Transcript - Episode 74: Franny Choi

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 74. Today’s guest is Franny Choi.

Hey there, folks. Today’s show is a conversation with poet Franny Choi. Franny Choi is the author of the full-length collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone and the chapbook Death by Sex Machine. She has been a finalist for multiple national poetry slams, and her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Senior News Editor for Hyphen, co-host of the podcast VS, and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her second collection, Soft Science, is forthcoming in April 2019 from Alice James Books.

My first experience with Franny’s poetry was a couple of years ago, when I saw a video that was going around of her “For Peter Liang” poem. This poem—you might remember back in 2016, the conviction of Peter Liang, an NYPD officer, for the shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Around the time of Liang’s conviction, there was a lot of protesting happening from Chinese American organizations, and I was having a hard time with it. I felt like there was something wrong about those protests, something that didn’t sit right with me, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. And then I saw Franny’s reading of this poem, and it just… Well, it affected me. It helped. I didn’t know who she was yet, but I said, “This. Yeah, this is it.”

Fast forward a bit over a year to the summer of 2017, and I heard about this new poetry podcast that was about to come out, called VS, hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, and I thought, yes, I need to check that out. And it rapidly became one of my favorite podcasts—every episode features a great conversation between Danez, Franny, and their guests, conversations that go deep into process and deep into the work, but which are also just so energetic and fun to listen to. And that was the point at which I really started following Franny’s poetry.

So, fast forward again to this past spring, when I read Franny’s chapbook Death By Sex Machine, which was just tremendous. Here, Franny uses a framing concept of artificial intelligence—and specifically through android characters from the movie Ex Machina and the manga Chobits—she uses this frame to look at voicelessness, dehumanization, Asian fetishism, the nature of agency, and a whole bunch more, and it’s just, well, there’s a lot going on in these poems, both thematically and formally. So of course I knew I wanted to talk with her about this book.

Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to where you can purchase both Death By Sex Machine and her previous collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone, as well as where you can pre-order her forthcoming collection Soft Science, which, as I mentioned, is coming out in April of next year. So please do check those out. I’ve also put a link to VS, which just returned for a new season a couple of weeks ago. Their latest episode features a conversation with Nate Marshall and is outstanding, so do check that out as well.

One more thing before we get started, for subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, there is a new bonus reading available, Franny Choi reading her poem “Oh My God, How Does It Feel to Be Korean Right Now?” That joins our growing bonus archive, which includes readings from poets Natalie Eilbert and Ada Limón, and which is available to Patreon subscribers at any level. If you’d like to make a pledge, you can do that at patreon.com/sakeriver.

As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Franny Choi.


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: Okay, so I was wondering if we could start with a poem?

Franny Choi: Yeah, sure. So I'll read this poem called "The Price of Rain," which is in the chapbook, Death by Sex Machine as well as the book that's coming out in the spring. I guess I'm not sure what to—if there's anything I should say as any sort of intro except that in thinking about the Me Too movement and all of these current conversations about sexual violence, you know, that I think it forces everyone to reflect really heavily on their own experiences with intimacy. And intimacy is just hard. I don't know, I guess maybe the poem is kind of returning through my own memories of intimacy and trying to figure out what role power has played. I guess maybe that's sort of a theme generally of my work. But anyway, here it is, "The Price of Rain."

The truth is that no man has taken anything
I didn't give him. I mean, no man has taken
anything I claimed as my own. My body, my stink,
my land to plant in. It's never been about the price
of lettuce
. How many times have I taken something
that did not belong to me? Queen, queen, I croon,
pulling up handfuls of greens. My, my.
Property's still theft. I let my wet skin slip
through the drainpipe. My mother says love,
in our family, means sacrifice. I thought,
if I lay my legs on the altar, I thought something
would come back to me. Mine, mine. I offered it,
being promised rain. Being told my wet was in
the common domain. I whispered our body, our legs,
our compost heap
. I gave freely. I gave it for free,
thinking that made me wingèd—stork delivering herself
to herself. Look how free I am. Dowager Slut. Queen Regent.
Turns out there are no synonyms for King. My lord,
my darling, my darkening sky. You can't buy
a thunderstorm. Nor should you bring one back
from the dead. But I threw open the gates.
I invited them in. I said, help yourselves then watched
as they went room to room, taking, emptying
the shelves, sucking marrow from the bones,
and overhead, the sky filled with rain.

MS: Mm, thank you.

FC: Yeah.

MS: You know, it's interesting, that particular poem was one that kind of stuck out for me in this collection, that I was thinking a little bit about how so much of this chapbook is about these characters that you're inhabiting, that sort of lack agency. Or at least they're sort of made to lack agency.

FC: Mm-hm.

MS: And yet it feels like this particular poem is really interested in the idea of agency, especially in the context of sexuality and intimacy.

FC: Yeah, for sure.

MS: Does that seem about right?

FC: Yeah, no, totally. I mean, I think that agency is so tricky no matter what in our daily lives, you know. I don't know. I think that maybe the larger question that the book—and maybe any media about artificial intelligence—is trying to ask might be, "Do any of us have agency? Do are any of us actually have free will, or is it all programming?" And I think that process of trying to parse out what did I decide to do, what was I coerced into doing? What was I destined to do because of the way that that I've been programmed by the world, or by a literal programmer. Yeah. Those questions become maybe heightened when it comes—or just pulled into sharper focus when you're talking about sex, talking about intimacy. Right? So the more I think about robots and sex in the same room, the more I understand why they're in the same room to begin with, you know? But yeah, so I guess this is a poem that maybe also doesn't explicitly have any robots in it.

MS: Yeah.

FC: But it's also like there's that interruptive voice. Like if you see the text of the poem, there's a lot of text in Italics, like that line, "it's never been about the price of lettuce," which I think is sort of a weird curve ball, and I still don't totally understand what it's doing in there, either. But I think for me, a lot of what gives this poem momentum as I'm looking through it and reading it, is what those different voices in it are saying to each other, and the process of trying to parse them out. Which makes me think of scenes in Westworld when Dolores is trying to understand what part of her inner voice is Ford and what's her, etc, etc, you know?

MS: Yeah, yeah. There's like a whole bunch of things that you just said that I wanted to follow up on. [laughs] Let me see what would be maybe the first. I think, you know, the first—maybe the most interesting thing that you just said is that about that line, "it's never been about the price of lettuce," that you still weren't sure completely what that was doing in there. I think that that is a fascinating sort of way of—like [a] peek inside the poet's mind, maybe. I think a lot of people have this impression that poetry is a thing that is to be understood, you know, but if even the poet isn't completely sure what the meaning is, that's sort of an interesting proposition.

FC: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean I think that there's definitely... Well, I guess the first thing is that I do think that that idea that a poem is meant to be totally understood, that has a historical basis, right? Like, that in a lot of ways comes from New Criticism and this wave of literary criticism that looks at poetry as a thing to be parsed, you know. That's where our contemporary close reading practices that are so, so drilled-in in school—you know, for some good reason—that that's sort of like where they come from. So that hasn't always been the way that we approach poetry, or that we see poetry as needing to be approached. At the same time, I also think the idea that you should just listen and not understand and that's okay, that's also a philosophy that maybe keeps people away from poetry, too, you know? Like why listen to a poem if there's nothing to get out of it and it's just sparkles, slash, maybe it's just like a waste of time if it's just like this weird Emperor's New Clothes game of people looking at a poem and everyone being like, "Wow, amazing." And then you're sitting there being like, "What the fuck."

MS: [laughs]

FC: You know, like I'm sure that that performance—I know from my own experience that that performance does a lot of work to drive people away from poetry. That said, I also... So with those two poles in mind, I also —I think the moments for me in a poem that resonate but don't make sense, or that I wouldn't have thought to put there, that for me is where a lot of the aliveness of a poem comes from, actually.

MS: Mm.

FC: Because it makes total sense. That means the algorithm would have eventually gotten you there, or something. You know, like, then there's nothing to... It becomes predictable than put simply, you know. And so I think there have to be some moments that are off, or that are weird, or that don't make sense.

MS: Yeah. I've mentioned this particular quotation on the show before—not that long ago, actually—but I think about sometimes, there is a thing that Kaveh Akbar said in an interview. I think it was maybe a couple months ago that I heard it. He was saying that poetry, even if you can't... What was he trying to say? He made some reference to hearing a conversation through a wall, that even if you don't know what every word is, you can still glean the meaning from the cadences and the tone of voice and things like that. And that poetry can do something similar.

FC: Yeah.

MS: For me, I thought, at the same time "Oh, that's brilliant," but also it felt a little unsatisfying to me because I feel like oftentimes for me, what it is [is] that I don't necessarily need to understand every single allusion or literary reference, and rather what's important to me is how the poem makes me feel. But I also want to know why I feel the way that I feel. Does that make sense?

FC: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I mean, and I think that's exactly the balance, right? Like, of how much to... How much understanding is necessary to be satisfying to a reader, to make it feel like the work is worth it. And maybe the trouble is that that answer is going to be different for different readers, for sure.

MS: Yeah.

FC: So I don't know, so I don't really know what to do with that. And also, I love that idea of listening to a conversation through a wall, but also that isn't how poems are. Poems are written to be overheard, you know?

MS: Yeah. [laughs]

FC: And so maybe if I could add something to that, it would be like two people, I dunno, rehearsing for a play or something. Or like two people who are having a conversation about some shady stuff, who are pretty sure that the person next to them might be listening.

MS: Right. Right, right.

FC: So how does that change what you want people to overhear?

MS: Going back to something else that you said about "The Price of Rain," when you were talking about these italicized portions, you talked about the importance of voice, and sort of using different voices in this particular poem. But then again, that's also something that's very integral to the collection as a whole, the chapbook as a whole.

FC: Mm.

MS: Because of the fact that you're, pretty explicitly in some of the poems... I guess who the I of the poem is—

FC: Yes.

MS: —it sort of changes as you go through the collection. Sometimes it's explicitly these... Like a character from Ex Machina, the movie, or a character from this manga, Chobits, that you... I'm actually not familiar with that one, but it's interesting what you're doing with these different voices. And I guess sort of one of the things that I was thinking about with this is how, on the one hand, using these different characters, these different voices, really activates these things that you're talking about in a really interesting [way], and in a way that I am not sure I've really seen exactly the same way before. But also it's interesting because of the fact that the characters that you're inhabiting here are ones that explicitly don't have voices of their own. So I thought that was a really interesting thing that you were doing here.

FC: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, I mean, writing in persona is always weird and tricky, and I think there's a lot of room for... This has been on my mind, actually, the question of inhabiting a persona in a poem, because there've been conversations among my friends and our alleged community of poets lately—in the past day or so—about this poem that was published—

MS: Yeah. [laughs]

FC: I don't know if you saw it. Yeah. And it's particularly weird because he's a poet who's kind of in the extended community of Twin Cities poetry. So it's been sort of tricky to try to navigate how to talk about it, I think. I mean, I don't want to spend my hour shading this poet, but what it—just to give anyone who's listening context—there was this poem that was inhabiting a persona and I think a lot of people were pretty offended by the result of that, because the writer is a upper-middle-class, white, male person. And the poem was maybe using... I mean it's sort of hard to exactly say, but African American Vernacular English, and maybe a homeless person who's panhandling. And so, you know, there's obviously a lot of political stakes in speaking for a character who embodies a really different subject position in regards to race and class than you, you know?

FC: Mm-hm.

FC: And especially to use that in order to be published in a really prestigious journal, that is just sort of shitty. But there was something that Dee Matthews—the poet Airea D. Matthews—said, it was just a really succinct way of... I'm going to butcher it, but basically she was saying what makes persona interesting is the way that the poet and then the character—the thread of oneness that is drawn between the poet and the character. What it is that puts them in a conversation in the first place. And then what happens when those voices are collapsed into one and the tensions and vibrations that come out of that. And if that thread in the first place was nothing, or was flimsy, then the result is often a flattening, or it just doesn't work. Or it becomes parody, is what she said.

MS: Mm-hm.

FC: And so I feel like it's weird because these characters that I'm embodying in these poems—Kyoko, a character from the movie Ex Machina, who is a robot. I guess that's sort of a spoiler. Maybe I should stop saying that.

MS: [laughs] The movie's been out for a while. It's probably OK.

FC: I know, I know—who's a robot who has no language, who doesn't speak. And then also Chi from Chobits who is a broken android, and so she can only make the sound "Chi," and so is essentially also languageless. You know, there's a lot of reasons that brought me to inhabiting their voices and also a lot of things that make us very different. One of the biggest ones being that they're both Japanese or Japanese Amer—it's hard to say what race an android is, but—

MS: Mm-hm. Certainly they present as Asian, though.

FC: They present as Asian and they both have Japanese names. And so, you know, as a Korean American there are politics of taking a Japanese woman's voice that I haven't fully addressed and haven't fully worked out. And then there's also, yeah, anytime somebody says in a poem, "I'm going to give a voice to the voiceless," just like a million warning flags come up in my head. So yeah. So those things make it kind of nerve-wracking I think for me to speak as Kyoko and as Chi.

MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think what you're sort of getting at—and certainly correct me if I'm wrong—but it sounds like what you're getting at in both the case of this other poem that everybody was talking about yesterday and this morning—for good reason—and in the case of your own poems is that when you write a persona poem, the act of writing a poem or making art of any kind has consequences.

FC: Yeah.

MS: And you can't divorce those consequences from the dynamics of power between the person writing the poem or making the art and the voice that they're inhabiting.

FC: Right.

MS: And it seems like with this poem that everyone was talking about, that's problematic because of the way that the man who was speaking is speaking from a position of quite a lot of privilege and power compared to the voice that he's inhabiting. Whereas... I mean, I guess there's a conversation to be had about computers and robots and things like that and how much power they have. But, to begin, with these voices, these characters that you're inhabiting here are fictional.

FC: Right.

MS: So it's a pretty different proposition, it seems to me.

FC: Totally. And there's not a history of disenfranchising robots because of their access to certain kinds of English, you know what I mean?

MS: Yeah.

FC: So like yeah, there's just... There's less there. And I think the thing with the other poem in The Nation was also... A critique that I saw a lot that I thought was really valid and lively was critiquing the poet's obvious misunderstanding of that kind of English, of African American Vernacular. People were saying "Why would you use a contraction here but not here? You obviously don't speak this."

MS: Yeah.

FC: And so maybe part of my interest in like speaking like Kyoko is really trying to imagine what is the kind of English that someone like Kyoko would speak. Especially because it doesn't exist. Knowing that perhaps no one exactly knows how she would speak. That's a language that doesn't exist yet, exactly. A vernacular that doesn't yet exist. And so trying to use my own relationship to English and being a... I guess Korean was my first language but it's all blended together now. But you know, using my experience, my background with English to kind of inform the way that I might imagine a new vernacular.

MS: Yeah. It really does seem like the key thing here with a persona poem—and really for any kind of art that makes use of a subject other than oneself—that the key thing is being able to understand the person or the thing that you were making the art out of, and that that was the key lack in this other person's poem.

FC: Yeah.

MS: Whereas, you know, these poems that you've put into this chapbook, they're very empathetic poems. Which actually is sort of an interesting concept of having empathy, which we normally think of as being the quality of being able to understand someone else's emotions or experiences, things like that. Applying that to an artificial intelligence is... I don't know, I feel like there's a lot of different things that are interesting about that.

FC: Yeah. I think it makes for some weird... [laughs] some weird nights at the laptop, you know? [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

FC: Yeah, I mean it is like a strange experiment, I think, in trying to extend empathy... Or maybe not extend empathy but ask how our understanding of empathy necessarily needs to change when we're talking about nonhuman subjects. Like, what does it mean to have empathy for... I mean, this also goes for nonhuman animals too. Like what does it mean to have empathy for a cow if we know that we'll never... It doesn't really make sense to try to be like "How would a cow feel?" and feel the way a cow would feel. Because that's not really... Maybe that's just not the right question to be asking, you know? But at the same time I also think that any time humans make a thing that's sort of human but definitely not, whenever we dip into that uncanny valley that people talk about, the question is, what does that do to fuck up your sense of empathy and your understanding of that? Because our natural inclination [is] to be like "It's a human, I'm a human. Here we go." But when that's obviously impossible or obviously nonsensical, then what do we do with that information? Do we then say, "Great, now is the time to thrust all of the violence that I've always wanted to do unto humans but was never allowed to onto this thing"? Or do we change the way we look at all beings?

MS: Yeah. I felt like the poems in this book were really operating on—on multiple levels—but two of the ones that I was sort of thinking of have to do with... You know, when we talk about understanding these characters, that on the one hand, in a more literal sense—what we were just talking about—taking them as the characters that they are, being artificial intelligences, and thinking about what our relationship to technology is and how the concept of... I think you've even talked about this on VS before, about how it's a little troubling to think about what our relationship to machines might be. Especially given our history of things like settler colonialism and slavery and things like that. You know, sort of unpacking all of that. So that was one level, the sort of literal "our relationship to machines" level. But then also, because of the fact that these characters present as Asian women—

FC: Mm-hm.

MS: —that they function really effectively as a metaphor for at least the Asian American woman experience in some ways. And it does feel like you're doing things with that as well, unless I'm misreading it. I don't know.

FC: Oh yeah, of course. I think seeing a movie like Ex Machina was... The reason that I'm writing about robots is exactly because I was writing about and thinking about race and gender. And so when that character showed up on the screen, it was sort of like, "Oh, here's the image." You know, I've been using lots of different images and... Nah, not even the image, but here's the vehicle, or the playpen for continuing to think about these things. That was always what first drew me to thinking about artificial intelligence. And then maybe something that opened up for me was that questions of violence when it comes to race and gender were always questions of consciousness and of humanity. And you know, who gets to be categorized as human, and what is an object, and what do you do when you wake up one day and are like, "Hello world," and you're somewhere in between human and object?

MS: Yeah.

FC: I think the thing that was so compelling about seeing... about turning around and noticing all of the Asian female robots that are in media was how unsurprising it was. You look at it, it makes sense why that would be the race and gender of the android in front of you. And then the question is, "Okay, why does that make so much sense?" Right. And I think that maybe sort of goes back to this idea of strangeness and incongruency in poetry. I think that what makes me want to do that work is how it seems to make sense, but I don't understand how. That makes me then want to ask the question, "Okay, what is it about this image that I see in front of me or this line I see in front of me that resonates, even if I've never thought of that before."

MS: Yeah. So, you know, as you're saying that something that sort of occurs to me is the depictions in those two things—like I said, I'm not actually familiar with the Chobits manga, but I have some experience with anime and manga, and I did see Ex Machina. It's sort of interesting to think about how, the thing that stands out, of course, in these poems is how neither of these characters have their own literal voice, literal ability to express themselves. But one of the things that occurs to me is that Ex Machina is an American movie depicting this Asian-presenting character. Whereas a manga is going to be something where the Asian-ness, because the media property is originating in an Asian country, the Asian-ness of that character isn't going to be an exotic or othering kind of thing in the same way that it is certainly presented that way in Ex Machina. You know what I mean?

FC: Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. And that's something that's sort of like on my mind, too. The poems that I write where I'm clearly both speaking in the narrative world of Chobits and also doing a commentary about violence against people of color and women of color, specifically. For sure. Also, though, I think especially when it comes to—maybe not especially when it comes to Japanese pop culture, but, you know, I mean that shit is also more global than we might expect or reali... Or I dunno, like Japanese pop culture's fascination with transhuman-ness and cyborg figures and artificial intelligence, etc, etc, that also kind of helps, I think, the American imagination to code those things as particularly Asian as well.

MS: Mm-hm.

FC: I mean, I don't know. I guess maybe an easy way out might be, it's a manga and anime series that has made it to the US and my vantage point is as an American looking at this. And then forming my ideas about Asianess based on this manga, you know?

MS: Yeah.

FC: You know, I think the way the weird, fucked-up Japanese art is used to further cement the idea that East Asian people are foreign and strange and fucked up, and sick in the head and etc., etc., it's also part of this American project.

MS: Yeah, that's interesting. And I think it's also... You know, what that brings up for me is how in America the differences between different kinds of Asian people. I mean, not even just the differences between... You know, there's been some talk recently about disaggregating East Asians from, say, Southeast Asians, South Asians or Pacific islanders and I certainly think that's a really interesting and necessary conversation to have. Even just within East Asians, though, I mean the history between Japan and Korea, Japan and China, Korea and China, these are separate entities with very complicated and complex histories and power dynamics and relationships between themselves, and then those have played out to some degree but in a different way between the diasporic communities in America from those countries. You're Korean American. These characters are coded as Japanese. I'm Japanese American, for myself. I feel like there's this way in which being in America gives us both an opportunity for solidarity among Asian Americans as a bloc but also erases the differences between us, which is troubling.

FC: Yeah, totally. I mean, yeah, I think that's one of the central questions of Asian American organizing in general. And I think it makes a lot of sense also to highlight that if those differences are tricky for Korean and Japanese American communities organizing in the US, those gulfs and the work necessary for real solidarity are even wider between, say, a Korean American and a Samoan American person trying to talk about what it means to be API together.

MS: Yeah.

FC: And, you know, even that term, API, is also kind of being contested as whether it is really a necessary term or grouping. Or not even "necessary," like there are things that I think are materially necessary about having Pacific Islanders included in larger conversations about people coming from that part of the world. But, yeah, it's also complicated to be like "API, API." For example, your organization's staff is all East Asian and like one South Asian or something, you know—

MS: Yeah.

FC: —like what currency do Asian American spaces gain from putting "PI" into their names. And what actually comes back to Pacific Islander American folks that they're supposedly supposed to serve? Yeah. That question is also huge. But even when it comes down to two countries who are right next to each other. The history of colonialism in Korea by the Japanese Empire, it just makes for some complicated friendships here, a few generations and ocean later.

MS: Yeah, definitely. There's like a million things more that I would love to talk about, but I think that we need to take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.

FC: Sweet, awesome.


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So, what would you like to talk about today?

Franny Choi: Oh, this is... Yeah, I don't really know. I mean, I just spent like a month in Korea this summer and so I could talk about Korea and specifically Korean food all day. I could talk about Korean food any day of the week.

MS: I'm always down to talk about some Korean food or anything. So yeah, let's hear about some Korean food.

FC: Yeah. Well, you know the thing that people always say, the very common knowledge that Chinese food is so diverse, and every province has its own kind of food, and it all gets flattened into this one thing in the US. Which is—you know, that history, it's super, super fascinating. But what I realized when I was in Korea this summer was that that also happens, though on a much smaller scale, with Korean food. Like, you know, you go into any Korean restaurant and it's really the same 12 dishes. And those 12 dishes are things that people eat in Korea, very much so. It's not exactly like there's just a whole other—there's not exactly a General Tso's Chicken equivalent, I think, when it comes to Korean food. But like there were so many different things. There's so many different kinds of food, you know, on one block in Hongdae or something, in Seoul, that you would never find on a menu. And this is the first time, also, going to Korea, that I was really traveling around outside of Seoul and [I] realized that Cheongsando food is different, and Jeollado food is different, and Jejudo food is different. And I was—my mind was blown that there could be so much food diversity within this tiny, tiny peninsula of a country.

MS: Yeah, I mean it's really interesting. I think—what that's making me think of, just in general, how, you know, America has this tendency of really narrowing how it views and presents other cultures in basically every way. But food is definitely one that it does that with. I mean it does it with Chinese food, it does it with Korean food, it does it with Japanese food, it does it with Indian food. I work with a whole bunch of people from different parts of India who—and my area of San Diego is the area with all of the Indian restaurants in it. But my coworkers that are from India are always saying, "Ah, it's not really like that." But then somebody else might say, "Well actually it is kind of like that where I'm from, but it wouldn't be like that in New Delhi." So I dunno, there's something kind of eh about that, you know?

FC: Yeah. Yeah. And I think like maybe in when it comes to Korean food, it's less about more geographic diversity when it comes to food and more like... I don't know, I guess that every Korean restaurant in the US I think feels this burden of representing, you know, the greatest hits of Korean food.

MS: Mm-hm.

FC: And restaurants in Korea are so specialized, and I think that has to... Like Seoul, I feel like—I don't actually know the numbers on this, but I feel like Seoul has... I mean, first of all it's one of the densest cities in the world. I think it's denser than Tokyo. And the restaurants per capita is bananas. There's just like two layers of restaurants in some neighborhoods. I feel like there's as many restaurants as there are people. Or maybe it's as many as there are women or something, you know. It's wild. And so of course every restaurant has to be... But that means that on this block, there's like six different places that are specifically fried chicken spots and like four that are specializing in scallion pancakes. Or who have really good pancakes and makgeolli. And so, I don't know. I don't really have a political "therefore" conclusion to this, except that, I don't know, everyone should go to Korea if you like Korean food. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

FC: Especially a lot of street food and stuff. Most of my memories of being abroad are of eating.

MS: That's best thing to do. I mean, just in general in life, I think. You know, I think when you're talking about how every Korean restaurant in the United States feels like it has to present the greatest hits, I mean, what that's really speaking to is the idea that these restaurants are kind of more facing white people than they are facing Korean people, or even Asian people in general. Which, you know, obviously in Korea they wouldn't have that same sort of burden of trying to attract a white audience.

FC: Yeah. No, you just want people in there because the food is really good.

MS: Yeah. I find... You know, here in San Diego—I grew up in a very small town in Northern California that was very, very white and there were not a lot of Asian restaurants in general, and there certainly were no Korean restaurants. And then since I've moved to San Diego, the part of San Diego that I live in is heavily Vietnamese and Filipino. And then right next door to my neighborhood is this area where all of the different Asian and especially Korean businesses are. I find it really interesting that when you go into a restaurant in—the neighborhood's called Kearny Mesa—and when you go to a restaurant in Kearny Mesa, what's interesting to me is that not all of the Korean restaurants are exactly the same. Like some of them... There is actually—I mean there's only one, so it's not like six on the same block, but there is a restaurant that's just Korean fried chicken.

FC: Yeah. Well that's one that I think has come over, you know. That might be the one Korean special—although I guess soondubu, the soft tofu stew, there are [inaudible], also like in LA and New York and stuff. And Atlanta, where my family's from.

MS: Yeah.

FC: But yeah, so there's a few of them, but there's not like—I've never seen a dakgalbi place in the US, you know, that's just like chicken. um, But yeah, Korean fried chicken has come. But that's also like—I mean it's not a new thing, the Korean fried chicken. But I think, you know, fried chicken exists all over the world. It's sort of like a global... It's a food that can cross borders, and so maybe these days it has sort of come over into the US and into America knowledge. Although Korean fried chicken—something I learned recently was that my grandfather owned a fried chicken place, like way, way back in the day. And I thought that the Korean fried chicken thing was a recent invention, but apparently it's in my roots.

MS: Hm.

FC: Deep in my family history.

MS: [laughs] It's sort of weird being faced with things, you know, having to revise your conception of either your family or even your culture in certain ways when you're presented with new things like that.

FC: Oh totally, totally. And I think that's something that I learned a lot on this trip, too, both about my family and about Korean people in general—as if you can learn anything about such a big thing. That people are always changing and they're always dynamic. Like, you know, I used to think of my parents as super strict and traditional, and the more I got older I realized that that's actually not exactly true. I guess there are some certain things about the way they raised me that are that way. But understanding the context of where my family came, my parents came from, I realized in talking to like my cousins and my aunts and stuff, I was like, "Oh no, my parents are the weirdos of the family."

MS: [laughs]

FC: I mean, and of course that makes sense. They're the ones who left. They're the ones who left and went to America for—not exactly chasing adventure, but I think you have to kind of have an adventurous spirit to go to the other side of the world, even if it's necessity that drives you there. And also when it came to... Like I went to a gay bar in Busan and, you know, was talking to some of the bartenders there, and I think I asked "What is it like"—this ridiculous question, I was like "What is it like to be gay in Korea?" Which is like, how could anybody answer such a question? And, you know, I kind of expected it to be like, "Oh, you know, it's really hard and that's why we have this space that's so sacred to us," or something. And the person was like, "I dunno, it's OK."

MS: [laughs]

FC: Like "It's hard for some people and, you know, my parents are cool. So it kinda just depends on your family and, I don't know, it's complicated." And I kept running into those into those things where I would ask someone a question, expecting to have my understanding of Korean culture confirmed and then for people to be like, "I don't know, shit is always changing and it depends on who you ask." Which is so obvious and so human.

MS: Yeah.

FC: Strange to experience extending that kind of empathy and understanding of individuality to my own people. You know?

MS: Yeah. I mean it is kind of weird, I think, being... I don't know—you said you grew up in Atlanta, I don't really know what Atlanta is like in terms of having a lot of Koreans or Asians or whatever. Where I grew up—I mean just to start with, America in general, Asians make up a tiny percentage of the population here. Where I grew up, it was even more so. The town I grew up in was so white that basically the only Asian people I knew were my family and maybe one or two other kids. And I think that it's been a weird thing for me, moving from that town to a city like San Diego where there are a lot of Asian people. I feel like the experience is very different. I feel like it's... There's something about the way that it sort of opens up when you can... You can know for yourself that being part of a culture doesn't imply something about that culture being monolithic. You can know that even when it's just your own family. But it's a different experience when you're actually faced with a whole lot of people who look like you who are nothing like you.

FC: Yeah. What was it? Was it in Maxine Hong Kingston, in Woman Warrior where she said "I can't tell what's Chinese and what's just my family." Yeah, that totally speaks to the kind of isolation that kids growing up in immigrant families experience. And I think that's why the trip back to the motherland can be such a disorienting thing, you know? To be like, "Oh, I thought that all Koreans did this, but it's actually just my mom."

MS: [laughs]

FC: "She's the only one." Yeah. Super, super weird. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Yeah, no, it is weird. It's very weird. I've never been to Japan before. People keep telling me that I need to and I—honestly, I'm a little intimidated by it all. So I don't know.

FC: Yeah, it's weird. And especially to go and then... I think people don't really know what to do with... I mean, and of course, again, I'm going to be like, "Not all Koreans." But, you know, I think a lot of Koreans were like, "Okay, white person, foreigner."

MS: Mm-hm.

FC: "Got it." And then they'd look at me and be like, "Korean." And then I'd start speaking, and they'd be like "Korean..?"

MS: [laughs]

FC: And then after a while it was like, "Oh, American." But there's a period in there where it's like, "Why is this person so confused about something that's so obvious?" It must be fascinating as a Korean to encounter a Korean American and try to figure out what's going on there, you know? Like what part of Korean culture has transferred over all that distance.

MS: Yeah.

FC: What is it that makes someone American?

MS: Yeah. For me, my family's been in this country for a really long time. Like my family has actually been in this country longer than my—my wife is white and her family's been here for like... Well, her mom is actually an immigrant and her dad is—her grandparents on the other side are immigrants. So. But for me, I have great-grandparents that were born here. So. [laughs]

FC: Yeah.

MS: But that level of removal from... Like, not only can I not speak Japanese but my parents can't speak Japanese and three of my grandparents can't speak Japanese. So it's like, I don't know, there's something very... I've always assumed that if I were to go to Japan that everybody would just immediately know that I wasn't from there.

FC: I don't think so, though. I think not.

MS: Yeah, I had this experience once where I had to go to Taiwan for work once, and I was really surprised that when I was in the airport in Taipei that everyone just assumed that I was Taiwanese and I was like, "Whoa."

FC: Yeah! Totally. During this trip I was in Beijing briefly and also Tokyo and Osaka briefly. And yeah, that's also a weird moment, being like, "No, I don't..." Especially because that's such a common experience in the US, of people assuming you're not from there and then you being like, "I speak English incredibly well, actually, My whole life is about it." And then to go to a country and for people to assume that you speak the language and be like, "Ah, actually, I'm so stupid, I can't!"

MS: [laughs] I never thought about it that way. The difference. Oh, that's... I just was in my anxiety about—you know, feeling bad that I didn't speak the language, which I had no reason to be able to speak. But yeah, no, the difference between... Oh that's really interesting.

FC: Yeah, when I was in China I just learned how to say—I was like, "Should I say I'm American? Because then maybe people will assume I'm Chinese American." But then I was like, "Should I say I'm Korean?" Because then also you get treated a slightly different way, if you're a foreigner from another Asian country, you know?

MS: Mm-hm.

FC: So I kind of just split it, sometimes I said I was American, sometimes I said I was Korean.

MS: [sighs] Oh, man. [laughs]

FC: [laughs] But also, again though in Japan and in Korea—I guess maybe this is the thing: I think that I was somewhat easier to pick out in Korea as not being from there in certain areas because, you know, you go to certain parts of Seoul and everyone is dressed... not the same but it's really weirdly monolithic. And then there are parts of the city where everyone is doing their own weird thing. But from my experience, at least, in Tokyo I was like, "Oh my God, everyone has different shoes here." Which is like "Duh, everyone has different shoes." But it was such a change from Seoul. Like, you know, you could just wear whatever the fuck you wanted. I was like "Wow, people—this person has purple hair." And like 40 percent of my friends have purple hair, you know? But I just hadn't seen people dressing so individually in a while, when I'd been in Korea for a few weeks. All of which is to say, let's all go everywhere.

MS: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, so before we close there's one last question I like to ask everybody, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

FC: I was reading some—I mean maybe I'll stick with this general Korean literature and Korean American literature trend that I've been on. Something that I read recently that was meaningful to me was this collection of short stories by Oh Jung-hee, who's a Korean fiction writer who is very established there. I think these—I wonder when these stories came out. I think a lot of them were written in like the seventies and eighties. Yeah, yeah. Seventies, eighties. And so I'd read some contemporary Korean poetry by Korean women, and I'd never read like Korean literature of that period before, of the seventies and eighties, and it was really fascinating. Like the idea of Korea as a nation in the world, how that changed over those two decades. But also the work was super—there's a kind of dark weirdness in Korean women's literature of the 20th and 21st centuries that was super present in this person's work as well. It was cool to see that that translated over to short stories of that era, you know? Like there's some of the surreal elements of The Vegetarian, which I read a few years ago, which I loved. It was cool to see maybe some connection with this writer who was writing a few decades ago. I guess maybe this just shows that I should go back to grad school or something.

MS: [laughs]

FC: I'm like, "Ooh, tracing the legacy of surrealism in contemporary Korean women's literature. That's what really gets me going." But it kind of is. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Alright, well cool. Thank you very much. And I really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you.

FC: Oh man, thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: OK, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Franny’s new collection Soft Science will be coming out in April 2019 from Alice James Books, and there’s a link in the show notes to where you can pre-order it. There are also links to where you can buy her previous collection, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, and her chapbook Death By Sex Machine, do check those out.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow me and the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to podcast@keepthechannelopen.com. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on September 26th with a new conversation, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 73: Ada Limón

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 73. Today’s guest is Ada Limón.

Hey there, folks. Today on the show I’m talking with poet Ada Limón. Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24PearlStreet online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Her new collection, The Carrying, was released by Milkweed Editions just this month, August 2018.

Now, my introduction to Ada’s work was via her poem “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” which I saw getting retweeted around last spring, when it was featured on the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. And, you know, that just happened to be a bit of a low point for me, and this poem, when I read it, it felt like a lifeline, you know? I’ve now had a chance to read her two most recent collections, Bright Dead Things and now The Carrying, and they are just magnificent books. I’ve put links in the show notes for both and I do highly recommend picking up a copy and checking them out.

Coming up in the next few weeks, Ada will be having her New York launch party for The Carrying at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn. She’ll also be giving readings at Muhlenberg College, Texas Christian University, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Smith College. I’ve put a link in the show notes to her calendar page, where you can find all of her upcoming events, which at the time I’m recording this includes readings all the way through mid-November.

A couple more things before we get started, subscribers to our Patreon campaign will get some new bonus content this week, a special reading by Ada of the poem I mentioned before, “Instructions on Not Giving Up.” Just as a reminder, subscribers at any level get access to each episode a day early, plus exclusive access to our bonus audio content. You can sign up and make a pledge at patreon.com/sakeriver.

Finally, I’m going to be doing another giveaway this week, this time I have a copy of Ada’s new book The Carrying, so stick around after the show for details. Now, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Ada Limón.

[Music]

First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I just, before we said anything else, I just wanted to say that I really loved your new book, The Carrying. I also just recently—this year—read Bright Dead Things, which I also really loved. So I just wanted to, before I said anything else, say thank you so much for these wonderful books.

Ada Limón: Oh, thank you so much. That means a lot to me. The Carrying is so new, and hearing that people have even read it already is fantastic and terrifying all at once.

MS: Mm.

AL: [laughs] So thank you for your kind words about them.

MS: I was wondering if we could start with a reading, perhaps?

AL: Yeah, absolutely. I just got my hardcover in the mail of The Carrying. I'm so excited. I've never had a hardcover book.

MS: It's a beautiful book, too.

AL: Thank you. Thank you. I think they did such a wonderful job. My mother did the cover painting, as she did with Bright Dead Things, as she did with all of my books. We don't really get a chance to collaborate too much, but she does these beautiful paintings in response to my work and they grace the cover. So I'm really lucky.

MS: Mm.

AL: I'll begin with a poem called "Ancestors."

Ancestors

I've come here from the rocks, the bone-like chert,
          obsidian, lava rock. I've come here from the trees—

chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar

one thousand oaks
          that bend with moss and old-man's beard.
I was born on a green couch on Carriger Road between
          the vineyards and the horse pasture.

I don't remember what I first saw, the brick of light
          that unhinged me from the beginning. I don't remember

my brother's face, my mother, my father.

          Later, I remember leaves, through car windows,
through bedroom windows, through the classroom window,

the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that
          power from roots. Imagine you must survive

without running? I've come from the lacing patterns of leaves,

          I do not know where else I belong.

MS: Thank you. So this poem... It's funny when I have a poet on the show, the poem that they pick is almost always one that really sticks out to me from the whole collection. Although with this collection I kind of feel like most of the poems stick out to me.

AL: [laughs] Good.

MS: But one of the things that I was thinking a lot about with this collection—and this is one of the first poems that does this—is how you make these lists in a lot of these poems. Here, you talk about different types of rocks and different types of trees.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: In other poems, it might be lists of different types of animals. Or in one poem it's a list of things that are carried on cargo trains. And there's a way in which it almost feels like these lists, with their specificity, are almost—they almost feel like an incantation of sorts. Do you know what I mean?

AL: Yeah, I do.

MS: Yeah. And I was kind of—that was something I found really interesting about these poems and I wondered if we could talk about that a little bit.

AL: Yeah. I think that you've, just in this first question, have hit on something that I think is very important to me. Which is, one, the idea of listing, and, two, the idea of naming. And I think lists for me are a little bit of an obsession in my own work, because I think they're a powerful way to connect with the experience that's going on in your life at that moment. Even listing what's around you, even listing what has happened. There's something about that that channels a sort of momentum in the mind. And then the idea of naming things, giving them their proper due with their own names. You know, I'm one of those people that drives other travelers insane by constantly asking, "Well, what's the name of that tree? What's the name of that bird?"

MS: [laughs]

AL: You know? We just came back from Rio de Janeiro and looking out our window, we could see these incredible seabirds that are just gorgeous. They almost look like pterodactyls, and they're called magnificent frigatebirds. And I thought, I love that magnificent is actually a part of their name.

MS: Mm.

AL: And it sounded to me as if they all sort of got together and named themselves—

MS: [laughs]

AL: —and decided, "Well, frigatebird is okay, but what about if we add magnificent in front of it?" So, you know, for me, I think that the—where names come from, the actual... the thing it does when you name something, that you suddenly become attached to it on some level is important to me as well. There's this great talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer—the woman who wrote the book Braiding Sweetgrass—and she has this talk where she says that the average American can name and recognize 100 names of brands but only 10 names of plants.

MS: Hm.

AL: And I think how fascinating that is, right? How far away we've come from having a connection with our earth.

MS: Mm.

AL: And so on some levels I think those two things that you mentioned right off the bat, the listing and the naming are sort of essential to not just this book but just sort of my outlook on life.

MS: Yeah, it's interesting. I haven't read that book, although, I did sort of look into it a little bit just because you referenced that in one of the poems here. It's interesting because I feel like a lot of your poems—both in this collection and in Bright Dead Things—that it seems very clear from your poems that having this connection to the earth—sometimes literally to, like, the dirt in your fingers—is very important to you, and there's this real sense of connectedness, I feel like. There's something about the naming, the specificity of it. It makes you feel a closeness when you're reading. It's really interesting how that works.

AL: Yeah. I think that there is that, there's—the intimacy of naming is that if I tell you exactly what's on my desk right now and you tell me exactly where you're recording, we will immediately have a better sense of where we are.

MS: Mm-hm.

AL: Right? And it grounds us and I think that's important, and I think that's an important act of telepathy that writing can do with a reader.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. There's also—there's a line I marked down in the poem "Against Belonging"—

AL: Mm.

MS: —in this book where—it's a few different lines—where you say "properly identifying / seemed more important than science, more like / creation. With each new name the world expanded. / I give names to everything now because it makes / me feel useful." And there was something in that, not only about the power of the naming and the listing, but in the way that the action... that the naming is in itself an action, you know, and that the action does something useful.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And it seemed to me that that also applies to the concept of poetry and of writing in general, you know. Like that the poems are not a thing so much as they are an action, a doing, and that they do something. That's always something that's really interesting to me about considering art, is what does art do.

AL: Yeah, I think that's very true. I ask my students that. I always ask them "What do you want your poems to do?" And they all kind of look at you like, "What?" [laughs] But I think about that question all the time. What do I want my poems to do? And you know, sometimes it's not a group of poems, but what do I want this poem to do, right?

MS: Mm.

AL: Because they'll all do different things. And sometimes it's very simple. Sometimes it just wants—the poem wants to help someone reconnect to the world or recommit to the world.

MS: Mm.

AL: Or wants to have someone feel grounded after reading it, or maybe it's just a simple thing like "Go call your mother." [laughs] But, you know, I think that I often think of poems as actions. And that goes back to what you mentioned in the beginning, which was almost like a spell like quality, that it feels like there's an incantation happening. And I think that's true too because in reality what I want most from my poems is for my own poems to make me feel better about living in the world and to give me a way to live in the world. Even if they can't help anyone else, you know, hopefully they can help me.

MS: Yeah. I think about the doing of a work of art. And this was something that, for me, came up a lot, in particular—with a lot of your poems it did this, but I think it sort of surged the most for me when I was reading "The Burying Beetle."

AL: Mm.

MS: That, you know, like you were saying, that the naming and the specificness of naming, that it gives you a sense of rootedness, perhaps, and connection. That in some of the poems—in many of the poems, really—it almost feels like you're choosing what to turn towards. That you're choosing—in that poem in particular there's a sense of, you know, "Somewhere else there are bad things happening and those things are important. But here I'm going to choose to turn my face towards what's right in front of me and what I can touch."

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And, have you seen the movie Sorry to Bother You?

AL: Not yet, no. My husband and I were just looking for the local theaters that would have it.

MS: [laughs] I don't want to... I think that's a movie best where if you don't know anything about it going in. But there is one line that kind of—I think separate from the movie itself—was really interesting to me. Just this idea that when there's a problem that's big enough, that it's so big that it feels like one person can't do anything to solve the whole problem, that most people just don't do anything.

AL: Right.

MS: And it feels like these poems, especially that poem, but really all of the poems are a doing something, if that makes sense.

AL: Mm-hm. Yeah, it does make sense. It feels like... When I was in college, I was suffering from anxiety and worried very much about the world and, you know, thinking then about the destruction of our planet, the destruction of our political system. Even then in the nineties. And I remember talking to my stepfather on the phone one night, and I was really trying to figure out how to live while still containing all of these big truths that are so destructive. And he said that, you know, one of the biggest things to do when you get overwhelmed by the macrocosm is to focus on the microcosm and to focus on what you can do, even if it's to help one other person or be of service to someone or be kind to someone, or plant a garden or make a phone call or reach out or create something. And that has always stuck with me and I think it's something I focus on to this day, that there is a doing in the creating and that there is a doing in the connection and the communication that a poem offers into the world.

MS: Yeah. Another thing I was thinking about with the naming... The first—I mean I think it's the first poem, isn't it?

AL: Yeah.

MS: "A Name"? And you're talking about about Eve naming animals. And there was something about that too, that here she's doing this thing. There's—I don't know if I'm going to articulate this quite right, but there's something about how she's the one doing this work of naming things, and that that attention isn't returned exactly in the same way—

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: —that felt... Like, there's something about the way that the work that women do that is very often under- or unappreciated.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Which I thought was also something really interesting and especially interesting to open the whole collection with, if that makes sense.

AL: Yeah. Yeah, I think there is a pointing to that here in this poem, the idea that she's going on naming that animals and that she also wants to be recognized as a wild thing herself, as an animal, too, and doesn't just see it. But wants that recognition so that she can also be connected to them. And that also that she wants to share that power with the natural world. That she doesn't want the power to be only in her but that she wants to share it with the natural world.

MS: Yeah. And again, that seems—it's just like so much of this book, it seems to be reaching for that kind of a connection and sharing between the self and the bigger world.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Yeah. So, another thing that I thought was really interesting about these poems, there's several of these poems that—I didn't realize this at first until I saw the New Yorker thing—but that several of these poems are actually a collaboration between you and Natalie Diaz. And if I'm recalling right, that's not actually pointed to at all in the text. Like, there isn't a note under the title to say "to Natalie Diaz" or anything like that. So when I found that out, when I read the "Envelopes of Air" feature in the New Yorker, it really changed the experience of those poems. I thought that was really interesting and was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

AL: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of my favorite projects, I think, I've ever done—it's still ongoing—which is that over a year, Natalie Diaz and I wrote poem letters back and forth to one another. We had a rule that you could never include any more text in the email aside from the attachment of the poem, so that all responses and all utterances had to be in reply to the actual written poem. And there are four poems in this book, The Carrying, that are letters to her. And, of course, you don't get her reply, but you can see them in the New Yorker online. And, you know, I chose not to put her name in them because what happened was they took on a life of their own. When you included her name, you wanted the response, you want it—they felt like, "Oh, I want to see what Natalie wrote back." And Natalie's a phenomenal poet. And so what I did was I put it in the notes section in the back. But I thought this way, by leaving her name off of it, you could maybe see that these letters could be more universal and maybe to even the reader, if the reader so accepted it.

MS: Yeah, I mean it really did change the experience of the poem, that without that context, which is—you know, so I approached these poems first as part of this collection and there are many poems in this collection—and indeed in a lot of your work—where you use an I and a you.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And it's not always clear who you're talking to in your poems, exactly. But in the context of these poems being sort of separated from their original context. And in this book I felt like the you of these poems was very different from how they felt when you could read the responses. I found that a really fascinating experience.

AL: Mm. Yeah. That's interesting. I think that's kind of the experience I was hoping for, was that they could live on their own as well as being a very intimate conversation between two people. But that they could also be seen as poems in their own right, which we really wanted to do. We really wanted to create something that the poems could stand on their own, but that also when you saw them collected, you could really engage with that entire conversation and feel an intimate connection to both poets.

MS: Mm.

AL: But yeah, I'm glad that you had that experience, because I hadn't really talked to anyone about that yet, about whether or not... You know, how that experience shifted from seeing them as in this collection. And they were written at the same time as the rest of these poems, in the same time period. So they fit in this world of this book. And for some reason I couldn't leave them out. I thought, "No, they need to be in here," because they rounded out a lot of the narrative, the personal narrative that I saw coming together when I was putting this collection together as a whole. It's not like those letter poems needed to be in there.

MS: Yeah, and so many of your poems are about personal—or at least use personal narrative. I don't know if it's correct to say that that's what they're about, but they use narrative.

AL: Yeah.

MS: And so I think that's one of the reasons why they didn't seem out of place at all because in many of the poems you might reference a memory or an anecdote, or say, "We were talking about this at that time."

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And we don't get the other half of that conversation, necessarily. So these didn't feel... It all sort of felt of a piece, you know? If it hadn't been for the New Yorker feature, then I would have had no idea.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Yeah. And it's really interesting to me, again, to think about what a poem or a work of art does, but also how dependent that can be on exactly the context in which you experienced it. That's something that... I don't know if I had really thought quite as... I mean it's something I've thought about before, but to have it shown to me so starkly this way was fascinating.

AL: Mm. Good, I'm glad. I'm interested in that because I think even how we bring in the autobiographical information about a poet often, right? If we're discussing a poem in class or in conversation, we tend to say, "Oh, well, this is what was happening in her life at this time, was this and this and this." But what is—how does the poem happen? Or how does the poem mean without that autobiographical information. And I think those readings are just as important. And sometimes they can be even more mysterious and unravel in a way that's almost more delicious and delightful than the poem when you have the background and go, "Oh, I can name exactly what this is in reference to."

MS: Yeah.

AL: So I think, you know, I always find those two experiences very elating, really.

MS: Yeah. I mean it is sort of a weird thing. I feel like... I mean, this happens to some degree, I think, with any kind of art, especially art that is... that sort of springs from personal experience. But I feel like maybe with poetry people do this more than, say, with fiction or visual art, where people really want... People seem to really want to know about the autobiographical parts of it, you know?

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And in some ways that almost doesn't... It always feels like the wrong question to me. Not to say that it's a completely invalid question, but just that the poem is doing a thing all by itself and doesn't necessarily need to be understood as autobiography even if it uses autobiographical detail. You know? I mean, for me it can be a little frustrating sometimes that people get so obsessed with that.

AL: Absolutely. I think it's frustrating and I think it's limiting because I think what happens is it makes us think about poetry as not the full art form. That unless you know about the autobiographical background of the poet, that suddenly the poem can't stand on its own, or we have to dig deeper into this realm of straight, black-and-white narrative.

MS: Mm.

AL: And really a poem is doing so many different things. Right? And the I is the I, but the I isn't the I. I mean, I write from a very personal I most of the time but that I changes all the time.

MS: Yeah.

AL: I'm different today than I was yesterday. [laughs] And so even that person is not the same.

MS: Yeah.

AL: I'm working towards a—you know, to be my most authentic self on the page, but not in a way that conflates with memoir, but in a way that I'm bowing down always to the poem. That if the poem wants to say something, it's going to say it and I'll follow along. Whether that choice is for the image or towards the musicality of the poem or even towards the truth of the poem. If it's not my personal truth, that's okay. If it gets to a deeper truth, I'm going to follow that.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. I guess another thing—I mean, even for myself, I find I've done this. Maybe less with poetry, but with songs, a lot of times I would really wonder, "Did that really happen that way?" But so often these things are really reaching towards something that's bigger than just one person's story.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And that's why they resonate. Right?

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And I feel like that's something... I went and read a bunch of different reviews and interviews that you'd done before, or that had been written about your work, and something that a lot of people talk about is how your poems are very accessible.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Which I thought was sort of an interesting... It's not that I disagree with that. I think that certainly with something—the language of your poems is very clear. And so they might feel a little more approachable than perhaps more obscure language might. But I also in some ways feel that saying that your poems are accessible in some ways might do them a bit of a disservice because it sort of seems to imply that there's a simplicity to them that—or, not that there isn't a simplicity to them, but rather that it might sort of elide the complexity that's in them, if that makes sense.

AL: Yes, it does make sense. Yeah. I struggled with that, coming to terms with that word. That word wasn't really used for my work until Bright Dead Things. So that was the fourth book and for the most part it was used in a positive way. But I think that depends on what community you're talking to. You know, I think that non-poets would say that accessible poetry is not only a good thing, but what they're looking for. And I think poets would often say accessible poetry might not be at all what they would strive to do, let alone read, or laud on any level. So I struggled with that at first. I felt a little like I was pushing against it, but at the same time I also—the idea of access, of allowing doors that open, the idea of language that invites someone into it is very intriguing to me. And I also kind of liked the idea of inviting someone into it and then doing something they're completely not expecting.

MS: Mm.

AL: And if that's sort of a way of tricking someone into a poem, then [laughs] I'm all for it. Yeah, I do think it's a strange word in terms of what it means and its duality of purpose in both reviews and critical work. I find myself still kind of questioning it when I see it. You know, and people will say "clear, simple language" and oftentimes I wonder, there's a lot of musicality in my work and a lot of jumping around that sort of goes from one place to another place very quickly. Travels. My poems move a lot, but they tend to think, "Oh no, these poems are very clear and very interesting on that sort of clarity level. I don't know, I'm intrigued by that.

MS: I think that, you know, I do find that there are a lot of people for whom poetry is sort of daunting, I guess—you know, people who are not poets—so to be able to find a poem or a book of poems that doesn't seem like it's trying to put you off, like it's trying to hide something from you—

AL: Mm.

MS: I think that's the kind of thing that for some people would be very refreshing. And very... I'm not sure exactly what the right word is, but I think that, like I was saying and like you were saying, that there's a way in which focusing too much on that, it gets away from what the poem actually is doing. You know, when you were saying about how your poems move a lot, one of the ones that I... I was reading this last night, the poem "Full Gallop."

AL: Mm.

MS: And how I read it three or four times right in a row because, you know, you've got, what is this, five tercets and then a single line at the end.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And in each tercet, there's a pretty profound shift, a turn in between... The white space between each tercet marks a real significant change in the tone and emotion, but then they all still hang together as well. And I feel like if you weren't paying attention, you would feel these things but not even realize you were feeling them.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: That is a way that... I mean, it takes a lot of skill to be able to do something like that and not even call attention to the fact that you're doing it.

AL: Thank you, for one. Thank you. That poem is a complicated poem, and I think one of the things where we talk about the clarity aspect versus the complexity aspect. I think, at least for me, if I'm doing what I set out to do, those things are always at play together. Because I don't think anything is weirder or a stranger or more mysterious then our actual reality. [laughs]

MS: Mm.

AL: So I don't need to obscure something for the sake of obfuscation, but actually telling you or trying to attempt to map the mind onto the page is as surreal as it can be.

MS: Mm.

AL: Only because of our own weirdness as human beings.

MS: Yeah.

AL: And the capacity of the mind to go from here to here to here to here to here so quickly. All those synapses. So yeah, I think that, almost, the attempt toward a truth or a clarity can actually be way stranger than attempting to maybe muddle something purposefully.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. And I think... I mean, I feel like so much of poetry... It's always hard to make any kind of sweeping generalized statements about an entire art form, but—

AL: Right. It's never right. Yeah.

MS: Yeah. But I do feel like a lot of poetry is very interested in communicating something about some aspect of the human experience, and sometimes the way that you get there is through things being difficult to understand, I guess. Like, if you have to puzzle it out then that experience does something, but there's something... I don't know, like another thing I was thinking about, especially because in your letter poems with Natalie Diaz that you or she referenced John Ashbery at one point.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And Ashbery is obviously somebody who is very known for being very obscure in his poems.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And not to say that I don't enjoy reading Ashbery poems because I do, and I admire them quite a bit, but in some ways I feel like the way Ashbery makes his poems so sort of difficult in some ways... I mean, I know he rejected that notion that his poems were difficult, but the way that his poems are put together really foregrounds that aspect of them, foregrounds that he's doing something specific with them. Whereas I feel like in some of your poems, especially the ones that are extremely narrative—like maybe "American Pharaoh" or "Dream of the Ravens"—like some of these poems you're just... It almost feels like all you're doing is describing a scene, right?

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: But it's a lot more than that, too. And I feel like what it is, is that you're taking the image, and that the image itself is what's... I'm not articulating this very well, but that there's something that by taking these images and showing them to us in a way that we can see them very easily, that it's doing the same kind of thing that another poet might do by hiding it, but by putting it out in completely plain sight. And to me that's almost more impressive, you know?

AL: Mm. Yeah, I think I know what you mean. For me, I think that it is a choice. And to ask someone to go, "Okay, I want you to see this and I want you to see exactly what I mean."

MS: Mm-hm.

AL: Right? And in that description, I'm hoping that we will have this intimate connection for this one moment, so that when I tell you this other thing, you believe me.

MS: Mm.

AL: And I think that's true, too, that I want a certain amount of trust so that you realize I'm not trying to manipulate you as the speaker.

MS: Mm.

AL: Nor am I trying to privilege my own pain or own experience, but that I'm trying to say "This is what happened. Can you see this? Are we there together?" And then once we're there together, we can talk further and go deeper.

MS: Mm. Yeah.

AL: But I think there is an inclusion in the idea of... And, again, this is talking to a reader, but at the same time many of these poems are written just for me, in the sense that I'm talking to myself, going, "Okay, can we be in this together? Can you see this, too? The other Ada that I'm calling back into being?"

MS: Yeah. It's interesting. You know, the drum that I'm always beating on this show is that art is the best way to connect two people.

AL: Mm.

MS: That we're all stuck in our heads, our own heads. We can never really see what's going on inside anyone else's experiences, and that art is the most direct way to actually communicate.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And there's something about what you're saying that... Like, I guess what that brings to mind to me is that this connection isn't just from the writer to the reader, that it can be from the writer to the writer, or the reader to the writer, or the reader to the reader. That there's something more going on there. I don't even know if that makes sense.

AL: Yeah. No, I think that that's very much what I'm saying, because I think that while I'm often writing for another person and I'm thinking of a you, there is also a time where I'm really writing for myself. [chime] Oh, I'm sorry, that's me.

MS: [laughs]

AL: But I feel like there's a level where... I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though oftentimes I'm considering a reader, there are times where it's more about what's going into the world, and it becomes an offering. And the offering isn't just for a reader, the offering is also for myself. It's creating a space where I can live, too, and can breathe and can remember something, or can recast a memory, or cultivate something. And I think that if I'm only doing it for someone else, it almost becomes a performance.

MS: Mm.

AL: And if I am also doing it for myself and creating for myself, then it becomes something that the work really matters to me because it's also something that I'm doing on a very real level, in order to either heal myself or give myself something I, that I need at that moment.

MS: Mm. Well, why don't we take a little break and then come back and do the second segment?

AL: Okay.

[Music]

Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Ada Limón: You know, so much is on my mind. I think that every time I get back from a place—I just got back from Rio, as we were talking about earlier—and that sort of sense of who we are as artists, on a global level and not just artists as a sort of U.S. collective. It really always strikes me. So, travel is always interesting to me, and I think it's an interesting thing to do as an artist because you end up thinking about other artists that have lived in that place. And with Rio, of course, it was hard not to think about the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose book Geography III really meant and means a great deal to me. We didn't get to see the house that she lived in with Lota, but we did talk about her a lot and just seeing things that I knew she had seen and experienced. It was sort of a fascinating thing to do. And also rereading some of her work and seeing it from a different perspective, having loved her but also struggling with some of the maybe problematic othering that she does in her work as she's looking at, you know, the locals of Rio.

MS: Mm.

AL: The locals of Brazil.

MS: Mm. It's sort of an interesting thing. This sort of bears a little bit on what we were talking about before about the context of the work and autobiography.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: I feel like in understanding any work, there's always a lot of different contexts. And maybe the autobiographical part is just one part of it. But I feel like there's a way in which understanding what a person was—what was going on around the person, whether it's the specific location that they were in when they were making the art, or whether it was what the global situation was when they were making the art, is definitely something that provides a lot of information about how to understand the work, I guess. Do you find that visiting these places... Like, I'm always really interested in this idea of pilgrimage, too, you know?

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Of visiting these sort of holy spots, I guess. And whether that's religious or artistic or whatever, what does that bring to us as a reader or audience member? It's something I'm never completely sure I have a handle on, you know, but it's an interesting thing to ponder.

AL: Yeah. Two years ago I was in Santiago, Chile and got the opportunity to see all three of Neruda's homes that are in Chile.

MS: Mm.

AL: And see his grave, and Isla Negra, and his house in Valparaíso, and his house La Chascona in Santiago. And I was so fascinated. Any historical figure we can take issue with, speaking of Bishop's problematic othering. And then you also have Neruda, someone who is also another complicated, complex figure that we praise quite a lot, but also he can be troubling. But I feel like going to his places, one of the things that I loved was that I got to see all of his crazy obsessions and how sort of really insane he was, like in terms of hoarding and the items he was collecting. You know, there's a whole—in his house in Isla Negra there's an entire room that they had to build onto the structure of the house that is for his shell collection.

MS: Hm.

AL: But it's not just shells. He also has a collection of beetles. The incredible—but walls and walls of them. You know, we're not just talking like, "Oh, like he's got one little thing of butterflies." And then it's like, you know, little wooden toy cars or... I mean, it's just the idea of collecting things. And then when you read his work you think, "Oh, right, there is an obsession with objects."

MS: Mm.

AL: And you think about Ode to Common Things, and suddenly that becomes very clear. And so, like we were talking about earlier, about conflating the autobiographical information with the artwork and how limiting and dangerous it can be sometimes, especially because it kind of gives us only one reading of something. But there is a deepening connection that you feel sometimes with the artists when you visit their homes or their graves, or the places where they maybe looked out at sea. And [you] think, "Oh, okay, I get it. I get something. I get something about his view, what he was seeing." I thought about that, looking out at the ocean at Isla Negra. Looking at the ocean in Rio, and thinking what Bishop's sight lines were.

MS: Mm.

AL: And it is fascinating. It does feel like it connects you to other writers. And I think there's something about visiting homes that is interesting because I think in our—especially in the U.S.—that most of the homes that we visit are of political Founding Fathers or... They tend to be huge mansions of men who had slaves, and there's an intense history there. And so to have a chance to visit poets' homes feels different and something maybe that we don't do as much here.

MS: Yeah. I remember... There's another podcaster and artist and writer who I talked with a long time ago, and I remember on his show—his name is Jeffrey Saddoris—and I remember on his show, On Taking Pictures, many years ago, he was talking about this experience he had visiting Jackson Pollock's home.

AL: Mm.

MS: And there was this sense of... What he would talk about when he would talk about that was this sense of just being in the same space where these things had happened. You know, where the same energy that went into the work, where that played out.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And I always found that sort of, on the one hand, kind of wonderful and magical, but also kind of, I don't know... There's something about this idea of holy spaces like that, that I find very attractive. But then there's this part of my mind that always also kind of thinks, "Well, but I don't know what happened just on that piece of sidewalk over there before. What feet have touched that piece of regular old sidewalk. Whose story played out right there in that place, or in that house that I've never seen that's just two doors down from me. What played out there?" That I kind of feel like even while I'm attracted to these spaces where art happened or where something momentous happened, that I almost feel like the idea of those things being special sort of pulls me away from paying attention to something else that might be just as amazing, but I just don't know about it. I don't know if that makes sense.

AL: I love that. I love that, because I think there is something to be said... It was interesting because that goes back to visiting Neruda's homes. I was with a friend of mine, Gisele Firmino, who is a fabulous writer from Brazil, and we were talking about the issues with Neruda. I think we were both sort of discussing on the same level. Now, I love Neruda's poems. And I think she, as a woman from South America, pushes against him on so many levels. The hubris of him, the largeness of him, the idea that, he's for the working class, but at the same time was quite wealthy. He had three homes, was very well protected. And, you know, having that discussion with someone, I think, is very freeing, because I do think there's a level where every time we celebrate anyone, there's a level of, "But why are we celebrating this person? What are the other stories?" Right? And that's the nice thing about being a writer, is that you hope your story will last and that you've controlled the narrative a little bit so that they can go on once you're not there anymore. But I think that the fact that it does make you think about what you're missing is good, too. You know, that it's like, "Well, what's beyond that? What are the untold stories?"

MS: Yeah. I wonder too, you know, the thing that you were saying about seeing this evidence of how his mind was sort of unusual.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: And, you know, you were already talking about how you already know how he was problematic in ways.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: There's this sort of sense that I kind of feel sometimes where.... I mean, people talk about not meeting your heroes—not to say that Neruda is necessarily one of your heroes or mine—but just that if you don't meet the person or something, that the work can kind of... Maybe you're a little more free for the work to mean what you want it to mean. Does that make any sense?

AL: Yeah, I do think that can be true. And I think sometimes—to go back to what we were talking about earlier, the idea of the art being separate from the person can allow us sometimes to really enjoy that art on so many other levels. And own it, right? That it becomes more of ours then it becomes of theirs. And I think there can be a real gift to that.

MS: Yeah. Although I guess that reminds me, too, that separating art and artist is a question that a lot of us have been talking about a lot the last—especially the last maybe two, three years.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: What the consequences are of... What are the consequences socially of saying, "Well we can absolutely separate those things"? That the work is completely it's own thing. And I feel like that's an idea that a lot of us are sort of rejecting, at least on some level, to some degree, you know?

AL: Mm-hm. Yeah, I mean, I think that that's... I mean, that's been going on forever. I think when we try to separate it out, there's an enjoyment that can take place. A pleasure that you can just sort of own the work, yourself. And then, you know, as you dig deeper into Miles Davis's life, Kind of Blue sounds differently.

MS: Yeah.

AL: But I think that's always happened. And I find it very fascinating and also frustrating, because I think there are some people that would rather be, above all and anything, would rather be good artists and good creators. And I think it's more important to be a good person.

MS: Mm.

AL: I want to create things. I want to write. It's all I ever want to do, is write and read. Occasionally nap. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

AL: But really I want to be a good person. I want to be a person that does right by other people. And if that means sometimes maybe not writing something that might hurt someone, I'm okay with that. And, you know, there are people who will probably take great issue with that and would say that the work and the art should always come first. But in my mind, it can't.

MS: Yeah. That's something that comes up a lot... Primarily I'm a photographer, creatively. That's definitely something that comes up a lot with photography. Particularly in photojournalism, but even with fine art, it comes up a lot, because the relationship between the art and the artist and the subject is always... It can't not be fraught to some degree. And there's always this idea of—Sontag talked about this a lot in her book, about how there's this idea of the photographer taking things, of taking a photograph.

AL: Right.

MS: And I feel like to some degree I see those conversations playing out in literature as well, and in other art forms. But I think maybe that complexity can be overlooked a little bit more when there's more of a... When the relationship between the work and the subject and the artist isn't quite so explicit and in your face, I think maybe some people have an easier time looking past that. I don't know.

AL: I think I agree. Everything comes back to nuance and intent and all of those things. But I think there is something to be said for... You know, for me, I'm glad that that conversation exists, because I think it makes us more accountable for what we create and I think we should be accountable for what we create.

MS: Yeah. It does sort of go back to the thing that we were talking about before, about art being something that does something, and what does the art do, what does this poem do? I mean, even just recently, there's been a lot of talk about a particular poem that—I don't know if I necessarily want to get into the specifics of the particular poem—that was published in a big outlet recently and a lot of people were talking about what it does and why it wasn't great. And then, of course, a bunch of other people come in and start defending the idea, like, "Oh, well, you know, we should feel free to make whatever kind of art that we want." But then that sort of misses the point that, well, yeah, you can make whatever you want, but you also have to deal with the consequences of the thing that you made.

AL: Mm-hm.

MS: Yeah.

AL: Yeah. I mean, I think that even on a personal level, if you are writing a personal poem about an ex-lover, or about a father figure, or someone in your immediate realm, and you're not ready to have the conversation that that poem puts forward, then I would be very leery of publishing that, too. Unless you're ready to have that conversation. Because that is a way of communicating. It's a way of opening that door.

MS: Mm.

AL: And so I do think there's a level where if you're going to put something out in the world, then you have to know that your voice is not the loudest one, and it's not the only one. That people get to talk back.

MS: Yeah.

AL: And that that conversation is part of creating.

MS: Yeah. Yeah.

AL: That's that part of being accountable that I think is important.

MS: Yeah. And there's also that thing, too, about... Something that a lot of people talk about is telling your own story, right?

AL: Yep.

MS: But then there has to also be this recognition that nobody's story is entirely their own. That everybody's story is part of somebody else's story, too. And what we do with that story when we feel like it's our own. Because it's touching somebody else, it affects them, too. That's... It's tricky.

AL: It's very tricky. And I think there's a lot of, even on a broader sense, when people... I think when poems fail, oftentimes they're saying, "I'm the only person this has ever happened to."

MS: Mm.

AL: And once you realize that you're not, [laughs] your poems get deeper. And I would say better, because you're no longer the only person that's been in a hospital room, right? Or suffered a home death with a parent, or... Once you can see that a little bit more, and see that your story actually—even beyond your immediate group or family or community. But beyond that, even, to a larger sense that we're all born and we all die. That no story is our own. That we're all on some levels accountable to one another because we're in this together.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. That is beautiful. So there's one last question that I like to end on, and that is if there has been a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

AL: Oh, so many things.

MS: [laughs]

AL: Literally, I feel like a huge collage of images just came across my brain. [laughs] I think that one of the images that keeps sticking with me lately is the idea of—I was talking to one of my students about this because she wrote a poem about it—the ex-voto. Which is a painting that often is to a saint—but sometimes not—about a bad thing that has happened. Let's say if you lose a leg but you survive, you would make this painting, [an] offering to the saints that saved you. You would make the painting of the bad thing. But also saying, "Look what I survived." And I think that I keep thinking of Frida Kahlo's. The ones that she did that are of all the suffering that she went through. And I can't help but think of those as poems, too.

MS: Mm.

AL: And so lately I've just been connecting that idea of ex-voto to poems. And those keep sticking in my mind. So I've been looking at images of them, from not just artists but from—because regular family members can make them, or people like you and I can just go ahead and draw them and put them up, and they're a way of sort of honoring the thing you have overcome and being thankful for it. And I guess that's been sort of the images that have been sticking with me lately.

MS: Mm. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

AL: Thank you. It was such a pleasure.

[Music]

Outro

OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Ada has some events coming up in New York, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, and more, so check out her calendar page and find one near you, there’s a link in the show notes for that. And do pick up a copy of her books, there are also links in the show notes for that.

Now for the giveaway. As I mentioned before, I have a copy of Ada’s new book The Carrying that I’m giving away to one lucky listener. All you have to do if you want to enter is go to keepthechannelopen.com/carrying and sign up to receive our biweekly newsletter, and you’re in. Subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign also get an extra entry into the drawing, so if you’d like to increase your odds, you can do that as well. I’ll be doing the drawing and announcing the winner one week from today, September 5, 2018, at 1:00 PM Pacific Time, so be sure to follow the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod and watch for the announcement.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow me and the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to podcast@keepthechannelopen.com. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on September 12th with a conversation with poet Franny Choi, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 72: Natalie Eilbert

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Pre-Roll

Mike Sakasegawa: Hey folks, real quick, I wanted to mention a brief note about the show’s Patreon campaign. As you probably know, this is a completely independent show, I do all of the show’s editing, booking, and so on. Up to this point, subscribers to the KTCO Patreon have gotten early access to each episode, plus extra entries into any giveaways I do. Well now I’m going to start offering some subscriber-only bonus content. This week, I have a special bonus recording in which Natalie Eilbert reads a new poem of hers, “It’s a Girl.” If you can spare just $1 per month, that’ll get you access to that reading, plus all the other subscriber perks, plus my undying gratitude. OK, on with the show.


Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 72. Today’s guest is Natalie Eilbert.

Hey there, folks. Today’s show features a conversation with poet Natalie Eilbert. Natalie is the author of the poetry collection, Swan Feast. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. Natalie’s most recent collection, Indictus, was the winner of the 2016 Noemi Press Prize and was published in January of this year.

I read Indictus about a month after it came out, which would be… six months ago now? And I’ve been thinking about it more or less ever since. This book, it takes an act—or rather several acts—of sexual violence and makes of them something that embodies that trauma in a way that I’ve never been able to fully articulate. It’s intense, and immediate, and just breathtaking. In the Chicago Review of Books, Peter Myers wrote “Here and throughout Indictus, Eilbert’s speaker swings between supreme agency over a wholly malleable world and mere object, hole, passive receiver. These opposing modes strain against each other and threaten to fly apart. But the rhythmic drive and unrelenting sense of urgency that undergird Eilbert’s poems holds them together, just as centripetal force holds bodies to the walls of a Gravitron—one is afraid to stop reading at the risk of flying off into space.” And the poet Morgan Parker said “I will not say that Indictus is brave, or necessary, or fierce, or any number of coded adjectives used to describe work by women; words used violently: to dismiss, hush, step over. I will not laud Eilbert for her trauma, her deft vulnerability. Instead, I have removed all of the Homer from my bookshelves, and Dante, and Milton and Holden Caulfield, too. I trashed them all. In their place, Natalie Eilbert’s epic Indictus, the only journey of tribulation and discovery that I regard as true heroism.” And, speaking for myself, I have to say: this book was an experience.

Now, if you’d like to get a copy of Indictus for yourself, I’ve put some links in the show notes to where you can buy it. I’ve also put in a link to Natalie’s Patreon campaign, where you can directly support her poetry. And then, coming up in October, Natalie is going to be participating in the Wisconsin Book Festival, the event will be at 4:30 PM on Saturday, October 14th at the bookstore A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve put links to the festival and to the bookstore in the show notes, so do keep an eye out for more details.

Now before we get started, I do just want to give a brief content warning. The conversation begins with a reading of one of the poems from Indictus, which includes sexual violence and then the rest of the conversation does make many more general references to different types of trauma. The reading itself is about 6 minutes long, in case you need to skip ahead.

OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Natalie Eilbert.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So, before we even say anything else, I just wanted to say thank you for this book. It was really amazing and I really... I'm not sure I really have the language to express how much this book affected me—

Natalie Eilbert: Mm, thank you.

MS: —but it was really a meaningful experience to me reading this book and I was wondering if we could start with a poem?

NE: Absolutely. Yes. So thank you so much for saying that Mike. It's been quite a journey. So yeah, I will begin on a doozy. And with that in mind, there is a content warning for listeners: it involves sexual assaults and violence. So I figure if you need to put this on mute for about two minutes, that's fine. But otherwise, here we go. And it'll be pretty obvious as soon as we begin. Okay.

The Rapist Joins AA.

Received an email, formally written.
Was sorry for that night all those years ago. Signed sincerely.

Deleted the email. Went to my Trash. Deleted it there too.
Looked to my History. Deleted my History.

Focused back on those kitchen lights. Beaming grease. On the man.

Was the only night I ever drove drunk. The dark was not God’s back turned away.

Drove slowly, imagined my car reeling home on a thick yellow string.
The machine I now carry also imagined this thick yellow string.

Parked delicately in a diner parking lot. Was worried an idle car
on a shoulder might spark interest. Was a very smart girl.

Walked to the back of the diner. Practiced a quiet retch to alert no one
of any trouble.

Let the poisons spill out of me with grace.
When no new liquids came, knew I was empty. Black hollows there

like a wet dead possum in snow.

Deleted the liquid. Deleted the snow.

Did not wait a moment longer before pulling myself back to the car.

Must have been I was a very dumb girl. There was an exit could have tried harder
to find. Friends all in the next room. Could have screamed.

When he pulled away had said sorry quite sincerely. Left him crying there, my name in his mouth.

My curse to him was that I did not speak.

Silence is a hold that sucked hard to take him. Sucked so hard
his skin ripped from the bones in his face. Sucked so hard
all his great big dogs died of cancer. Sucked so hard
they pulled the overdose out of his stomach, stuffed

charcoal down his throat instead until he couldn’t stop himself
from shitting on the doctor’s table.

Sucked so hard his love for a woman became the charcoal inside him

that forced him to uncontrollably purge in public

until his love for a woman became hate for a woman.

Sucked so hard he never even had a father. His mother a cat sick with worms
they had to put down.

Sucked so hard his back gave out, his herniated disks a little Greek choir.

That pain will only ever occur to him.

That the dumb little smart girl will find him there for years after watching him crawl.

Never spoke to anyone about this letter, the amends that must have been hiding

between his naked unwieldy body and the open kitchen door.

When the road was a line letting me follow it home.

Of course it rained.

Turned the familiar left onto my street. Parked the car in that night.
The dark was not where a deer concludes.

The dark did not instruct
on how to remove the bruises from my dumb little smart girl breasts.

Deleted the breasts. Deleted the night.

And so arrived home safely.

MS: [exhales] Wow, um... I think I may need a second.

NE: Yeah, me too.

MS: Wow. Um, so, I remember right after I finished reading this book, I tweeted something like that this book had kind of fucked me up only not "kind of." [laughs]

NE: Yeah. Yeah. "Not kind of." Yeah. Me too.

MS: Yeah, I bet. Right before the show you had mentioned that you never really read this poem in front of people and I was just wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

NE: Yeah. It's interesting about this poem, obviously it... I would say of all the poems in the book, it's the barest in terms of assaults. I actually am very specific about not saying or mentioning the word "rape" really anywhere in the book. I did not want that to be the word used. I wanted to create the ghost of the trauma. I wanted to give a sense that the trauma was more stereoscopic, everywhere around me at all times rather than this specific word that pinpoints such a certain violence.

MS: Mm.

NE: Because for me, of course, sexual assault and rape, that of course is the utmost peak of violence. But for me the real violence happened in the nonviolence of after. So the idea that this poem exists and represents some portion of the book, it's important and powerful for me that this book is present. But when I'm in a room with people, I don't know those people and it's not to say I don't appreciate their presence in the room, but I don't know who they are and I don't know if it's safe.

NE: So there is this worry that I need to keep this poem particularly secretive, in the same way that I kept the specific narrative of my trauma secretive.

MS: Mm.

NE: Yeah, so I don't really read it that often in public. The few times I have, I kind of read the room and it felt right. It also had depended on with whom I was reading, and I think that that definitely changed the course of how I configured my space. So if I was reading in a room where all the other readers were interested in—and not just interested but obsessed with a story that reclaims a narrative, that's a time in which I would want this poem read. But again, it's not as much about my fellow readers as much as it is about just who exactly is in that room.

MS: Mm.

NE: The first time I ever debuted this poem was a very strange evening. It was actually for the Couplet Reading Series that Leah Umansky does and—I think she was just on the podcast—

MS: Yeah, she was. [laughs]

NE: Yeah. But so, I debuted it there and a number of factors went into my choice, the first being that I wanted to and I felt a real compelling urge to do so. I was reading alongside poets like Cate Marvin and Deborah Landau and I was feeling quite vulnerable and also aligned with the female energy in that room.

MS: Mm.

NE: So I thought it will be a great idea to read it. So to really psych myself out to the possibility, I only printed out three poems and this was one of them.

MS: Mm.

NE: But then I got to the reading itself and none of my friends had made it. They couldn't—and it's no one's fault, but nobody I knew was there and it was horrifying. I had no friends whatsoever in that room. I had no—none of my family, you know. So... And then eventually someone did show up, one friend did show up and I barnacled onto him, like if I didn't I would float away into the ocean forever.

MS: [laughs]

NE: So I read it and it was received pretty well. I needed to go outside and cry afterwards for a long time.

MS: Mm.

NE: But I remember whoever read after me—and it wasn't Cate or Deborah—they were like, "Well, I guess we're going to have to start on a happier note."

MS: Eesh.

NE: And I felt really, that was so condescending to me.

MS: Jesus.

NE: Like, "Oh really? I didn't realize that we were here to entertain you." So. [laughs] Anyway, so then I decided I wouldn't read from it anymore unless I felt really comfortable with the people surrounding me. So yes, that's a very long explanation for the history of reading this poem out loud.

MS: Mm. My god, that's... [laughs] Wow, I don't even know what to say about that.

NE: Yeah.

MS: There's something about what you were just saying about reclaiming a narrative—

NE: Yeah.

MS: —that, you know, in thinking about this poem and what it does and what the narrative in the poem itself is.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: You know, the title "The Rapist Joins AA."

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And, you know, obviously—and you make reference to making amends in that.

NE: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

MS: I think something that maybe a lot of people who haven't experienced trauma don't necessarily realize how the act of—even something like that, in the abuser's mind, trying to make amends—how that in itself can also be an act of violence.

NE: Mm.

MS: And of trying to take that narrative back for themselves and—

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: —and turn it into some sort of redemption for themselves. How that is also an act of violence.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And this poem really steadfastly refusing to allow that reclamation, it's potent stuff.

NE: Thank you. Yeah, I like what you're saying there, and I think that there's such a sine curve to trauma. Like it just always feels like it's almost done and that it isn't. So I think there is something to the idea. I play a lot with gestures of forgiveness. I take it back. I give it. I know that to forgive is not exactly what I'm after, but I'm meditating on the idea of forgiveness. I don't forgive and that's something that I'm using a lot in these poems. I can look at a situation that happened a long time ago and I can see that the other person was a human being. I can see that. I can see that maybe someone was a reckless drunk. You know, I just finished reading The Recovering by Leslie Jamison and it's an amazing, amazing book. I sort of, in those rare moments—really, it's a book that as soon as I finished, I wanted to start again from the beginning, even though it's like this 450-page-long book. But there is something—you know, at some point in Raymond Carver's past, with his first wife, he at a party hit her over the head with a wine bottle and almost killed her with—he broke an artery and... And she stayed with him and they continued to love each other. I understand what being desperately reckless means and I know that we are capable of mistakes as much as we are capable of forgiveness. This poem is not concerned with giving that forgiveness, because—you know, most of the word "forgive" is "to give," right? And so I did not give it. Instead, I wanted the forgiveness to look a lot like pain, and I wanted the forgiveness to be a wish for and toward utter, abject despair for this person. You know, in a kind of penance quality. Because I think there is something really impressive and beautiful about the idea of making amends. I think that we all should with the people who we have hurt. But I don't know if amends is the way to go when you have physically violated someone like this. I think it needs... I think that the person that does that violence needs to never, ever, ever be in touch with the victim. They need to go far away and serve their time. You know, they didn't go to jail for it, but they have to leave me alone. And... So that's, I guess, some of what this poem is doing. Another thing that I was interested in this poem, that has to do with forgiveness and has to do with a reframing of agency is—I don't know if you noticed, but I removed a lot of the more active pronouns from the poem. A lot of—and when I say active pronouns, I mean the subject to most of the verbs. At the beginning of sentences, it has been stripped of an "I." And I did that because I didn't feel I had an "I". I had a "my" and I had the object of myself which I had to carry with me, but I didn't necessarily have an "I" to begin with. So I was trying to create a sense of my trauma and my body as a reversal. And the idea that forgiveness is also a reversal of the incident. You know, it's like being made to forgive, being made to... Being put into that position of emotional labor is an attempt at reversing an irreversible experience. And I resisted that very much in the writing of this. And, you know, in the actual events of what inspired this poem.

MS: Mm. It's such a... You know, I don't mean to compare my experiences with your experiences.

NE: Please, yeah.

MS: But I think, just knowing what my own traumas in my life have been, and that, you know, there are ways in which the abuses that I received when I was young have sort of echoed through the entire rest of my life.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And are never actually going to go away. That, like you said, that these are irreversible things.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And the idea of forgiveness in that context—and of, what does it even mean to make amends for something that can't be changed? You know, that it did happen and it's going to be with you for the rest of your life. For me, I've tried to come to a point where I can have a certain amount of empathy for the people who traumatized me when I was young.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: I can understand what they must have been going through to feel like the only thing that they could do to feel some sense of power or control in their lives was to abuse someone less powerful than them.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: But to be able to feel that empathy isn't the same thing as saying, "I forgive you. It's okay that you did that." You know?

NE: Yes, absolutely. You can... I have my problems with the word "empathy," but I think that often survivors and victims of abuse and violence, whether that's sexual or racially inspired them or anything gendered, any kind of violence inflicted upon us, the onus tends to be the victim to, in a way, empathize with what happened, to say or to understand how that situation was so nuanced. Right? And so it's a lot of acrobatics for the person who has already gone through irrevocable harm. Whereas, you know, this word—while you were talking, I was thinking more about the word "amend" and I started to think about, in the same way that "forgiveness" is "to give," "amending" is literally mending something. But not mending it toward... How do I put this? Not mending it toward anything but creating a barrier. You know, there's this almost sense that you're mending—you know, I'm thinking of Robert Frost, "The Mending Wall," where he's talking about in that poem that good fences make good neighbors and this idea that you can barricade yourself with a mending wall is not the same as understanding what you've done. It's a way to completely isolate what happened from who you are, when I think the thing that needs to happen is the opposite: a total immersion into that violent person. And I think that a lot of people have issues admitting and owning their mistakes and that's, you know, completely quotidian, lower-stakes issues to the highest crime.

MS: Mm.

NE: I don't think we are as a society trained to have any grace with our mistakes and it leads to worse mistakes. We go into the snowballing of fumbles and the idea that when we make a mistake, our immediate go-to is to ask forgiveness from the other person. It doesn't make that a learning experience at all. It renders it done, it seals it up. It says, "I did this, and I did this to you. Please, I need your forgiveness." But it doesn't correct it. It's not curative in the gesture of repair, right? Like you're not... You don't become a better person when you ask for amends. You're just getting permission to move on. And I don't think that's the point. I think that one should dwell and sit with that mistake and really see where they end up with it because, as you were talking about, there's a limit to what the victim or survivor can do because we're reeling constantly from the trauma, which is never over. It just permeates differently at different points in our life. Um, yeah. So that's what I'll say about that. It's like 11:30 in the morning and I'm like, "All right, I'm ready to talk about these very, very heavy things." I love... Anyway.

MS: [laughs] Yeah, it's only 9:30 in the morning here and uh...

NE: Oh, boy. It's better than a cup of coffee, right?

MS: Yeah. And I'm already crying a little bit. So. [laughs]

NE: Yep. Yeah, same. [laughs]

MS: One of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading your book was... This might kind of sound like a sort of simple or obvious question—and I hope it's not—but one of the things that I was thinking about was: why poetry? Only in so far as—what I was thinking about was, you know, over the past year or so I've read a lot of short stories, for example, that deal with different types of trauma and I've read a lot of essays that deal with different types of trauma, whether they be sexual violence or racial violence or any number of other things. Right? But it seems to me that even though I've gotten something powerful out of many of those other things that what I got out of reading these poems with something very different and so the choice to make poems about these instead of some other form of writing or art seemed like something that I wanted to explore a little bit, you know?

NE: Hm. Mm-hm. Yeah. That's so interesting that you asked "Why poetry?" And especially in thinking about the ways that we keep or transmit or transfer pain, very, very deep pain. I think, you know, I don't mean to be the ass who quotes herself, but—

MS: [laughs]

NE: —it reminds me of something I said once. Oh God, it's gross. Okay.

MS: [laughs]

NE: But I had a poem a few years ago in The New Yorker—I already feel like an asshole. Okay. I had a poem a few years ago in The New Yorker called "The Limits of What We Can Do." And I think my favorite line in it is, "I like poetry because there are no miracles in it."

MS: Mm.

NE: And I'm not often one to say "my favorite line of mine," but it is a line that after I wrote it, I thought, "Oh wait, I actually believe that." Which isn't to say that I don't believe the things I write in poems, but sometimes you just surprise yourself with how genuine and sincere a truth can really be. But what I do like about poetry is it doesn't come.... It comes to the rescue in a very idiosyncratic way. Again, it's not corrective or curative, but it simply lets you navigate something. And after it's written, there's still the entire periphery of what you didn't say, which is part of what my book's title has about it. Indictus is a Latin root that means essentially "to speak the unsaid," and the unsaid is also poetry. That silence, that blankness on the page is a dialogue with the actual words. They're in a constant dance, I think, the words and the blank. And that's something that very few other genres can say for themselves. I mean, I think that plays can, to a point. I think that some flash fiction can, for sure. And I think there's a lot of links actually between poetry and short fiction with that in mind, right? You're sort of being dumped in the middle of something when the poem begins. It's so interesting because I've been in revising mode and I've been working on this poem about heartbreak and I spent so much of the first six lines of it talking about the moon and—you know, poets can't not talk about the moon even when we don't want to. There it is, we're just suckers for it. But I realized yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that the poem actually begins with this pretty raunchy sex scene. It's not raunchy, but it's raunchy for me.

MS: Mm.

NE: I'm like, "Oh my God. My goodness." I'm beginning a poem about enthusiastic consent and there's something like, "Oh wow, that's empowering." But I realized that the poems behave their best when they are unruly and poems are their best when they don't offer more explanation than they need to. And part of the specific explanation that a poem permits has as much to do with the failure to explain. And I think that poetry is as much about failure as it is about, say, success or coming to the right word.

MS: Hm.

NE: There's Dickinson—Emily Dickinson says, "success is counted sweetest by those who never succeed." And there is something really beautiful about the idea that a poem will never succeed. The poem will have a miracle. There will never be an intervening light within the poem that guides in the right direction. I mean, maybe for Keats that was true, but I don't think that a lot of contemporary poets are interested in that guiding light. I think they're interested in the darkness that has put us where we are. The darkness of this century is the darkness of last century. And to say that a poem is—you know, again, thinking of Keats—about the truth and beauty is actually the biggest deception, right? It's a deception to say that a poem is about truth and beauty. The poem is the lie of that. And I think that a lot of contemporary poets are not interested in lying anymore about the ease of truth and beauty, or even the complexity of truth and beauty. I think we're really into the... Not lies and ugly, but kind of. I think we're interested in navigating a world in which the landscape is riddled with our messiness, our mistakes, our lies, our... The things that we have inherited as individuals and as a collective. So because of that, I think that the poem is right for me. I think that the poem is something that is disciplined in very specific structural ways. And because of that, we can mess it up. We can take those fine edges and make them more rough-hewn or even all over the page, scattered. But I don't think anymore we can pretend that poetry is about something bursting from our bosom into the pasture. We can't burst from our bosom into the pasture when we have children locked in cages, and have always had people locked in cages, and have always committed unspeakable horrors to other people. It's a lie to pretend it's beautiful. So I think the poem is very good at showing these small threads and key holes into that ugliness and into the grimness of, yes, truth telling, but also synthesis.

MS: Well, I actually thought of like 10 different things I wanted to say about that—

NE: Yeah, I'm sorry, I'm long-winded.

MS: No, no, no, it's great. I do think that we need to move to the second segment. So why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do that.

NE: Great.

[Music]


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always ask the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Natalie Eilbert: So yeah, I've been in a bit of an interesting place with the Internet, where I've needed the Internet for so long, I've relied on the Internet for so long for community, for catharsis, for a support system and a sort of online family.

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: And I've been finding, though, despite this beautiful world that is open to me, that I don't like what it's been doing to my brain.

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

NE: You know, like I forget that I have a body. And that's actually part of what makes the desire for the Internet so compelling is that I don't always want to exist in my body. Which is great. Like I think that nobody—I think we should just go toward cyborgs. I think that's great. Like, we can be mostly not in our bodies because bodies make for the most trouble.

MS: Mm.

NE: But I have been in a mindset lately where, because I've been feeling pretty reckless in my brain and I'm like, "Well, I need to actually feel this," instead of the almost horse-tranquilizer-like effect of social media where I can just feel very much removed from myself and my thoughts and ideas and just sort of slide down an endless feed. I've just been thinking a lot about that, especially with regard to my book.

MS: Mm.

NE: Because when it came out, obviously I was doing all I could to promote it. I was hungry for praise, quite honestly. And not just praise but any sort of shout-outs. It's such a strange idea that we write a book and then are expected to just let it die.

MS: Mm.

NE: And I've been worried about that because it's a book that's been so important to me. So I wanted to make sure it lived. I wanted it to live, which meant that I would find myself googling Indictus a lot [laughs] and I'd be—you know, anytime I got some sort of mention or retweet or tag, it was such a dopamine rush. And of course I was also—you know, occasionally I would have an amazing writer write an amazing review. I did have one incident where I had a really bad review, but—

MS: I remember that. That was, ugh.

NE: Yeah, it was very bad. I'm happy to talk about that. And that actually is part of some of me stepping away, or at least it started to inspire it. And maybe I'll get to that in a second. But the real crux of it was that I... It was so easy to ignore my own personal mess and crave these somewhat... You know, either they were really beautiful and earnest tags or they... You know, it was just like "Whatever." I don't know what I was even tagged in. But so I just found myself getting really exhausted by the sort of mental gymnastics I had to do to go between my internet persona and my actual one. Which, I don't even know what that means to have an actual persona anymore. So I was thinking like, "God, I need to actually notice my world because I feel like I'm just recycling the same information." And so I just needed a break. But I think that a lot of that had to do with the paradox of visibility, too. The paradox of having a book that's so invested in trauma and so invested in telling it. I was kind of losing my mind because I couldn't control the readership of that. And I think that started to do something really weird to my brain. That constant need for both control and validation that I'm always after in my life, but was made more so in the last few months with the book's release.

MS: One of the things that I think about with social media, even something as inconsequential as the kinds of things that I usually do on social media, when it gets attention or—you know, recently I had a thing kind of unexpectedly blow up, and that's been sort of a wild ride. But one of the things that that has sort of highlighted for me is, the things that you're saying really resonate with me about wanting both control and validation and it being such a weird rush. Another thing that I think about a lot is how when you put something out there—and maybe it's always been this way, but social media definitely seems to sharpen it—that people put a lot of expectation on you.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: The audience starts... Even sometimes when they're saying something nice, it still feels like they're asking you for something. Do you know what I mean?

NE: Yeah. Mm-hm. Yes. I definitely feel that. It's so interesting to me because it almost feels like dating. Like the sense... It's not even dating. I don't even know why I said that. It's more just like if you're at, say, a bar with a friend and they buy the first round, and you have to buy the next round. It's expected that once someone shouts out something you did on the Internet that you have to then do that back. Or there's an expectation of Follow Back Friday and... I don't know, it's weird, these expectations of generosity that are built into the Internet, especially with social media, especially with Twitter. And I think it's beautiful. I actually think it's quite beautiful. Sometimes I find if I don't follow through with somebody, like if somebody shouts me out or if somebody reads me and I don't reciprocate, I carry a guilt about it.

MS: Yeah.

NE: And I'm like, "I don't even know this person" and I feel terrible that I haven't been more proactive about responding in the minutes or hours since they tweeted at me or something.

MS: Yeah.

NE: And I already have enough guilt. I carry a lot, a lot, a lot of guilt. I am, after all, a New York Jew.

MS: [laughs]

NE: That's kind of like what you do when you're a New York Jew, is that you come out out of your mother and feel bad about it.

MS: [laughs]

NE: You just, you know, it's a horrible thing that you just did to her. So—and that's real, I feel bad about that. Sorry, Mom.

MS: [laughs] Oh my God.

NE: But I don't need... I don't know, it just makes me feel crazy after a while to feel conflicted about leaving my phone home, or not looking at my phone. It's almost like when I finally lift my phone back up, I have to spend an hour checking to make sure that everything is in its place and everyone has been responded to, lest I be a person who is ungrateful or something for that attention. I don't know. I don't know.

MS: Yeah. No, I'm 100 percent with you right now.

NE: Yeah. Yeah. Okay, great. Great.

MS: One of the things this kind of reminds me of is I was talking—this was a while ago now—with a mutual friend of ours, Brandon Taylor.

NE: Aww.

MS: And he was talking about—I think this even might've been on the show—he was talking about how... That social media is this thing where there's this way in which people almost sort of expect or feel entitled to a certain... When it's a marginalized writer they feel entitled to this sort of performance of our traumas in some way.

NE: Mm. Mm-hm.

MS: And I can't remember exactly what he said, but it was like, "You won't share this, but you'll share a harrowing personal essay."

NE: Yeah. Oh, we've had this conversation for sure. Yeah.

MS: Yeah. It's like even when people are sharing it in a really genuine and sincere way, that it's like, "Yes, this is resonant and meaningful to me," that it's still... I don't know, there's something that feels kind of strange about it in some ways. Like, this was something that I was thinking about a lot as I was reading your book, about how this book is so... I mean, it's heavy, but I feel like to an audience member, there's something about the way that, as an artist, you can make a piece of work that embodies certain aspects of traumas that you've experienced, and that that might be able to help, in a very real way, an audience member's healing process, if they have gone through a similar trauma.

NE: Mm-hm.

MS: And that's a powerful thing. But also that people in the audience—not everybody, but some people, and sometimes many people—can feel a sense of entitlement towards that, and can express that, especially on social media, which makes a really strange dynamic. Do you know what I mean?

NE: Mm-hm. I do. Which is kind of... It goes back to what I was saying earlier about wanting to omit the word "rape" from my book almost entirely, because for me... This book is of course for all readers, but it is specifically for people who have been and are inside the harsh winds of that trauma, right? That they're in that tundra, right? Who are just pushing ahead despite. And I think there is a need, maybe, on the part of others to get the narrative and to figure out, "Well, what happened exactly? What was that? Who did what?" So there's a need for information, which a poem is not. A poem is not information. But it also is, it's just not the information that necessarily goes into prose writing.

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: But I think there is a desire on the part of others sometimes to want more and more and more of the trauma. So it kind of feels vampirical in some ways. I think a lot of times, you know, in the wake of this book coming out, people have said such unknowingly damning statements, like "This is a very timely book, because of the Me Too movement," or whatever. And it's like, no, fuck off. That's not what this is. This is not a hashtag campaign. This is not part of that. This has been something I've been trying to write since I was 18 and this has nothing to do with a movement. It's interesting because there are tons of books,I think—I'm thinking of novels right now—that really... I call it grief tourism—that really want us to feel horrible, horrible, unspeakable violations in such a showy way. Again, I don't think that that's by and large a bad thing, but I think it creates an expectation like, "Oh, you are writing about sexual assault and I don't see it in this poem as much." Or it's like the problem when—there are lots of really hilarious Amazon reviews of Moby Dick where people were like, "This is the shittiest book about a whale. There's no whale in it." And I think that that's actually true for a lot of trauma narratives as well. There's no whale in it.

MS: Mm.

NE: It's mostly people at sea. It's mostly configuring some sense of a history, or a sense of being disenfranchised, and it's not at all about whether the whale takes the Pequod down. It's about whether there's a whale at all. Right?

MS: Mm-hm.

NE: And I think that's a really important distinction for me when I'm writing in these subject matters. That I can't perform, I'm not performing, this isn't performance. And yet, the pieces that get the most retweets are those exact ones that inspire so much violence. So I don't know. I don't know what it all means.

MS: Yeah. I don't know if anybody does, my God.

NE: Yeah.

MS: There's like a million other things that I would love to talk about, but we're getting pretty close to time. There's one question that I like to close with—

NE: Okay.

MS: —and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

NE: Oh wow. That's a very good question. Well... Maybe this is not the most poetic answer, but I went to the David Bowie Museum—I'm sorry, the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—

MS: Mm.

NE: —and I've been thinking a lot about legacy and what we leave behind. And not just that, but the kinds of beautiful work we're doing without realizing how legendary it will become.

MS: Mm.

NE: I mean, I think for David Bowie, when he began, he didn't know what was going to happen, he was just making music and being this beautiful, queer person and just putting his whole body into a place it's never been. And eventually that created a huge legacy within rock and roll. But I think when you look at the scope of someone's entire life from infancy to death, yeah, it made me realize that I could have definitely gone to an exhibit of any person and had a similar experience. Which isn't to say that David Bowie isn't the coolest person and the most talented person, but literally if that were an exhibit for my neighbor, Annette, I'd think, "Wow, look at this life." So it's just been making me think a lot about who gets a biography, who gets the retrospective and... Yeah, I guess I've been thinking a lot about that and thinking about ways that all of us are in the midst of our own retrospective age. So yeah, it was a really moving exhibit and it's kind of pushed me toward another kind of thinking as well, about legacy and personal history.

MS: Thank you. That's a great answer. [laughs]

NE: Great. Maybe it was more poetic than I think.

MS: [laughing] I think it might've been.

NE: Yeah.

MS: Yeah. Well thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

NE: Oh, of course. It's been such a pleasure to speak with you and I'm... I guess now I'm ready for my second cup of coffee.

MS: [laughs]

NE: I don't know if I need it though. I think I'm pretty good.

[Music]


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa:

OK, so, as I mentioned at the top of the show, be on the lookout for more details about Natalie Eilbert’s upcoming event in October, there are links in the show notes to the Wisconsin Book Festival and the A Room of One’s Own bookstore that should have more information as the event gets closer—that’ll be October 14th, 2018. And do pick up a copy of Natalie’s book Indictus, there are links in the show notes for that as well.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 29th with a conversation with poet Ada Limón, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript: Episode 71: R. O. Kwon

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 71. Today’s guest is R. O. Kwon

Hey there, folks. Today I’m pleased to bring you a conversation with writer R. O. Kwon. R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. And, most relevant to this conversation, her debut novel The Incendiaries was just published by Riverhead Books—yesterday, in fact, if you’re listening to this on the day this episode airs.

Now, I have to say, The Incendiaries is one of best books I’ve read so far this year. I’d already enjoyed R. O.’s nonfiction before, particularly her piece about watching the Pyeongchang Olympics as a Korean American, as well as her piece for The Cut, which was entitled “Why I Don’t Leave the House Without Putting on Black Eye Shadow.” And I put links to both of those pieces in the show notes, so do check them out. So, yeah, I had liked her essays quite a lot, but this book, this novel, it’s really next level. The Incendiaries is the story of Phoebe, a young Korean American woman, but told from the perspective of her white boyfriend, both of them students at an elite East Coast college, and as the story unfolds we watch as Phoebe gets drawn into a cult. Mind you, this isn’t giving anything away, you find out on the first page about an act of domestic terrorism Phoebe’s cult is involved with.

Writing for The Rumpus, Christine No compared it to a Haruki Murakami novel, saying “Alongside Kwon’s persistent, driven prose is a narrative of personal and interpersonal unraveling. Kwon cultivates a palpable emptiness, a space to feel the growing sense of loss that progressively saturates these pages.” I think it might also be apt to compare it to Faulkner for its close, stream-of-consciousness-style perspective—certainly as a stylist, she deserves to be up there in the pantheon of American literary deities.

Now, as I mentioned, the book was just published yesterday, July 31st, and R. O. is currently on tour. She’ll be in LA tomorrow, August 2nd, at Skylight Books—that’s with Jade Chang. On Friday, August 3rd, she’ll be here in San Diego at Warwick’s, in La Jolla, with Lizz Huerta. And then after that she’s headed to New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Denver; back to the Bay Area; Chicago; Vegas; Portland; Austin—really, this is a huge tour and you can get info on all of the dates and locations on her website at ro-kwon.com/events, and I’ll put a link in the show notes for that.

OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenFiction to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with R. O. Kwon.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So, you know, one of the things that I always like to do when I'm going to talk to someone is try and think of the first thing of their work that I am familiar with and I went back through and I think the first thing of yours that I had read was your essay on BuzzFeed earlier this year.

R. O. Kwon: Mm.

MS: It's, "I'm Korean American and I Can't Watch the Pyeongchang Olympics."

RK: Yeah.

MS: And I just remember, you know, just being really moved by that piece.

RK: Oh, thank you.

MS: One of the things that I was sort of thinking about—because obviously the main thing I'd like to talk to you about today is your book, The Incendiaries, which I also loved. I actually—the only reason that I didn't read the whole thing in one sitting is because at a certain point I realized I had to go to work the next day and I should probably go to sleep. I think it was like 1:30 in the morning.

RK: [laughs]

MS: But yeah, I really loved it.

RK: Thank you so much. That makes me—I'm glad to hear it. Thank you.

MS: So one of the things that I was thinking about since the first thing that I had read of yours was this essay that you'd written—ostensibly about the Olympics, but really it's about borders and about the partitioning of Korea. It's about a lot of things about Asian American identity. And that was sort of what I had on my mind when I started reading the book. And one of the things that I thought was interesting about it is how the book isn't exactly about the same kinds of things, although it's sort of underneath a lot of it in that way. Does that sort of makes sense?

RK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

MS: So throughout this book you have one of the three major characters, John Leal, his backstory involves getting put in a North Korean prison. And then one of the other major characters, Phoebe is Korean American herself.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: So there's a way that some of the things that you talked about in that essay seemed to sort of lie underneath the novel without being really completely explicit.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: I thought that was sort of an interesting framework as I was thinking about the novel.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

RK: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. No one's quite asked that. Maybe a way to get at it is when I'm writing, people are often curious—and I'm always curious with other writers—people always want to know who writers are writing for, I think. And I always say, I'm thinking first of myself and writing for myself. I'm the first and last person who has to get it right for me to feel okay letting go of a project. That said—and that's true, I think, it's almost impossible for me to think of anyone else, any other kind of audience while I'm writing. That said, I think beyond that, the first readers I have in mind are people who are more like me.

MS: Mm.

RK: And so, Korean Americans, Asian Americans. I'm certainly not centering a straight white American man as a possible reader. And so the ways in which this came up for me are—so this is a small thing, but for me, these kinds of decisions I think permeate the novel.

A copy editor asked at some point, because Phoebe has her English name, Phoebe, and then she has her Korean name, Haejin. And the first time Haejin comes up, a copy editor asked, very reasonably, "Should there be a note to just say, this is her middle name, this is her Korean name." And I said, "No, because any Korean American I know, and I think almost—pretty much any Asian American I know would understand that that's her Korean name and there wouldn't be any confusion." And so I don't want to explain something that doesn't have to be explained to people like me. And so I think in that way, I hope—well, the first long review of the book came in—in The Rumpus—just a couple of days ago from this wonderful writer, Christine No. And I found it so moving.

I mean, the review is beautifully written and it meant a lot to me, but I found it so moving when she talked about seeing aspects of a Korean experience reflected in the novel and that they were small things that she's not even sure people who aren't Korean or Asian would pick up on. But little things like having Fuji apples cut for you by your parents and things like that. Just tiny details that she thinks are common to and that she's seen in a lot of Korean American families. And the idea that she could see herself reflected on the page. I thought that was... I loved that.

MS: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely something that for me has been sort of an interesting experience. It's only been in the past few years that I've started really reading or even knowing that such fiction was available, fiction that was written by Asian American writers, that really includes that kind of representation. It's been a very revelatory experience for me. One of the things that I sort of was thinking about with respect to some of the nonfiction that I'm familiar with of yours is sort of more explicitly about racial and ethnic identity. And so I think what was really interesting to me about the way it's presented in the novel is that I feel like a lot of times for marginalized writers—members of marginalized communities—there's this sort of expectation that those things are going to be front and center, that that's going to be explicitly what everything you write about is about. And here it's definitely there, but it's also sort of more subtle, you know?

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I thought that was really fascinating, you know, like a way to sort of both be able to write including these experiences but also sort of pushing back against the expectation, if that makes sense.

RK: Mm-hm. Yeah. There's something—I know other other writers of color have written at length about this. I think there is still very much an expectation or an assumption that writers of color and writers from other marginalized groups are going to write about and focus on trauma. And I mean in The Incendiaries, of course there are varieties of trauma. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: But I wasn't quite thinking about that as I was writing. But I do think it's important that everyone get to write what feels deepest and truest to them without ever having to respond to or pander to such assumptions.

MS: Yeah, I mean I guess that's sort of what I was thinking. Less in terms of the creation of the story and more in terms of the publishing of it. Because I feel like, I don't think anybody are necessarily writing—I mean maybe some people do—but I don't think it's necessarily that we would be writing to say, "No, I'm not gonna write about that." But rather, you want to be able to write about whatever you want to write about and the act of doing that, and getting that published once you have written it—I don't know, there's something kind of, to me, a little bit subversive about being a person of color and writing a story that isn't... You know what I'm saying? Like to be able to have an Asian name on a story that in a lot of ways people wouldn't necessarily think of being an Asian story. You know what I mean?

RK: Yeah, yeah. No, I agree with that.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] No disagreement.

MS: So one of the things that you said previously about how you didn't want to write this book centering the straight white American male reader. There's a couple of things about that that I thought of when you said that. And, one—maybe I'll just do the one first—was that, it's really interesting because I feel like the book doesn't do that, right? It doesn't center that reader, but at the same time, the overwhelming majority of the book is written from that point of view. And that's a really fascinating thing to me to be able to take such a... Especially because the perspective of the book is so close and so tight on Will's emotions and thoughts and he is that in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways he's very stereotypically that. That was really, I thought, just a fascinating choice as an author.

RK: Yeah. So that... I feel as though in so many ways this book—and with my writing in general—I don't feel as though I make choices. I feel as though in some ways big questions of point of view and who's telling and who's narrating, first person, third person, all of that. I feel as though—it almost feels as though there's a right answer out there and there's a book out there that I'm working my way toward. Like I'm almost excavating my way toward a book that almost feels as though it preexists me or something. But with Will... For the first two years I was working on this book, it was a first person book told entirely by Phoebe. And then I... when I threw all of that away and sort of re-thought about how I was going to tell the story, I realized that at least for me, and at least with this particular story, and at least with Phoebe, it felt too claustrophobic to remain entirely in Phoebe's head for the length of the book.

RK: And I think it's because she's going through so much what with losing her mother and then falling into a cult and blowing up a building. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: There's so much going on that I found that it opened up the book for me. It gave me space to have a somewhat more tangential character tell a lot of that story. And a classic example of this, of course, is The Great Gatsby. And I was thinking a lot about that, what a difference it would have made to The Great Gatsby if Jay Gatsby had told the story or even if Daisy Buchanan had told the story. So that's part of why Will became the primary narrator of this story. That said, I have been really glad that when people talk about the book to me, they talk about Phoebe being the main character, which makes me glad because that was what I was hoping to have happen regardless.

MS: Oh yeah, definitely.

RK: And I will say that with the second book, my second novel—which I've been working on for about two years—I'm absolutely determined to keep telling it from... [laughs] From the point of view of the character who's telling it now, who is a Korean American woman. I just want to stay with her.

MS: Mm. The comparison to The Great Gatsby is one that sort of occurred to me as well when I was reading it and particularly because there's so much in this book that is about... Well, one, about wealth and about how we perceive wealth and how the characters perceive wealth. But also just in general about this idea of people inventing themselves. How we see each other and how we want to be seen, how the characters want to be seen. And, in that, setting it in a college milieu makes perfect sense because that's such a time when people are sort of explicitly reinventing themselves and sort of trying on different identities. But I just thought that was really interesting, you know?

RK: Mm-hm. Well thank you for saying that. Yeah, that was part of why I wanted to set the book in college because college is such a liminal time when people are... College is a time when people are figuring themselves out, are changing, when a lot of people—especially if people go away from home to go to college—when people have a chance to rethink how they want to be seen, when a lot of people start reinventing themselves, I think. And so that was part of what was exciting for me about setting the book in college. Also, as I read in some of the research I did into cults and terrorist groups and religious groups, a lot of these groups do focus on recruiting people from high school and college right around that age because of this. Because people are in a state of change.

MS: Mm. I mean it's... All of the characters—or at least the two main characters, Will and Phoebe—are at this moment of change, but also dealing with... There's this really profound sense of longing and even self loathing from each of them, in different ways with different focuses. And that also seemed like a pretty major sort of theme of the book, is what we do with that sense of longing and what we will reach for to try and fill that hole, you know?

RK: Mm-hm. They all want so much. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: Yeah, I think that's part of what draws Will and Phoebe together at the start. And that is part of what draws them to John Leal, too. And what John Leal sees in Phoebe initially is this desire for elsewhere, this desire for more. There's a part in there when John Leal talks about how Christianity just doesn't fetishize pain, but it sees the possibilities of pain, it sees how cut flesh is more open than closed flesh. And in different ways, they've all been very hurt and I think that makes them more available to other answers than the ones that they've been given.

MS: Mm. Going back to the other thing that I was thinking about was this question of who the reader is.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And there's a way that's almost explicit in the text because of the way that the whole thing is told as a recollection by Will. Even the parts that are told from Phoebe's point of view, ultimately those are recreations, reconstructions by Will, as you find out later in the book. The thing that really strikes me then is that, you know, here's this man and he's talking and it left me to wonder who is he talking to, exactly. You know?

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: And I was sort of wondering if you had it in mind—you don't have to say, obviously, if you'd rather not—but if that was something that you had in mind, who he's talking to or if it's just sort of an open question for everyone.

RK: No, that's a great question. I think he is telling this story—because I know this is such a... It seems like an unimportant question, I think, but I think I often, when I pick up a book, especially a first person book, I start wondering why this person is telling this story. And I think I love when there's... when a possibility of an answer is given. And with this book Will is very much—it's a story that Will is telling and it's very much driven by his desire to try to understand what happened. And so in a lot of ways the person he's thinking about the most and the person he's addressing—one of the people he has in mind is definitely Phoebe.

MS: Yeah.

RK: It's a way for him to try to understand and... Yeah, I'll stop there. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Very early on in the book, there's even a line where he seems to be speaking directly to the reader, but addressing the reader as Phoebe, where he says something like, "You always said that I didn't understand and I'm trying." Something like that. I don't have the exact line in front of me, but there was something like that. But even that, what's interesting to me about that is that he could be... That was what sort of occurred to me as I was reading it, is that maybe he's talking to Phoebe. But in a lot of ways it also sort of felt like he's almost talking to himself a lot

RK: Yeah.

MS: Because so much of the book seems to be some kind of him trying to justify to himself or to whoever's reading it, how he was during these things.

RK: Yeah. That's really beautiful. Yeah. I think that's part of who Will is, and that's part of what leads to... I guess I shouldn't give anything away, but that's part of what causes the story to unfold the way it does—at least for Will—is, he does have some trouble seeing outside of his own point of view, I think.

MS: Yeah.

RK: And yeah, so you're right, he does—in various ways he is justifying what happened to himself while he's trying to understand what happened.

MS: It's... You know, one of the things that I've found really the most... [sigh] I'm not sure what exactly the right adjective is. Like I on some level want to say "troubling," but that's not right. And on some level I want to say "satisfying," which is right, but not complete.

RK: [laughs]

MS: But just the way that we spend the most time inside Will's head and because of that we have this real tendency towards empathizing with him and seeing things from his point of view and sort of identifying with him just because he's the narrator. And at the beginning of the book I feel like you—or at least I had this sense of, like, he seems like a little bit clueless but more or less an okay guy, a guy who wants to try and be decent. But then that really changes as the book unfolds and—

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: —you see all of these ways that he's really not as good as he wants you to think he is.

RK: Mm-hm.

MS: I just, I found that—especially considering what you were saying before about not centering the straight white male American reader, that in that way that your opinion of him, what he reveals to you over the course of the book, it reads to me like a critique of straight white American male-ness. You know what I mean?

RK: I guess what I'll say about that is, there's a key instance—again, I personally don't care about spoilers, but I know a lot of people do, so—

MS: Yeah, yeah.

RK: There's a key instance of sexual violence in the book and when I realized what was happening—because again, I really don't impose story or character from on high. I feel as though the characters reveal themselves to me, the story reveals itself to me. And when I saw that starting to happen, I tried really hard to take it out. I just, I didn't want it to happen. I didn't want to have that as a point in the story. And I realized as I was trying to take it out and as it kept trying to push itself back in, as I was rereading the parts of the book I already had and seeing why it felt so necessary, that there are ways Will looks at women. There are parts of who Will is that made what happened seem inevitable in that moment.

MS: Yeah.

RK: And so I think it is in some ways, the book is—I think, and I hope the book is deeply feminist to its core. And, yeah. So, thank you for saying that.

MS: Yeah, I'm curious about what that impulse was, why you wanted to take that part out. Like what was going on there.

RK: I think I was just—that came relatively late in the book and I think I just didn't want to have sexual violence as a story point. I wanted to write a book without it, without enacting that kind of violence upon a woman. Even if it was a woman I'd made up. [laughs]

MS: Yeah. I can see that. Yeah. I mean, it does really feel inevitable after the way that—because of the fact that you see so much through his eyes and that you get a really detailed and three-dimensional look at how he views women as two-dimensional and how he fantasizes about women—especially Phoebe—or what he notices about them. And actually this also played very strongly into the way that he thinks about Phoebe, was so much... I almost wonder if white readers would get it, the way that he tends to see her as inscrutable or, you know, that kind of thing, which is such a stereotype for Asians, especially Asian women, that... [sigh] I'm not entirely sure exactly what I want to say about that except just that it felt so perfect. But also it was done in a way that felt subtle enough to me that I wonder if some readers might even miss that. You know?

RK: Mm. Someone asked recently, just straight out, "Does Will have an Asian fetish?" [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: And I was actually... I mean, you know, of course readers will take what they will from a book. And the book doesn't end when I finish writing it. But to my mind, Will doesn't really have an Asian fetish. He also has a sexual relationship with a woman who's not Asian in the book. And I'm also not sure that he sees women quite as being two-dimensional, but he does see his needs and his wants as a priority. And so, yeah, he does think that he's a much better person in some ways then he turns out to be. Yeah.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs]

MS: Yeah. Another thing that I was thinking of is how, because the story is told as a recollection and in some parts a reconstruction, in a lot of ways it seems like it's very much about memory and about how imperfect memory can be. There's even—I wrote this part down—there's a line at one point in the book where this is pretty explicit. He says, "I'll emphasize this lack of alcohol because, teetotal as I soon felt, I should be able to retrieve more of what followed. Instead, for the most part, it's lost. I have the outline, bits of conversation. Fitful images. Wide swaths of it, though, have blurred as in old film. Is that the problem? I've reviewed this initial feast with them so often I've smudged it with my fingerprints." And, you know, so because of the fact that he's telling this all in the future from the events, there's this inherent unreliability to the whole narration. And that also—partially just because in that particular excerpt there's a photography metaphor and I'm a photographer so that [laughs] jumped out at me.

RK: Oh! You are.

MS: But, you know, photography is often so much about memory, too. And so I find that whenever I find works of art that are grappling with that imperfection of memory, it's really fascinating to me.

RK: Mm-hm. Yeah. First of all—well, the narrator of my second novel is turning out to be a photographer and so I've been reading as much as I can about photography, and realizing how little I know about it. But, yeah, photography being so much about memory. Yes. I think that's part of what's drawing me to photography for my second novel. But back to The Incendiaries. Yeah, I think I am so interested in general in how imperfect memory can be. And people have been calling Will an unreliable narrator, and asking about that part. And yes, he's not the most reliable narrator, but I honestly don't think—I don't really see that as a divide in general. I think all narration tends to be unreliable to some extent or another. I think even at the simplest level, when I see someone at the end of the day and they ask "How was your day, what did you do?" and I say something, I'm already shading it by what I choose to pick out. I'm already sort of glossing over things, making things inaccurate. And I think I am fascinated by that, by the mismatch between what happened and what we can tell about it.

MS: It runs through the entire book and how everything that Will does, from his perspective, is always colored by... You know, I feel like it's done really skillfully in the way that a real person would sort of highlight the things that they want to be highlighted and sort of trying, you know, shove under the carpet the things that they're perhaps not as proud of. I really liked the way that that was done. So yeah.

RK: Oh, thank you so much. [laughs]

MS: So before we go to the next segment, I did want to just ask very briefly about the epigraph. And it's a quote from Clarice Lispector, "At the bottom of everything there is the hallelujah." And there is something about that quotation... I haven't read the book, the Lispector book, but there's something about that quotation that it fits the novel perfectly, in a way that feels very resonant, but also, like, I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

RK: Yeah. Well, I love Lispector so much. I love that line. I love that novel. I think sometimes of the time—somebody once asked T. S. Eliot, what he meant when he wrote in "Ash Wednesday" the line "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree" and he responded, "I meant 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.'" And I really don't think he was being evasive or coy. I think he was saying the line conveyed as much of his intention as possible, and that he couldn't really add anymore. And similarly, I don't think I can add anything by explaining why the epigraph felt right.

MS: That's a fair point. [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I do love that line a lot, and I'm really glad that you responded to it.

MS: I think one of the things that I think about—and I thought about this through the book in several points—is, to me, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the word "Hallelujah" is the Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley song, which is very much about sort of using this sort of ecstatic, religious language to describe a sexual experience. There are points at which, when Will is describing his sexual experiences, he uses very flowery language to do that. That also reminded me of, in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, there's a sex scene in that which the main character does the same thing. And that sort of juxtaposition of different kinds of ecstasy—whether, you know spiritual or religious or physical, whatever—there's something about that comparison that seems to me to resound through a lot of the book. Does that feel right to you?

RK: Yeah, for sure. I don't know how much you've read from saints and other accounts of... Well, to put it differently, while I was writing the book and certainly while I was religious, too—because I grew up so religious—I've read a lot of books written by saints, written by religious people grappling with religion. And so much of that is just soaked through with—the books are soaked through with the language of love and with the language of ecstasy. And I don't think that these feelings necessarily come from very different places. I mean, Christians talk very overtly about falling in love with God and from my own experience when I became deeply religious, it did feel very much like falling in love. It felt like an all consuming love. It had all the excitement and passion, if not more, of falling in love with a person.

MS: Mm. Alright, well why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.

RK: Okay, that sounds great.

[Music]


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

R. O. Kwon: Let's talk about rock climbing. Which is the only other thing I do with any regularity other than writing.

MS: Wow. So, okay. So—

RK: I mean I guess reading's in there too, but other than reading and writing. [laughs]

MS: Those are—in many ways seem almost opposite, reading and rock climbing. Although maybe not. What would you like to say about rock climbing? [laughs]

RK: [laughs] I don't know except that I love it so much and I don't know why more people don't do it. I guess it's getting more popular. But I started rock climbing with my dear friend, Colin Winnette, who's a wonderful writer and—I think that was two and a half years ago—and it's the first form of exercise I've ever found that doesn't feel like exercise. It just feels—I mean, it feels frustrating and it feels great and it can be heartbreaking. It's all of that, but it's all-consuming in a way that I find to be really helpful and a good counterpart to writing. Because when I'm on the wall—I usually go bouldering. I've gone top roping too, which is when you're tied to somebody. But bouldering is free-climbing and so you don't have anything holding you up.

So when I'm on the wall and I'm 14 feet up and reaching for the next hold, there's no way for me to be worried about my novel or whatever it is I'm working on in that moment. [laughs] And so it completely clears my head. And so I honestly don't know how I kept myself together before I started doing this. Because people say that yoga does that for you, but—and I know this means I was doing it wrong—but I did yoga for years and it never cleared my head. It only ever—during Shavasana at the end, in Corpse Pose, when you're supposed to lie there and you're supposed to clear your head, I would always immediately start making to-do lists and/or worrying about my novel and/or [laughs] and/or just worrying about small things. So yeah. And I feel so lucky to have found rock climbing. In this last month before the book comes out, I find that I've been wanting to climb more than ever. This is a central thought in my mind with book touring is how on earth I'm going to get rock climbing in. [laughs]

MS: Do you usually climb in a climbing gym or outdoors or...?

RK: In a climbing gym. I know a lot of good climbers say that there's no substitute for outside climbing and that you should go outside climbing. But I think I'm borderline allergic to sunlight.

MS: [laughs]

RK: I really don't like being outside during the daytime and so a gym it is. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, yeah. There is definitely something... I've only been rock climbing once and that was when I was in high school and it was actually in Joshua Tree, out on a big rock.

RK: Oh yeah.

MS: And I think there's something about it that, just like you say, it's very focusing because if you want to not fall, you really have to be giving your complete attention to what your body is doing. It's not something that I've taken up before, but what I think is interesting is what you're talking about seems to me really to be a form of meditation. That by having this focus for you—a physical focus—that that allows you to sort of escape what might otherwise be going on in your head. For me, I have never been good at finding that through something like yoga or literal meditation, but I do get something very similar out of running. That when I'm out on the road, especially if I'm running when it's dark out and it's quiet and I'm running really hard, it's something that the inside of my brain gets quiet in a way that it just doesn't in other times. Which is—it is kind of addicting.

RK: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it feels like a reset. Like my brain feels better after I've been climbing. Yeah, I think I agree with you in that the only other times that I've found my way to that sort of mental space where I'm just not really thinking about anything except the task at hand is when I've been taking part in any kind of exercise thatt's just really, really hard, like physically difficult. But that tends to be a hard place to get to, at least for me. I ran cross-country when I was in high school, and I ran so much for that and then after that, I've sworn never to run again.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] I get deeply pissed off if I have to run a little in the airport because we're going to miss a flight.

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I remember that in cross-country when I was running really hard in a race and that would happen, too. That was definitely available there.

MS: Yeah. There's something about—I think in both sports, whether it's climbing or running, where you can get in a sort of rhythm and your body just sort of takes over. It's unlike anything else that I can think of. Except, actually now that I think of it, there are times too when things are flowing really well when—it happens for me a lot more often when I'm photographing than when I'm writing, although it has happened when I'm writing—but you know, that sort of state that they call creative flow, I think? That almost seems a little similar, too, where it almost seems like when things are really clicking and you get into a rhythm, it's almost like you're watching yourself do it from the outside. You know?

RK: Mm. For me, when I'm writing—and this is the—this doesn't always happen, of course, and I can never force my way there. It happens or it doesn't happen. But when I'm writing, if it's going really well and when I'm really deep into it, I lose all sense of myself. I lose all sense of who I am or I lose all sense of ego. That goes away and it just becomes becomes... All I focus on is trying to make the sentence I'm working on the best version of itself it can possibly be, the truest version of itself it can possibly be. And I love that so much. I love being there. It's my favorite thing. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: But it's so hard to get there. And once I'm there I always lose track of time. I'm never sure when it starts or when it ends and I think some of my best writing—maybe even all of my best writing—happens when I'm in that place.

MS: Yeah. When, you're not really thinking about it so much and it's just sort of coming ou,t all in one go. Yeah.

RK: For me it's less that it comes out all in one go because I'm such a painstaking—I write so slowly and I write with such—I revise so much as I go. But I think for me it's more about just maintaining that level of attention for any length of time and not feeling so scattered by other things.

MS: Yeah. I know for myself that I'm able to focus on things very deeply when I need to, but it takes me a really long time to get into that state. Like there's a sort of activation energy, a sort of slope that I need to get up and once I can get up over it then I can focus more. But getting to that point is very difficult and takes—it's like I can't write for just half an hour because it takes me 45 minutes to spin up, you know what I mean?

RK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, for sure.  I write best when I have hours at a time. So I love residencies for this reason. I love artist residencies because they provide a space in which I can really just—I don't really have to leave the world of my novel for three, four weeks on end, essentially, which is an incredible thing to have happen, and every residency I've ever had has been such a gift. That said, I have heard from—I mean, I don't have any kids—I've heard from people who have kids that after having kids, they figure out ways to drop into that space much more quickly. And I wonder if that's available. But for me, I definitely need... Yeah. It's hard for me to write when I don't have hours on end.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. I have three kids, so—

RK: Oh wow. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] And, you know, sometimes you make do the best you can, but there's still nothing quite like... I mean, I guess what it is more that—when I need to just find a minute or two here and there to work on stuff, I can do that, but it doesn't feel as satisfying, it doesn't feel like that sort of flowing creativity. It really feels more like work at that point.

RK: Oh, interesting. It's part of why I was joking that I was just going to write an essay against lunch and then... [laughs] And then so I was just like, "That's all the essay's going to be. It's a diatribe against lunch."

MS: [laughs]

RK: [laughs] But I hate lunch. I will never get lunch with people unless I'm traveling and then I'll make more space for it. Or, you know, if it's for work or something. But I'll never get lunch just for fun because lunch just destroys my ability to conceive of having hours of time, hours on end of time. I'm very nocturnal so I go to sleep pretty late and so for me to have lunch means that the entire day is just broken up and destroyed with being out of the world with, you know, a food that I'm not used to. Yeah, death to lunch. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] I've never heard anybody say "Death to lunch" before. [laughs]

RK: [laughs]

MS: You know what I think is interesting for me, and it's a little different, I think—well, I'm sure it's different for everyone. One of the things that I find really fascinating is that different modes of creativity seem to come more or less naturally to me. Like the easiest is photography. For whatever reason I can lose myself in a shoot really, really quickly. You know, when I notice something that I want to take a photograph of, and to work a scene, I can drop into that just immediately and very quickly get into that state of sort of outside myself, of not really thinking about it. Whereas writing is always a lot more difficult. And in particular what I notice is when I want to write nonfiction, that often comes fairly easily, too. But writing poetry or writing... Fiction is just impossible for me. Any time I've ever tried to write fiction, it's been just a real grind. It's one of the reasons why I'm always so impressed by people who can write a whole book.  [laughs]

RK: [laughs] For me, I think I agree that it's harder to drop into writing fiction. I have a lot of rules in place for myself. Well, just over these past several months, it's been different. But for most of the 10 years I was writing this book, I had a lot of rules in place and one rule that I found to be really helpful was to just go immediately from waking up to my novel. Even to the extent that—I mean I love really good coffee, and San Francisco has incredible coffee. There was a period when I would grind my own coffee, I was a grind-my-own-coffee kind of coffee person. But then I realized that that tok so much time, that it was really getting in the way of my getting to my writing. And I need coffee to start writing. And so I got a Keurig machine, even though the coffee tastes like hell. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RK: Because I really want to be able to just roll out of bed, get coffee, get water, and then just start working. I have an "I won't talk in the morning" rule. I have a husband and on weekends we had to find a rhythm in which I refused to talk to him until I've a few hours of [laughs] writing in for the day. Yeah, and I think it's because it feels most seamless to go straight from dreaming to a different kind of dreaming, to fiction writing, which is its own kind of dreaming for me.

MS: So, I think we're getting pretty close to time here, but there's one question that I always like to end with and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

RK: Yeah. So many, but a book I really loved that I read recently by someone who I didn't know at all—her name is Ancco and she's Korean, lives-in-Korea Korean—and it's a graphic novel called Bad Friends. It's going to be out this fall from Drawn and Quarterly. And I read it in one sitting. I really—I needed water but I just didn't want to get up is how captivated and I was by this book. And it's about a pivotal friendship in a girl's life. But it's also about sort of cycles of violence and abuse. And about what love can do for you and what it might not be able to do. I just found it so powerful and I was really excited by it. I'm really excited. It's already been out in Korea and it has been out in France, but it's coming out in the US this fall, so I'm... Yeah.

MS: Alright, well I will look forward to that. I wanted to say thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time talking with me.

RK: Yeah, of course. Thank you. I'm so glad we got to do this.


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: OK, as I mentioned at the top of the show, R. O. Kwon will be at Skylight Books in Los Angeles tomorrow, August 2nd, and she’ll be here in San Diego at Warwick’s on Friday, August 3rd, and, who knows? You might even see me at the Warwick’s event. For a full listing of all of R. O.’s upcoming events, you can check out her events page at ro-kwon.com/events, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 15th with a conversation with poet Natalie Eilbert, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 70: Blue Mitchell

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 70. Today’s guest is Blue Mitchell.

Hey there, folks. So, this has been a pretty intense week for me for a lot of reasons, and, instead of having a monologue like I’d usually do, what I wanted to do was just ask some questions. These are some things I’ve been thinking about recently, and it’s been… illuminating to think about these, so I just thought, maybe you’d find it useful as well. First question is this: what’s scarier to you, the idea of failure or the idea of success? And the follow-up is: what’s underneath that? Like, what’s driving that fear? And, finally, what do you think would happen if you let go of that fear? I’d like to know your answers, so, if you feel comfortable, hit me up. You can email me at podcast@keepthechannelopen.com, or you can reach me on Twitter at ChannelOpenPod.

Alright, so, on to today’s show. Blue Mitchell is an independent publisher, curator, educator, and photographer based in Portland, Oregon. His photography has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions nationally, and is in the permanent collections of The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado and the Hoffman Gallery at the Oregon College of Art & Craft in Portland, Oregon. In his personal work he implements many photographic techniques including toy cameras, pinhole, alternative processes, mixed media, and burnt transparencies, and on top of his work as a photographer, Blue also runs a publishing company named One Twelve, which focuses on artfully-crafted photo practices.

Now, I first became aware of Blue Mitchell through his annual photography magazine, Diffusion, which is, as he puts it, an independent, reader-supported annual that highlights and celebrates artfully crafted photographic artwork including, but not limited to, handcrafted, alternative process, mixed media, installation, photo as object, avant-garde, experimental, etc. I’ve appreciated Diffusion for a long time for its focus on highlighting work that really pushes the boundaries of photography as an art form, you know, making room for all different kinds of art. And Blue’s own artwork is doing the same thing, you know, when you first see it, it’s obviously visually striking but it’s more than that, too. He uses his work to express themes of nostalgia and memory and the experience of nature, all of that is just right up my alley, so I was pleased to get the chance to talk with him.

Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to several of the bodies of work that we discussed in our conversation, Evanescent Energy, Mythos, Chasing the Afterglow, Luminous Flux, and Of Salt and Earth, and I highly recommend you check those out. I also put in a link to the One Twelve website, where if you like, you can buy copies of Diffusion and a whole lot more. If you’d like to see some of Blue’s work in person, he has work included in the Pacific Northwest Photography Drawers at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, through March 2019. And, one of the things we talked about in our conversation is portfolio reviews, well, Blue will be one of the reviewers at this year’s Click! Photography Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, that’s in October of this year. The application deadline for the Click! reviews is July 30, so if you’re interested, there’s still time, and I’ve put a link to the festival website in the show notes.

OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag ChannelOpenPhoto to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Blue Mitchell.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with your work. I’d seen it before, a number of times, because you’ve had some features on Lenscratch, and obviously I had been aware of Diffusion for a while. But I always like to take the opportunity—it’s always fun, when I get to talk to somebody, to take the chance to look through people’s portfolios again and reacquaint myself with the work.

Blue Mitchell: Sure.

MS: And I’ve got to say, your work is just exceptionally visually striking. And I really feel like that is something that—how to put this? There’s something about work that sort of grabs you immediately, like it’s very different from what I do, but if you can have work that grabs you immediately but still allows you a way into something more than just the initial impression, that’s an impressive thing. So, yeah.

BM: Well, I appreciate that. That’s always been my goal, and I think it’s because I like photography like that, myself. Or art, in general, I should say. Including film and stuff like that.

MS: Yeah. So, obviously the first thing that sort of jumps out about your work is that you seem to be very—both as a publisher and as an artist, yourself—very interested in work that isn’t straight-ahead either film or digital photography. That you’re really interested in alternative-process stuff. Would that be fair to say?

BM: Yeah, I like to call it “artfully crafted” photography. Mostly just because I don’t like the pigeonhole idea. And also, when I first started publishing Diffusion, people thought we were all alternative analog, and that wasn’t the case. So now I’m more just about craft, hand-crafted photography.

MS: Mm-hm. Well, so, what does that mean to you, “hand-crafted photography”?

BM: Mostly for me it’s just being able to see the artist’s hand in the work. In whatever way that is, either in the process or in the shooting, itself.

MS: So, seeing the artist’s hand in the work is something that I find really interesting when it comes to photography, and I feel like photography as a whole—I mean, for one thing, there’s always that perennial debate, that I find kind of boring, about what is photography and what isn’t photography. But—

BM: Right.

MS: Sort of leaving that aside, I feel like photography does a really interesting thing that other visual media don’t really do, which is that for a lot of different types of photography, it’s real easy, at least on a surface level, to feel like the photographer almost disappears. Like you don’t see the hand of the artist.

BM: Right, yeah.

MS: And I think that’s one of the things that makes work like yours interesting. You know? Especially when you put it in conversation with work that might be… I mean, there’s all kinds of work out there, you know what I mean?

BM: Right, right. There’s a large gamut of photography. [laughs]

MS: Mm-hm, yeah. So one of the things that I thought was interesting, that I wanted to talk a little bit about—so, your series Evanescent Energy.

BM: Mm-hm.

MS: So that was featured on Lenscratch a few years ago.

BM: Yeah.

MS: That’s one that’s also near the top of the list on your portfolio website. So this is a series where you’re taking transparency film, slide film, and shooting it and then burning it, right?

BM: Yeah, that’s basically what it is. I kind of accidentally ran into the idea with just messing around with some old slides. And I really, I didn’t expect it to be like this. In the color slides I didn’t expect the discoloration that happened. Let alone the bubbling, and there’s—I call it a reticulation, but there’s this pattern that comes from the crystallization of the film, itself. Which coincidentally over time disappears and smooths out, which I didn't know when I was first shooting. The idea is just me messing around in the studio. Of course, that's pretty much how all of this work [laughs] happens is me messing with stuff. Right?

MS: Yeah. I was going to ask, because it seems like that work in particular—really all the work, but it jumped out maybe most obviously in that particular series—about how much trial and error and accident must creep into the process.

BM: Yeah, it's not very forgiving really. You burn a slide and it's done, right? It's over. [laughs] So, once I started realizing that I could do that process and make—and I was focusing on landscapes just because at the time I was really frustrated with my landscape photography and how benign it felt and how it didn't really feel like the environment I was in when I was shooting. I didn't have the same senses in the image when it was all said and done, and photography seemed to fail me in that way for a long time, where I just didn't have the feeling that I wanted. I'm out there shooting and I hear the birds and I feel this sense of energy in the air, which is where the title of the series came from. I wanted to capture that and I just figured it out through burning that I could kind of—you know, it's not the same, obviously I'm changing the image. But I'm giving it that emotional impact that I was feeling, you know, when you're out shooting nature and stuff like that, landscapes and—

MS: It is—

BM: —I felt like—no, go for it. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

BM: That’s alright.

MS: No, I think it's interesting to hear you talk about how you were frustrated with your own landscape photography at first. You know, landscape is obviously one of the major genres of photography and it has a long history.

BM: Yeah.

MS: Everybody obviously knows Ansel Adams or Weston or whatever, right?

BM: Mm-hm.

MS: But what I think is interesting about that work is how—and in your artist statement you really specifically, explicitly talk about how that feeling is something you're trying to capture. What I think that’s sort of alluding to is how you... how landscape photography doesn't have to impart just one kind of emotion.

BM: Hm.

MS: You know what I mean?

BM: Sure, yeah.

MS: Like when you look at a traditional landscape photograph, they're usually so much about, serenity or about some kind of a grandiosity of the natural tableau where, you know, the natural experience, the experience of being out in the world can encompass so much more than just that. You know what I mean?

BM: Right, right. Yeah. I feel like often in photography with the landscape, it's about this sense of place. Right? But, like you said earlier, it removes the photographer from that experience and really it's kind of this universal experience of the landscape. Or, seeing it in black and white, obviously we're looking at a different version of what we see. And you actually—with the black and white stuff—which is great—you see things you wouldn't see normally. Right. Tones and shadows and stuff like that. So that's what's been amazing to me about being a photographer is—people used to say before the digital [laughs] manipulation started happening that all this stuff, this is the real world. And as you know, it's just a small frame of somebody's interpretation of the real world.

MS: Yeah.

BM: And then here I go and just mess it up even more. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, I mean it's sort of interesting. I still feel like a lot of audience members have this tendency to see a photograph—especially a straight photograph—as not being a photograph, but being the thing in the photograph. Even still, even in 2018. It's something that I find really interesting, that reaction, but I feel like photographs like yours that you can't just take it as—it's not even exactly a representation of a subject necessarily, but rather it's very explicitly an interpretation. Which, I find that really fascinating, you know?

BM: Yeah. I like that idea of the interpretation. Part of the thing that I've always liked about photography and the stuff I've published and Diffusion and and stuff like that is the, you know, I said the artist's hand being involved,  but also there's this nod to the medium that I'm really interested in in my work. It's like when you're watching it film and somebody—when they break the fourth wall kind. Where you're like, “Oh, I'm watching a film right now.” So to me the object of the photograph is probably more important to me than the actual subject matter, itself. Whatever it is, it's—I do a lot of different presentation styles. So whatever that is, the object that's there is more important to me than anything else. But I like the nod, like I said, to the process of photography. I like seeing that there's a little bit of history in there. You know, if you look at these series we're talking about right now, the color stuff, when I first started doing that, everybody thought it was digitally manipulated. To me it was like, “Oh, those are film bubbles. Those are melted bubbles. It's in the actual object.” And so I actually like to show people the slides, what they actually look like in real life.

MS: So one of the things that I did notice about a lot of the work that you do that it is very interested in the image as object. And in particular—so you've got a couple of series where you're doing acrylic lift. So the Mythos project and the Chasing the Afterglow project that you did. And I guess that does sort of bring it back to the whole hand of the artist thing, but it really changes the experience for the audience, right? When when you approach something like a birch panel that has an image transfer on it, that is a really different experience from seeing the image on a screen, which is unfortunately the only way that I've personally been able to see your work.

BM: [laughs] Right, right.

MS: But I always find that interesting to talk about, you know, what's added and what's different about work that really requires you to see it in person. You know what I mean?

BM: Right, right. Yeah. That's kind of a frustration I've had in my own work—and in the stuff that we've published—is that there's this disconnect between the object and how people can access your images. You know, actually when I was photographing Chasing the Afterglow to put on the website, I was very frustrated with the whole process of trying to make the image be represented in this digital format as well as it looks in person, and there's just no way to do it. I just couldn't quite do it. None of the work really resonates until you see it in real life, which is why if I gave an artist talk, I'll bring the work and show it so people can actually feel it in their hands. And I think that's the case with a lot of alternative process work. It's so much more beautiful when you're looking at it in person because you see the nuances like in a collodion photo. You'd look at it in different light, you know, you see the nuances of the actual object and how it translates and I like that in the real world. But you know, digitally obviously it's a problem but I still try to represent it so you understand at least that they're tactile, that there's some texture there and that light is important. You know, how you view the stuff.

MS: Yeah. It's also just something—even apart from the difference in the appearance of it—is just how... I mean, philosophically, I guess, that the thing is a different thing, that the image isn't the totality of it. And so when you are in the same room with the thing, that has a different impact than seeing it remotely, you know?

BM: Right, right. Yeah. I've always treated photography, the image itself—whatever the subject is and the equipment—I've always thought of it just as tools to get to this final conceived image or whatever it is. I'm not a purist in that, once you take the photo and you print it then and that's it. I'm more interested in this emotional impact that the object has. Which is also why I remove a lot of information in a lot of my work. So it's a little more accessible. It's not so specific, not specific environments, not specific places, not specific people. I want them to be more universal when people view them and make them a little more accessible, but also so I can tug at those emotional strings. It's important to me when I'm viewing work.

MS: Do you find that audiences pick up on that? Like, there's a certain amount of abstractness to a lot of your work and sometimes that can be the kind of thing that, at least with the lay audience, can be sort of challenging for them. But, I mean, I think for an educated audience member, that stuff is right there. It's not necessarily difficult to access. I just wonder, like, if you have an exhibition and you're talking to the people that show up, is that... You know what I mean?

BM: Yeah. Oh yeah. You know, it's—I find it difficult, actually, because the people... Actually, the people that have the most problems with my work are usually people that are trained in photography. People that understand the principles of photography and what they're supposed to look like. And when I throw all that out and turn them into something that's not really photography anymore, it's more like—it looks more like a painting or whatever. However you want to interpret it. Anyway, so I find my most difficult audience is purists of photography. They're like, “Well, that's not really a photograph.” [laughs] “It's been manipulated.” However I've manipulated it. So I've noticed that there's—it goes two ways. I have artists that are just appreciating it as a piece of art and not as a photograph, and those people seem to like it the most. They're not hung up on what a photograph is or how I've used or degraded photography.

MS: That’s such a weird idea, that you can degrade— [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

MS: —an art form by participating in it. I don't know, it's just so weird. But you're right. I do hear that kind of thing all the time, particularly in online forums where people want to talk about definitions a lot. It's a little—it kind of makes me nuts sometimes. So another one of your series that I wanted to talk about was Luminous Flux.

BM: Oh yeah.

MS: And in particular… So there's not a lot of information about that on your website, but you do note that it's a collaboration, an ongoing collaboration with your daughter.

BM: Yeah, that's actually now daughters. [laughs]

MS: Ah!

BM: Because I just started making more of these lumen prints with my youngest daughter this summer. So they are both participating now. And there's actually a bunch more that aren’t on the website at this point.

MS: How old are your kids?

BM: Three and seven.

MS: Three and seven. All right. I've got a three year old also and then I have a six and a nine.

BM: Oh wow, yeah.

MS: Yeah. But it's—I mean it's an interesting thing. First of all, just the idea of collaboration at all is always interesting to me as an artist. But the idea of collaborating with children or collaborating with family, there's something about that that I find really... I mean it's sweet to start with, but I feel like there's something more to it than that. You know what I mean?

BM: Oh yeah. What you said was great. “It's sweet to start.” Because that's really how it started. We just—I was out there, I ran out of cyanotype paper for my daughter. I'm like, “Oh, let's just do some lumen prints.” Because I'd already been kind of playing around with them on my own. And my oldest daughter, she's quite artistic, as they are at that age, you know. Who knows where that'll go. But what I found so interesting is her compositions are so different from what I would do. I felt like I was just sort of coaching her. Like, “Hey, what if we tried adding some water.” Which you'll see in that series. There's a lot of water droplets, to add more texture than just a straight botanical lumen print, which you see a lot of. I thought we need to add a little more texture to it and stuff like that. But yeah, she, I love this. You know, you can make hundreds and hundreds of these things with the kids and you might have just a few that really look really great. [laughs] But it's the process of working. It's different than drawing with my kids. Because this is a medium that I am so immersed in, it's more exciting for me, number one. That number two, it's so easy for the kids to just make this work and have an immediate gratification of seeing the image. Right? They don't have to wait for the film, the developer, you know what I mean? It's like just immediately here it is. That's what it looks like. It's super simple. But I love the sensibilities that the kids put into the—you know, there's laying stuff on a piece of paper and how that wonderous of the experimentation of it for them as well. “What if I try this? What if I try that?” Seeing that. It's really exciting to watch.

MS: There is something about—and it's something that I haven't personally experienced in quite a long time, but that first time when you see a print in the developer, that sort of magic of it—

BM: Oh yeah.

MS: —and getting do that with your kids seems pretty cool. What’s sort of surprising, I think, about this work is that… You know, I'm sure, as you said, there are a lot of them that you don't necessarily put into the portfolio, but the ones that are in the portfolio, they don't look like work by young children. The compositions are sort of surprising in a lot of cases and they're visually interesting. Like, my kids for example, I love them to pieces and I love seeing what they want to draw and things like that. And sometimes it is kind of surprising, but, for example, when it comes to composing there's often—especially with my middle kid, she has a real tendency towards a symmetry, for example—

BM: Oh, right.

MS: —and centering things. Whereas, in a lot of these images, the compositions are a lot more complex than that. You know what I mean?

BM: Yeah, for sure. I think that the lumen print process helps with that because it's such an organic process, and you really can't control it very well. I mean, you can control the objects on the paper. But I tell them “Just add more. Just add more. [laughs] And see what happens. And move stuff around.” Yeah, my favorite ones are the ones that have a surprising composition, where it's like “I would've never even thought of doing that.”

MS: Yeah.

BM: I'm actually more—when I'm trying to do a lumen print, I'm more symmetrical. [laughs] I just have a tendency to put stuff in there and try to organize it. And that's what's great about the kids. They don't seem to care about that as much. Especially with this process. I do understand what you're saying about the drawing part because I feel like my six year old, she does kind of like to be organized in that way, but it just depends on what it is. It seems like the medium’s different for her. Whatever medium she's—painting, she's way more fluid. It just depends, I think.

MS: Yeah. It does come back to the whole idea that we were talking about before about discovery and that kind of thing. I really... I dig it.

BM: [laughs]

MS: And then your most recent body of work, I think, is Of Salt and Earth. Is that right?

BM: Yeah, exactly.

MS: So can you tell me a little bit about this series and how it works?

BM: Yeah, this is actually one of my more straightforward—I'm actually shooting digitally. But the images—so my base images are—a lot of the work I was doing for the Chasing the Afterglow series and these are just sort of outtakes. So I had a lot of prints printed out, and this actually started because of my kids as well. I had prints sitting out on the table outside and they had somehow dumped a bunch of dirt on one of them, one of the ones with the moon on it. And I was like, “Oh, that looks cool.” So I just took a quick shot of it with my iPhone and this dirt added this texture on top of my print that I really enjoyed, how it just randomly made this kind of textural composition. It made it look a little bit more like some cosmos, stars, or something going on. It activated my print way more than it was. So I thought, “Oh wow, that’s great, maybe I'll do this in a studio and do it on purpose.” [laughs] And I had a lot of dark images with moons and stars and you know… And so I was using salt as this white… atmosphere, and then they kind of look like stars or clouds. Then I started adding charcoal to the top. So really I'm just putting stuff on top of my print and then rephotographing the print. And then I'll even crop in certain areas and it creates this whole new image from the original. And I really liked this painterly style. That I can throw some baking soda on my paper and shake the paper around and it makes the Milky Way. [laughs] And I'll shoot a variety of the same image over and over and over. I'll just change it slightly or add something to it. It's a super organic way of working. It's totally up to chance. I've shot so much of it that looks horrible. [laughs] Just like anything else. It doesn't always look great, but sometimes you get lucky and there's some really interesting images. It really is—it's more of a meditative process for me. I don't have to have any control really. I mean some of the images I do, like I'll put in a circle form or something. That's about as much control as I give it. The rest of it is pretty much splashing charcoal or salt or whatever on the print and shaking it and moving around. It's one of those things where I was just having fun in the studio with something and it actually turned into something that I really enjoyed and actually loved the results. And then let's make some prints out of this. So it's been a fun series. Yeah.

MS: It's sort of interesting, you know, and I'm thinking about my own work, that I always say I have the hardest time when it comes to constructing an image. That I’m pretty good at observing things, that I'm pretty good at noticing things and maybe I might notice things that other people don't notice, so it's something that I can then sort of catch and then show it to you. But I have a difficulty with doing things on purpose. One of the things that I have found is that when I try to control things, that's when the images end up feeling really sort of stiff or boring or overly didactic.

BM: Mm-hm.

MS: and it's when I sort of give up on… Like, it's either the things that I noticed by chance or the things that I am building, but doing it in a way where I don't actually physically contain or control the parameters, that wind up with images that I ended up liking. And it seems like what you're talking about here is having sort of stumbled onto a way of doing both of those things right? Where you aren't controlling the variables of the image exactly, but you are sort of putting yourself in a situation where these sort of emergent properties can come about. You know what I mean?

BM: Mm-hm, right. Yeah. I like working in that way because I don't feel as much pressure. [laughs] I'm not as stressed out about it. I think because I've learned over the years that when I'm out photographing, I'm not really that good of a photographer in general. Because I'm not real technical, so I don't care so much about exposures and apertures and—

MS: That must make some of those purists really irritated.

BM: Oh, of course. Yeah. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

BM: I always remind myself when I was in college, learning the Zone System and how aggravating that was for me. I understood the principles of it, but I just didn't want to do that for my work. I wasn't interested in that for my work. I was like, “Oh, let's make it grainy and super contrasty.” I just—that wasn't why I was in photography. I wasn't in for that perfect tonal range and stuff like that. But, you know, I did have this conversation over and over the years though, like “What am I doing? Am I even a photographer? I'm not very good.” And I realized it's not—you know, I use photo of as a basis for what I like to do. And as soon as I let go of any… Oftentimes if I let go of the purpose, or if I let go of trying to make a certain kind of image, then it seems like things just happen.

MS: Yeah.

BM: It's kind of like you were saying about trying to control things when you're out shooting, and more just going out and just noticing things and shooting it, you know? And then sometimes things relate to the things you're already shooting because you're kind of in that mindset, right? I'm working on a series. It's about—maybe it's about color, it's about a place or it's about whatever, whatever the case may be. But if you go out saying “I'm going to go get this one image,” it doesn't always—in fact, it hardly ever works out that way. You're just going out and you're shooting.

MS: Yeah.

BM: And if you just go out and let go of trying to get certain things, sometimes you come up with something really amazing.

MS: Yeah.

BM: Because you're just not looking, and your being more in tune with what's around you or or how you feel in that moment. You know, what's interesting to you.

MS: Yeah. I like the thing that you said a minute ago where you said that it takes the pressure off.

BM: Yeah.

MS: One of the things that—I have nothing but respect for photographers who can work in studio. That's just not in my range. I can't do that. I've just sort of made my peace with that. I have plenty of respect for people who can work that way. For me, one of the things is that if I ever try and set something up in a studio, I always just feel like I'm not smart enough to do this. You know, like I'm not—like if I have to make something profound on purpose, then I'm just not, I'm not wise enough to be able to be profound on purpose. But if it's just like I can happen to notice something that the world is showing me, well then that's not really me doing it. Then I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

BM: That's interesting. I hadn't really ever thought of it that way.

MS: So I definitely don't want to end the segment before we talk about One Twelve. Obviously that's a big part of your work as well. So, One Twelve Publishing is your publishing company. You publish an annual photography magazine called Diffusion. You formerly had the Plates to Pixels online gallery.

BM: Mm-hm

MS: You do a number of things with your blog featuring different photographers’ work, and also occasionally you do the occasional photo book publishing.

BM: Yeah. [chuckles]

MS: So one of the things that I wanted to talk about first is where all of that came from. You know, you see a lot of people talk about being a good artistic citizen, but not that many people actually go out and build a whole thing around that. You know what I mean?

BM: Mm, yeah, yeah. It really started out just like any of my other work. I just had this idea—I've always thought it'd be cool to run a magazine since I was in high school. I was really into graphic design and advertising arts my whole life, so I've always been doing graphic design. And once I was at college and I started doing the Plates to Pixels website, I was really enjoying that interaction I was having with the artists. In fact, I wasn't even caring about who was actually viewing the website. [laughs] I was mostly just interested in working with the artists and interviewing them and promoting their work in this very small venue.

MS: I can relate to that.

BM: [laughs] I'm sure you can. So I think that's… Again, there was no pressure with what I was doing. When I decided to do this first issue, I didn't really expect it to even take off. I just wanted to do it for me. I wanted to do this project that had nothing to do with my photography or art, but it was more about people I knew and work that I was really interested in. And we had articles that I thought were engaging, and really I thought it was a moment in time. The first issue of Diffusion came out in 2009, so it's been almost 10 years. And at that time all these magazines were folding and newspapers were folding. So people are like, “What are you doing trying to start a magazine? You're a nobody [laughs] and you have no funding.” And I’m like, “I don't care, it's not really about that.” I just wanted to do it for me, just for something fun. We printed 500 of them. And I really used a lot of the relationships I had started with the Plates to Pixels website to make this thing happen. And also friends that I knew that could write, and people that can help me edit, and [I] had a designer help me design it. So I had a lot of help. It was definitely a collaboration. And then the thing just flew out. We sold the 500 within three months that I printed it and I was just shocked. Like “Oh my gosh, this is a thing.” And a lot of that was online sales through the AlternativePhotography.com website. They listed it on their site. So we got all these international sales because of them and they already had a large following and then we were featuring a lot of alternative process photography. So it kind of got out there, surprisingly to me; I didn't even know how it was going to sell it. We didn't have that many, so I didn't have a big distributor or anything like that.

MS: Mm.

BM: So I was basically just going off of word of mouth. Anyways, it was a very organic process. So I thought “Okay, we could do another one.” But I didn't have any goals on making this bi-yearly, or I didn't want to do four issues a year. You know, I have a full time job and trying to do my own work and trying to run this other website. So I just thought I'll just turn it into an annual, just do one a year because that's really all I had time for. I'm really glad I did because I'm able to focus so much on the content and design and all. I can spend way more time finessing it every year because I have quite a bit of time to do that. So, anyways, that's basically how it started. And then I took that first issue and sent it out to a bunch of my favorite artists and asked them if they wanted to participate. And a couple of them said yes. So. All right, this is a thing. So we did Volume Two and I ended up printing like 2000 of them instead of 500, which in hindsight was too many. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

BM: Because I still have like 300 of those, Volume Two. So, yeah, it was a learning process. I knew nothing about publishing or how to get it out in the world. I didn't really know even printing. Our first five issues we printed offset press and so I had to learn a lot. There's a major learning curve involved with the production itself. Even just setting files up for the printer and getting everything color corrected. It was a bit of a nightmare for me, going to press checks and seeing [that] the collodion plates are looking super yellow or super green, and you have all these different processes within one spread, and trying to split the difference. Let's try to make the collodion piece look good next to the platinum prints next to this digital abstract montage piece. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is kind of a nightmare. What have I done?” [laughs] I was really… I want the quality of the reproductions to be as good as possible and that's important to me, to have these things not look shoddy, right. “Here, I'm going to print your work, but it’s going to come back to you and look really weird.”

MS: I think everybody—Diffusion has a really good reputation for being a really well produced magazine. I mean, it's pretty well known at this point, I feel like. Everybody that I've ever heard talk about Diffusion always... I think part of it, like you say, because it only comes out once a year, it really feels like kind of a special thing. You know?

BM: Yeah, I'm glad that it worked out like that because it was kind of an accident. I think it's just like anything else, I just want to put out the best that I can in the moment. And I need to be able to change. You know, I've changed Diffusion—as much as I change, myself, and change my own work, I've changed focuses, and the content and how it all looks and the design. And, really, I'm changing it because it's influenced by the participants, the people that we publish and the people… You know, I've had some great interns that have helped me. It's really not me saying “This is what I want,” it’s me saying “This is what they want. [laughs] Let's do it together.” I've done this smart thing where I send out surveys every year after each issue goes out and [say] “What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What should we do more of? What should we do less of?” That kind of thing. So it's grown because of our viewership and what they're interested in. And also it's grown with technology. Like the fact that a lot of the articles, I pulled from the magazine in these recent issues and I can do that stuff on my blog now and it saves me space, so I can print larger images and more of them now. We used to collage—I could try to get as many images on a spread as possible and now I only put one or two on it on a spread. I want to make the images bigger [laughs] and let's engage with the articles and interviews and all that kind of stuff on our blog because we can. We have unlimited space there. So let's just focus on the work itself. And so it's been like this great change with technology. But I've had to adapt. I've had to change our website several times and DiffusionMag.com had its own website. It's just—I had to [say], “Okay, we're doing so many things now. It all needs to be in one place.” [laughs] I've spent the last year like, “Okay, let's put everything in one place, put our store low place and really focus in on who we are and what our brand is.” I feel like it's really come to a nice crescendo now that we've put out quite a few issues and we have a good following. And there's always great collateral things. Or I get invited to do stuff that there was no way I would have been invited to. [laughs] Which is great too. I enjoy that.

MS: Yeah. Well, why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.

BM: Sounds good.

[Music]


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Blue Mitchell: Well, being a listener of your program, I know that you're involved with Medium.

MS: Yes.

BM: And I thought I would talk about your experience with the portfolio reviews and the festival itself, photography festivals, because that's one of the things that I've really enjoyed about being a part of this photo community is being able to attend festivals and do portfolio reviews. And part of that is—my interest that we talked about earlier—is handcrafted photography. I get to see the work in person, either go to a portfolio walk and I see stuff out on the tables or actually sit down and talk to photographers about their work and I get to see it and feel it. And that's pretty exciting for me, as a publisher and just as a lover of photography. It's twofold. I get to offer opportunities to people. But more selfishly I just get to see really good work and meet really cool people.

MS: Yeah. I mean I always tell everybody that Medium is my favorite thing that I do every year. And I'm not like a reviewer or anything. I just go as a participant, but I can actually pretty definitively say that pretty much every opportunity that I've had as both as an artist and as a podcaster has come about through that. This show would not exist—it came from an idea that I had because of conversations that I was having at Medium.

BM: Mm, right.

MS: So yeah, it's definitely been a huge boon for me. Yeah.

BM: So you're talking about your conversations with photographers that you were having at the festival inspired you to actually do this for your podcast, right?

MS: Yeah. Well it was sort of a combination because… I don't think you've—you haven't been to Medium, have you?

BM: I haven’t been to Medium, no.

MS: Well, it’s great and I definitely recommend it. They do—

BM: It’s on my bucket list. [laughs]

MS: Yeah. [laughs] They do four days. In the first two days are portfolio reviews, but the second two days are artist lectures.

BM: OK.

MS: And I think in terms of—for me doing both of those things really increased my confidence in being able to talk. You know, just have conversations. So I would have conversations just sitting around the lobby in between reviews, that's one thing. But also attending these artist lectures and then they have a Q&A at the end. I don't know, I feel a little weird about this, but [laughs] The thing that that really started it was—a few years ago at the festival. It was in between artist lectures where you're taking a lunch break and I had just been asking some questions in the Q&A that had come before that. And I went out into the lobby. There’s a little restaurant off of the lobby right there. And I wandered in, I was going to get myself some lunch. And Claire Warden and Drew Nikonowicz—both of whom have been on the show, and I know you've done an interview with Claire before—

BM: Mm-hm, yeah.

MS: —were just sitting in the restaurant there. They were having lunch and talking and they invited me to come over and talk with them. And I was like, “Whoa, these people want to talk to me.”

BM: [laughs]

MS: [laughs] And Drew said something like, “You asked really good questions, you're really smart. You should keep doing that.” And I thought, “Huh, okay.”

BM: [laughs]

MS: And it really… I mean, I don't know, it's a silly thing, especially considering in some ways Drew’s so much younger than I am. I just felt like I had been given permission to do this thing that I kind of wanted to do anyway, you know?

BM: Right, right. Well you took something you love and embraced it, and went with it, which I think is great. I think that's the way to do it. And you know, the thing about—I think the questions, having the right kind of questions, too, for artists when it's, like I said earlier to you, the questions are great. And that's, you know, since I've been listening to your podcast, what I really liked this is the questions. Because like I said, it's you bringing out stuff that people don't necessarily ask normally. A lot of artists like to talk about their work, but they like to be challenged, you know? They like something different. Or even publishers or whoever the case may be. I think it's that being challenged by the question is just as exciting as… Because it's more of a conversation rather than a Q&A.

MS: Mm-hm.

BM: You're having a conversation. And I think that's the key thing for me. Part of actually what I was doing—my early issues of Diffusion, they were…  I was sending questions to people and they were answering them and it really fell flat for me because they weren't conversations.

MS: Hm.

BM: So I started making them conversations. Even though I couldn't necessarily talk to people in person, I started sending them only one question at a time and I would do a written conversation. At least that made me feel like it was more engaging because I was taking the things that they answered from a question and regurgitating it in my mind saying, “Okay, what does this have to do with this?” From things they said versus just asking generic questions, which to me is kind of boring.

MS: I feel like the people that I talk to on the show and the people that I've talked to—just whether they're friends or whether they're lecturers or whatever—at different events or openings or whatever. These are people who have just immeasurably improved my life by putting the work into my life. And so it's like the absolute least thing that I can do to actually engage with the work and think about the work and then to make the conversation something that is, you know, something that's going to be interesting for me. Like if it's something that I'm legitimately curious about and not just in order to have an interview, you know, that I actually want to talk to somebody.

BM: Right.

MS: So you were talking about the photo community and festivals. What do you find to be the thing that you enjoy most about festivals with respect to community?

BM: I think it’s similar to what you're saying. Part of it for me—and I feel like I accidentally came upon the festival scene because I was invited to PhotoNola pretty much right after I was producing our second issue. And, you know, it was an honor to be asked to come review work in person at this event. But I was also—it was nerve wracking because I had never done anything like that before. And I actually hadn't had the opportunity sit on the other side of the table yet as a photographer. So I didn't have any idea what I was getting into as far as how the format was and all that. But what I found was what I really enjoyed was it was less about worrying about how I was presenting myself, but more it was I just really enjoyed the conversations that I was having with the artists that were sitting down and I actually, like I said, I got to look at the work and talk to them about it. And because I am trained in photography, I can talk about photography and going back to the history of photography and then contemporary issues and being able to have that knowledge base of being able to actually engage with them about photography in general. I feel like that's kind of what started me being more interested in having those conversations with people. But really what I get out of it the most is just the connections with people and all these friends I now have because of being able to travel to these festivals and stuff like that. It's amazing to me how tight you can get with someone in a couple days and feel like you have some camaraderie. And I'm really good about trying to keep up with people, too, keeping in touch with them.

MS: Mm-hm.

BM: And providing as many opportunities as I can for good work, too, in as many venues. I think that I've grown so much. Kind of like you were saying, I've gotten so much out of engaging with the artwork and the people over the years. It's just been mind blowing to me, really, how Diffusion has developed because of it. But also just how I've kind of developed as a person and the things that I'm interested in. And honestly my confidence level engaging in this photo world has increased tremendously just because it seems to me that everybody's so supportive. You know, in other art avenues, I'd not seen this kind of support that we get in the photo community amongst… You know, like I always tell people at those reviews, when I'm talking to photographers, when you are here at this portfolio review, probably your most important connections you'll ever make are your peers that are here with you, right? Not necessarily the reviewers, because you might actually get more opportunities from your friends that are there with you.

MS: Yeah.

BM: I always tell people that's just as important as talking to the reviewers and the people that are there doing artist talks and all that kind of stuff, is having that camaraderie amongst yourselves. I think I can say that because I'm a photographer and I get it. I get that you can actually give each other opportunities.

MS: Yeah. That is something I think a lot of people miss. It’s interesting, you say you have so many friends now, that you can get tight with people in just a couple of days. It is an interesting thing how, having the context of the art… Because for most of us the art has at least some personal dimension to it. Or at least the work that tends to resonate, right? Like some people maybe are just making stuff that's kind of impersonal, but I think the stuff that tends to—at least the stuff that I connect with has some personal dimension to it. Even if it's not necessarily about the person's life or specific emotions. Maybe they're doing documentary work, maybe they're doing… Like I saw some some work that was about environmental issues that I thought was interesting and it'd lead to interesting conversations because that's something that that person cares deeply about.

BM: Right.

MS: And it just gives you a way in, to sort of shortcut the sort of bullshit that you might, if you were just meeting somebody at a party or something—

BM: Right. [chuckles] It cuts the small talk because you already can kind of see something about somebody that wouldn't come up in that small talk conversation.

MS: Yeah. It's something where you… I've been thinking a lot about small talk, because when I started doing this show, everybody was—all the people in my family and close friends were like, “You're going to talk to people for a podcast?” Because I'm kind of shy and reserved in my normal life and everybody was sort of surprised.

BM: Hm. Oh.

MS: For me, I was realizing that the thing that I dislike about small talk is the part where you're not really sure what you can talk about, like what's okay to talk about with people.

BM: Right.

MS: Because you don't have the frame of reference, you sort of talk about stuff like—I'm just always so terrified that someone is going to either think I'm an idiot or get mad at me or think I'm being intrusive, or maybe not engaged enough.

BM: Right. Or judgmental. [laughs]

MS: Right. When you're at a photo event, people have got their work out, they're showing it on purpose. That gives you an entry point and you know that at the very least they want to talk about that.

BM: Right.

MS: And then that will give you the impetus to talk about all the other stuff. It's one of the things I love most, is that connection that you get.

BM: Yeah. Oh yeah. Well, and also, following up on what you just said, when people are laying their work out there to show to people, they're essentially opening themselves up and being vulnerable, right? I mean, who's not vulnerable when they're showing their stuff they've been working on, that's really important to them. And then they're exposing themselves and they're prepared for that. You have to mentally prepare yourself for, for being vulnerable essentially.

MS: Yeah. I really have appreciated—and I've heard that it isn't like… I haven't been to any other portfolio review events besides Medium, but—and I've heard that it isn't always like this—but one of the things I really like about what scott does is that the lineup of reviewers that he picks are all people that, A, he wants to have people who can actually do something more for you than just say “This is good or bad.”

BM: Right, yeah.

MS: But also he doesn't pick people who are assholes.

BM: [laughs]

MS: For the most part—and, you know, everybody has had a bad review experience, even at Medium. I have as well. But for the most part the people that he picks are very supportive and I've had very few instances where the person who has been reviewing my work has just been unhelpful. Even if they don't like the work, they're willing to talk to me about what parts are working for them or what I might consider doing differently.

BM: Mm-hm.

MS: And that's also something that I find about the reviewees. Again, there are always a few exceptions, but mostly the photographers that I've met at these places are not prima donnas.

BM: Right, right.

MS: Like, you know, nobody likes getting a bad review, but most of the time when people I talk to get a review that isn't stellar, they're more thoughtful about it rather than being like, “Well, that person [growling noise].”

BM: Right.

MS: I don't like that energy either. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Well, it's funny you mentioned the asshole reviewers. I noticed a lot of those people won't get invited back as a reviewer.

MS: Yeah.

BM: I noticed that at Photolucida, here in Portland. It's a bigger festival. It's four days. It's grueling for the reviewers. [laughs] Bu, you know, it's they just won’t invite people back if it's a problem.

MS: Yeah.

BM: You want that good energy, you want people to come out of there positive. Even if people don't necessarily like the work, or can do anything with it, having an engaging conversation about it one way or another is better than nothing. [laughs]

MS: Yeah.

BM: And then walking away mad.

MS: Yeah. I always think about, for myself… I've done the reviews at Medium three times, I think, maybe four. I sort of lost track. But the first two times I went—because I didn't actually go to art school. I didn't have any background. I was almost completely self taught. And the first two years that I went—I went to the first and second years. Or the first and third year—I skipped the second year—and my work at that point was really just not ready yet. And especially the second time I got reviewed it was a little disheartening because I was like, “Yes, the first time I was really not ready, but I've spent two years working and the work is the best it's ever been.” And then for the most part everybody was still not that impressed.

BM: [chuckles]

MS: But the thing that was really great about it was that basically everybody, even that second time, or even the first time they were like, “This isn't really ready yet. You need to keep working on it, but do keep working on it, and here are some things that you might consider.” And that was actually really, really helpful to me. One of the people in particular who was really helpful is that Aline Smithson has reviewed my work three times.

BM: Oh yeah.

MS: And being able to come back to her over and over again, she was able to see the progress in my work.

BM: Well, she's amazing that way too. Because she’ll remember the old work and see your growth. Especially for someone who sees so much work all the time. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, seriously.

BM: Yeah, she's one of the best reviewers out there, I think.

MS: Yeah. You mentioned the first time when you were at Photonola, you hadn't been on the other side of the table at that point. Have you now?

BM: No, I still haven’t. No. You know, it's actually interesting you bring that up because I haven't felt like my work is ready yet.

MS: Huh.

BM: And I'm still not ready. I don't think. And I think being on the other side of the table has even supported that. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

BM: That notion. Because I, in the same way, I have seen so many people progress and I reviewed some of the same people at different festivals over the years and watching the progression, it's just been amazing for me because I'm a champion of their work. But at some point you see an artist and be like “Boom, they've got it. They figured it out. They've been working diligently and didn't give up, and now look what's happening.” Actually a good friend of mine here in Portland, Heidi Kirkpatrick, had that experience, similar to what you had, when she went to her first Photolucida her work wasn't quite ready yet. And then she took some time off and then she came back with a whole different body of work and then it sang. It was ready. And so having that accomplishment of not giving up, just I'm going to keep going and try something new and try it again and see how it goes. But I feel like, you know, these festivals, there's this other side where they're not cheap to go to, they're not cheap to attend, so you have this other—you have to invest a lot of your time and money into something. And I feel like if you're not quite ready that you might waste your time. So that's kind of where I've been with my stuff. I’m just not there yet and I don't feel like the work is universal enough for a lot of the reviews that I would probably sit down to talk to people.

MS: Hm.

BM: That’s also my own… [laughs] Being so involved in the photo community and knowing what's out there and being so immersed, I'm a little timid with my own work to take that leap, you know? That's just the honesty of it.

MS: Yeah. But on the other hand, you exhibit your work. Your CV is pretty long. You've got a pretty good exhibition history, so it's not like you're just keeping it under wraps. You're not keeping it in a drawer like Emily Dickinson, you know?

BM: [laughs] No, that's true. But I am able to focus on venues and people that I know might appreciate it. I feel like in some ways it's kind of like my publication. It's kind of niche, you know, it doesn't have a huge audience. It's got a very small audience. But eventually I will get up the nerve to attend one. I'll probably go to a smaller one like PhotoNola or Click! in North Carolina who I reviewed with last year. They have a great little festival now.

MS: Well, I’ll just recommend Medium. Medium’s pretty great. [laughs]

BM: Alright, there you go. How many reviewers show up to Medium?

MS: I think it's like 20-ish. Something like that.

BM: That's a good number.

MS: Yeah. They keep it fairly… Scott always likes to say “Medium is small.”

BM: Right.

MS: I find it really fascinating that, for me, especially when I was first starting out—it's sort of less so now, but especially when I was first starting out, I was just so starstruck at the time.

BM: Mm.

MS: I'd been been reading Lenscratch for maybe a year before I came to my first review. And then I had the chance to sit down with Aline, like “Aline can look at my work.” And I'm like, “Oh my god, Aline Smithson is going to look at my work!”

BM: [laughs]

MS: And one of the things I thought was really interesting is—so I think a few years later, I was applying to Review Santa Fe and I didn't get in. But then I noticed, who are the people that did get in? And that year I think Ken Rosenthal, who was one of the speakers at the first Medium and who I've talked with on the show now. I love his work. And Aline was actually also one of the people that was participating that as a reviewee. And I thought “That is so interesting to me.” Because here are these people who, you know, they have these long exhibition histories and they are already as much of a household name as one can be in the photo world. And they're also going to these reviews. I think that is really fascinating that you have these people who are… For me it was this sensation of “We're the same, we're actually the same.” And you don't outgrow the need for critique and the need for review and the need for opportunities. And I just thought that was really—for me that was an important sort of revelation, you know?

BM: Oh, for sure. I had the same experience being a reviewer because I've sat down with Aline as a reviewee and me reviewing her work. It’s so weird.

MS: [laughs]

BM: This has happened several times where I've had some of my favorite photographers sit down at my table and I'm like, “Oh my god, I don't even know how to critique your work because I'm such a fan.” You know what I mean?

MS: Yeah.

BM: But then [I] have that same realization like, “Hey, it doesn't matter.” But I had the initial—you said, the word “starstruck,” I've been starstruck as a reviewer by the photographer sitting down in front of me several times because I'm like, “Why are you even sitting with me?” [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

BM: “You’re way more developed than anything I can tell you.” But it actually—for me, those became conversations, not just about their work but also about how we could work together. And a lot of those people I've befriended and been working with for years now and I just love those relationships that I've been able to develop because of it. But yeah, I was majorly star struck, especially when I first started doing interviews like, “Oh, why are you sitting at my table. I have nothing to say. I'm just gonna, like, help your ego, essentially.” [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Oh, well, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Everybody needs a little bit of that from time to time.

BM: [laughing] Right.

MS: Well, so there's one last question that I like to ask everybody before we close and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

BM: You know, I feel like, going back, when I was at Click! last year, I got a preview of the 100 Views of the Drowning World—Kahn and, I can never say his last name, Selesnick—that Candela Books had there. I previewed it and saw it in person. I've always been a fan of their work in general. And being a publisher I was really intrigued by all the different ways that… They have that big accordion book that I have at home. I've always liked that they think outside the box, in photography but also in how they present their work. Not just the photographs themselves, but the different ways that they do their exhibits and then their publications and stuff like that. But this new book… I mean, define “book.” We were talking about defining what photo is. Well, these guys get about like “Define what a book is.” Because they’re really just cards, essentially, that make that make up this book. They're not bound. So I find that fascinating. They've looked at the, you know, working with the publisher. And then I interviewed Gordon about the book and how he got involved with them and the work. So I got an insight into that process. I was less interested in their perspective but I wanted to see the publisher's perspective on making the book and, considering that they go for these unique book styles, how that came about. Anyway, the reason I think that has really stuck with me is because we're talking about photography and unconventional ways of working in photography and they've really done that for me. In their work, but also in the way they present it with the publishing and stuff like that. Anyways, as a publisher and a photographer, it's been very inspiring to follow them in having all these different formats and creative ways to get their work out into the world.

MS: Cool. Cool. Yeah, I had heard about that. I remember when Candela did the launch party. It was not that long ago, and I had definitely been interested to see that. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see it in person someday. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Well, I have a copy so we’ll have to meet up.

MS: Yeah. Well, hey, I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with me. Thank you so much.

BM: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it. It's been a pleasure.

[Music]


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: Alright, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Blue is reviewing at this year’s Click! Photography Festival. He also has work in the Pacific Northwest Photography Drawers at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon; that work will be on display through March of 2019.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 1st with a conversation with writer R. O. Kwon, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 69: Leah Umansky

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

[Spoiler Warning: The second segment contains major spoilers for Season 2 of Westworld.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 69. Today’s guest is Leah Umansky

[Music]

Hey there, folks, so it’s the Fourth of July today, at least if you’re listening the day this comes out it’s the Fourth of July. In just a few minutes you’re going to hear a conversation in which Leah Umansky and I talk about, among other things, stories, and especially the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves. And that seems like a particularly fitting topic for today, because the Fourth of July is so much about story, you know? It’s about the story that Americans tell ourselves about who we are, about what America is and what it means.

Now, stories are powerful things. Stories can comfort, they can unsettle. They can excuse, or they can indict. And stories are seductive. They get inside you and tell you about yourself, about what you’re doing and why. Don’t underestimate the power of a story. Manifest destiny was a story, and it was a story that changed the face of this continent. And depending on how you understand that story now, it’s either a story of pioneers and growth, or it’s a story of the displacement of indigenous people and atrocities against them. Slavery was a story, too, or at least it was enabled by a story, you know, the story of racial supremacy. Which, that’s a story that a lot of people still want to believe is a thing of the past, and that belief has consequences. Stories have consequences.

The story of America is one that a lot of people, including me, have found inspiring and beautiful and deeply, deeply important. It’s a story that, for example, my grandfather, my father’s father, fought for and was wounded for in World War II, when he fought in a segregated infantry unit, and while his family was imprisoned in a camp in the Arizona desert just because they happened to look like the enemy. And, isn’t that just like another story that we’re hearing today?

So, this is the thing, right? The American story is one that’s great, but it’s not one that we as a people have ever collectively lived up to. You know, individually, sure, but as a whole, as a nation, we have always fallen short of the ideals in our story. So the question is, if that story is a worthwhile one, what can we—what can you and I and all of us do to make that story a true one? That’s the question, and that’s my challenge to you. You, the one listening to this right now. What are you going to do to make this a country that lives up to its own story?

Well, there are lots of ways to help, to get involved, lots of things big and small that you can do. What I want to ask you to do right now is, make sure you’re registered to vote. If you’ve never registered, or if you’ve moved, or maybe if you’ve changed your name, gotten married or whatever, register, or re-register to vote. You can go to vote.org right now, and they have resources to get you registered and check your registration status no matter which state you live in. I put a link in the show notes, so go ahead, pause the show and go do that, right now. I’ll wait. And then make sure you get out there and vote in November. It matters. Do it. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6th.

OK. Now, on to today’s show. Today’s guest is poet Leah Umansky. Leah is the author of two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection The Barbarous Century, which was published by Eyewear Publishing in March of this year. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, The White Review, The Bennington Review, American Poetry Review, Thrush Literary Review, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. And she describes herself as a Game of Thrones and Mad Men superfan, and some of her Game of Thrones poems have even been translated into Norwegian.

Now, I recently read Leah’s book The Barbarous Century, and I just loved it, I found it to be this joyful, exuberant experience, full of wonderfully playful language, and, you know, it just made me feel good. And, you know, there’s the kind of art that makes you feel good by hiding or disguising the bad things, by looking away. But then there’s the kind that makes you feel good in spite of the darkness in the world, that doesn’t shy away or fail to acknowledge it, but that refuses to succumb to it. And that’s what The Barbarous Century is, I think. So, you know, I was pleased to talk with her about it.

I’ve put a link in the show notes to Leah’s website, where you can buy a copy of The Barbarous Century directly from her. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and one more thing before we start, in the second segment we talk about the HBO series Westworld with a heavy emphasis on the second half of the second season. If you want to avoid spoilers, I recommend stopping after the first segment.

If you’d like to join the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Leah Umansky.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I was wondering if we could start with a poem?

Leah Umansky: Yeah. So I decided that I’m going to read the last poem in the book, in The Barbarous Century, actually.

MS: Perfect.

LU: It feels very fitting for what’s going on in the world.

MS: Yeah.

LU: The title is called “Survival.”

My whole life I’ve been the speaker of my poems, but that isn’t really true. My voice came late, sympathetic, like a witness, or a victim. It was a rescuing impulse: that art. We were already groping at each other through the flower-sprayed fields of self-discovery. All across this body, I felt I was winning. I felt the harshness of promise conspire with the transformation of story, my story. We all have stories, like the way all states have fear.

This is a feared state but we must open the doors of our hearts, and let the latches fall. All futures are uncertain. A brave new world is one where doom and sight are equivocal. Look again, this isn’t fiction; we are living this.

At times, the extraordinary overtakes me. A kiss, a new book, a moment of flattery, laughter or a happy mistake. The dream, the scene of the past, and the present are all encounters like train travel. The moment passes through us before we register the scene, but I want to register this.

I want to remember my hope and my heart. I want to remember the way time skips forward and away, like the stunning sight of bird-wings beating, that stirred fascination, that flutter and art. Yes, I said art, and it is, even in this pacing of life we propel ourselves through.

The wild joy is in the speaking. We must keep speaking. We are all in some way depressed, and the undepressed is in the imagining of desertion. The imagining of the next moment, the next day, the next year, like a rift opening. Keep looking. Manipulate that violating. Manipulate the whirl of your anger and meld it to what stirs you.

In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Merlin tells the young King Arthur, The Wart, that he will someday face all the evil in the world. He says, ‘Learning will never fail you,’ and I feel that’s good advice. We are all facing the darkness head-on.

Armor yourself in disruption and creation; that is the way this will end, in a forward slip into story, in taking the best parts of us into a future dawning with art and voice.

MS: Mm. Thank you. Yeah so, it’s funny, I was actually thinking a bunch about this poem—this exact poem—

LU: Oh.

MS: —leading up to talking to you. I always kind of like to—when I’m considering a collection of anything, whether it’s poems or photographs or whatever, one of the things that I like to do is look at the first one and then look at the last one.

LU: Mm.

MS: Sequencing is always a big thing for photographers. [laughs]

LU: For sure, yeah.

MS: And this poem, to me it was really interesting because in some ways it felt to me like a really good encapsulation of the collection as a whole.

LU: Hmm.

MS: Sort of, philosophically, I guess. Whereas, sort of, linguistically it felt like more of a departure. And I thought it was just really interesting, having this poem be the thing that you leave us with.

LU: Right.

MS: You know what I mean?

LU: Yeah. And I mean, that’s kind of what I like about this poem is that it ends the book, that it does sort of leave the reader, hopefully, with a sense of hope. Right? And a sense to sort of be optimistic and carry on and… I really like what you said about it sort of encapsulating the whole book because so much of the book has to do with story.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: And different stories we tell ourselves, stories that surround us in pop culture and in our families and in real life and in history and so forth. Ironically, it’s also one of the poems in the book that was never published anywhere else. And so that kind of makes it one of my favorites, too.

MS: Yeah, and there’s something… The line that has really popped out for me in this poem—for kind of obvious reasons—is “Look again, this isn’t fiction; we are living this.”

LU: Yeah.

MS: And there’s something about that. When I’m thinking about what we are living—

LU: Mm-hm, yep.

MS: —and how it’s such a strange and disorienting thing to be looking at it and thinking about how this is so much weirder than anything I’ve ever read. You know?

LU: Right. Mm-hm, absolutely.

MS: And there’s a way in which you can—I can, certainly, feel myself tipping towards despair, but I feel like there’s something about both this poem and the collection as a whole that really acknowledges that. But also, this poem in particular almost reads like a manifesto about why you shouldn’t do that. You know?

LU: [laughs] Oh, I love that, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s always two ways you can go, right? You could either keep your head high and carry on, or you could fall back into despair. And, I mean in this state that we’re living in, all I’m doing now is really writing about my anger and my rage, and so this poem and a couple other poems in the book were sort of thrown in right before it went to print.

MS: Mm.

LU: So what you picked up on is the more political aspect of this poem.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: In a lot of ways I sort of see it as a sister poem to “Stranger Is: An American Life” because that’s also a pretty political poem. And they’re both sort of about surviving and keeping hope, and one way for me is through story, like I said before. Any medium—TV, music, right?

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: So.

MS: There’s—let me see if I can find it… So there’s a line in the poem “For Reals” where you say “I want to do. I want to make and I want the making to do wondrous things.” And that, to me,    there’s a way in which that, itself, is sort of the most powerful thing that we can do in order to fight that urge to despair.

LU: Exactly. Yeah, and again it goes back to creating and, you know, in a way I feel like us artists—in any medium—are lucky that we could… We have ways of expressing ourselves, right?

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: As tons of people are dealing with their fears and rage and anger, and they can’t get it out. I mean, I have so many friends that are writers that just can’t write. For what they’re feeling right now with the current political world.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: It’s hard.

MS: It is, it is, and one of the things that I that about was, you know, my introduction to this book was actually—I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to say it, but sort of the first thing when I opened the book was the inscription you put in it.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: This little note that you put where you just said “Remember—the future doesn’t need to be bleak!” And, I don’t know, there’s something about these poems that do that.

LU: Thank you. That was sort of one of the missions of the book—whether I was conscious of it or not—was that there’s, again, a sense of hope and a sense of joy and a sense of wonder that we could hold onto even though we might not be so happy.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: [laughs] You know, the simplest way to say that.

MS: Yeah. I’ve read through the whole collection a few times now, and the first time I read through it, you know, I have to admit I actually found the poems a little bit difficult.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: And part of this is just, you know, me. That I sometimes have a little trouble with poetic language that is less straightforward.

LU: Right.

MS: But I found myself looking for a key, if you will.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: And so, when I had that in mind, it was interesting to me that in a couple of places you almost put a tag on that.

LU: [laughs]

MS: Like “Here’s a key for you.” You know what I mean?

LU: Yeah.

MS: Like there’s—let me see, in “This Is a Love Poem” you write “Sound is at the bottom of everything.”

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: At the end of “For Reals” you write “Poetry is lonely times, / but poetry is also language, / and also, social. / It is about personhood. / I choose sound. / It is a way to enter. / It is a way.”

LU: Right.

MS: And there was something about that that really clicked for me. That really opened up a lot of other things, the idea of sound being a key—

LU: Right.

MS: —to the poems. And I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

LU: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And that kind of goes back to what you were saying about the first poem and the last poem. The last line of the first poem “I Heard the Sparrows Aging” is “I will sing of the heart.” And there’s so much of the heart in this book. I mean literally, the word heart.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: [laughs] I think sound in many ways is where I write from, a lot of times, in terms of wordplay and repetition and melody and rhythm. I mean, other than writing and reading, music’s a really big part of my life. So I think it’s kind of just always in my head. Not that I’m a musician; I’m not. [laughs] Yeah, and the idea that, I mean, at least for me, here in New York City, so much about being a writer for me is about community. Right? And about supporting writers in all different stages. And that’s a big part of why I started my reading series here, around seven years ago.

MS: Mm.

LU: So yeah, I mean because being a writer—being any kind of artist, I imagine—can be really lonely. And so that’s kind of where the end of that, what was it, “A Real Poem” that you mentioned, that’s where that comes from. Right, that poetry is lonely times, but it’s also social. And it’s also about each other.

MS: Yeah. There’s something about, you know, when you talk about having a reading series, that that certainly makes it more tangibly connecting people in a social way.

LU: Yeah.

MS: But I think also even just hearing a poem out loud can really change the experience of the poem, itself. Right?

LU: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, and in terms of song, there’s also the whole element of singing when you’re happy, right? Sort of in the sense that singing is almost like an ode. Right? You’re praising something most of the time. And so, in terms of language, which is where the sound is coming from obviously in this book, even in some of the pop culture poems, they’re still sort of an ode to something, right?

MS: Mm-hm. One of the things I also thought was interesting when I was thinking about sound is how some of these poems, there’s stuff in some of these poems that seems like it’s actually very, very visual. Like just what the poem looks like on the page.

LU: Yeah.

MS: You know, like the way that you use spaces, and some of the ways that some of the poems kind of are all over the page, and some of them are very tight. Some of them, like in “Turning Over Phrases,” you have things that I’m not even sure how you would say them out loud, where you’re talking about things that you’re typing.

LU: Yeah.

MS: Or there are little constructions here and there with double colons or things like that, that almost seem impossible to say out loud. And I thought that was really interesting, too.

LU: That is interesting, yeah. Colons a lot of time I use for emphasis or pause. And there’s definitely the visual element, you’re totally right about that. But in “Turning Over Phrases” you have the line “I touch-type” and then there’s four x’s in brackets, and I saw that as typing. As like your finger typing on a key. I’ve actually only read that poem, I think, once before. And when I read it, I think I was being interviewed and so it was sort of on-the-spot [laughs] and I just sort of put my finger in the air four times.

MS: Mm. [laughs]

LU: So, you know, sometimes you have to work on your feet. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, that poem, too, really highlighted something for me about… So there’s something, I think, very exuberant about the language, in that poem especially but in a lot of the poems. There’s something feels very… almost luxuriating in language. And in that poem, the way that you sort of mix different types of emphases, like all-caps at some times, italics at other times. And you do this throughout the thing where you sort of are flexing the language, where you’re turning a lot of verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs, and at times you’re just making words up. Which—

LU: Absolutely.

MS: —it struck me as almost kind of like… It reminded me of—like T. S. Eliot would do that, or even Dr. Seuss would do that.

LU: Yeah.

MS: And when you read a Dr. Seuss book and he’s making up words, but they also feel so right. You know?

LU: Right.

MS: And here, you have a line in “Turning Over Phrases”: “and a word is now forswunk and forswinkled.” Like that, it’s just so… happy, you know?

LU: Right, those aren’t real words. [laughs] Well, I mean, that’s also sort of the teacher in me. Because I teach middle-school/high-school English, and there’s so much that’s stigmatized in poetry. And so one of the things that I’m always telling students is that poetry could be fun and you could play with it, and that there really aren’t so many rules. And that’s, I think, what I’m drawn to in poetry, is things like that. Yeah, forswunk and forswinkled are not real words. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

LU: But it gives you a sort of essence in the poem, I think.

MS: Mm-hm. Yeah. And I think a lot of this comes—there’s this sense in many of the poems, whether it’s, like I said, in how the lines in some of the poems are sort of all over the page. Or the way that, like I say, you flex the language, where there this sort of sense of wildness or—I don’t quite want to say chaos, that’s not quite right. But do you know what I mean?

LU: Yeah.

MS: Where it is really playful and sort of exuberant, and it just made me happy in a way that I couldn’t figure out why almost. You know?

LU: I love that so much. [laughs] That’s good. This is my second full-length collection and my fourth book in total, and my first book, Domestic Uncertainties—my first full-length book—has a lot more white space. I mean, I’m really all over the page in so much of that book. Where in this book, there’s a lot more prose poems. Which is interesting to me. It just sort of happened that way. But I love that that made you happy.

MS: Can you think of maybe why? Do you have a sense of why you were more attracted to prose poems at this point?

LU: I mean, I’ve always sort of been attracted to them. There’s quite a few prose poems in Domestic Uncertainties and in the chapbooks. I don’t know. I think it’s because there’s a lot of poems in here that are more narrative, that are more straightforward.

MS: Mm.

LU: Which, again, kind of aligns itself with story. I mean, for a lot of friends of mine, for example, who are not poets and not writers, have said that this book was a lot easier for them to understand, which kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier. But, I don’t know. It’s probably just also personal, that I’m at a different point in my life where I was writing Domestic Uncertainties. In terms of feeling confident as a writer and in terms of being confident as a woman. I mean, Domestic Uncertainties is all about my marriage and my divorce. I sort of say it’s a memoir of poetry, in a way. And so there was a lot that I was searching for and coming to terms with, where now in 2018 things are much different.

MS: Mm. One of the things you just said about your friends saying that this book was easier to understand, what came to mind to me was: we actually had a very brief conversation on Twitter—

LU: Yeah.

MS: —and you said this thing that I’ve been sort of turning over in my head a bunch since—

LU: Oh, God.

MS: —then. No, no, no, it’s good. Where you said, I think it was something like that as a teacher and as a poet, you like to say that poetry isn’t about understanding a poem, but about how it makes you feel.

LU: Yeah, 100%.

MS: Yeah, and I’ve been really turning that over in my mind a lot. I think it was a couple three weeks ago that—

LU: Interesting.

MS: —that we had that conversation.

LU: Yeah.

MS: Because it’s something that I personally kind of have a block about. I tend to approach things intellectually first. And I feel like one of the troubles that I had immersing myself in this collection, at first, was that I was having reactions emotionally to what I was reading, but I didn’t really understand why.

LU: Huh.

MS: What that was highlighting for me was that there are different ways of understanding things, and that, for me, I tend to be very analytical, and when I’m having a response to something, I really want to know and be able to articulate the reason.

LU: Right.

MS: And I think I’ve gotten a little closer there, but I also kind of feel like there’s a way in which you can understand something in a way that doesn’t involve you being able to explain it.

LU: Exactly.

MS: Does that make sense?

LU: 100%, yeah. I do stand by what I said and I say that quite often to people, especially to students. I think it could also be dependent on the kind of poem you’re talking about. If you’re reading something older, like William Blake, it’s a different sort of thing. There’s obviously scholars of Blake, so you know what you’re looking for in terms of what the poem’s about. I think in terms of contemporary poetry, for me it’s always been that a poem is successful if it makes you feel something.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: In terms of reading poetry, in terms of writing poetry. I know that a poem is strong or a poem is successful if it makes me feel something. There are certain poems in this poem that really killed me in writing. Like I was devastated. [laughs] Some were kind of heartbreaking.

MS: Yeah.

LU: So, yeah, I get what you’re saying, that you’re making the point that there’s a little bit of a disconnect between understanding something analytically and understanding something emotionally.

MS: Yeah.

LU: I think that’s OK.

MS: Yeah, I guess it kind of has to be. Sometimes it gets… I remember I was listening to another podcast a little while ago, and Kaveh Akbar was on it and he was talking about kind of the same thing, where if you listen to a piece of music you just have an immediate response to it, and you don’t necessarily… You might be able to take it apart and say “If I built another song out of parts that did this, it might do something similar,” but you still have this sort of instinctive reaction to it that goes beyond describing it.

LU: 100%. I mean, especially with music. Tori Amos is one of my favorite musicians ever, and there are tons of songs that I have no idea what the song’s actually about. But I know what it means to me and I know how it makes me feel.

MS: Yeah.

LU: Yeah.

MS: So I definitely didn’t want to talk about this book and not talk about the middle section of it, because I feel like it’s really important.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: Where you have the second section, the title of which is “People Want Their Legends.”

LU: Yeah.

MS: And that’s also the title of the second-to-last poem in that section.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: And these are all poems that are inspired by or responding to a couple of different pop culture items.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: And I found these really fascinating.

LU: Thank you.

MS: And I think what it was was, so these poems, the ones that are about pop culture, you’re referencing Game of Thrones and Mad Men. And that in itself was interesting enough, just as responses to these things that we’ve all seen. Or, at least, most of us have seen. But the thing that really grabbed me was, there’s a line in “People Want Their Legends”—there’s a couple lines—where [in] one you say “I want something to rally about.” And then at the very end you say “This is more powerful than myth.” And what that got me to thinking about was how myth and legend and religion, maybe, how one thing that they do is connecting us to a tradition and connecting us to something bigger than ourselves. And it kind of feels like, the way you approach pop culture in this, it suggests that maybe these shows are our contemporary myths.

LU: 100%. I love that, yeah. For me, again, it goes back to the idea of story, right? It goes back to the idea of what inspires you, what motivates you, what gets you to move on despite sadness, despite rage, despite anger or anything you’re going through. And it’s such an amazing thing that now we’re living through this golden age of television, and it’s just like nothing has been before. The writing is so inspiring and so relatable, and you have these larger-than-life characters that I feel it’s easy to align yourself with.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: And so for me, in a lot of ways, these characters in these TV shows, for sure—I mean it sounds kind of lame to say it borders on religion, but there is that element of belief. That you’re rooting for characters, you believe in what they’re doing, you feel certain emotions that they feel. And so in a lot of these poems—the Mad Men poems and the Game of Thrones poems—even though I’m writing in response to a TV show, I’m in all those poems. I’m also writing about myself.

MS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It seems to me like religion and myth, one of the things that those things do is, in telling these stories that they give us a way of understanding ourselves.

LU: Exactly.

MS: And that they give us a way of understanding our place in the grand scheme of things.

LU: Yeah.

MS: And so it was really interesting to treat these things—I mean, a lot of people would treat pop culture as just sort of a trifling thing, right?

LU: And sometimes they do. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] You know, but to treat them in the way that you have here, as something worthy of poetic attention, there was something really kind of neat about that.

LU: Thank you.

MS: I mean that’s not really a great word, neat, but—

LU: No, but I get what you mean. Yeah. Well, to be honest—and I know I’ve said this many other times—but I really had no choice. When I started watching Game of Thrones, for example, I think Season 1 was almost done. And I started watching it on HBO On Demand and found myself for the first time ever pausing and writing notes. And I had never done that in my life for any kind of TV show or movie. And so it was crazy when I sat down to write that week, and the first poem I wrote was “I Want to Be Stark[like]” because that title, that sentence, was a note on my phone. And I all of a sudden started writing Game of Thrones poems. So I really had no choice. But I saw something in Ned Stark that inspired me.

MS: Yeah. It’s such an interesting thing, you know, these shows—especially these two shows, the HBO shows, in general—are such a big part of… Like, both of us spend a ton of time on Twitter, I know.

LU: I love Twitter!

MS: Yeah, I do, too. Except for when it terrifies me, but…

LU: Exactly.

MS: But, just culturally, we spend so much time talking about these exact shows, and everybody’s got their take. You know?

LU: For sure.

MS: One of the lines that really jumped out at me in this section of poems was, the poem is “The Times,” where you say “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t.”

LU: It’s true.

MS: Yeah.

LU: [laughing] True story. Well, you know, same thing. So when Mad Men started, I didn’t start watching Mad Men until Season 5 was already on TV. And for years people had been saying, “Oh, you need to watch Mad Men.” I was like “Yeah, no, Don Draper, he doesn’t look like someone I’m going to like.” And I wasn’t really that interested. And that was back when Netflix was only DVDs. Back in the good old days. [laughs] I started watching Season 1 when, I think, Season 5 had just ended on TV, and I just instantly fell in love with it. That sentence is just true life. I really thought I was going to hate him and I ended up connecting to him and, yes, pitying him because he’s definitely flawed, but also falling in love with him, in a way.

MS: It’s such a weird thing. I feel like there’s something in this about how we talk about things. You know? And how… Sometimes I’m not entirely sure how I feel about things, because I don’t know whether to trust my own instincts. Even if it’s something as simple as just a television show, where you definitely have a lot of people saying… There are a lot of people who say “Well, Don is trash and—”

LU: Yeah.

MS: “—if you like Don, you’re trash.”

LU: [laughs] I get it.

MS: Which I can certainly see the point, but also sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of room for people to form their own opinions.

LU: Right.

MS: Which is also one of the things that I like these poems, that that’s what you’re doing here, is you’re taking your very personal responses to these things, and then using them as a way of exploring yourself. And, I don’t know, there’s just something about that that feels sort of—

LU: No, I get what you’re saying. “The Times” is a long poem, it goes on for a couple pages. And it’s very much about Don, but it’s also about Peggy. The scene that I’m talking about, I think, is in Season 5—it could be Season 4, but I think it’s Season 5—where they have this moment in his office where he falls asleep on her lap, and it’s this beautifully tender scene. And for a split second you see this other side of Don. And then you find out that Peggy’s going to leave, and the whole idea that she’s trying to make something more for herself, and what’s he going to do without her?

But, I mean, same with the Cersei poem. I remember writing the Cersei poem and I couldn’t believe I was writing a poem for Cersei because most people hate her guts, right? But when she does that walk of shame, it was one of the most amazing things in the whole series. At least for me, my heart really ached for her. Here she was, naked, walking this walk of shame, with that bell being rung above her, and I saw her as a woman, and as a mother in that one episode. And then, of course, after that I hated her guts again.

MS: Yeah. [laughs]

LU: [laughs] But, yeah, in that one episode I really saw her as every woman. And that’s kind of where that poem came out of.

MS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That was hard to watch.

LU: Yeah, I mean it was intense.

MS: Yeah. So I didn’t want to leave this—we’re probably going to move to the next segment soon, but I didn’t want to leave this segment until we talked a little bit about the cover.

LU: Yeah.

MS: So I know you did the cover image yourself, that you also do collage?

LU: Yeah, I made the collage. I didn’t do the font.

MS: Right, right.

LU: Thank you.

MS: Well, yeah, I think it’s interesting, it’s very visually interesting, but also, what strikes me as really interesting about it is the idea of thinking about whether or not, or how, something like collage and something like poetry can come together, or how the processes of those might inform one another.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: Do you think that making collages and making poems, that there’s any similarity for you in how those things come about?

LU: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of overlay, I just don’t know how conscious it is, again. I think it goes back to what you were saying about some of the poems and the white space, right? Because those are the more visual poems. And obviously collage is all visual. There’s definitely connections in the way that you’re spacing things and you’re laying things out. When I made this cover—I knew the title of the book long before I made the cover, and so I knew The Barbarous Century was going to be both a book that was about despair, but also a book that was about hope, and about the heart. And so I knew I wanted something that was kind of bleak, but also something that was sort of hopeful. So I made the majority of it that sort of blackish-gray background, and I wanted to have something kind of bursting out that couldn’t be controlled. And that’s sort of where those roses come from. And these are just all things that I had cut out and stuck in a folder for years. I’ve always been that person that cuts things out. Lots of people are, I guess. And lots of times it just sits in a folder and nothing happens. Each time I’ve had a book come out, I’ve been lucky enough to make the cover. And so when I was putting this one together, originally it didn’t have the three women on the front. It was the roses and the black and the gray. And then I decided to put the women on it, because I felt like it added a whole other layer of feminism to it.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: Though, all three of those images came from magazines from the fifties. Which I also think is interesting in terms of something like Mad Men.

MS: Yeah.

LU: But, again, it’s also about feeling. I knew that I wanted this sort of warmth to be busting out of it, and that’s where the roses came from. And then when I saw the font that the art director did, Edwin Smet at Eyewear, I was just absolutely head-over-heels in love with it.

MS: One of the things that I think about with collage is how with collage it’s different from some other visual art forms because you are taking things that are more or less found and making something new out of it.

LU: Exactly.

MS: And there’s something—I felt like there was a connection there between that idea of finding and repurposing, to what you’re doing in some of these poems. Especially the television ones.

LU: Yeah. Again, it goes back to story. I always sort of joke about this, but it’s sort of true. And it’s something that Jeanette Winterson says a lot, that every story is another story. That there’s this idea that there is no original text because we’re always telling the same story in different ways. And in a way that does kind of relate to collage and to art, like you were just saying. Even that last poem, “Survival,” that T. H. White book, The Once and Future King, is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I never thought he would enter a poem, but he did, because it… When he says that to The Wart in that book, it’s all about how The Wart is this young kid that’s going to become king, and he’s like “I’m going to kill everything! It’s going to be fantastic! Everything’s going to be great! I’m going to capture all the evil in the world and defeat it!” And Merlin is thinking “Well, you are going to try to do that, and you’re going to get killed.” But he can’t say that to him, because he knows that he can see the future. So that idea that we’re all facing the darkness, we’re all facing the evil, and what do we do to prepare ourselves? Well, one thing to do is to look to story.

MS: Hm. Yeah. Yeah.

LU: If that makes sense.

MS: It does. Story has been on my mind a lot the last couple of days. [laughs]

LU: [laughs] Yeah. On the cover with the three women, there’s one that’s dressed up in a cocktail dress, and there’s one that you only have half her face, in the leopard. And then the one next to her looks like she could be in some kind of a wedding dress. I’m not really sure. But what I loved about the first women, in the wedding dress, is that it sort of reminded me of Wuthering Heights, the movie. And, I mean, that book is my entire heart. I kind of like that element of juxtaposition in it.

MS: Yeah, I think there’s a lot in this collage. [laughs]

LU: Thank you. I appreciate that. And I love that Eyewear reprints the cover on the inside, in black-and-white. That’s kind of cool.

MS: Yeah. So why don’t we take a quick little break and then we’ll come back and do the second segment?

LU: OK.

[Music]


Second Segment

[Spoiler warning: This segment contains major spoilers for the second season of Westworld.]

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, and it can be whatever you’d like to talk about, whatever’s on your mind, so what would you like to talk about today?

Leah Umansky: I think I want to talk about Westworld.

MS: All right. I caught up the day before yesterday. [Note: this was recorded the week after the 9th episode of the 2nd season aired.]

LU: Good, I was going to ask you.

MS: Yeah, no, I’m all caught up. Should we put spoiler warnings on this?

LU: Yeah.

MS: [laughs]

LU: Spoiler alert!

MS: [laughing] OK. Alright, so where are you going?

LU: [sigh] I liked what you said earlier about the idea that especially in these HBO television shows that they’re sort of larger than life, and people are really connecting to things in a way that maybe they hadn’t before. And what’s interesting about Westworld—Season 2’s coming to an end on Sunday—is that, for me at least, it represents to me so much of the current state we’re living in.

MS: Hm.

LU: In the sense of, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be humane? What’s the difference between good and evil? So those elements are always sort of floating through my mind while I’m watching it. And also, again, what draws me, I think, to a lot of the TV shows that I’m interested in are these strong female characters. There was an article—I think it was on Vice—it was back in maybe April? That was talking about how Dolores is the new Khaleesi

MS: Hm.

LU: [laughs] Which I found entertaining, but I don’t think that they’re that similar, other than the long, blonde hair.

MS: Yeah.

LU: But, again, you have these two strong female characters that are sort of on a quest.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: They’re on a search for something larger than themselves.

MS: Yeah. For me, the character that I tend to find the most interesting is actually Maeve.

LU: Oh yeah, I’m obsessed with Maeve.

MS: Yeah. And she has that same strong female character, sort of on a quest kind of thing. One of the things that I can never quite—and obviously this is just how the show is set up, is that they want you to keep guessing—is to figure out how much of what Dolores or Maeve or any of them, how much of what they’re doing is their own—

LU: Yeah.

MS: —free will, and how much is just some thing that Ford wants them to do. It’s such a weird question.

LU: It’s so genius. It’s amazing. I gave a reading on Monday, at a reading series called Halfway There in Montclair, which was a lot of fun. And in my bio, I said—I usually say “Team Khaleesi, Team Maeve.” And when I was introduced, one of the curators said, “Oh, are you still Team Mave? Do we even know what’s happening with Maeve? Isn’t she dying?” And I said, “Well I don’t know, I mean she’s not dead yet. It looks like she’s dying but we don’t know what’s going to happen.” And so I’m sort of always Team Maeve, but recently I’ve really become Team Bernard. And he’s really struggling, right, with so much internal conflict, but like literal internal conflict. Ford is in his code.

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

LU: It’s just unreal. Especially in this last episode, last week, where he tells Ford to get out of his head, and he knows that he really can’t escape him.

MS: Yeah. This last episode was rough.

LU: Oh my god, I just… I can’t. I don’t know. And the episode before that with Ghost Nation, I found to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television.

MS: Yeah, that was really something. And also it’s something that, this show, the way that it portrays Native Americans—

LU: Yeah.

MS: —it’s very much drawn from old westerns and stuff like that.

LU: Exactly, yeah.

MS: Which is more as a force of nature than as people. And then to have this, and especially to be juxtaposing their search and quest and agency as compared to Maeve or Dolores or anybody else, that was really fascinating.

LU: Yeah. I just wrote a poem about that whole scene where Ford, all of a sudden you see him working with, I think it was buffalo or horses. The lights are on, and Akecheta—I think that’s how you say his name—he all of a sudden came upon Ford and then Ford put him into analysis. That whole scene was just so compelling, to see the way Ford has controlled basically everything.

MS: Yeah.

LU: And I wrote Ford his first poem the other day. I was shocked.

MS: Huh. Wow.

LU: [laughs] Based on that episode. And then I wrote William a poem the other day, based on last week’s episode. Because, again, like Cersei, that was… I mean older William, Ed Harris William, you sort of love to hate him because he’s a bad guy. But then, as the last couple of episodes have shown you, how flawed he is again. It’s similar to Cersei and it’s also a bit similar to Don Draper, except I don’t really see him as a villain in any way. But the fact that he looked as his wife and he said to her that she was right, that all this time he hasn’t belonged to her world.

MS: Yeah.

LU: With this beautiful, scary moment where he hasn’t even been present in the real world, he’s been in love with Dolores for, what, thirty years?

MS: Yeah. There’s something about that, especially where that ends up with him, where he’s so lost in the narrative of it that—

LU: Mm-hm, for sure.

MS: —So I’m—this is going to get a little, uh, let’s see where it goes.

LU: [laughs]

MS: [laughs] So one of the things that I was thinking about recently is, so this year I’m on track to read more books than any year since I’ve been keeping track.

LU: That’s great.

MS: I started keeping a reading journal in 2003.

LU: Wow.

MS: I think I’m on my 49th book of the year right now.

LU: I’m so jealous.

MS: It almost feels a little pathological sometimes, but anyway…

LU: [laughs]

MS: One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that I’ve been reading more back-to-back, with no break in between stories lately than I ever have before in my life. And it does this thing where, when you’re reading a story, especially when you’re reading, I feel, a narrative—not necessarily fiction, but a narrative, right?

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: That when you’re reading something like that, the emotions of it and the experience of it is so heightened. And then when you’re done with it, there’s this sort of almost weird, jarring sense of coming back to reality. Have you ever felt that before?

LU: For sure, yeah. Because you’re leaving the story.

MS: Yeah. There’s something about that where, since I’ve done that so many more times this year so far than I have in any other previous year, where I’ve been having that jolt more often. Where there’s something very seductive, especially about fiction. There’s something kind of uncomfortable about that. And then when I was thinking about that with respect to this last episode, where now you’ve got William, who can’t even tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

LU: I know, my God!

MS: It just, there’s something—

LU: It’s a good point. I mean, it also goes back to obsession, right? And it goes back to what motivates you, and it goes back to the stories that you tell yourself.

MS: Yeah.

LU: And that could go for anybody. The Barbarous Century is so much a book about being a single woman in the 21st Century, and the stories that I tell myself to keep myself afloat, right? And so that kind of idea lends itself also to Westworld, in the sense that we don’t really know what William’s looking for. And he doesn’t even know very much anymore what he’s looking for, but he’s not going to let go of it.

MS: Yeah.

LU: You saw several times, especially in this season, where he could have killed himself, and he didn’t.

MS: Yeah.

LU: I mean, when he kills his daughter—major spoiler alert—that was crazy!

MS: Yeah.

LU: And that’s when you really saw how much Ford is also in his head.

MS: Yeah.

LU: And the truth of the matter is he’s most likely not going to ever be able to live happily ever after with Dolores. That ship has sailed.

MS: Yeah.

LU: So what’s his endgame? What’s he looking for?

MS: Yeah. That thing you just said about the stories you tell yourself, that seems really relevant, too. Like there was that scene in this last episode where he’s talking to his wife, who he thinks is asleep.

LU: Oh, it’s amazing. Yeah.

MS: There was a line—he said something like, “I tried to do good things in this world, to be generous, and that has to count for something.”

LU: Yeah. Yeah, I wrote that down. That’s sort of in the new poem I wrote.

MS: I feel like there’s this way—you know, because there’s so much truly horrific things going on in the world right now, every day.

LU: Yup.

MS: And there’s this sense, I feel like, where people tell themselves stories about themselves in order to make themselves more comfortable.

LU: Yeah.

MS: And those stories can be so seductive, they make you feel good in such a way that they can allow you to do truly horrific things.

LU: God forbid, but yeah. [laughs] I mean, that’s what’s scary about him, right? I mean, now his whole family’s gone.

MS: Yeah.

LU: Even Dolores. That death at the end of last week’s [episode] was completely shocking. This whole time she’s thinking that her and Teddy are going to enter into the real world, and they’re going to make it out. And it’s interesting that she got so carried up in her own story that she changes Teddy to be the man she needs him to be.

MS: Yeah.

LU: Which is interesting because Teddy’s not even a real man to begin with, right? She sort of slips into the role of Ford in a way, and kind of demonizes Teddy, for lack of a better phrase. At the end of that episode when he realizes it, you just don’t see that coming.

MS: Yeah.

LU: It doesn’t seem like she saw that coming either and it’s just the same thing. She’s been telling herself the same story and it doesn’t go the way she planned.

MS: Yeah. That scene was one of the ones that, to me, was really… Because so much of the show is this question about whether the hosts have agency or not. And I feel like there’s an extension there to asking really whether any of us have agency or not.

LU: 100%, yeah. Which is another layer of brilliance in the show, that so often it makes you think about yourself.

MS: Yeah. That move that he makes at the end there, the only choice that he can make, you’ve got to kind of feel like that is a real feeling of agency there.

LU: Yeah.

MS: That that’s a choice that he actually made.

LU: Yes.

MS: That was—

LU: Intense.

MS: —heartbreaking, but it—

LU: Oh my God, yeah. Well, same with the Ghost Nation episode. When Akecheta realizes that the only way he could find his love is to kill himself, so that he’s taken out of the world and they repair him.

MS: Mm-hm.

LU: And then he gets taken out and then he goes into, I don’t know what it is, that basement or whatever where all the other robots are, and he sees her. It was just absolutely heartbreaking.

MS: Mm. Yeah.

LU: And he realizes that she’s not alive.

MS: Yeah.

LU: So it’s interesting. I mean in many ways I feel like it’s such a show about the heart, and about love.

MS: Yeah. Yeah.

LU: Even in last week’s episode, when Ford is talking to Maeve and he says to her that she was always like a child to him, because he didn’t have any children.

MS: Mm.

LU: That was such a touching moment, too, because you still sort of don’t know how—at least, I don’t know how I feel about Ford. I just still don’t know if I think he’s a good guy or a bad guy.

MS: Yeah.

LU: But in that moment I felt sort of tender towards him.

MS: Yeah, that episode—the last two episodes have really been swinging you back and forth on Ford. [laughs]

LU: Well yeah, and that’s kind of where I thought you were going before, when you were talking about all these back-to-back books you’re reading. Season 2 especially has been so… You know, the way they jump around in time, and the way that each narrative, because it’s jumping through time, is one after the other after the other, and you really need to have full brain capacity to understand what’s going on and what time frame you’re in.

MS: Yeah.

LU: It kind of relates to what you were saying.

MS: Yeah, that’s true. I think so much of it with Anthony Hopkins, too, is, one, he’s such a great actor.

LU: Amazing.

MS: And they have just an embarrassment of riches in terms of acting talent on that show.

LU: Mm-hm.

MS: But with him… I sort of accidentally saw, when was a kid, a few scenes from Silence of the Lambs.

LU: [laughing] Yeah.

MS: Of him. And it wasn’t even anything gory or anything. It was just one of the scenes where it’s a close-up on his face.

LU: [laughs]

MS: And he’s just talking. And that was legitimately one of the scariest things that I’d ever seen. You know?

LU: Yeah. It’s scary!

MS: Yeah. But then he also has had so many roles, too, where he just has this real profundity and wisdom and decency about him. The fact that he can do all of those things, that really does help with the ambiguity of this show.

LU: Yeah. And it’s funny because I remember seeing the posters for Westworld all over the city, like on the buses and in the subway stations    . And it was just that opening image of the circle and the human form. The mold or whatever of the human. And it looked so sci-fi. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t even know if I’m going to watch that show.” Because I’m not… I like sci-fi but I’m not a die-hard sci-fi fan. Or a fantasy fan, for that matter. Then I read some article about Anthony Hopkins saying that it was one of the first times HBO proposed a character to him for a show, and it was the only time he’s ever said yes.

MS: Hm.

LU: I was like “Wow. So that means it must be really good.” And then when I started watching it, I just thought he was absolutely magnificent.

MS: Yeah.

LU: And… yeah.

MS: [laughs]

LU: I don’t even know. And it’s funny, because all of Season 2—at the beginning of Season 2 you don’t know what the deal is with Ford, if he’s alive or if he’s dead. And you don’t know how much of Season 2 he’s even going to be in. I remember feeling so sad after Season 1, like “Is that it? He only signed on for one season? That’s unbelievable!”

MS: Yeah.

LU: And obviously that’s not the case. He’s been in the last three. The scenes with him and Bernard. Jeffrey Wright is just so amazing.

MS: Yeah.

LU: I’m so excited for the finale. I don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s going to be intense.

MS: Yeah. Well, so there’s one last question that I always ask everyone.

LU: Yeah.

MS: We’ve actually kind of been talking about it this whole segment, but I’ll ask it anyway.

LU: OK.

MS: So the question I always ask is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you’ve experienced recently that meant something to you. Obviously Westworld is one of those things, but maybe we could pick something else, too. [laughs]

LU: I’ve had a much different experience than you have with reading. This has been a really hard year for me in terms of reading. I haven’t had a book I’ve really loved in a long time.

MS: Mm.

LU: I just finished Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which is the first novel I think I’ve finished since, I don’t know, maybe in a year.

MS: Hm.

LU: I just haven’t had a book to love in a really long time. And it’s a book that’s about a love story between a woman and a merman, so it definitely has that sort of fantasy element to it. I didn’t really know how much I was going to like it, and it really resonated with me in terms of just the whole notion of being on a quest for love.

MS: Mm.

LU: And finding out more about yourself. It’s interesting that it has this merman fantasy element to it, but it’s something that’s really inspired me lately. It’s been surprising. I didn’t know if I was going to love that book and I actually really, really enjoyed it.

MS: Great! Well, thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it.

LU: Thank you!

[Music]


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so, as I mentioned at the top of the show, you can purchase a copy of Leah’s book The Barbarous Century directly from her via her website, and there’s a link in the show notes for that. And if you’re listening from Ireland or England, Leah has some readings coming up this month in Bantry, Cork, Belfast, Dublin, and London, and you can find all of the details on the events page on her website, and there’s a link in the show notes for that as well.

 

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on July 18 with a conversation with photographer and publisher Blue Mitchell, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 68: Richard Georges

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 68. Today’s guest is Richard Georges.

[Music]

Hey there, folks, before we get started with today’s episode, I wanted to take a minute to mention the Medium Festival of Photography. Now if you’ve been listening to the show for a while you’ve definitely heard me talk about Medium before because more than a third of the people I’ve talked to on this show have been people I either met for the first time at Medium or I heard about their work at Medium, or they reviewed my portfolio at Medium. And it’s that last bit that I wanted to mention.

Now, back in episode 60, you heard Brenda Biondo and I talk about portfolio reviews and how valuable they are for photographers. And in episode 44 you heard me talk with scott b davis about the Medium Festival, he’s the executive director of the festival. We talked about what it is and why it started. Well, as I’m recording this, there are still several slots available for the portfolio reviews at this year’s festival and I wanted to make sure you all knew about it. If you’re a photographer and you want to get your work in front of some great curators, gallerists, and publishers, this is your chance. And, to be clear, nobody is paying me to say this, I just really love the festival, and I can honestly say that it has been a huge part of my development as a photographer. In fact, I’m not just recommending it to you, I’m actually already signed up to have my portfolio reviewed this year, myself. So, if you come to San Diego, not only will you get to show your work to some amazing reviewers, not only will you get to see some fabulous artist lectures and generally have a great time, you’ll also get the chance to come say hi to me. You know, I say this so often and I’ll keep saying it, Medium is my favorite event of the year, every year, and I just can’t say enough good things about it. So, this year’s festival is from Thursday, October 18th to Sunday, October 21st, I’ve put a link in the show notes where you can register for the portfolio reviews, so if you can, come on out to San Diego and get in on this!

OK, so, on to today’s show. Today’s guest is Richard Georges. Richard is a writer, editor, and lecturer in the British Virgin Islands. His poems have been included in numerous journals, he’s the author of two collections, his debut Make Us All Islands, which was published by Shearsman Books in 2017, and then most recently his new collection Giant, which was published by Playtpus Press in February of this year. Richard is the recipient of the 2016 Marvin E. Williams Literary Prize from The Caribbean Writer, and has been shortlisted for The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Small Axe Literary Prize, The Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean Literature, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. And he is a founding editor of Moko, a journal of Caribbean arts and letters.

Now, I read Richard’s book Giant recently and I was immediately drawn to the language and the use of nature imagery, but what made me come back to these poems and really think about them and turn them over in my mind is how, you know, these are poems about a place that I don’t know a lot about, the British Virgin Islands, but in talking about things like the aftermath of empire, about myths and legends, about poetry itself, I was really drawn in and able to feel connected. And curious, too, you know, to the point where I wanted to learn more about some of the context, to deepen my understanding of these poems. And, you know, I’m always talking about how art is about communication, how it’s a thing that gives you a window into other people’s experiences, and I think that this is a really great example of work that does exactly that, so I was happy that Richard was willing to talk with me about his work.

Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to where you can purchase your own copy of Giant, as well as to Moko magazine, which as I mentioned Richard is a founding editor of. I do encourage you to check both of those out.

As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag ChannelOpenPod to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Richard Georges.

[Music]

First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I was, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind, if we could start with a poem?

Richard Georges: Sure. Do you have any preferences?

MS: No, just whatever, whatever your choice might be.

RG: OK. Well let me pick one that’s not too long. I think I will go with “Matthew.”

Matthew.

So we run from house to house holding hands
        and build wooden houses
we cannot enter. Light the oil lamps,
        shut the creaking windows—the howling storm
knows our names, exhumes our navel strings.
        Lord, I can see the inevitable
coming: the plodding clouds, the sleeping sea,
        the earth unmade, the town unmapped.
The storm shreds the trees to bones, drags children
        from their homes by their heels, their voices
swallowed whole in the wet night. They divide
        our lives into bags of rice and dried
herring. We are sleeping under the trees,
        she says. But there are no trees, and you have not
eaten in two nights.

MS: Thank you. So, you know, one of the things that, sort of—well, first of all let me just, let me just say that I really enjoyed reading this book—

RG: Thank you.

MS: —and I’ve been thinking about it a fair amount since, you know I think I finished reading it the first time a week or so ago, and the thing that really strikes me is how relevant these poems feel to a lot of things about the world right now.

RG: Mm.

MS: And how the conversations that we are having, I think, in a lot of countries like the US and, I’m sure, in many European countries about the legacy of colonialism.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: And how these poems really speak to that. So I guess, so one of the things that I thought was really interesting was that as I was reading through this collection, through the first part of it, I kept thinking about the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” and then, I turned the page into the second section and there’s the epigraph—

RG: [laughs]

MS: —to that section is from that poem. So, this whole idea of, of sort of aftermath, and sort of what comes after seems to really strongly inform a lot of these poems, and I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

RG: Sure. I mean, “Ozymandias” has been one of my favorite poems for, I don’t know, probably as long as I’ve been reading poetry, both because of the immense level of craft on display and, you know, the first two—let me see—I mean, the first two sections in particular are kind of circling that same issue and speaking more symbolically and metaphorically until it gets a bit more direct in the third section.

But the—you know, I’m not quite sure that the Ozymandias metaphor works perfectly. I mean, it works visually for me because, OK, in the Caribbean you have all of these remains, of the plantocracy and the slave and indentureship. And I’m sure in most places that have been colonized, or gone through a period of occupation or the like, will have similar relics or similar remains of that sort of possession. And I would say—so you have the ruins of great houses and plantations,you have old colonial structures, administration buildings, etc, graves, the ruins of sugar mills, etc, that all speak to this really fraught and troublesome—I guess, to put it mildly—past that the whole archipelago and the continent really were part of. But I guess the reason why I would say that the metaphor doesn’t sit perfectly is that there are these forgotten spaces like the BVI, like Bermuda, Cayman, Turks and Caicos, Montserrat, with respect to the British Empire, and you have Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, etc, in terms of the United States, where they’re kind of these forgotten outposts of empire, of colony, that we don’t quite think of in contemporary times as being colonies.

MS: Mm.

RG: But, yet and still they are. And both United States and United Kingdom often speak of “shared histories” or “longstanding relationships,” you know, euphemisms for possession and subjugation, really. So for that reason I don’t think the Ozymandian metaphor sits perfectly, but it speaks physically to the remains of the remaining symbols of empire and landscapes, if not the current political and social relationships between these islands and the metropole, if you will.

MS: Hmm. Yeah. The question of landscape—I mean, landscape figures in many of these poems very strongly. One of the things that I notice, especially in the first section, that many of the sort of more nature poems have a really markedly different tone from the poems that are sort of more—seem to be more explicitly political.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: That although obviously, I mean, one can’t really talk about land and landscape without talking about politics in some sense, I suppose. But I guess what I mean is that, looking back at “Ozymandias,” that that poem is so much about decay and about things falling apart.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: And many of your poems in this book also have that sense to them, I feel like. Whereas the nature-focused poems seem almost ecstatic. They have a much more verdant, vibrant feel to them, and I found that really interesting.

RG: And I think that’s definitely one of the main themes, or the main interests of the work was to look around me for these giant—pardon the use of the word—things, these ubiquitous entities that surrounded me in this small space. In this tiny space, there are these quantities that loom large over you and one of those things has to be the environment, the nature, the landscape in which we live. I mean, so the main island of the British Virgin Islands is Tortola, which is where I live, and where I’ve lived most of my life. And it’s mainly a rocky mountain range, skirted by beaches and little, small areas of flat land. So you’re always in view of the sea, but you’re also always in view of the mountainside. The mountainside is always above you and the sea is always beside you. So you sort of can’t escape—not that you want to—but you can’t really miss the landscape. It’s sort of imposed itself, it kind of demands to be seen and reckoned with. The nature of that reckoning can be destructive on your part, or, like I tried to be here, it can be—I guess the word you used is “ecstatic.” Just to have a sense of wonderment about these things that are, not overwhelming but ubiquitous, and that have… I wanted to explore a relationship with that landscape that wasn’t rooted in the historical. There’s a lot of meditation on the fauna and the flora, and the topography itself. As opposed to trying to relate all the time to some sort of man-made or some sort of anthropomorphic relationship with it. Sometimes it’s just in awe of it, or just to honor it. So that was definitely an impetus. While history was also there. One of those giants in the book is history. One of the giants of the book is, like you’re saying, the legacy of empire. Another giant there is religion and myth, and storytelling. In the same way, the landscape was one of those giants I had to contend with, and that I had to pay homage to.

MS: Yeah. I mean it is one of those things that, the spaces that we inhabit and that we grow in, they’re things that have a really profound impact on who we are as individuals and as communities. One of the things that strikes me about the nature poems is, as you say, they aren’t presented really with an eye towards the politics, towards the history, the anthropomorphic history that has happened in those landscapes, but also, by having these poems in the same collection next to these other poems, it really invites a juxtaposition and contrast, and that was one of the things I found very interesting. And then also, relating that to this idea of religion and myth, how religion and myth speak very much to beginnings and endings and to eternity. There’s a sense, I feel, in many of these nature poems about this eternal present, I suppose, that’s not necessarily as concerned… Something bigger—

RG: Right.

MS: —than what we might be concerned with on a day-to-day basis. And I thought that was a very interesting juxtaposition.

RG: Exactly. Yeah, that’s sort of what I was reaching for, that despite the political concerns of the work, and my immediate political concerns as a British Virgin Islander, and what it means to be that in this place, at this time, there is that dimension, there is that eternal dimension that really doesn’t care. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RG: This island inhabits several worlds at once, and that some of those worlds just keep going on. This book doesn’t speak about Hurricane Irma, it was written before. But the poem “Matthew” is about Hurricane Matthew striking Haiti, and having to live a similar narrative a year later was a bit odd. But the landscape is the first thing to recover after a disaster of that scale. So while the humanity that inhabits the place is still reeling physically and psychologically and emotionally and spiritually, you see the hillside that had been stripped bare, that was gray, in two weeks begin blooming again, begin flowering, begin greening again. And you see the birds, you see the fish, you see the beaches remaking themselves. And you kind of realize that the world that we inhabit here is moving on. You know?

MS: Yeah.

RG: That the trauma that we still feel, that the landscape is much more lithe, much more nimble than we are, and is able to recover much more dramatically than we can. That there’s really these, like I said, these different worlds that are just carrying on. And I think I was trying to capture that with the… I mean the fleeting lives that I try to look at, whether it’s goats on the hillside, whether it is animals that have been run over on the roadside, or whatever that is, that there’s always this infinite cycle that seems to be going on despite whatever our hang-ups are. And I guess that kind of is what speaks back to “Ozymandias.” That whatever we can accomplish, whatever greatness we think that we can achieve, whatever improvements we think that we can make on the world, that time and nature really could care less. It really—it will balance itself with or without us.

MS: Yeah. So, you mentioned that mythology and religion are one of the giants in this book. And certainly there are a number of points at which you’re making reference to, for example, the Ramayana, or at several points you reference Saint Ursula, and that legend. One of the things that I was sort of thinking about, because also many of these poems are about poetry. Or at least they—some of the poems it seems like the whole poem is about poetry, and in other places you maybe just have a line or two where you’re talking about what poetry is, what it does, that kind of thing. And taking those sort of things together, the idea of religion and myth and the idea of poetry, there was something about that comparison that felt kind of profound to me. Like as if maybe poetry is doing some of the same things that—

RG: Yes, it is. [laughs] Exactly.

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

RG: You know, poetry is its own religion. I mean, one of the poems makes that comparison very directly: “Divination.” Where it says “its own religion, its own, its own / imprisoned page.” The poetry is the poet’s way of reckoning, of trying to understand, to feel their way through the world, to understand it and understand their place in it. I think mythology and religion are doing the same thing. It’s just that poetry tends to be a much more profoundly journey, or much more of a solitary journey at first, at least for the poet. It can be communal for the reader, but just the act of writing poetry—for me, at least—is a profoundly spiritual experience. It’s an act of discovery, and not just of the self, but it really is an exploration of where you fit into, or where you engage with, or how you interact with or understand life and the world.

MS: Yeah.

RG: I mean, that’s all it is for me, at least. I’ve never really been a subscriber to—I don’t want to say “poetry for poetry’s sake,” that’s not true. It’s just some sort of exercise to demonstrate a linguistic cleverness or something.

MS: Mm.

RG: The poetry that is profound, the poetry that compels you to read it, I think is the poetry that is struggling with something that you are also struggling with, which is why you are pulled towards it. That is, for me personally. I’ve never been someone who thinks, “OK, well, this is a clever poem.” For me, if it’s a clever poem then I make a mental note that “this is a clever poem” but I don’t ever feel like I need to go back to re-read it.

MS: Mm.

RG: I mean, once I figure it out, once I figure out the puzzle, if you will, the magic has been lost. But if it is a poem that is really exploring and grappling with the self, I’m much more compelled to read and re-read and to wonder about that work.

MS: Yeah. I feel the same way. [laughs] You know, it strikes me that one of the things about—you mentioned that it functions as a spiritual experience insofar as for the poet—and for the reader—it can be a way of exploring and understanding the world that you’re moving in. Which is something that I very strongly—I agree with that and I relate to that as a reader and as a writer. One of the things that I was thinking a little bit about is how myth and religion also sort of function as a way of connecting the individual to something bigger, and especially to a tradition.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: And that’s something I feel like is really done pretty explicitly with the references to religion and myth in these poems, connecting the contemporary moment to an existing legend. But then I was also thinking about how, through both the epigraphs and also at a few points throughout the book you also are making reference to a literary tradition. Whether it might be Shakespeare or Shelley or Rimbaud, or there are other ones as well. And even just the formal elements of some of the poems. Like you’re working in, at some points, sonnets, in villanelles, which are also—these forms are a tradition that’s passed down to us from a long time. And that form of connection and community seemed like there was a resonance there. You know?

RG: Mm. Yeah, and I also tried to speak to some of my contemporaries. The number of poems that are dedicated to other poets.

MS: Mm-hmm, yeah.

RG: There’s tradition as well, there’s also a very intentional gesture towards community, and the poetic community in the region. Yeah, I think all those things sort of help to root—I mean, myself, at least, but I think help to root the individual. I will admit that the mythologies and traditions that I reference are ones that I have personal connections to or that are part of my own upbringing between Trinidad and the Virgin Islands. But, yeah, I think poetry… There is a history as well, there’s a pretty clear chronology, if you will. Not that there’s a finite or definite beginning point to any of these things, but there is this sense of a lineage that I think, for the intents of this book, that Caribbean people will feel a part of, or a consequence of, if you will That there are these several strands that are weaving their way through history to get us to the point that we are at today. Whether they are from West African traditions or Indian traditions and stories. Or, even I have in here a lot of—not a lot, but there’s some Trinidadian folk mythologies as well. Soucouyants and douens and those kinds of creolized spirits, if you will. I think they’ve all been woven together in my formation or in my personhood, if you will. I guess I’m rambling a bit. [laughs] But I really do see these several distinct things as weaving together the person or the individual in this space and in this region. I think we in the Caribbean especially tend to have these multitudes within us. You know, it’s sort of difficult to distill them into distinct and homogenous modes of identity. So you are at once harkening back to West African tradition—in my personal family background—a West African tradition, an East Indian tradition, a European one, and it’s not like they are in competition. It’s that they’re all formative. If that makes sense. I see these several strands of history, the mythology, the religion, as all weaving together this kind of very textured and layered tapestry.

MS: Mm.

RG: That sort of helps me, at least, make sense of who I am in this place. And I think me, my poetic influences sort of mirror that. So I have the formalism that comes with the colonial English education that many Caribbean people have received. But then coupled with my explorations into Modernism, Imagism, and, of course, the tradition of Caribbean poetry, as well. So, as Walcott would talk about, or Kamau Brathwaite talked about, it kind of helps to create something while at once new, is also familiar in these several different ways. I think that speaks not to just Caribbean poetry or my poetry, but I think it speaks to Caribbean culture as a whole. That there are all of these resonances within it, from all of these various different parts of the world. But it’s created something distinct and new of itself.

MS: It’s an interesting thing, hearing you talk about that, one of the things that I often think about for myself is, you know, so I’m Japanese American—

RG: Mm hmm.

MS: —and my family’s been in the United States for well over a hundred years, for many generations now. And then one part of my family is also European; my mother’s father was a white man. So that’s something that I think about a lot. It’s not the same, I don’t mean to suggest that the American context is the same as the Caribbean context. But there’s something about what you’re saying about many influences coming together, and being able to draw from many disparate heritages to form something new in terms of identity.

RG: Exactly.

MS: And being able to identify with all of those different pieces is something that I think about a lot, just in my own context, you know? I have family that goes back to Japan, I have family that goes back to England. So, because of the way that I look, people might be inclined to treat me as though the Japanese tradition would be something that would make sense for me to identify with. But why—

RG: But there’s stuff that resonates with you as well from—you can’t just divorce yourself from the rest of yourself, right?

MS: Right, right. And not just genetically, but also in the way that I grew up. So much of what I am and how I think about the world and my place in it is very much informed by the fact that I’ve spent almost all of my life in California.

RG: There you go.

MS: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing, how that all comes together. Yeah.

RG: I think more and more, I mean, while I would argue that a place like the Caribbean—I mean, to call the Caribbean “a place” is a bit misleading, because there is no one Caribbean landscape, right?

MS: Right.

RG: But just in terms of—for the purposes of our conversation—look at the Caribbean as the sort of great experiment of creolization, of the blending of cultures. Because we could talk about many cities as being cosmopolitan and having multiple groups of people inhabiting it. But when we look at those histories we tend to see, if we take like a New York or a Miami, for example, you still see a large degree, even today, a large degree of segregation between those communities. But in many Caribbean spaces, like you look at St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, you look at Trinidad, you look at St. Vincent, and these island spaces were just too small to be divvied up into “this is the Irish neighborhood, this is the East Indian neighborhood.” You really could not segregate like that. So almost as a by-product of their smallness, you had degrees of mixing, both in terms of genetically but culturally as well, that were just, I think, unprecedented. So it wasn’t so much a question of assimilation into a culture as, like I was saying before, almost the creation of a new one. So, in other words, East Indian cultures that are based in the Caribbean resonate a lot with Indian cultures, right? But they are different. They’ve become something different because they’re rubbing against the Afro-Caribbean or the Chinese Caribbean or the Spanish, the French, the English. You can just go on, the litany is there. And you can just see how these cultures, while maintaining and keeping a lot of their initial culture intact, have turned into slightly different things. I think food is an easy example. I mean, the Trinidadian Indian cuisine is not Indian cuisine. The music out of the Caribbean comes from a blending of West African rhythms with a number of different European forms, and you see these new things emerging. That’s the interesting thing about it. And I think more and more this is becoming, if not the norm, it’s becoming much more common across the globe to see these kinds of blends. Maybe not on the same scale as it happened during the plantocracy in the Caribbean, but you’re still seeing these cultural combinations in families and in communities that I don’t think you saw fifty years ago. You know?

MS: Yeah. I mean it’s sort of a, it’s an interesting thing where… I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with more than just the broad strokes of Caribbean history.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: One of the things that I’m reminded of in hearing you talk about this is a sort of similar phenomenon in Hawaii, the blending of different Asian—

RG: Yeah.

MS: —and Native Hawaiian and American cultures there, and how that sort of blended together to form a Hawaiian culture that’s sort of its own thing now.

RG: It’s like hybridity, yeah?

MS: Yeah. But also, the thing that you mentioned about the plantocracy, that is… I know that in Hawaii, for example, a lot of those things that are part of the culture now are also a legacy of a very oppressive system that was in place before, and that people are still dealing with the ramifications of that now.

RG: Yeah.

MS: And I have to imagine that it works in a similar sort of way in the Caribbean. To be able to find something that is like, we have this wonderful, unique culture that is all its own thing. And that we can take joy in that. But also that it always carries with it this sort of echo of… It wouldn’t have happened if not for some really awful things that were done.

RG: Right, yeah. It’s definitely a fraught and problematic and violent history. I don’t think that you could argue that hybrid cultures or creolized cultures come about through any sort of happy meeting between them. There usually is something violent and terrible and exploitative. I think whenever we look at large numbers of people moving into new spaces, that tends to be the tenor of the narrative. I think we have to, on one hand, reckon with the history and all its ugly bits. But at the same time I think appreciating and honoring what is there now that is edifying does not necessarily absolve or ignore the atrocities that were involved in its creation.

MS: Yeah.

RG: If that makes sense. I think it has to be a very nuanced and a very objective and critical study when you’re looking at spaces like the Caribbean. That’s one of the few places I can talk about with any measure of authority. And it is a bloody history from European occupation up until present day basically, in different spheres. But at the same time I think there is space to observe, record, appreciate how various peoples interacted, how they constructed a way of life for themselves, and many times in spite of the conditions. And to see how those ways of life have either held fast or maybe not held so fast as times have moved on.

MS: Mm. Well, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that I have that I could talk about but I think, why don’t we take a little break and come back and do the second segment?

RG: Sounds good.

MS: Alright.

[Music]

Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you’d like to talk about, whatever’s on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?

Richard Georges: Yeah, so I probably want to talk about this sort of distinct and very unique moment in the history of the British Virgin Islands, just because it ties in to some of the themes that I was exploring in the book. But now post-Irma—Hurricane Irma—it sort of brought some of those themes that I was circling in the book to the fore.

MS: Mm.

RG: It’s at the point where I think every citizen of the territory has these things at the forefront of their mind. It’s a very uncertain period for us, for a number of reasons.

I guess I’ll just give you some prologue. So, last year, last August, our annual Emancipation Festival had to get canceled because we had some historic take place over the period of the first week in August. Right? So it was the worst flooding we’d experienced in I think it was fourteen years. Shortly afterwards, the estimates came out that it was about four million dollars worth of damage to businesses and properties in the capital, Road Town. And so, people were really trying to recover from that, and that was, like I said, the first week in August. And then on September 6th, Hurricane Irma struck the BVI. Hurricane Irma was the most powerful storm in recorded history in the Atlantic, basically. And the devastation was unprecedented. It took out all of our communications, it made many roads impassable, destroyed numerous homes and businesses, many of which are yet to fully recover or be rebuilt. And the damage has been estimated close to four billion pounds, which is… I’m not sure of my exchange rate right now—

MS: Yeah.

RG: It’s an astronomical figure. And to put that into perspective, the BVI, our population prior to Irma was about 35,000 people. And of that 35,000, about 40% are actually BV Islanders. So we have two main industries, which are tourism and financial services, and they’re both dominated by basically skilled and unskilled immigrant labor. Or expat labor, depending on how you feel about the use of the word “immigrant.”

MS: Right, right.

RG: But even the word “expat” has its own political connotations, you know?

MS: Yeah.

RG: Historically, Europeans, Americans, and Canadians get to be expatriates, everybody else gets to be an immigrant. [laughs] But the territory has been trying to get back on its feet, regain normalcy. And financial services, depending on your perception and the way you get your news, you might have have varying perspectives on the financial services industry in the overseas territories. You know, we tend to be vilified as tax havens. But the same scrutiny somehow never falls on the European and North American jurisdictions that offer the same services.

MS: Right.

RG: [laughs] You know, so for example, the same services are offered in, I think, Delaware, in Las Vegas, in London, in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, but whenever we’re talking about quote-unquote “tax havens,” we’re talking about the Caribbean overseas territories that have these industries, never the European or North American jurisdictions, for some reason.

MS: Yeah. For some reason. [laughs]

RG: [laughs] Yeah, especially when you’re talking about the scale of these industries. Which is what I want to talk about now. So, the BVI’s annual revenue in its budget has hovered between 290 and 320 million, so call it 300 million dollars US a year. And of that revenue, financial services has provided about two-thirds of it, historically. So it’s our main industry in terms of revenue. There are probably more people who work in the tourism industry, but more money comes into financial services.

MS: Mm.

RG: So those are numbers I’d like people to take into consideration: 35,000 population, and 300 million dollars of revenue that we have in our budget.

MS: Mm-hmm.

RG: Of which, financial services is about 200. So, you know, in the global scheme of things, these numbers, that’s a tiny population in almost any country. You know, smaller than a city, smaller than some neighborhoods. And 300 million dollars in the global scheme of things is not much money—

MS: No.

RG: —to have a territory or a jurisdiction—

MS: Yeah.

RG: —running on. Right, so then, the UK, in the aftermath of Irma, the British Navy showed up to help with rebuilding efforts and to clear roads and they brought engineers and really desperate things that were needed, they came in and they showed up. We have a British governor, and I think he acquitted himself admirably in terms of the response and the management of the disaster. But there really wasn’t much visible concern from the British government directly. I mean, Emmanuel Macron went to St. Martin shortly after the storm. Donald Trump went to Puerto Rico. [laughs]

MS: Ah… [laughs]

RG: And did Trumpian things. But I guess what I’m saying is, he showed up.

MS: Yeah.

RG: Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, also had a presence. So for all the territories that were affected by Hurricane Irma, the British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the BVI are the ones that were affected. And the British Prime Minister didn’t come. She sent her Secretary of State at the time, Priti Patel, and Priti Patel was on our island, on our main island, for less than twelve hours. Prior to that she sent Boris Johnson—I’m not sure if you know who Boris Johnson is, he’s a bit of a… a pretty big character in the UK. Not quite Trumpian, but on his way.

MS: Well, we see a lot of comparisons just because of the hair.

RG: [laughs] Well, there you go. Yeah, and he was here for less than twelve hours as well. And that was the extent of the British cabinet’s presence, the government’s cabinet, their presence on the ground after the storm. So there really has been a feeling of British apathy towards our situation.

MS: Yeah. It’s a strange thing, too, where it’s… My understanding of the government and political of the British Virgin Islands is a little… I just know what I have been able to gather in the last week or two, but my understanding is that it’s sort of not a terribly dissimilar situation relative to the UK as Puerto Rico and Guam are to the US, where—

RG: Similar, yeah.

MS: —they’re not exactly independent, but they’re also not exactly what would be considered a regular part of, a full part of the country.

RG: The poet Craig Santos Perez, he has this collection of poems—or collection of collections I guess you could say, this trilogy called Unincorporated Territory. He kind of explores that from the perspective of an islander of Guam. Of not ever being part of the whole, part of the main. Yeah, it’s definitely the same sort of foundational relationship that you will never be “part of.” There’s sort of this limbo political status where you are in control of your own affairs to a particular extent, but decisions can be made that affect you directly and you will just not have any say. You won’t even have, not just a vote, you won’t even have a voice—

MS: Yeah.

RG: —when those decisions are being made. I mean, that happened to us with—we’re sort of always forgotten. So you had Brexit, and the citizens of the British Overseas Territories are British citizens, but we didn’t get to vote [laughs] in Brexit, for example. So we are British citizens who don’t get to make decisions about our citizenship. If that makes sense.

MS: It’s something that, you know, since so much of your book has to do with empire and its aftermath, it was something that I was thinking about as I was reading, because in comparison to other British imperial colonies that eventually became completely independent, like India or, I guess, even the United States in some ways, these countries are not… Some places like Canada or India and, I guess, Jamaica, they’re still connected to the UK but they are their own separate countries. The BVI is in a different political situation and so that question of empire and aftermath… You know, there are definitely writers in India, there’s a long tradition of Indian literature that deals with that exact question, but the context seems very different to me, insofar as India is an independent country now, you know?

RG: Yep. And even though those three countries remain part of the Commonwealth, they have a very much closed chapter, if you will, on British leadership. Or British subjugation, stewardship, however you want to frame it. We have not. And, to be frank, there hasn’t been historically any large swelling of support for independence in the BVI. Even now, I don’t think there is… I don’t think there’s a very large desire for it immediately. But I think what there is a desire for is a maturation or a changing of the relationship. So, for example, the Overseas Territories have their own constitutions, that have sort of been written with the assistance of the UK. And those constitutions delegate power to an elected government. But the power is delegated, the power really sits with the governor, the British-appointed governor. And the power is the delegated from his office to these elected bodies.

MS: Mm-hmm.

RG: So, ultimately—and it has happened in the past—the British government, through the governor, can suspend the constitution of one of these territories and implement or—I don’t want to say “inflict”—but implement direct rule. You can suspend the constitution, dissolve an elected government, and you can take over the territory. And that has happened in the past. It happened in Turks and Caicos a few years ago. And the Dutch actually did it very recently in Eustatia. So it’s something that there prior precedent has been set.

MS: And then that really speaks to the whole question of, you know, if these governments are going to reserve that kind of power, what is their responsibility in situations like—

RG: Exactly.

MS: —a huge natural disaster?

RG: Exactly. And that’s the question that we’re asking now, because we were essentially told, following Irma, that we were too wealthy a territory to receive aid. The UK government has spent about 13 million US dollars. But, like I told you, the damage has been close to 4 billion pounds. So we’ve gotten about 13 million dollars US in aid, there was a lot of material aid, about a hundred tons of aid, like canned goods, tarps to cover roofs, lumber, that kind of thing, for the immediate recovery. But all the UK government has committed to since then a loan guarantee of up to 300 million pounds.

MS: Yeah.

RG: So the BVI can find—if the BVI can borrow, the UK will guarantee honoring that loan up to 300 million pounds. Which, as I said, if you have damage which is 4 billion, 300 million doesn’t really go that far. And then, to compound things, in May, at the beginning of May, the UK parliament passed a law that essentially targets our financial services industry, which, as I said earlier, is potentially two-thirds of our revenue. So the decision that they took could really jeopardize the long-term viability of that industry. Here, especially. I don’t want to go too in-depth in that, because I’m not really an economist or a commercial lawyer, but essentially if that law stands, one, it’s overriding our constitution, and then, two, it could really be to the detriment of our main revenue.

MS: Yeah.

RG: It makes our future, coming out of the storm, that much more uncertain. There was even a protest march about the UK’s decision, about two weeks ago, where thousands of people came out to protest the UK parliament’s decision. I think what would have to happen, the next step for the Overseas Territories has to be some sort of lobbying for a new deal. You know, like a new constitutional arrangement where the UK will not be able to impose legislation so easily, or not be able to suspend duly elected governments so easily, or with impunity.

MS: Yeah.

RG: That’s what I envision being the conversation, moving forward.

MS: It’s such a strange thing, too, when governments are talking about aid for natural disasters. That is the kind of language that governments usually use when they’re talking about foreign aid.

RG: Exactly.

MS: But, certainly we’ve been talking about this a lot in the US, about aid to Puerto Rico and helping them recover from Irma. And, again, a lot of people—laypeople and government people—talk about it and it makes it sound like we’re sending foreign aid to some foreign country, but these are American citizens.

RG: Exactly.

MS: If it were in—like if there were a hurricane in Virginia or something and Washington, DC got devastated, you wouldn’t talk about it that way.

RG: Exactly.

MS: Yeah.

RG: It sort of makes you think, if you’re Puerto Rican, if you’re a US Virgin Islander, same way if you’re a British Virgin Islander, you kind of wonder about your citizenship. You are not quite afforded… I mean, it’s one thing to say that I’m an American citizen, I’m a British citizen if I’m not afforded the same rights and benefits of that citizenship, you know—

MS: Mm-hmm.

RG: —as others. So it makes you really question, as a BV Islander, what being British really means for me. Or what benefit is it for us to remain a British territory?

MS: Yeah. It’s something that I was thinking about when I was reading your book, insofar as… So this book, the collection is published by an English press, a UK press, and as far as I’m aware—I’m American so I’m going to be more aware of what’s happening here—but as far as I’m aware, the English-language poetry world is sort of heavily focused on New York and I guess maybe London. And so it seems like, given the publishing and who the audience is, especially for a small-press poetry book, a lot of the people reading it are likely to be people who are not very aware of either the history or the present-day politics or current events of the Virgin Islands.

RG: Mm-hmm.

MS: And that seems very relevant also to how, just like we’re saying, that the British government does not seem to be paying very much attention to the situation in the Virgin Islands, and the average British citizen probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either. Which, it just must be such a strange thing, and I wondered how, with the book, that that lack of awareness seems to on the one hand motivate the book, but also must affect how it’s being received, as well.

RG: Yeah, I guess you could say it’s a motivation of mine. I mean, it’s just easier, having British citizenship to work with a British market, and also I have some history there since I did both my master’s and my PhD I did in the UK. So I have certain connections and relationships there already. And it also makes developing a relationship with other poets and with the publishing industry, you know, I have an easier, or a much more direct, more logical entry point in the British publishing world than I do the American. And also since I write so… I mean, at least right now, my first two projects—I have a couple of other projects I’m working on—and they’re all concerned in varying dimensions and varying degrees with the BVI and its various histories and its various relationships with other places, including the UK. It just seems that the UK would be one of the more appropriate audiences for this work. And, to be frank, I haven’t encountered a lot of negative reception but I have gotten a lot of—when you read reviews, especially of my first book, there is a lot of acknowledgement that these histories, these narratives, these relationships, these perspectives are new to a lot of my readers. I think that was definitely an impetus for the writing. You know, because most people are aware of the transatlantic slave trade, aware of slavery and the plantocracy, and, to a certain extent, indentureship and all that stuff, and most people are aware, especially in the UK, of the histories and the literary traditions especially of the larger English-speaking islands. Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, not an island, but Guyana. But the smaller islands, places with the smaller histories, the smaller populations, smaller stories tend to get lost. You know, like there’s some metonymy Jamaican history or Jamaican culture tends to assume for the entire region. In other words, a lot of people subconsciously feel that if they’ve read a Jamaican novel or they’ve read a Jamaican poet—not to pick on Jamaica, the same thing is true to a lesser extent about Trinidad and Barbados, in terms of they’ve kind of dominated the literary landscape and so therefore a lot of the stories, a lot of the narratives, a lot of the perspectives of the Caribbean that are resonating outside of it tend to be from those islands, with the one major exception probably being Walcott and St. Lucia. So most people haven’t heard these narratives, haven’t heard of these stories, these histories, these perspectives. Or haven’t seen this landscape in print. And so therefore there’s a certain dimension of my reception which has been that people have been learning about the BVI outside of the two ways in which it is usually framed which is either, a., this tax haven or, b., sort of like this paradisal playground for the wealthy to vacation in.

MS: Yeah.

RG: There’s sort of no in-between. These are the two ways in which a place like the Virgin Islands is informed in the mind in the West. So, hopefully, my book and other work that comes out of this region begins to create a more fully developed, more three-dimensional portrait of this place and its history.

MS: Yeah. Yeah, well there is one last question that I ask everyone, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you’ve experienced recently that meant something to you.

RG: “Recently that meant something to me.” Just one?

MS: [laughs]

RG: Oof. [laughs] That’s a tough question, Mike. Just one. Well, OK, how about this, can I cheat?

MS: Sure, sure.

RG: Can I give you some visual art—

MS: Yeah, yeah.

RG: —some poetry, and some fiction? Is that?

MS: Sure.

RG: OK, good. And it’s all going to be Caribbean-based. So, for about five years now, a friend of mine, David Knight, Jr.—who is from St. John in the US Virgin Islands—he and I have been running a literary journal by the name of Moko magazine. That’s M-O-K-O magazine. So we publish Caribbean literature and Caribbean art. One of the painters that we featured, I don’t know, maybe about three years ago? And this work just always comes back to me. Her name is Shansi Miller, and she’s from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. And she has these photo-realistic, surrealistic portraits. She has this one I keep returning to, which is actually featured on the website, and it’s called “The Gardener.” And it’s this bare-backed Rasta, and he appears almost as sort of a Christ figure. You think about those messianic portraits of Christ from the Renaissance, you know, with the halo and the gestural configurations of his hands and what not. And just imagine a Rasta man in the garden with those same sort of gestural homages to the Renaissance. It’s an astounding work, and I’ve been trying to think, OK, maybe in a future collection of poems I can convince her to license me the art for the cover. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

RG: But it’s one of my favorite Caribbean paintings in recent memory. So that’s visual art. With fiction I highly recommend—I mean, I’m also working on a couple projects right now. I just finished what feels like the first draft for a manuscript for my third collection of poems, and I’m doing some nonfiction work, and I’m just playing around with the beginnings of a novel. So, in that respect, I’m really a huge fan of Kei Miller’s Augustown. Kei is a Jamaican poet, essayist, and writer, and Augustown is his latest work, it’s a novel set in Jamaica in about two or three different eras. And it’s in the same place, clearly. Augustown is sort of a suburb of Kingston. It’s really an incredible accomplishment, I think, in terms of these three portraits kind of creating a picture of the place. It’s inspirational to me as I try to dive headfirst into some fiction, which is sort of intimidating in a weird way.

MS: Mm.

RG: And then poetry. I would say there are lots of really special, really powerful Caribbean poets out now with first and second books, many of whom I count my friends. And then there’s a huge class of writers who haven’t yet put out their first book that I’m really looking forward to. But I guess right now I would highly recommend Shivanee Ramlochan, she’s a friend of mine from Trinidad. Her first collection’s called Everyone Knows That I Am a Haunting. And that’s actually been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, which is one of the major poetry prizes in the UK.

MS: Mm.

RG: I was was lucky enough to have my first book on the list for last year. And so it was something else to see one of your friends get on the same list the next year. I’m just glad that I didn’t put my first book out the same year she put out her first book—

MS: [laughs]

RG: [laughs] —cause maybe I wouldn’t have been on the list last year. But, yeah, Shivanee’s book is an accomplishment and I think she’s one of those voices that’s going to be here to stay. She has this unflinching way of just peeling back the layers and dimensions of her soul that is just arresting. I would highly recommend that book

MS: Great! Well thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it.

RG: Thank you, Mike, I really enjoyed talking to you today.

[Music]

Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so, if you enjoyed our conversation do check out Richard’s book Giant, and there’s a link in the show notes to where you can purchase a copy for yourself. There’s also a link to the magazine you heard us talk about, Moko, so do check that out as well.

And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new conversation, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.

Transcript - Episode 1: Trinh Mai

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open. My name is Mike Sakasegawa. For this first episode, I’m very excited to share with you a conversation I had with artist Trinh Mai. Now, I first met Trinh and saw her work last year at an open studio tour of The Artist Odyssey studios, and I was immediately drawn to it. It was just so full of love, compassion, just genuine emotion, and I was completely blown away. Trinh’s art incorporates painting, drawing, sculpture, even photography, and she uses different media and combinations of media to look at—to reimagine, as she puts it—aspects of her life, her relationships, her family history, in a way that is both highly personal but communicates something universal, something that certainly I found resonant. So I was thrilled to be able to sit down and talk with her, and in just a minute we’ll hear that.

First thing, though, I wanted to just take a quick moment to introduce myself and the show. I’m a photographer and writer based in San Diego, California, and what this show is all about is, well, what I’ve found is that the most interesting conversations I ever have are with artists. And, more than just being interesting, talking to artists about their work, about their perspective, how they think about the world, it’s really helpful in being able to put their work into context. I think that for a lot of people, art can have this sort of aura of impenetrability, like it’s something that’s just too hard to understand, and that’s a shame because it ends up putting people off. But I don’t think it has to be that way, that sometimes all you need is just a little bit of a way in, and then a whole new world can open up to you. At least, that’s how it’s been for me, and so I hope by sharing these conversations with you, maybe you’ll find your way in as well.

Now, some of you might be wondering about the title of the show, “Keep the Channel Open,” and this comes from a passage I ran across a while back, something that for me was really comforting. See, like a lot of artists, I can get a little down on my work, feeling like it’s not getting anywhere, especially when the rejection letters are piling up. And I was in the middle of one of those down times when I found this bit from a book called Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes de Mille. So Agnes de Mille was a famous choreographer starting back in the early 40’s, she choreographed the ballet Rodeo—the Aaron Copland ballet—and also, early on, the original production of Oklahoma! And Martha Graham was just a giant in the world of dance, also a dancer and choreographer; a lot of people considered her to be “the Picasso of Dance” for her influence in developing modern dance. Anyway, the quote goes like this:

The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”
“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then is there no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Alright, so there it is. Keep the channel open. not always the easiest thing to do, especially for me, but, just remember it. Keep the channel open.

All right, so let’s get to my talk with Trinh Mai. Just so you know, we reference a few different bodies of work in the conversation, particularly two of them. One is a series of sculptures entitled “Bone of My Bone” from 2014, which, I’ll just read the statement from her website here:

This spring has been a time of healing and growth, and while we fought alongside my beloved friend, Kelly, during her battle with cancer, I too, found myself healing beside her. Inspired by the tremendous love and support shrouded upon her by the community, I was reminded of our need to heal, and the importance in healing together.
These “bones” have been crafted with fragments of tree branches and found string which I have collected during my walks in nature, the place where I most often find my own healing. The strings bind the broken bones, looking to mend that which has been fractured by our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual struggles.

And then the other body of work that we mentioned a few times was an installation called “Quiet,” from last year, 2015. This was a series of ink transfers on white sashes—portraits—and I’ll read part of the statement for that work as well:

One of the funeral rituals in Vietnamese tradition is for the family members to wear white sashes upon their heads to signify their relationship to the departed. I have recreated these sashes to honor the lives of our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, daughters and sons, who were lost during the war. This piece was originally inspired by a collection of letters that I discovered at UCI Libraries Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center, letters that were written by family members, pleading for help to find their loved ones who went missing during the escape. Each portrait is raised up in respect for those who did not survive to see the new shores, and upon them, I have typed excerpts from these letters as well as my own musings to them.

You can find galleries of both of those bodies of work on her website, trinhmai.com, and I’ll include links to both of those in the show notes. Now, here’s my conversation with Trinh Mai.

[Music]


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: Alright. So I was really excited to talk to you. So we met at one of the Artist Odyssey open studio things. When was that, last year some time?

Trinh Mai: Yeah, about a year ago.

MS: Yeah, something like that.

TM: I lose track of time. [laughs]

MS: Yeah, me too.

TM: Yeah, about a year ago, maybe.

MS: One of the things that really struck me when I got to see your work that day was just how—like if I was going to sum it up in one word, it would be “empathy.”

TM: Mm.

MS: That when I looked at all the stuff you were showing that day, and then recently I also got to see the Artist Odyssey short documentary that they did about you, and that just seems to really be so present in all of the different work that you’ve done. And you do a lot of different kinds of work, both in medium but also in theme and subject matter. So I guess what I’d want to talk to you about first is just sort of where that impulse comes from for you.

TM: Oh it comes from everywhere.

MS: Yeah.

TM: I’ve heard artists saying that they have painter’s block or writers saying they have writer’s block, and my issue is that I am so inspired by everything. I mean, just driving down the 15 today, it’s overcast and there’s a slight haze and I was just so overwhelmed with the beauty in this world we live in. I think that’s one of the things that really moves me in my work, is finding that beauty. Because it’s everywhere. It’s not—I really don’t have to find it

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: But just kind of taking it in, because life is so—it can be so difficult. And so, for me, finding the beauty and being inspired by that thing, whether it’s this physical beauty of the landscape or like I spent some time with my friend yesterday and our godson, and just seeing how she’s raised this little boy, and how difficult that is to do. But watching her raise this child, that is so beautiful to me. I mean, we were college friends, so we were completely lost, and now she’s helping this young boy find his way navigating through life. [laughs] But, yeah, finding beauty is what I do in my work, and when you talked about empathy, that also comes in striving to find the goodness in a bad situation.

MS: Mm.

TM: Or a trial that I’m going through, or someone else is going through.

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: Because I think that’s where hope comes from is that being able to see and really believe that things will be better, and that all this—and I’m a strong believer that everything that happens to me or for me or because of me or whatever it is, it’s all for my own good.

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: No matter how difficult the situation is, I know that these struggles are to build my character. It’s to test my patience. It’s to teach me forgiveness.

MS: Yeah.

TM: Or just to strengthen my faith. And that’s what really drives me, Mike, is my faith. And not just faith in God—and this isn’t a religious thing, and a lot of times I think people—and I always really, in college I was kind of, I would be kind of… My work wasn’t taken as seriously, I don’t think, by some people because of my openness about faith.

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: And then, again, once I started painting and showing there were some gallery owners that wouldn’t want to put my statements up, and the statements, for me, is a huge part of the work and my process—

MS: Right.

TM: —so I’m sharing that, too. And, I mean, viewers don’t have to read it, but it’s available to them if they—because some people want to know.

MS: Well, it provides a lot of context, right?

TM: Yes.

MS: It provides a framework for understanding what it is that you’re trying to communicate.

TM: Yeah, yes.

MS: And it really seems like with your work in particular, that you are—it’s not just—not that there would be anything wrong with something being purely aesthetic, but that your work really is trying to communicate something.

TM: Yeah, yeah I want to tell these stories, and the stories that inspire me, and my own stories, stories that I’m curious about, maybe, that I don’t quite know yet. But, yeah, I think that faith is what really drives me, and just believing that belief in something better, that belief that I can be better, that belief that somebody can be healed, that we all can be healed, because that’s a major component of being human, is that need to heal.

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: We’ve all suffered through afflictions of some sort, whether it’s emotional or physical or spiritual. I’ve suffered through all those things.

MS: Yeah.

TM: And then having that faith in other people, too. Because often as artists we feel like we’re doing it ourselves. You know, when we start a project it’s like… And then I think for me there’s a sense of control that I have so it’s hard for me to let people in to be involved in my process. Although, these past couple years I’ve been learning and really enjoying partnering with other people and just really collaborating with people. I’ve really been enjoying that. But before, I always thought it was up to me, and it really was when I started painting, because if I never made another painting in my life, who would really care? Would anybody care? My husband might care, my mom might care.

MS: Yeah.

TM: [laughs] You know? But would anybody notice? No.

MS: Yeah.

TM: Maybe somebody might think, “What happened to her? Is she still making work?” But nobody really cares. So the work is—it’s important for me to make these things so that I can live, really. To continue my life and to explore those things that I hold dear to me. You know? And honor those things that are important to me. And just search for whatever it is, you know, whatever it is that I need to know about, or I need to express. It’s just life. And paint or charcoal or whatever I’m using just happens to be my language at the time, right?

MS: Mm-hm, yeah.

TM: So I’m telling these stories and… So that’s why my work, going back to your question about how I’m using so many different mediums and themes, the themes change because I change, and we’re constantly evolving, and so I’ll allow the inspiration to really take over. And that’s an issue I have, is I have so many projects started.

MS: [laughs]

TM: You know, so many. And I mean, spanning all different mediums. I don’t really consider myself a writer, but I have to write to make sense of things. I kind of do it hand in hand, so my sketchbook is mostly writing. I’ll start with an idea and then I’ll take some notes and write a little bit about it. And then I’ll start the painting. And then the painting will reveal something to me, and then I go back to the writing and just jot down more notes. And so it happens hand-in-hand, it’s part of the process.

MS: Mm-hm.

TM: So I’ll have these ideas that I’ve started writing about, that I just haven’t finished, and they’re so important to me. Like this tooth extraction. That was the latest big deal. [laughs] Because I was like—first of all I felt like “Oh my god, I’m getting old.” Seriously, my tooth cannot handle Korean barbecue? How is… [laughs] So I went to the dentist, I got the tooth pulled, and as I’m sitting in the chair, I have two friends—Jenny Do and Kelly Clark, they’re both artists, they’re both amazing women, very accomplished—and I’ve known them for years, since San Jose State. And Kelly I studied with throughout my time there. And then Jenny, she offered me my first show. She invited me to show for the very first time. And that show was what set the momentum. When I sold pieces, being a student at that time, I could not believe that other people found value in my work.

MS: Yeah. Well that’s a tough thing for everybody, especially when you’re first starting out, right?

TM: It is. Yeah.

MS: I go through that all the time with myself, my own work. But so you mentioned San Jose State.

TM: Yes, San Jose State.

MS: And that’s where you went to school. Are you originally from up north or are you…?

TM: Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area.

MS: OK.

TM: I was born in Pennsylvania. That’s where my parents had, after the war, they had arrived there in ‘75.

MS: OK.

TM: So they lived in refugee camps in Guam, in the Philippines, and then eventually ended up in Harrisburg. And that’s where I was born. And then I went to school all over the Bay Area. I think as northern as Pleasanton and then south San Jose. I’ve lived in over 40 homes in my entire life.

MS: Wow, that’s a lot.

TM: [laughs]

MS: I thought I moved around a lot as a kid. [laughs]

TM: And I’m not an Army brat, you know?

MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TM: It’s insane. But, yeah, so I’m from the Bay Area. Go Warriors. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] Yeah, so one of the things that strikes me about the Bay—I didn’t know you were from up there. I’m sort of in that direction as well, I grew up outside of Monterey.

TM: Oh, OK.

MS: But one of the things that’s always struck me—when I was a kid we went up to the city a lot. We would go to San Jose to shop, we’d go other places in the Bay, because that’s sort of the cultural hub of that part of Northern California. But one of the things to me, like the energy of the Bay is so different from where I grew up. And it’s definitely different from Southern California, where we are now. Where I grew up was sort of a small-town, rural, and almost completely white area. But one of the things that always struck me, visiting the Bay, was that there’s this sort of mingling of so many different cultures. You have so many different immigrant groups that have come through San Francisco, and some settled there. Was that something that you felt part of your experience growing up?

TM: I honestly didn’t pay attention to that kind of stuff.

MS: Uh huh.

TM: I was very much alone a lot of the time. Even growing up, I remember—this is during elementary school through high school. We lived up in Pleasanton, and we’d always have to drive to Oakland to have dim sum. It was the best dim sum and my dad wouldn’t have it anywhere else, we’d drive all the way to Oakland. And I remember going to San Jose to go grocery shopping at the Vietnamese supermarkets. But I don’t remember being as involved. Even in college, when I discovered painting, that’s when I really learned how to be by myself. Because I remember always needing a lot of people around to feel important or to feel part of something. But once I discovered my work, I just didn’t even pay attention. My art world was in that studio at San Jose State.

MS: And how did that come about? You discovered your work. Everybody comes at it in a different way, discovers it in a different way. It kind of sounds, the way you’re talking about it, that maybe you came to a little later rather than having grown up artistic. Is that…?

TM: I grew up very artistic. I always had my art stuff with me. One of the first gifts that I really remember in childhood was this blue plastic suitcase, and it came with a “How to Draw” book, papers, watercolors, pencils, and it made me feel like a legit artist. [laughs] And I would carry that thing around. But I always had scratch paper. Even in fourth grade I was trying to sell my work. And I went to Catholic school, so Sister Barbara was always reprimanding me because I was trying to sell my drawings. [laughs] For like a quarter each, you know. But I was always very creative. And I was a latchkey kid, so I’d come home from school, take that hidden key, since fourth grade. I would be home by myself until like seven o’clock when my parents would come home from work. That was every day for years, throughout high school, so I was always trying to keep myself busy. Or I’d be outside collecting rocks or whatever. [laughs] In high school I didn’t really take art seriously, I’d just kind of doodle. I’d make posters for football games and stuff. In my first two or three years of college I took drawing classes but I think I was still really lost. I didn’t really find my voice in art or anything, I was just… I took beginning drawing, didn’t want to be drawing cylinders and cubes and spheres and just got bored and was like “What am I learning here?” Just totally arrogant. [laughs] And then I realized later on that what it did was it taught me to see. I love studies now. It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I took my first painting class, with Tony May, and it was acrylic on paper. And, oh my gosh, just the feeling of that paint on paper, that in itself was so cathartic. Just that quality of this thick stuff—and that’s what we were doing in beginning painting, was painting spheres and objects, but I loved it! It just felt different from drawing. Then after that I took the intermediate painting course, which was, Robert Chiarito was my instructor. [laughs] The first class, he was like—this is the first painting class, he says “Just start painting, don’t think about it, you’ll figure it out later what you’re doing. Start. Begin.” And I was like “What?!” And that’s when I started painting abstract. I was just having so much fun with the color and we were working with oil on canvas, so that was my first time. And just the viscosity of the paint, and being able to not be wrong, because we weren’t supposed to be painting anything specific. He said “Find it later,” and so I wanted to search. I just got lost in that color. I realized, I found that abstract work was so purely… spiritual. And I didn’t know that that’s what it was at that time, I was just thinking “Oh my gosh, the fact that I can just let go and paint? And create this thing?” So I think from the beginning it started off being—it was already a search for me. That’s how I was trained, it was just, find it later on, and just let go. It was pivotal to my growth as an artist in the beginning, where you’re taught that it can’t be wrong. Just work, and find yourself.

MS: That seems like a really valuable perspective.

TM: So valuable.

MS: I never went to art school, but hearing other people talk about it, it doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily the approach that you always get in an art school setting.

TM: Mm-hm.

MS: It’s interesting, too, to hear you talk about—like in both of those painting media, to hear the thing that you’re really… Like, your eyes kind of light up when you’re talking about the physical qualities of the paint itself. And that’s something that really strikes me about your work, is that it is all very tactile. That whether it’s the more straight paintings, or you have pieces where you’ve stitched into the painting, or the sculptural pieces with the sticks that you’ve wrapped with string and things like that, that they all—there’s a real sense of the piece having been worked with hands.

TM: Mm, thank you.

MS: There’s a sense of “somebody has touched this.” Which isn’t necessarily—especially for myself, as a photographer, and most of the people I know are photographers—for most of us isn’t really a thing, that real sense of the artist’s hand isn’t necessarily there for everybody. But in your work that’s a thing. [laughs] Is that something that’s… It seems like it must be part of your process, something that’s important to you.

TM: Yeah, I have to feel it with my hands. I have a hard time having the tool in between it. Paintbrushes are the closest I get. Even sports—I’m actually pretty good at football and basketball, but anything else involving something between the ball, like tennis, hockey, baseball, I’m horrible at. I have to hold that thing to understand it. And even in my paintings, I’ll put on gloves and sometimes I’m just working with my hands, because I want to move that paint around, I want to feel it underneath my fingertips and move it around. Thank you for saying that, that it feels like these things have been touched, because it’s important for my process, just to understand it, and to be able to craft something. I don’t know if there’s even a line between fine art and craft. It’s that human hand in something. I think that can be felt as well as seen. Sometimes it can’t be seen, but felt. With some work that I’ve seen. But I like that. It’s like leaving this human imprint in it, just being able to work directly onto it. And I like all the messy stuff, the charcoals. I love charcoal so much, it’s so messy. And pastel. And seeing the fingerprints left on there just from moving and rubbing the chalk on the paper. And just feeling the tooth of the paper and the scratching of the charcoal. [laughs] It’s all the senses, the touch, the smell of it, of oil paint, the sound it makes, a dry brush on canvas. I love it all. [laughs] I love it all, it’s just all my senses being involved. Even taste, actually. I’ve actually accidentally drank my watercolor rinsing water. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

TM: Just not paying attention. So yeah, tasting, I suppose. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

TM: And then I also use other materials, like food materials. So I’m actually physically tasting. Like I’ve used salt in my work, and sugar in my work, and have tasted it and used it in the work as well. If it holds a symbolic meaning, or if it makes sense to the work.

MS: One of the other things about your work—and I guess this would be sort of going back through your history as an artist—one of the really strong themes or subjects that you work with, a lot of your different projects have focused on the Vietnamese community, and on the experience of that community and the effect that the war had there and here. And a lot of that is clearly something that is really important to you. I guess what I wonder is, is that something that you always knew you were going to do art about? Or is it something that you kind of had to get to?

TM: I… While in school, I was encouraged to explore that. I was encouraged when I was taking Advanced Painting. Rupert Garcia, he’s an amazing artist and he does a lot of Chicano, very politically motivated art. And he was one of my mentors there, and he was like “Who are you as a Vietnamese American? And what do you know about your history? You should explore that.” And I just wasn’t ready. And I never did. And it wasn’t until I moved… No, no, no, it wasn’t until my great aunt had passed, when I found all those photos and thought… What struck me was that when I was in her apartment gathering her photos, she had them all organized. On the back of every photo, she had written who’s in the photo, where they were at, the date, what they were doing there, and any significant anything. Little notes. And every photo was documented. And I thought, “She really wanted to leave this story behind.” It was important for her. And I don’t think she wrote it to… For some reason I don’t feel like she wrote it to remember it. I feel like she wrote it for whoever it was that was going to see these photos. For some reason. And I thought, “I need to share these.” So that’s when it really started, and that was in 2011. I mean, I graduated in 2004, so it took me like seven years. I think I did one painting before that, when my mom had told me about she and her family getting on a boat and the boat breaking down in the middle of the ocean. I did one painting, and that was in 2003. And then I just put it aside because I didn’t know what to do with it. I ended up finishing it, but when I really started focusing on the work about my family history, that wasn’t until later. I started with only ten of those little family tree pieces, and I ended up with 63 of them. A little more, I think. Because I just couldn’t stop. I was like, “I’m just going to mess around with these,” and it was my first time experimenting with resin, my first time doing anything like that. It was all so new. And incorporating family photos. And I guess I just went all out. [laughs] It was… just go for it. And I could not stop, because there were so many beautiful images of these precious children, and just the way my great-grandmother is holding her kids, and just the life back then and how simple they were, and how in so many of the photos they’re barefoot. There’s something so beautiful about that. They’re barefoot on their front porch in Vietnam. Black and white. So that’s when it really started. And then through that, all these conversations began. I wasn’t making this work to search for anything, other than… it was just to share. And then through that, the search began. And so my grandmother would—for example, there’s this one piece that I did, it’s my great-grandmother and grandfather holding their children, and I had taken some tree bark and made a little house and coated it with resin. And I was so proud of it because I was like, “This is so cool!” Resin keeps anything, it preserves anything. So I showed my grandmother, and she saw that little house and she told me this story about how when she was growing up she lived next door to a church. And because of that, they’d always find abandoned babies on their front porch, because the mothers must have thought “Oh, they’ll be safe here, they’re next to a church.” And it happened so frequently that my great-grandparents had to build a makeshift shack in their back yard to house the children, because they couldn’t fit them all in their house.

MS: Mm. Wow.

TM: And my grandmother was in charge of feeding the babies, and then on the weekends they would take them up to the city. This is when they lived in [?], where my grandmother was born. They would have to drive them up to the city, where there was an orphanage, and deliver all these babies, and that’s what would happen on the weekends.

MS: Wow.

TM: And nobody knew about this story, Mike. How can nobody in the family know about this story? This is so… It’s so important. It just shows the heart that my great-grandparents had. And I knew my great-grandmother, but not very well. It just shows their love for humanity. And then I’m able to understand why my grandmother loved people so much, and why she was the way she was, and why my mom is so loving. She’s always doing charity work. And why I’m so sensitive, maybe, to other people’s struggles. It’s all passed down. It helps me understand who I am by learning these stories. And so that story came about from this little piece, this little four-by-five inch little piece. And that was happening so often. There’s another image I have of my auntie holding this little doll. It was just such a sweet photo of her, because she’s so proud of this doll. She’s got this huge smile. And I did a little piece, and showed her, and she told me about the doll and how my grandfather—he was a language arts teacher in Vietnam—he used to travel to the States. He used to travel to America and during one of his trips he brought home that doll for her. And it was so special to her. And I’m like, “So wait, Grandfather had been to America even before the fall of Saigon?” I didn’t know that. I thought it was a fresh, new land that they… I don’t know, I just… Those things would have never been told if it wasn’t for the arts. So it’s just been remarkable, the way it all comes together.

MS: It’s pretty amazing, there’s so much of the… Like in anybody’s family, right? There are so many stories like that. And especially when you start losing people in your family, you come to realize how little you might actually know them. It’s something that I think about a lot, especially given the direction that I have taken with my work so far. One of the things that I think about—and this relates to my work, but also relates to your work a lot—is that we’re both working in a space where we’re using our personal histories and our family histories. And so that makes it extremely specific and personal, but it’s also… These stories that you have are highly specific but they’re very relatable, and you do them in a way that makes… These connections that you’re talking about are universal. That’s a real hard thing to do, I think.

TM: I hope for that. I don’t think it’s anything I can plan. It’s nothing I mean to do. And it surprises me when non-Vietnamese connect with it. And I know that a lot of us have mourned a loss, a lot of us. We have our own families. I don’t tend to think that far ahead about who will connect with the work or how it’ll read, unless I’m doing something specific like being commissioned.

MS: But it’s one of those things where, for me anyways, that point of connection is sort of what it’s all about.

TM: Yeah, yeah.

MS: Yeah. So that’s something where… You talked about this a bit in the Artist Odyssey documentary, that in many of these things that you’re doing, you’re using… They’re stories that you have a connection to, but they’re not necessarily your story. And that can be a tricky thing to navigate. Can you talk a little bit about that? How you’ve dealt with that? Because these things—I can say for myself, I can’t speak for anybody else’s reaction, but in seeing your work, there is so much that I can connect with, even though I’m not Vietnamese and I don’t know any of those people. And so those stories are relatable just as stories in themselves, and they’re obviously highly meaningful to the people who were involved in them, but they’re also things that also, just as an audience member with no connection, we can still find something very resonant.

TM: Thank you. I think the.. When I do my work that tells someone else’s story, it’s also my story. If I connect so closely, I become a part of that story. I’m moved by that story and I’m inspired by that story, and I feel for them. I’m empathizing. And I think the work has really placed me into this really profound space of compassion. I think compassion is this word that’s used like it’s a virtue. This kind of light thing. I hear it used a lot, “compassion, compassion, compassion.” But compassion is a very heavy thing, and when I’m inspired by a story, most of the time it’s the story of the underdog, right? It starts with somebody really struggling through something, and they’re coming out victorious through all that struggle, and they’ve persevered and they believe in their strength. Maybe not. Maybe they’re doubting their strength but then the community gets behind them and they’re like “You are a warrior.” That moves me. And so when I find myself really thinking about these people, I’m like “Well, you know, I’m fighting right alongside them.” Or I’m walking with them. Or I understand what they’re going through. Or I’ve been there. When we tell someone else’s story there’s a different kind of respect. You can tell your story however you want, but when you’re telling someone else’s story there’s a certain reverence that I have. There’s more respect. I really want to respect the work. I spent all of 2014 pretty much making artwork about Kelly’s healing. And every time I made a piece I had to ask her for permission. Like “I have this idea and I need to do it. Do I have your permission?” And she was like “This is our story.” But I felt like every time I started something new I had to ask her about it and get her permission. And she knows how much I love her. I know that she knows, but still. I’d just be so careful with the way that I was doing things. And while I’m making it I’m really focusing. That’s what the art is. I think it’s this by-product of me focusing on this thing that I’m hoping for, or that thing that I’m just trying to make sense of. Why do good people have to go through such trying circumstances? And that takes me away from the whole “This is not fair” conversation” that I have. [laughs] Often. Like “Why?” and “What are we supposed to be learning here?” “Is this a lesson on togetherness?” Walking through it with each other like soldiers. Nobody’s fighting this battle alone. I think that’s an important reminder, too. Because sometimes we do feel like we’re fighting it alone, and that’s not true. [laughs] It’s just not true. There’s people that care. And there’s people that don’t even know you that care. Like the “Quiet” installation I did about the children that went missing during the war, I love them. They’re my brothers and sisters. They don’t know me, but I know them. And so here’s people that went missing in the 1980’s, so that’s like, what, three, four decades later? And they’re being brought back to the surface because we care. [laughs] It’s pretty amazing, you know? Telling other people’s story… Sometimes people have such important stories and they don’t feel like they’re important. That’s the whole thing about this Viet Focus show is that we’re telling the stories of ordinary people. These are our neighbors. They’re not high officials or people that have a certain status in society. They are our next-door neighbors that survived.

MS: Right. And those are the stories that are the most likely to be lost.

TM: Yes.

MS: And they’re also the ones that are often the ones that we can connect with most.

TM: Yeah, yeah. It’s such an honor. It really is an honor to help tell these stories.

MS: Yeah.

TM: But it’s so stressful. [laughs] Because it’s like “Oh my gosh! Am I doing it justice?” Those thoughts come about, too, but I try not to think about it when I’m working. I just work. Because that puts way too much pressure. I don’t want to think about that, I just want to think about them. I want to think about who they are and how amazing they’re lives have been.

MS: I want to go back to something that you were talking about before. You mentioned that early on you had some trouble with the art establishment accepting some of your work, partially because of the emphasis that you put on faith. One of the things that also strikes me about your work is that it is—and you even spoke about this, one of the first things you said was talking about finding beauty. And it’s interesting, right, because when you look at the history of at least Western art—and I only say that because I don’t have as much awareness of other art traditions—but certainly in Western art we have a long tradition of spiritual art. And we have a long tradition of beautiful art. But sort of in a more contemporary art scene, a lot of those values are sort of passe, I guess? As you’ve progressed is that something you’re able to find a way in? That your work is able to get more acceptance? Because you have so much to say, but some of the language that you use, the visual language, are things that seem like they might have gotten pushback, especially when you were still emerging as an artist. How was your experience with that?

TM: I think the more… Maybe at first people were feeling like I was trying to make so much of a statement. And it really wasn’t about anything else, it was just about me. [laughs] Really, when you’re first discovering yourself in work it has to be about you, because you’re finding yourself, and nobody’s going to help you… That’s the subject matter. For me.

MS: Is that even possible? To not have art that’s about you, on some level at least?

TM: Yeah, yeah. So I think as I kept working and built my portfolio, and now I have this body of work where people, maybe they might be thinking “Oh, she’s serious.” [laughs] I really don’t know what it is. I’ve stopped thinking about it, really. Because I feel like I really put a lot of love into my work. So much so that when I begin I’m always really… I feel like I’ve forgotten. I feel like “Oh my gosh, how can I make a piece that’s comparable to the piece before?” And I try to put that aside, because the new one is always the most exciting. And when I’m making this work, I really feel this spirit moving through me. There’s a lot of work that I’ve made where I’m just like “Oh my God! How did this come from my hands? This is impossible!” Unless there was something greater than me moving through me. I mean, I can only take a portion of the credit. Yes, these are my hands, and, yes, I am a vessel, but I didn’t make these trees whose sound is filling me with this energy to paint them. You know? I can’t take all that credit. And so I’ve stopped worrying about that, now that I’ve matured in my work. I just accept that the work will take a life of its own. I put in the work and the dedication, and I’m just collaborating with whatever it is that’s moving through me. And moving me to make the work. It sounds a little romantic, I know. but it’s—

MS: There is a certain romance to the artmaking process, no matter who’s doing it, right? If it’s real. If it’s authentic.

TM: Yeah. I do it with a lot of love and respect.

MS: Yeah. And that’s really obvious in your work.

TM: Oh, thank you.

MS: It’s definitely there.

[Music]


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So in the second segment I like to have people bring their own topic. And the topic that you had mentioned that you’d be interested in talking about is collaboration versus competition between artists. So why don’t you start us off? Give me what you’re thinking about that.

Trinh Mai: Yeah, I feel like in—well, not just in the art world, but in general—we’ll come across those who have that sense of competition. I’ve been on the other side of that. I really can’t say that I’ve had that attitude throughout my career. I never felt like I was competing with anybody, because only you can make the work that comes out of your hands. People can replicate your work but it’s just not the same, because that spirit is not the same. I believe that that voice is what speaks to people through the work, and everybody’s got a different voice. And if you try to copy somebody’s voice, you can feel it.

MS: Yeah.

TM: I struggle with some of that. And I just don’t understand it, because I think that when we support each other and we allow other people’s successes to inspire us, it does such amazing things. Like I’ve looked at other artists’ work and their websites and been like “Oh my gosh, they’ve shown at the Smithsonian? I want to show there! They’ve shown here? Oh, that’s so amazing! I would love to show there!” Or “Oh that’s a really interesting subject matter they’re touching on.” And then I start thinking about what that might mean to me. This all fuels the work. Even it it’s a note, it might come back years from now, or I might start writing about it. The whole thing is, if you’re admiring it then there’s something in there that’s speaking to you. It’s important to allow that thing to keep talking, and have that conversation with it. Have that conversation with it and put it down on paper or canvas, or whatever it is. I think that when people have that sense of competition—and I think there’s also… It comes with insecurity, too. Maybe people are not feeling… I don’t know, whatever it is, insecurity.

MS: On some level it kind of seems almost sort of manufactured. You know? A lot of it seems like it must be a by-product of the more commercial aspects of being an artist. Like everybody wants to have a show and everybody wants to sell, and everybody wants to get to… Not necessarily everyone is motivated by prestige, but if you’re making something to be seen, you want it to be seen. You want to have the opportunity to make the connection, right? But there’s a limited number of galleries, there’s a limited amount of wall space, and there’s a limited amount of money that can be spent on things like that. It’s almost like focusing on the more capitalist aspects of the back-end side of art is what fuels that. Don’t you think?

TM: Yeah, I could see that. But that’s working in scarcity. Like you are really believing there’s a limited amount of galleries. Well, how are you going to open up your own gallery if you think there’s a limited amount of galleries? Do you know what I mean? That mind state is what makes it so difficult for artists to just focus on their work. Make that work, make that good, important, honest work, and good things will come. I really believe that. There’s been so many times when I haven’t known—especially after graduation—I didn’t know what to do with myself. But, you know, I just knew that if I could just keep working and just be involved as much as I was capable of, things would happen. Because you’re putting it out there just by making the work. And I don’t feel like there’s only a certain amount of galleries. Galleries are closing and popping up all the time. And now there’s art fairs, and now there’s online shows. There’s so many resources. And there’s Etsy. There’s so many resources for us! I don’t believe that there’s a limitation for what we can do and what we can achieve. I don’t think that I’m competing against this next person because, you know what? They have a totally different background, they have a different network, they have a different voice. How do you compare that? It’s like apples and oranges.

MS: Yeah, absolutely.

TM: So there’s no sense of that. And I think the more supportive we are of each other, the more we can collaborate and help each other out. Like I have no problem sending the curriculum I’ve written for my classes to someone else if they want to take a look. Or contracts I’ve used. Whatever it is. It’s hard enough making a life as an artist. It’s hard enough making a life. [laughs] And then you want to go ahead and make it as an artist? That’s crazy. So why not just pull together our resources and support each other, and help each other in whatever way we can?

MS: Yeah. I think it’s something that maybe is changing a bit. I’m still fairly new at this, but at least what I hear—definitely in the past maybe five, ten years, especially with online spaces becoming such a bigger thing—that it seems like you’re seeing a lot more collaboration and cooperation between artists. Whether it’s something formal like some sort of artist co-op, or even something as simple as Flickr or Etsy, and people being able to find ways to come together. I sort of wonder—maybe it’s just me being cynical—how much of that competitive mindset that is in a lot of—not just artists but in a lot of different people—but when you’re talking about artists, how much of it is driven from the outside. One of the main ways in photography, for example, that you start to gain exposure is by entering competitions. And that’s right there in the title of what you’re doing, is that it’s a competition. You’re submitting and you’re getting judged, and only some small number of people are going to be allowed through the gates. But more and more I feel like lately you see people rejecting that model, and saying “I don’t need the gatekeepers to say that I’m worth doing this, and I can find my own way.” Is that something that you’ve felt too?

TM: Yeah, definitely. I feel that when I’m rejected, every time. I have a stack of rejection letters and it really can break a person down. I mean, I’ve questioned, I’m pretty good at throwing that pity party sometimes—

MS: [laughing] Aren’t we all?

TM: Oh my gosh. There was one show that I submitted, and if I got in it would have traveled to three different places, one being to Italy. And it was put on by the Oceanside Museum of Art, who are an amazing group of people, but you don’t know who the juror’s going to be. I had slaved over this diptych of my husband and me. It was such a special piece, it was about healing, and we’re in this grove of all these plants that are California native. And I was so sure I would get in because there was so much heart that was put into it, and I just thought it was a beautiful piece. I was so proud of it, and it got rejected. “Nooooo!” you know?

MS: So much of that, though, is just driven by the fact that so many people are submitting to these things. I remember I got—one of the things that I really loved this past year, the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever gotten was, there’s a gallery in Richmond, Virginia, run by a guy named Gordon Stettinius. It’s called the Candela Gallery. Every year they do this open call, and it’s—I can’t remember the title of the show, but they just open it up and say anybody can submit. And every year they get more and more people submitting. The rejection letter they sent out this year was saying, “You should not take this as any reflection on your work. Almost all of the work that we received was really good, and almost all of it would have been great. But at some point we have to make decisions, because the gallery is only so big and we only do this. And we have to balance—we want to show new people, we want to maintain our relationships with people we already know and love, and we want to put together a show that hangs well together, and maybe your work might be wonderful, but it just wouldn’t sit well in this particular group.” They sent that out to everyone, but they also posted it up on their website as an open letter. I just thought that was so refreshing to hear.

TM: Yeah, yeah.

MS: Because that really does—it can be hard when you feel like you are spinning your wheels, to be able to celebrate other people’s successes, especially if you feel like they’re having more successes than you are. It can be for me, at least. But putting that kind of perspective on it, I thought was really useful.

TM: Yeah. And then going to see the show. I’ve attended the shows that I’ve been rejected from, because I want to know why my work didn’t fit in. Was it really that it wasn’t good enough? Or it just didn’t fit the theme well enough? Or maybe the juror just doesn’t like figurative work.

MS: Yeah.

TM: I’ve heard people who enter competitions, what some of them have done is find out who the juror is, go look at—and sometimes they’re artists. You look at their work and then you figure out what kind of work they would like. And I’m like “Oh, that’s so limiting.” But some people do that.

MS: I do that, to be honest.

TM: Do you?

MS: Well, I mean, because at a certain point it gets expensive to keep submitting to stuff and getting rejected.

TM: Yeah. And then if you keep it your own, or find something from your collection that fits. Because I’ve made work specifically for a show. Not knowing the juror’s work. I just feel like it’s so much pressure to be making work from someone else’s eyes. That’s really hard for me to do.

MS: Well, I mean, you can’t do that. You’re not speaking with your own voice, really.

TM: Yeah.

MS: But I think that being able to turn some of these rejections… Like these days, I’m—I’m sure this will pass, but lately I’ve been able to handle rejections with a certain amount of equanimity. A lot of times, because of the fact that I know a lot of people that work in the same genre that I do, and I’ve made friends with them because we have similar concerns as artists, that they’ll get into a show and I won’t, and I’ll finally get to the point where I’m able to be legitimately happy for them. That wasn’t something that I was always able to do, but I think, for me at least, having a certain amount of confidence in what I’m doing also helps a lot in being able to celebrate other people’s successes instead of lamenting my failures.

TM: Yeah, sure. And it really does help to see the show. Because almost every time, I’m like “Oh, OK.”

MS: Yeah. Yeah.

TM: You know, it’ll be mostly landscapes, or whatever it is. But I think the thing that you and I share in our work is there’s a certain sensitivity in it. And some galleries or some competitions just want work that’s strong, in your face, making a statement, and I feel like there’s a quietness that we share in our work.

MS: Well, thank you.

TM: I mean, really, your photography is really beautiful.

MS: Thank you, I really appreciate that.

TM: Even your bookmaking. I’ve only seen a couple pieces, but there’s a certain care. And it’s funny, because if you think of photography and bookbinding—very different art forms. But there’s a care to it. One of the photos that I loved of yours is, I guess one of your children had left a toy in a windowsill?

MS: Oh yeah. [laughs]

TM: And then there’s that translucent drape that covers it. It was such an intimate view of your life. All those photos on your site. There’s a real… It’s like this sacred space that you’re sharing with us.

MS: Well, thank you.

TM: Yeah. And so some of these shows are out—especially with galleries, sometimes they want to sell the work, so they’re going to just pull what they think is marketable. And with that kind of sensitivity, sometimes they don’t fully accept it. I’ve learned that about my work.

MS: Yeah. I could see that, and it’s something that I’ve heard a lot. A gallerist might say “This is really good but I could never sell this.”

TM: [laughs] God, it’s the worst. Yes, oh my gosh. It’s like “Well, can you show it?”

MS: Or even a reviewer will look at my work and say “Oh, this is…” You get a certain sense—I remember when I first started going to portfolio reviews that I’d take everything really personally. And, actually, you know when I first started I was really green and my work was really rough and probably not ready to even be at the point where I was trying to get it to. But when I would get a negative review, and most of them were negative, I would just get really downhearted about it. And now it’s to the point where, I have more confidence in my work and I can sort of see when… Because the question for me is always “Is what I’ve done, have I executed it poorly? Or have I done what I set out to do, and it’s just not to your taste?” A lot of times you can kind of see when someone isn’t responding to it, it’s just because that’s not what they’re into.

TM: Yeah. Or it’s not what they’ve experienced.

MS: Yeah.

TM: It’s not necessarily—because it could be, like you said, a well-executed photo, but if it’s of your child, and maybe they don’t have children. Or maybe they don’t get along with [laughs] well, whatever it is that they’ve experienced. Because I really feel like with work like yours that’s true, that speaks to the viewer. And if someone doesn’t connect with it, they’re just not… It’s not that they’re not connecting with your work, they’re not connecting with you and your experiences and your view on life in general. So there’s nothing we could do about that.

MS: I mean, that must be something that comes up a lot for you, your work being very personal, very specific, very emotionally open. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, looking at trends over the past thirty, forty years, that, increasingly, especially starting from the ‘80s onward, that contemporary art that gets attention is very cerebral and kind of cold, very intellectual. And there’s been a real distancing from art with emotions in it. That was one of the things that really excited me about your work, seeing it the first time. That I feel like maybe the pendulum is starting to move the other way again. In the past maybe five years or so I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot more people who are not afraid to engage that aspect of art. That’s my hope, anyway.

TM: Yeah, mine too. Mine too. It has to be personal, I think. And there’s so much… We just all need to be searching. [laughs] You know? I mean, we’re all going to do it anyway, we might as well put it in the work, right?

MS: Yeah.

TM: So.

MS: OK, so I think this is about our time. I think they’re going to close up here.

TM: OK.

MS: Do you feel good about the conversation?

TM: Yeah, I do.

MS: OK.

TM: I do, yeah.

MS: I’m really glad that we were able to sit down.

TM: Yeah, thank you.

MS: Thank you.

[Music]


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: Alright, so that was my conversation with Trinh Mai. I want to thank Trinh for sitting down with me, also thanks to the Escondido Municipal Gallery for letting us use their studio space to record in. If you’d like to learn more about Trinh’s work you can check out her website at trinhmai.com, that’s t-r-i-n-h-m-a-i dot com. Our theme music is by Podington Bear; you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. If you’d like to leave a comment, you can find me and the show on Twitter at ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at Keep the Channel Open, or send me an email at podcast@keepthechannelopen.com.

 

Just a quick note, my plan is for this show to come out every two weeks, but to get things started off I’m going to be releasing the first four episodes weekly. So thanks for tuning in, I’ll see you next week, and remember: keep the channel open.