That’s pretty much about readiness.  When I think the work is ready to be seen by an editor, I submit it.  I am never sure when I send it out how “finished” it really is.  With book manuscripts, if one comes home, that’s a great chance to see if some poems in the manuscript would better suit a different collection.

I’m a professor and when school is busy, my writing life suffers.  In English and creative writing, the work is so language-centered that when I get home I can feel I lack the energy to create.  I usually get better as the semester goes on, but in those early weeks my writing takes a hit

AWS: Following on from that question:  When did you first start writing and why?  And how has your poetry—and/or your approach to poetry—changed over the years?

KP:I can point to a day: July 4, 1970.  In my family house in Villa Park, we had a ping pong table that my grandfather built himself in our basement.  July is usually a hot month near Chicago and the basement was a cooler location.  I loved (and still love) the popular music of the 60s.  My favorite singer, then and now, is Tommy James (Tommy James and the Shondells).  In 1969, Tommy had hits that were very “peace and love” on the radio (“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball Of Fire”).  I decided to try writing my own song lyrics in this vein. My first “poem” was called “The Open Door” which included the immortal line: “C’mon, let’s unlock our minds.”  The lyrics rhymed and had a chorus.  As I kept writing, I got tired of always having to put in a chorus (ironic since I can’t read music or play an instrument).  I started to get away from a tethering to rhyme.  By the time a year had gone by, I had a sense that writing would be my life.  I started reading other poets.

The excitement I felt when I started creating poems back when I was fifteen hasn’t faded at all.  It’s still great fun—as well as a struggle.  I didn’t write character poems early on.  Those came later.  I’m not sure why.  That happened more when I got to graduate school.  If one wants to write, one needs to do it, not just talk about it or say “Someday.”  Distractions can be abundant and dangerous.  If I’m not writing, I’m frustrated.

AWS: Do you belong to a writing community or group? If so, how has that helped you?

KP:I have at various times and they can be enormously useful.  I have writing friends who sometimes share work.  This past summer, for the microfiction chapbook, three writing friends, Margaret Robinson, James Esch, and Michael Cocchiarale, helped me choose which pieces to include.  That was invaluable.  Much of the writing life is solitary—but not all of it.  Anytime someone raises a question, whether I choose to revise or not, is useful.  Strange as it may sound, I include writers who are no longer living in my writing community.  I have a picture in my home office of Du Fu—he’s watching me this very moment.

AWS: Do you regularly perform your poetry? How important is performing for you?  What do you feel are the qualities of a successful poetry reading?

KP:I enjoy giving readings.  I get butterflies before I begin but once I start I relax and give myself over to the experience.  Listeners who listen carefully are helpful.  One thing about “performance” I like in particular is the inclusion of voice and sound, not just the reading of poems with the eyes.  Sound opens up many more dimensions than sight alone.  Each poet has to find his or her own way to bring the work to those who listen.  Early on, I was told “Don’t read so fast.”  That was good advice.  Eye contact helps.  Monotone kills.  Not all poets are great readers and reading styles change with time.  I love Theodore Roethke’s poetry.  When I heard him read on a CD I had to laugh—he sounded so purposefully “dramatic.”  Yet that approach was probably well received sixty years ago.

AWS: How do you feel your role as an educator has affected your work?  What advice do you give to students and/or aspiring poets?

KP: In my case, I think teaching turned out to be a great career choice.  Academia can be a nightmare for some writers—or a wonderful place.  Or somewhere in between.  I teach more by discussion than lecture, and in discussions students will further my own interest in a writer or an idea.  Just last semester, I began class with a writing prompt, and I wrote as the students did.  Now I have a dozen poems/flashes that grew out of that prompt.  We have a small creative writing program at Widener.  This allows teachers to work closely with students and to form a writing community.  I love that kind of connection.  Academia is not the right home for many writers.  I think it was/is a good home for me.

My advice is more about hanging in there, finding ways to keep one’s creativity alive.  Read.  Talk with other writers.  Write.  And don’t worry about if it’s “good” or not, at least not right away.  Play.  Play with language.  Ask yourself: do I love words?  Find other poets who you are crazy about.  I still remember when I was an undergraduate discovering “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Or reading D.H. Lawrence’s Pansies the first time or Sylvia Plath’s poems.  I felt my world breaking wide open.

AWS: This is a question that has always intrigued me (as the answer varies so much from poet to poet), and so I’d love to hear your own personal answer as a way of wrapping up this interview:  Does poetry matter?  Does it count for anything significant in a world where there seems to be few readers of poetry (and yet no shortage of writers)?  What, if anything, does poetry do for writers, readers, and/or our world?

KP: Well, it matters to me and to those who cherish it.  If a poem can change a person, a person’s perceptions, even in a small way, that can matter a great deal.  And what does “matter”—the latest Kardashian “news” flash?  Who won what game?  Poetry offers us a place for meditation and contemplation.  When we share our ideas about a poem, we can better understand each other.  If the readership for it is small, so be it.  This isn’t the Neilson ratings.  Even in our world of quick clicks and texts, many people want to write poems.  Good poetry can deepen our emotional response and awaken us to ideas and observations we might otherwise miss.  Speaking just for me, I feel incredibly lucky that I write.  I’ve been doing it for 42 years now and, if I live to be 100, I hope I’m like Stanley Kunitz, writing practically up to the end.

AWS: Thank you, again, for your time, Ken.  I’d love to end with an example of your work.  Would you give us a poem that you feel represents your best and/or most interesting work to date?

KP: I don’t think I could choose that poem.  Maybe someone else could.  However, here’s a poem that might be a suitable ending.

AWS: I think this is a great choice for an ending. Once again, thank you.  It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work.

PICKING FLOWERS IN A HURRICANE

Stay in, stay in,

weather people say.  I look

at our messy dining room table,

a dull sky not quite able

to get in the window.  Rain

intensifies.  I take off my shirt,

grab the scissors, and dash

for the back yard.  Heavy

gusts make zinnias sway.  Gloriosa

daisies quickly surrender to

silver blades.  Already closed,

a blue morning glory—

a boarded-up storefront.  Down,

it comes down, a draping water.

I should be cold,

but it’s like running through

fever.  With enough for

a decent bouquet, I sprint

for the door.  Don’t run

with scissors, mom used to say.

Shoes soaked, I run, hard,

crush the blossoms

against my chest,

vase caskets ready.

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March 7, 2012 | |

I just let the poem go – Interview with M. Ayodele Heath

 

M. Ayodele Heath is a graduate of the MFA program at New England College. Heath’s honors include a 2009 Dorothy Rosenberg Prize and a McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech. He has been awarded fellowships from Cave Canem, Summer Poetry at Idyllwild, and the Caversham Centre for Writers & Artists in South Africa and received a grant in Literary Arts from the Atlanta Bureau for Cultural Affairs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Crab Orchard Review, diode, Mississippi Review, Callaloo, The New York Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, and Mythium, as well as featured in anthologies including Poetry Slam: the Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), Java Monkey Speaks Anthology I (2004), and My South: a People, a Place, a World All Its Own (2005). His book of poems, “Otherness” was published in 2011 by Brick Road Poetry Press.

His poem, The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863” appears in RHINO 2011 and you can hear him perform it here. Associate Editor Jacob Saenz interviewed M. Ayodele Heath in late April, 2011.

JS: First, congratulations on receiving an Editor’s Prize in RHINO 2011! It is truly an honor to publish and award such a great poem.  Thank you for submitting it to us, which leads me to ask: what prompted you to submit to RHINO? How did you hear about us?

AH: First, let me say, thank you for believing in the poem, and thank you for the opportunity to showcase it.

I first heard about RHINO in Best American Poetry 2003, when Yusef Komunyakaa selected Susan Dickman’s  poem, “Skin,” from RHINO 2002. I’ve been knocking on RHINO’s door ever since!

JS: I notice on your website (www.ayospeaks.com) you are listed as a performance poet w/numerous awards and honors to your name. As someone who appreciates performance/slam poetry, I am curious as to how you became involved w/slam poetry. Who are some of your influences?

AH: My first experience with a poetry slam was what I would call an eye-opening lesson in the human condition.  In 1995 at a bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead now-defunct bar district, I advanced to the final round with another poet, who, before reading her final poem said to the audience, “I’m not sure what to read, so I’ll let you decide.  I’m gonna read a poem about my pets.  Do you wanna hear about my puppies?  Or my p*ssy?”  The audience went bananas, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how that story ends.  But that poet taught me something very valuable about rule number one of public speaking: Know your audience.

My next significant experience with slam wouldn’t be for another 4 years at the 1999 Southeastern Regional Poetry Slam in Knoxville, TN.  About 40 or so poets from around the Southeast competed in this 3-day competition and I found myself, again, in 2nd place going into the final round of the competition.  This time, the opponent was Knoxville’s Daniel Roop.  But this time, something very different happened.  Daniel was ahead of me by about 2 full points, which is basically insurmountable in the final round of a slam competition.  He took the microphone and proceeded to do a 5-minute long poem, purposefully taking about a 4- or 5-point time penalty.  In other words, he threw the competition.  Three days of competing and this stranger sabotaged himself so that I could win!  I was speechless.  In all my years growing up playing competitive sports, I’d never seen such selflessness.  That gesture—that act—completely changed how I viewed the world of slam.  It shifted my paradigm: I went from viewing performance as an act of receiving to an act of giving.  And it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

My influences are endless.  Here’s a short list: Yusef Komunyakaa, Pablo Neruda, Jean Michel Basquiat, Patricia Smith, Ai, Allen Ginsberg, Ingrid de Kok, Lucille Clifton, Jean Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, Gil Scott Heron, Charles Simic, Fela Kuti, Galway Kinnell, Q-Tip, Andre 3000, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, Lynn Nottage, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes.

JS:  How important is the oral versus the written in your poetry?

AH: To me, poetry, like theater or like music, is first and foremost a performance art.  I start with the premise that the “poem” is a spiritual thing and that what appears in print is only a representation of that spiritual thing; the oral performance is another representation.  Of the two, I see the oral poem as closer to the essence of what that spiritual thing is than the written poem.

That being said, I believe the oral poem and the written poem to be two different experiences with the oral as slightly more important because it is closer to the essence of the poem.   I recognize that there are things which can be done on the page which are difficult to approximate in performance and that there are things which can be done in performance which are difficult to translate on the page.  To try to make the oral and the written the same experience is to fail at both.

So, my job as a “performance” poet is to be as true to the written and the oral independently of each other – like a photograph of an object versus a video of an object.  Each operates according to its own rules, its own physics, but each reaches toward its most accurate representation of that spiritual thing; each strives for its own fidelity.

When I think of my poetic lineage, I think of myself belonging to the ancient tradition of poets which predates a literate public – when the masses experienced poetry via the human voice: the epic poetry tradition of ancient Greece, the izibongo praise poetry of the Zulus, the griot tradition of West Africa.  I generally believe that a poem is not a poem until it is read aloud (though there are exceptions.)  I view the written word as technology that allows a different experience of the ‘spirit’ of a poem – technology no different than the internet or video.  My objective is to use the technology most efficiently and most effectively, regardless of what it is.

JS: As a hip-hop fan, I love that your poem in RHINO, “The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863,” contains many samples.  In hearing the audio version, the samples clearly come through, especially with the great reading you give. I love how the poem starts out as a hymn and progresses into more of a hip-hop song. During the writing process, did you know you were going to use so many samples?  Did one sample lead to another? Do the record companies know you sampled their work (ha!)?

AH:Thanks for recognizing the beginning as a hymn, because I’m not much of a singer!

I had no idea I was going to use so many samples.  The poem was actually borne from a prompt at my first Cave Canem retreat last summer.  Cave Canem is a week-long retreat at the University of Pittsburgh with African-American poets from all over the country.  On the first night of the retreat, the 50-or-so attendees sit in a big circle and give a 2-3 minute introduction of ourselves, saying how we came into this space.  There are generations of poets from age 18 to nearly age 80 expressing isolation and unity and in tears of joy and humility – it’s this incredibly moving experience.

After introductions, we were given a prompt that night to write a poem that night about why we were there.  Alone in my room, I thought of the idea of the circle and what was being passed around that circle… and the wisdom entering that circle from the generations before… and the wisdom that would be carried from that circle for generations to come.  And I sat down in front of my blank sheet of paper… and I thought of hip-hop cyphers… and drum circles… and records spinning… and atoms… and how all of this – this music, this pain, this struggle, this tradition of words – how this energy and data were being cycled around and around.  And so I thought of a charge being passed around the circle.  And my subconscious began humming a hymn from the old Baptist church of my childhood, “A Charge to Keep I Have.”

I had no idea where it was going, and no idea how many samples I would use… but my eyes got wet.  I was moved by the earlier experience of that night… and I was frustrated because here I had this concept for a poem, but I had no idea how to get it on the paper.  So, then I found myself crying tears of wonderment and frustration… and I stared at the screen… and I remembered where I was… in space and in time… and of all the supportive energy I’d felt in that circle… and I decided to just go with it.  Cave Canem is such a safe space for a Black poet – where you don’t feel the need to footnote your experience and explain your cultural references, where you feel a freedom to just be your self.… and I just let the poem go.

It was like a kite I was chasing across a hill in a windstorm… The samples just led from one into another.  And then the interruptions in my process gave me the idea to incorporate scratching… and then stuttering as a performance device.  The first draft finished itself about 3 or 4 in the morning, and one of the first times since I was a child, I, Mr. Logic and Reason, had allowed sound to overtake sense – had allowed myself to write something that I didn’t even fully understand.

And no, the record companies don’t know that I sampled their work.  But maybe they need to know.  I could use the publicity!

JS: Who are you reading lately?  Any writers that get you excited about the future of poetry?

AH: A lot of writers have me excited about the future of poetry.  I’ve recently read Terrence Hayes’ ‘Lighthead, ’ Suheir Hammad’s ‘Breaking Poems,’ Douglas Kearney’s ‘The Black Automaton,’ Adrian Matejka’s ‘Mixology,’ and Christian Campbell’s ‘Running the Dusk.’   I’m looking forward to Rupert Fike’s upcoming debut, ‘Lotus Buffet.’

JS: What are you working on now? Any projects?

AH: Currently, I’m busy promoting my recently-released debut poetry collection, Otherness (Brick Road Poetry Press).  And recently, I completed a video project called ‘Poets Make Black History,’ directed by Reggie Simpson, where I performed 28 poems by African-American poets for Black History month.

JS: Finally, do you have any advice for other poets submitting their work, whether to RHINO or elsewhere?

1)     Read, read, read.

2)     Write, write, write.

3)     Never give up.

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February 9, 2012 | |

Stories are waiting to be gathered – Interview with Melissa Roxas

Melissa Roxas was born in Manila, Philippines, and grew up in Los Angeles, California. Melissa is a poet, writer, and human rights activist.  In May 2009, while doing community health work in the Philippines, Roxas became the first American citizen under the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration to be abducted and tortured by members of the Philippine military. When she surfaced six days later, Roxas became one of only a handful of survivors who lived to recount her ordeal.

Her poem, “Returning” appears in RHINO 2011.  RHINO Intern Vincent Nguyen interviewed Melissa in late May 2011.

VN: How did you hear about RHINO? And what made you want to submit a poem?

MR: I first heard about RHINO through other poet friends who were published in the magazine. I’ve read RHINO and like the diversity of voices and styles of poetry published in the magazine.

 

 

VN: Who are some of your “go-to poets” that you like to read? (Whether that is for inspiration, new ideas, or simple desire to read).

MR: I love reading poetry and many poets inspire me. This is not an all inclusive list, but some of them include: Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Mahmoud Darwish, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nazim Hikmet, Yusef Komunyakaa,  Philip Levine, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, Adrienne Rich, Ai, and Lucille Clifton.

VN: Do you have any poets that you would recommend to our readers? (Local and/or widely known?)

MR: I would like to recommend one of my favorite anthologies, “Against Forgetting, Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” edited by Carolyn Forché.  This is an important collection of poetry from around the world by people that have been witness to the worst of human rights violations.  Their words live beyond the times and circumstances when it was written, and reminds us of what horrors humans are capable of, if power rests in the wrong hands.  At the same time, these poems allow us to look at a deeper side of humanity, one that can create something beautiful out of that horror, the art of creation as a form of protest and resistance.

VN: Do you identify with a particular style of poetry that you like to incorporate within your poems, such as the New York School style, contemporary, confessional, postmodern, etc.?

MR: I don’t particularly identify with a particular style of poetry. However, my poetry often deals with socio-political issues.  My poetry developed at the same time as my political consciousness and awareness of issues going on in my community and in the world.  I became very active in community work and social justice work.  My poetry was a product of what I observed and experienced around me, as both an observer and a participant.  I cannot imagine seeing poverty, oppression, and injustice and not be deeply affected by it—I cannot imagine not writing about it.  After my abduction and torture, it takes even more meaning for me. It becomes about survival and a protest against erasure.

 

VN: Where do you like to write?

MR: Before, I used to need a place where I can be quiet and alone.  However, having traveled quite a bit, I’ve learned to be more flexible, writing whenever the opportunity presents itself, regardless of where, or what circumstance.  After being in secret detention, I realized I can write even without pen and paper, relying on my memory, even under extreme circumstances. So now, I write when I can, where I can. Even if the situation is not ideal, I tell myself I have been through worse.  What matters is my determination and will to write.

VN: Do you have any reservations about submitting to poetry magazines?  Are you ever afraid/tentative of submitting poems at all?

MR: I did have reservations about submitting to poetry magazines because of the subject that I was writing about, mostly about socio-political issues.  I was not sure how it would be received.  I also did not prioritize sending out my work.  Looking back, I didn’t know much about the process.  I was not part of any formal creative writing program.  I felt very intimidated to submit.

I would share my poetry with audiences through community readings and when I was invited to read at festivals, the library, or other public events.  I enjoyed very much sharing poetry with the communities that I worked with.

Now, my views about publishing have changed a bit.  It is still intimidating but I’ve realized that there are a wide variety of poetry magazines out there that do publish diverse styles and forms, and diverse subjects of poetry.  I just have to find the right ones to submit my work to.  I am only starting to send out my work.  Rhino is one of the first poetry journals to publish me.  This has been very encouraging for me.

When I was abducted and tortured in the Philippines, among the items the military took from me were unpublished writings, notes, and poems.  Since then, I have tried to reconstruct some of them, while others were born out of that experience.  Submitting my work to poetry magazines have a different meaning for me now.  I have made more of an effort to submit my work because it is a resistance against erasure.

The military has tried to erase my existence from the world but they did not succeed.  They tried to take away my voice.  They thought they erased my memory of the things I was witness to.  They tried to erase what I had written in observation of the harsh conditions and sufferings of the people.  They tried to erase the human rights violations that I had recorded in those poems.  So continuing to write and share these poems with the world, including submitting to poetry journals, is a way to resist the inhumanity of torture, a way that I can reconnect to my voice, and a way to continue to speak out against human rights violations.

VN: Do you ever participate in poetry readings? What is your favorite/least favorite part?

MR: Yes, I have often participated in poetry readings, both community readings and more formal readings at festivals, events, libraries and universities.  My favorite aspect about readings is meeting other poets and hearing them read.  I especially like meeting local poets whose work I would not have been introduced to.  I really enjoy reading at community events, because it is a chance to connect with the community.  In a sense, they relate to my poetry because they are familiar with the issues and concerns that I address through my poetry.

VN: Do you have any sort of writing regimen that you stick to? Writing a poem a day or just choosing to write whenever you have the time?

MR: I try to write every day.  Especially after I surfaced two years ago, all I could do was write. When I was in secret detention, the Philippine military made a point to tell me not to write anymore about human rights, not to write any more about people’s stories.  So every time I write, it is a form of resistance for me. To remind myself that I am alive, I am free, I can create.  So I must write, I must write those stories, and I must resist erasure.

VN: Has your interest in writing poems / poetry caused any consternation in your life?

MR: Yes, the favorite subject for the military when they tortured and interrogated me was my poetry and my work as a writer.  They had my journal and notes that contained my writing and poetry. They would often refer to that when they interrogated me.

VN: Do you work in any other artistic mediums such as photography, painting, sculpture, etc?  If so, how has this impacted your poems?  If not, do you have any aspirations to experiment within other mediums?

MR: I have done visual art pieces and installation art before.  A recent art installation I did was for a human rights art exhibit that I co-curated with Liza Camba called “Get Up, Stand Up for Human Rights!” at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock this past January 14 – February 5, 2011.  The art exhibit consisted of works from local artists that were produced as a result of a series of art and educational workshops about human rights.  My art installation was composed of more than a hundred boxes, each with the face of a person who was disappeared in the Philippines.  Most of them are peasants, workers, students, women and even children that were abducted by the Philippine military.  It was an interactive piece, where the audience could open certain boxes and see pictures, read stories, poems, and letters that the family of the disappeared wrote about their loved ones.  I wanted to do this piece because oftentimes when people hear about the disappeared, also known as “desaparecidos,” they just mention their name with the date they disappeared.  I wanted people to know who they were—they were poets, musicians, students, farmers, workers, human rights activists; they were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons; they had dreams and aspirations; they helped the poor, the needy, the exploited.  Most of them were disappeared by the Philippine government because they dared to speak out against repression.  Others were ordinary civilians targeted by the military to intimidate their family members. I wanted to remember them and for people to know their stories.

I also created visual art pieces in the past that incorporated my poetry along with the painting.  Most of the art pieces that I create are usually inspired by, or are an extension of my works of poetry.

I also do a lot of collaboration work.  When I traveled as a human rights speaker throughout North America last year, I facilitated human rights workshops that culminated in a collective creation of murals for human rights.  I created the “Art Beyond Barriers Live Art Petition” and worked with diverse groups, ages 2 to 65 years old.  I always incorporate poetry into these mural makings, and encourage people to include both visual images and words to create poetry with the art piece.  I was really amazed and inspired by the pieces created.  It was inspiring because these murals were created as a petition, in visual form, to release a group of 43 health workers in the Philippines that were illegally detained and tortured.  It was inspiring because it was a mural created as a petition in promotion of human rights.

As I mention in another part of this interview, I am also a member of the Habi Arts collective.  I collaborated with a comic book artist, Franz DG.  I would write the script, we would discuss, and Franz DG would illustrate.  It is a different process of writing. It is interesting to see the comic develop from the script to the final illustration.  It is a bit like writing for a film—I write each scene, complete with background description, dialogue, and what angles to focus on.  It was challenging in a good way, and I am finding that I like this new process of creation. I look forward to creating more.  The last one we collaborated on was a story about the “Desaparecidos” or the disappeared in the Philippines.

VN: Do you belong to a “writer’s group” in which you get together with other writers and ‘workshop’ or do you work mostly independently?

MR: I am not part of a particular writer’s group, although I am part of an arts collective called Habi Arts whose focus is on promoting and producing art for social justice and change.  We are a group of artists that do different art media—photographers, visual artists, poets, writers, graphic designers, and musicians. We often collaborate on art projects, most often multi-media art, murals, comic books, etc. I have conducted poetry workshops with the community to create poetry that is reflective of the issues and conditions they are currently facing, many addressing issues of human rights locally and globally.

In regards to my own poetry, the work of the past two years was mostly work I did independently, although there were occasions where I would have the opportunity to ask a poet friend to help with editing a poem.  This is a more out of circumstance than by choice.  Most of the new work that I produced over the past two years came from a very painful and horrific experience.  It is often difficult to find a writing group or writing community that has a good mix of providing critical feedback about the form and structure of the poem, as well as understand the place where the poem is coming from. Especially because of the type of poetry that I write, the latter is very important to me.

There were instances where in the past I found spaces like the Kundiman Poetry Retreat.  This is a great space where Asian American poets can meet, get support and feedback.  Some of the poets that I keep in touch with today are ones I met in Kundiman a couple of years ago.  This retreat, however, is only once a year and most of their activities are centered in the East Coast.

Many poets friends that I know now are either out-of-state or enrolled in a structured creative writing program.  So it is difficult to try to form a writing group locally.  I hope to re-connect again with other local poets.  I am hopeful that I will get to participate in and even create a writing group that can provide this type of support and feedback in the near future.

VN: What advice would you give to poets, young and mature?

MR: What I can share are the realizations that I’ve made in my journey as a poet and a person. Surviving torture and near death has made me realize that there is an essence inside our bodies that has the ability to hold on to our voice and spirit.  People might try to take it away, but ultimately, the choice is ours whether we will let them.  I surfaced alive.  Being able to move my body now without being bound in chains, to look at the world without blindfolds, and to think and express what I want is something very precious.  The freedom to write is something that not all people have.  I experienced what that felt like when I was in secret detention and tortured.  I am one of the few that survived.  There are many of the disappeared whose stories exist in the shadows that have not been heard.  Their presence can be felt in the vibrations of the earth, the composition in the air, and in the echoes that linger from rooms where they have been.  These stories are waiting to be gathered, to be written, to be heard.  I continue to write, not only for myself but for the many others who have been silenced.  I have the freedom to write, so I must write.

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Read more about Melissa Roxas at http://melissaroxas.com/ and http://justiceformelissa.org/.

September 7, 2011 | |

“Inventing a hybrid tongue” – Interview with Abby Paige

RHINO Associate Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet and actor Abby Paige, winner of the 2011 Founders’ Prize for “The Undefended Border” in late June, 2011.

VB: One of the things I love about your poem “The Undefended Border” is its deft use of bilingualism.  The poem is written primarily in English, but interrupted by words, phrases, sentences and stanzas in French (or Quebecois?).   Why did you decide to write the poem bilingually?  What is the process like?  How do you go about inventing a hybrid tongue?

AP: I learned to speak Spanish when I was younger, and when I moved to Quebec a few years ago, I started to learn French. I’ve learned so much about language from those experiences. When you’re learning a new language, before you gain fluency, your personality is lost for a while. You lose subtext. Part of becoming fluent is discovering your personality in the new language, and I didn’t have a personality in French. I still don’t, really. But at the time it got me thinking about poetic voice. I was reading a bunch of Quebec poets (A.M. Klein and Erin Mouré especially come to mind) who mix both of Canada’s official languages in their work, and asking myself, does one’s poetic voice always need to be the same? Can poets take on personas, and if so, how different can those personas sound from one another? I was also working on a play, and so I suppose that also contributed to my thinking about creating voices.

So the poem began from that idea: I wanted to create something where many voices were speaking. But as tends to happen, that idea became less important as I revised. In the earlier drafts there were three or four other sections where I tried to create something like a chorus. There were lots of voices but, while I had fun creating that much cacophony, it wasn’t very rewarding to read. So it got scaled back, and the bilingualism became more important.

I think “inventing a hybrid tongue” comes very naturally to a bilingual speaker — and even to someone who’s not fluently bilingual but who’s trying to straddle that territory between languages. Not because your command of the languages is imperfect, but because the difference between the two starts to seem more fluid as your brain learns to listen to both at the same time.

VB: For me, this poem weaves together beautifully personal history and regional history.  I come away with the idea that geographic borders, temporal borders, and the borders of individual identity are much more messy, challenging and dynamic than our maps and national labels allow.

In the process, the poem uses a lot of “white space”—often mid line and mid sentence.   For example, there’s significant white space after “My eye wanders,” after the word “la frontière” and  in the following line:

 

“there             turns into                  here. With every crossing               I become”

 

Why did you use so much strategic white space in the poem?  What does the “white space” represent?

AP: I’m really glad that’s the idea you came away with! Those are boundaries I’m definitely interested in erasing — or smudging, anyway. I’m really impatient with borders, or at least with our reverence toward them, so I wanted to avoid line or stanza breaks to keep phrases connected. So that was how it became a prose poem, and one of the things that I found really attractive about the form is that it made it possible to use white space a bit more assertively, to really draw attention to the places where there are breaks, where as sometimes the eye can just glide over line breaks.

So I have this impatience with borders, but on the other hand, while they are softer and less defined than we act like they are, they do exist. We can tell one place from another. That’s why we feel homesick, isn’t it? Because somehow “here” and “there” do exist. So I wanted some way to represent that in the poem, too, that there is a pause or a silence between two places, or two times, as between thoughts. It’s not a line so much as a space of transition, which is what I think a border really is: a space for connection rather than separation. A zone where things happen — hesitation or realization or apology. I suppose in acting it would be everything that happens that isn’t in the dialogue.

VB:  As I read it, the poem is also an appropriation of forms we associate with historical archive: the linear chronicle with cursory entries but little narrative.  In your radical use of this form, however, you imply narrative(s) and explore causality and you infuse events with mystery and emotion.  Was this a conscious strategy on your part?   How did you arrive at the form of the poem?

AP: I didn’t consciously intend to comment on the historical archive as a form, but I suppose some kind of comment is implicit, because I wanted the piece to feel documentary or in some sense bureaucratic. I could make it all sound very intentional in retrospect, but I think it’s more a product of my interest in genealogy and history and those interests being influences.

Mostly I was imagining a collaboration between me and my great-grandparents. What if the three of us wrote a poem together? They immigrated from Quebec to Vermont in the 1910s, and I immigrated back in the opposite direction about one-hundred years later. I was imagining how their crossings and their thoughts about the border might have been similar to and different

Photo By Barbara Leslie

from mine. Also, when I first started working on the poem I was doing interviews for my solo show “Piecework: When We Were French,” and I was thinking a lot about how people structure their own life story when they’re asked to tell it, what’s omitted, what’s implied. I’m very interested in how much we discover through speaking, or telling our own stories.

VB: Would you mind sharing with us some of the personal and family history that informs the poem?

AP: Well, the poem is autobiographical; I’m right there in the third section, speaking my terrible French. And as I’ve said already, it also imagines the immigration experiences of my great-grandparents, and how those compared to my own immigration experience.

Probably like a lot of descendants of immigrants to the US, I was raised with a certain sense of displacement, a sense that the ancestral home is somewhere else. But that sense is different for Franco-Americans, especially in New England, because our ancestral home is so close. I’ve lived forty minutes from the border for most of my life; it’s very close, and when you cross it, things look mostly the same. Also, in Vermont and other places in Northern New England, there are towns that literally straddle the border, where the town is half in one country and half in the other, and those towns right now are driving Janet Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security completely bananas, because they defy this fiction that they’re trying to impose that the two places are separate, when they’re not. They’re completely intertwined. So, it’s both as a Vermonter and as a Franco-American that I feel this skepticism toward the border. I feel that I have more in common with the Quebecoises than I have with Californians.

And yet, of course there are clear differences between Quebec and New England, language probably being the most significant, but there are major differences between Canadian and U.S. culture, too, and there the language difference doesn’t exist. I’m fortunate to be able to live between these cultures. It’s very fertile territory. Also, this is probably a bit of a tangent, but while my immigration experience is atypical (I’m less then 100 miles from home in my new country), I feel really fortunate to have experienced life as an immigrant at this particular historical moment when immigration is such a hot topic in both the U.S. and Canada. I can hear how much of the discussion is really about race, because as a white North American, the rhetoric isn’t directed at me, even though I’m an immigrant. So much of the North American ethos — on both sides of the border — is so ahistorical; we all act like we’ve always been here. But this is really a place with a short history. You only have to go back ten or so generations, and no Europeans were here. Only a hundred years ago, most of my family was French-speaking, and now I’m struggling to learn French.

VB: Does your work as an actor and performer draw on a similar history?  Could you describe your solo show “Piecework: When We Were French”?

AP: It hasn’t always, but recently is does very much. My solo show was commissioned for a festival in Burlington, Vermont a couple of summers ago that commemorated that 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival on Lake Champlain. My piece was supposed to honor the influence of French-Canadians in the area. The area was originally part of New France, so that influence has been substantial.

Bilodeau family picnic, St. Lazare-de-Bellechasse, Quebec

The chance to develop the show came after my first year in Quebec, and I was sorting out my identity as an American and a Franco- American and an immigrant. I decided to base the show on interviews with Franco-Americans, and for me that process was an opportunity to talk with other people about how their heritage has influenced them, or not influenced them, what they’ve lost or preserved of French-Canada culture. And as I’ve said, a big part of it was just listening to how people express themselves, how we tell our own stories or try to represent the stories of our lives. And also what happens when we’re given the opportunity, even by a stranger for a couple of hours, to reflect on our lives. I wonder, if people had the opportunity to do that more often, how it would change how we think about the past.

VB: Are you writing other poems that arise from the liminal cultural world along the Canada/U.S. border?  Or that arise from other sorts of liminal worlds? How would you describe your collaborative epistolary project with Leah Souffrant?

AP: “The Undefended Border” is the title poem of a collection of poems (unpublished) that looks at how the borders between places and people shift and sometimes disappear. Once I had sort of settled on an order for that manuscript, I decided to move on to other themes, but whenever I sit down to write, I always end up looking at that kind of thing. I guess it’s always going to be one of the themes I circle around as a writer. I’m always interested in the third point of view — or the fourth or fifth, for that matter. Dichotomies are so seductive, and I’m always trying to see what gets lost when we give in to that seduction. You start to see that most dichotomies are false. They’re conveniences, but convenience always has a price. In Quebec the dominant dichotomy is between francophones and anglophones, and those two words are used in a way that obscures that there is enormous overlap between those two groups and also that there are lots of lots of other languages floating around that people feel allegiance to. In the U.S., we talk about black and white as race categories as though those are discrete groups, which masks a much more complex ethnic landscape and a long history of interracial couplings.

My more recent poems are also about borders in a way, but not political borders. It’s early days with these poems, so I don’t really know how to talk about them yet, but they’re sort of devotional poems — skeptically devotional — looking at whether the body and the soul are separate. When I was younger I always saw my body as a container — almost literally, like Tupperware — for my soul. But now I think it’s more complicated. If there is something about us that is spiritual, I think it’s deeply dependent on the physical.

The project with Leah is an ongoing experiment, and I think it also has a lot to do with voice. We’re developing this poem together, but we don’t revise one other. Sometimes our voices are very different, and at other times it’s hard to tell who’s speaking. So it’s also a study in friendship or love, how two people who know each other communicate. So maybe that’s about borders in a way, too.

I’m also doing reading right now for a new play that will be about mental illness and eugenics. I want to look at how both mental illness and poverty runs in families, what’s hereditary and what’s passed on through other means, and who defines what’s normal and what’s sick. I’m really interested in how, during the eugenics movement, wealthy people were trying to regulate poor people’s behavior. I mean, the movement was much more complex than that, but I’m interested in that part of it. To me that has something to do with borders, too — who has the power to pronounce certain things out of bounds. It’s sort of how I feel about the U.S./Canada border. Who gets to decide that that line means something? And why do I have to believe them?

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Read more about Abby Paige at http://abbypaige.com/

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August 5, 2011 | |

“Every translation enlarges the possibilities…” – Interview with Jose Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

“Every translation enlarges the possibilities of the target language’s poetic tradition.”

-José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Associate editor Angela Narciso Torres interviewed José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes, winner of the 2011 RHINO Translation Prize for his translation from the Tagalog of “Song of Hong Kong” by Filipino poet Cirilo F. Bautista. This interview was conducted April 30, 2011.

 



 

 

AT: At the participants’ reading the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference where we met almost 8 years ago, you read two translations of poems written by a mutual teacher of Filipino literature, the esteemed Filipina poet Benilda Santos. How long have you been translating, and what got you started?

JR: I first got into translating formally about ten years ago, during the last semester of my MFA. Before enrolling in the program, I had viewed it simply as an opportunity to hone my craft as a writer of poetry in English and to fill in the gaps in my literary education, particularly my knowledge of Western literature. Translating was the last thing on my mind.

Having been raised in a household that spoke mainly English, and, on occasion, Spanish, I was, and still am, much more comfortable with English than I am with Tagalog. I effectively grew up as the Filipino equivalent of a limited English proficient student, a stranger in what should have been a familiar land. I remember staring blankly at a test in first grade, asking my seatmates what to do, since I couldn’t understand the words on the mimeographed sheet. In high school, we had to memorize excerpts from works like the epic Florante at Laura (Florante and Laura) and recite them in front of the class. Though I could understand some of the words in isolation, their Tagalog was so deep that memorizing these texts was like memorizing strings of random syllables. When it was my turn to get in front of the class, I would stumble over the first two or three lines before having to go back to my desk, humiliated. Given all my struggles with the language, I was content to immerse myself (with a few exceptions) in literature written in and translated into English, from my elementary school days until well into my MFA.

What changed? As one of two foreign-born poets in my MFA class, and the only one not previously educated in the United States, I began to realize that literatures from the Philippines, whether, to use the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari, the “minor literature” of Philippine literature in English or literature written in another Philippine language like Tagalog, were unknown. Thus, the only authors I could discuss with my classmates were generally Western authors. This was in contrast to the time I was still living in the Philippines, when both Philippine writers in English and foreign authors were regular subjects of conversations with my writer-friends.

When my professor, the poet, translator, and editor Richard Howard, offered a translation seminar during my final semester, I immediately saw this as an opportunity to bring Filipino poets into American readers’ consciousness. Though this meant that I would have to wrestle with a language that has given me trouble all my life, I nonetheless felt that it was important for me to try to reclaim the tongue that I had, in a sense, forsaken. Translating Filipino poetry was something I felt had to be done, not only for my tradition, but also for myself.

AT: You have been a two-time recipient of the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize from the New England Poetry Club.  Considering that you translate from your native tongue, and that you do it exceptionally well, how important would you regard one’s fluency in the poem’s original language, in making a successful translation?

JR: If my experience is any indication, it’s not. That may seem a bit flippant, but in many respects, I’m the last person who should be doing this. When I read a poem for the first time in Tagalog, I often don’t fully comprehend it. I may have a rough idea of what is happening, and some lines may be perfectly clear to me, but there could be gaps in meaning that I will need to fill with the help of dictionaries or friends. Translation, then, becomes for me an act of discovering a poem’s meaning. It also becomes a risk, because I may not know if the translation I produce is worth sharing to the world until I work my way to the end of the poem. But even in these cases, the effort is not wasted, because it helps improve my fluency with the language and my understanding of the tradition.

This isn’t to say that I undervalue precision or ignore what the author may have been trying to accomplish for a Tagalog-speaking audience. If I feel I have a translation that I think is worthy of being sent out into the world, I show it to the original poet whenever possible. But as G. K. Chesterton once claimed, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” That’s exactly how I feel about my own experience translating Tagalog poetry. I don’t know that my translations are successful, especially given my limitations with the language. If someone published flawed translations of, say, Rilke, that person would be criticized, largely because there’s already a large body of masterful translations to which his work would be compared, translations that have collectively brought such poets into the world’s consciousness. But in the case of Tagalog poetry in translation, there isn’t a lot being published in the United States. I hope that because of this absence, a lot of my translations’ faults will be forgiven, and that other translations sprout up, even and especially ones that are superior to my own.

AT: In Cirilo Bautista’s, “Song of Hong Kong,” the poem’s elegant two-part  structure is provided by the speaker’s inventive translation of Hong Kong’s first and last name into “Water” and “Money,” respectively.  Bautista uses these extended metaphors to evoke, in a lyrical voice the poem’s title suggests, a compelling sense of place, while making commentary on social, economic, cultural, race, and identity issues of an earlier Hong Kong.  What drew you to the task of translating this aesthetically complex and multi-layered poem?

JR: “Song of Hong Kong” had me at its first two lines—“The first name of Hong Kong / is Water”—and propelled me forward with its short, energetic, often enjambed lines that enact the movements of water and money in the poem. Though the word doesn’t appear in the translation, I feel the poem embodies the meaning of current, which is etymologically related to currency (as Bautista writes, “Water that has become / Money…”). Like you, I love the poem’s various currents that converge in mysterious ways, from the in medias res beginning that places the reader in the middle of the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour, to the depiction of the streets of Kowloon, to the meditations on the simultaneous permanence and anonymity of labor (“How many have died / working stone that / rose into skyscrapers?”), to the surreal image at the end of “stars / at the bottom of the sea / unable to weep.”

On a more personal note, before coming to the U.S., I lived and worked in Hong Kong—in finance, of all fields, which by definition involves money—for over three years. I held in my hands the currency, the “paper, green / or blue” (or, in the case of the HK$100 bill, red) issued by one of three banks, HSBC, Standard Chartered or the Bank of China—an interesting aspect of Hong Kong’s monetary system—and used it for my day-to-day transactions. One word I might use to describe the place is efficient. The Hong Kong I remember is a well-oiled machine—both its people, who go about their business day in and day out, and its infrastructure—so much so that when I left for Manila a few days before the Handover in 1997 and came back a few days after, there didn’t seem to be any significant change. For instance, its currency was still pegged to the U.S. dollar (it still is, by the way, at roughly the same exchange rate as when I left in 2000), and people, both the locals and the expats, acted as if nothing had happened. Though Bautista’s poem predates my sojourn, I think it captures very well the efficiency that was once part of my reality.

Victoria Harbour

Since my family and most of my friends were in the Philippines at the time, I spent many hours in solitude, with no companion but Hong Kong itself, and became intimately acquainted with landmarks that find their way into Bautista’s poem. I crossed Victoria Harbour countless times by ferry; though it was a more time-consuming mode of transportation than the subway, I looked forward to gazing at the skyline, the lapping waters. I often walked past the Standard Chartered building in Central, a narrow skyscraper with a distinctively beige color and topped by a narrow slab that, so I’ve been told, was added for no other reason than to ensure that the building would be taller than the adjacent building of its rival bank, HSBC. On weekends I might take the tram up Victoria Peak, and admire the view of the city’s skyscrapers and harbor. Or go to an art cinema in Wan Chai, where the race track is located. And at night, after a long day at the office, I would go home to my apartment in Ap Lei Chau, an island just off the coast of Hong Kong, and looking out my living room window at the South China Sea, in the general direction of the Philippines, I would leave the worries of the workplace behind. So when Bautista writes of the

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ten thousand

stone-faced

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souls

[that] come and go—

without any kin

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save for stars

at the bottom of the sea,

unable to weep,

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those lines really resonate with me, as I once was one of these souls. At the risk of sounding trite, translating the poem brought me back to a place that I remember fondly.

AT: Just as there are many English words that have no equivalent in Tagalog (for instance, Bautista uses the English word “ferry” in his poem), several Tagalog words have no direct English counterpart.  Did you encounter any such linguistic complications in translating “Song of Hong Kong”?

JR: Early in the poem, Bautista writes:

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…pareho ang saligang-batas

ng gatas, pindang-pindang

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lagi ang prutas at baboy

sa makinang tuloy-tuloy ang tahol.

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Translated literally, these two clauses might look like this:

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…identical the constitution

of milk, lots of jerkies

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always the fruits and pork

in the machines with continuous howling.

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In English, it’s customary for the predicate adjective or noun to come at the end of a clause. In Tagalog, though, it’s the reverse. The first clause begins with the adjective pareho, which means “identical, the same, equal.” Saligang-batas is the fundamental law of the land, the constitution. But when the phrase gets completed in the next line with ng gatas, “of milk,” things get really complicated and interesting. What is the “constitution of milk?” Is it the fact that milk is our original source of sustenance? Is it the idea that we all milk each other dry? That being milked dry is a fundamental part of the human condition? In a poem that derives a lot of its power from a series of confident, direct declarations, this one phrase is like a lenticular image that changes, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. And I think that having a phrase that I can’t quite fully wrap my head around in the published translation (I decided to go with the Old English “law” that “all are subject to,” rather than the Latinate “constitution,” since there’s something more primal, more fundamental about this monosyllable) is fine, creating a sense of mystery.

The next clause was even more challenging. In Tagalog, a writer can intensify a noun or adjective simply by repeating it, something you cannot do in English. For instance, pindang means “jerky,” so pindang-pindang suggests a profusion of jerkies, quintessentially Chinese delicacies. Tuloy means “to go ahead,” so tuloy-tuloy means “continuously.” What’s tricky about this clause is that syntactically, “jerkies” is the predicate noun, so it belongs at the end, e.g., “the fruits and pork in the continuously howling machines are always lots of jerkies.” That just doesn’t sound right. I felt that it was important to try to replicate the placement of the ideas in the clause, that it was more important to start with the visual image of jerkies and end with the continuously howling (in anguish? in pain? in joy?) machines, than the other way around. I decided to translate makina into “machinations,” which is etymologically related to the more literal “machines,” but also carries the idea of device, a deep-seated conspiracy or plot. But what to do with the fruits and pork? I stumbled across the phrase “swinish fruits,” which admittedly is my own, but I’d like to think that this image is consonant with the overall experience of the original poem.

AT: I imagine that translators often feel pulled by the opposing forces of translating a poem’s literal sense and creating an effective poem. Where do you stand along that continuum?

If I may, I don’t know that it is a continuum. I think a translation must be an effective poem in its own right; whether it is literally accurate or not is a separate issue. But keep in mind that translation acts as a bridge between two different two poetic traditions. What may be permissible in one tradition may be eschewed in another, at least until translation happens. Perhaps it may be better to say that every translation enlarges the possibilities of the target language’s poetic tradition.

***

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes was born and raised in the Philippines, and holds degrees from Ateneo de Manila and Columbia Universities. His poems and translations have appeared in various journals, including American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, Subtropics, and Two Lines.Two of his other translations of Dr. Bautista’s poems can be found in Poetry International.

Cirilo F. Bautista, author of several books in English and Tagalog, is Professor Emeritus of Literature and University Fellow at De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines. His epic poem The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, portions of which have been published in such journals as TriQuarterly, Manoa, and World Literature Today, received several honors, including the Palanca Award, the Philippine National Book Award, and the Philippine Government-sponsored Centennial Literary Award. He was awarded an honorary fellowship in creative writing from the State University of Iowa, and was a visiting writer at Cambridge University.

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