Transcript - Episode 91: Michelle Brittan Rosado

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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 91. Today’s guest is Michelle Brittan Rosado.

Hey there, folks, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is poet Michelle Brittan Rosado. Michelle Brittan Rosado is the author of Why Can't It Be Tenderness, which won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and published by University of Wisconsin Press in November 2018. Her 2016 chapbook, Theory on Falling into a Reef, was the winner of the inaugural Rick Campbell Prize. Her poems have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Poet Lore, and The New Yorker, as well as the anthologies Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25, Only Light Can Do That: 100 Post-Election Poems, Stories, & Essays, and Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience.

Now, my first encounter with Michelle’s work was in late 2017, when I came across her poem “Poem to My Unborn Son the Morning After the Election.” Which, I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can read it for yourself, but anyway I just really loved that poem and that’s what eventually led me to her book Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, which I read earlier this year, and that’s the subject of our conversation today. A lot of this book, whether it’s the subjects of the poems or the structure of the book itself, is about between-ness or life transitions, about doubles and halves, and as a person of mixed race, myself, there was a lot that really resonated with me about this book, so I was excited to get the chance to talk with Michelle about it.

But I’m curious to know about work that’s resonated with you as well, so here’s a question for you listeners: what’s a piece of art or literature about identity that’s resonated with you, especially one that looks at life transitions or liminality? Send me a tweet at @ChannelOpenPod and let me know.

Now, for subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, this week’s episode comes with a new bonus reading. Michelle was kind enough to add a reading of her poem “The Sky Will Look White” to the bonus archive. This joins readings from previous guests including David Bowles, Lydia Kiesling, Shivanee Ramlochan, Rachel Lyon, and more. If you’d like to hear those readings, a monthly pledge in any amount to the Patreon campaign gets you access. You can find that at, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.

OK, so let’s get started. Here’s my conversation with Michelle Brittan Rosado.

First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: So I was wondering if we could start with a reading.

Michelle Brittan Rosado: Sure, sure. This poem is from my book and it's titled "The Sweetest Exile Is the One You Choose."

Beyond the body. Beyond the car.
Beyond the wire pulled loose

on a fence still waving the flag
of torn things. Beyond the tall grasses

and the shorn hillside. Beyond
the dried-up canal, the empty tent

with the dead fire outside it, the broken
reflector flashing distantly

at the foot of a burned-out barn. Beyond
this valley. Think ocean, think

lost continent. Beyond the dead
and their failures: knowledge they took

nowhere. Beyond the point
of anything calling your name. Call

your own name. Beyond the voice
no longer ringing, like a hubcap flung

into stillness. Beyond the bridge
your words make, the heartbeat's

trapeze. Beyond the radio tower
blinking its one red light. Beyond

the emergency call boxes
spaced like old hurts you gather up

for miles. Beyond the ordinary
narrative of being. Beyond

the bird's nest. Beyond the bird's nest
coming apart in the rain.

MS: Thank you. So just before I say anything else, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your book, and I actually really enjoyed it even more the second time I read through. I reread it to sort of prepare for talking with you and it was even better the second time around. This—

MBR: Oh, thank you, Mike.

MS: —this particular poem is—it's interesting, this is one that I was sort of puzzling over a little bit last night when I was rereading it, in that it's one that feels a little different from many of the other poems in the collection, at least to me. And I think one of the reasons that it feels a little different to me is that, you know, throughout the collection, a lot of the poems seem to be about a certain dual nature of things. Where this one, instead of feeling like two things kind of felt like more like one thing, but extending out sort of towards the horizon. And it had a little bit of a different feel to me. But I sort of wanted to—maybe as a place to start—sort of see how that struck you, whether that seems right to you?

MBR: Sure. That's an interesting take on it. I wanted to read it because it's a poem—I did write it towards the end of composing this manuscript, so that might also give it a slightly different flavor. And it never found a home. You know, I had sent out many of these poems to journals and so this one has a kind of special place for me because I don't specifically name it in the poem, but I was writing about a place right outside of the town where I grew up, Vacaville, which is in northern California. And it does appear elsewhere named in the book. And it's kind of halfway in the Bay Area culture, but on the furthest edges of it. And also part of the Central Valley. And the towns are really spaced out in that area compared to where I live now—I live in LA County—and the neighboring town of Dixon, in between Vacaville and Dixon, there's this protected green belt of space. It's a thousand acres. And as a child growing up, it always felt like it took forever to leave town and to get to the next place. So I think this in terms of the comment that you made about the dual nature of things, I think this is the liminal poem that maybe exists in between two places, two states.

MS: So it's interesting, one of the notes that I had made about this poem is that it seems like it's grounded in a specific, real-world place. So even though you don't name it, there are references throughout the collection to places that are specific, and it's interesting that in some of these cases you're describing a place, in other places, you name a place, sort of almost as an epigraph to the poem, but then don't necessarily specifically describe the poem or the place in the poem. But it seems like place is very important to your work. Does that seem right to you?

MBR: Definitely, definitely feel drawn to place. And I always find that I'm returning to places. When I wrote many of these poems, living in Fresno, which has some similarities to the town where I grew up though it's about 200 miles south of Vacaville. Yeah, that I'm always thinking about the landscape, especially now living in a really urban landscape. I'm missing the open spaces, the quiet, the repetition of hills and dirt roads, that I don't get here. So constantly returning to that place and seeing what it offers me new insights now that I'm away.

MS: Yeah, it is interesting how these places sort of get in our bones. I'm also from Northern California originally, a little south of Vacaville, but I grew up outside of Monterey. But my family—my dad's family, especially—is from a little ways away from that in Salinas. And I've always thought that the landscape around Salinas, what the hills look like, it's pretty similar to what that part of the East Bay is sort of like, rolling hills and it's... There is something about it that really I find—and certainly all the people that I've talked to from the same area as me—that it really colors the way that you look at everything else in your life afterwards if you leave. Yeah. And the idea of returning always to the same places, I find that a really fascinating thing. There was something that you said in another interview that I read, I think it was in The Southeast Review.

MBR: Okay.

MS: Yeah. Where you were talking about... It was something about—that poetry always sort of reminds you of how sort of ephemeral the emotions are, but that the poem gives you a way to sort of come back to that same thing over and over again, which I found a really fascinating idea. And I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.

MBR: Sure. Wow, that—I don't remember saying that, but it sounds good. I think maybe I was talking about how poems, they kind of plant a flag down in a place or they mark a spot where something happened or something was felt and then you can return to it, that you can leave it behind but then you can always come back. So there's something safe and rooted about that, I think.

MS: Yeah, I mean there's something about it—I am a writer and I do sometimes write poems, but my primary medium is as a photographer. So this idea of sort of capturing something momentary or ephemeral and extending it out into a long period of time where you can study it and come back to it, that the thing, the art becomes sort of a document, that's something that in photography is like—it's not even this subtext, it's the text of photography. But it's something that I found really interesting because for me as a photographer, maybe the literal moment is something that is getting extended and sort of captured where with the poem it's more like there is an image to it, but it's maybe more the emotion that's getting extended and captured. And I really loved that idea. I really just—when I read that passage in the interview, I was just like, "Oh wow. Yeah, that's right."

MBR: I have no experience really in photography other than just casual in my everyday life. But I do like the idea of a poem framing something. I'm often thinking about the space on the page and how to contain something or to draw a perimeter around something to kind of identify it. And I really am drawn to creating symmetry and balance visually on the page—and emotionally, hopefully, as well. So I'm bringing in that visual aspect. I appreciate that because that does ring true to me, too.

MS: Yeah. It's something that I find really interesting. This idea that you were just saying about, making a perimeter or framing, and then going back before to how you were describing this poem as being sort of liminal and you're describing the space in between these two towns. And a lot of your poems in this collection are very explicitly about between-ness. There's this idea in photography that the photograph is largely defined by its edges, by the borders and when I sort of take that together, that idea of being defined by edges and then being interested in these middle or between spaces, there was something about that that I was sort of toying with in my mind as I was reading, this idea of between-ness, and whether the thing that is important here is—like whether the thing is defined by the middle or defined by the edges. I couldn't quite get my arms around it, but I felt like that question might be important to these poems. How does that strike you?

MBR: Yeah, that's really interesting. It reminds me of—this was a long time ago, like in grade school—I took a 2-D art class elective and maybe this is sort of subconsciously in my poetic practice as well. But I remember the teacher saying that a piece of art as much more interesting if rather than having the subject right in the center and all this white space around it, that if it could touch the edges of the piece on at least three of the four sides that it's much more interesting. And then you get to imagine the subject extending beyond the piece of art itself. So maybe that's subconsciously deep from the past informing some of my poetry, like revealing as much as we need to see of the object, but then also allowing the edges to be up to the reader or to be a little bit unknown.

MS: Yeah. There's this idea in photography. I—you know, usually when I'm talking to a poet, I talk more about poetry than I do about photography, so I apologize for that. I'm just sort of stuck on this idea. But there's this idea in photography of, you know, most people, the sort of casual photographer is going to compose by thinking about the subject and the center of the frame first. Where if you go to photography school, they'll try to teach you to compose from the outside in instead. And it seemed like there might be something to that with the composition of a poem as well, but I don't know, maybe I'm trying to extend the metaphor a little too much.

MBR: Well, I like it. I think that—I mean this is kind of my evolving theory, but I do feel like a lot of poets, their poetry might lean more towards visual sensibilities versus musical or audio. And sometimes I really feel that I'm more on that visual side of things, both in the images that I'm trying to convey or the sensory details, but also on the page. So everything that you're saying sounds very in line with what I'm thinking as well.

MS: Yeah, I mean it is interesting. It's something that I've thought a lot about, especially because a lot of the poems that I've been kind of interested in lately have been ones where the visual form of them is very important. And so in looking at your poems, particularly the way that you use white space on the page, and in particular there's a few poems in here where you have a space sort of running down the middle of the poem. And one it's written in columns and so there's a really obvious space. And I love that one, tt's called "Between." That one is great and also how the spacing there enables different readings of the poem. But even with other ones, there's the one "Our Bodies Were Once the Color of Our Masks," that one also... You know, there's a few of them that are in this form where it's not a straight line, but in each one of the lines you have this sort of caesura, visual caesura in the line and how that imparts so much to the experience. But it—you know, something that I find really interesting about this visual aspect of poetry is, I think for a lot of people the poem is something that a lot of us would think of as something that we read aloud. You know, that the poem is something meant to be spoken. And I do think there's something really dynamic in the performance of a poem. But then when I think about things like this, there are aspects to the poem that seem very important, like the way it looks to your eye, that can't really be spoken. You know, I find that a really interesting idea. Is that something that you ever have to reckon with in your work?

MBR: Well, I mean I hope that a poem, whether it's mine or somebody else's, that it gets to live at least two lives, one life on the page, and then aloud, whether someone's hearing it at a reading and they don't have the text in front of them so they're just relying on their experience of the person reading it in front of them, or it's on a podcast or recording like this. And then the poem gets to have another life on the page. So I don't feel too sad about anything from the page being lost in the reading aloud. I just think of it as an extra life. There is this theme in the book about twins or this other half. So I like to think of it as an extra, like a bonus rather than a splitting, putting this kind of like visual caesura in some of the poems that that came later. And I realized that—in the evolution of this manuscript, it wasn't always in these forms—and I realized that I needed to use space more, especially in a manuscript that is so much about place and space and distance and bridging distances. So that was an enjoyable thing to add and to discover the forms that the poems really belonged in. Certain poems that I wasn't sure about, that once I changed the format of it, it suddenly made a lot more sense. Like the one that you named "Our Bodies Were Once the Color of Our Masks," which is also about a painting. So there's the visual influence there as well.

MS: Yeah. I hadn't been familiar with the painting previously, but I did look it up because the reference is in the text of the poem. And I thought it was really interesting how the form of the poem really reflects the form of the painting, which also involves, you know, there's a line right down the middle of it. So yeah, I thought that was really interesting. It was interesting to hear you talk about the form aspect coming later or opening something up for you. Do you usually find that when you're composing a poem that you're starting somewhere else and that the form sort of comes to you later? Or is it more like, you might start with a form and work your way sort of more inwards or outwards from that? Or is there even a pattern? Like is it just sort of, you know, sometimes one, sometimes the other?

MBR: Usually the form for me comes later. I'm a mother of a two-year-old, so my writing process has changed a bit in the last few years. But before having a child, I would hand-write everything and I wouldn't put any line breaks in it. Usually even if I wanted a line break, I would just kind of slash and then just keep going on the page—I would write a slash. And then typing it out is when I would decide what form the poem would take. And now I love hand-writing poems, but now I feel very lucky if I can type something out on my phone at a red light or you know, in these stolen moments of time. And then I have to also be conscious of what form I want the poem to take and not just look like a phone screen. So that's my new challenge, to not only—I noticed it seems like usually after about five or six words, it'll start wrapping and I'm like, "Okay, I can't have all my line lengths be determined by my phone." Right. So, yeah, and I like to sit with the draft for a while to see—I'm trying to remember what poet said it, I think it was Theodore Roethke, about how a poem is in its correct form when you return to it and none of the energy has leaked out. Like it's a vessel that should be sealed and if it has the same potency, then you know that it's in the right form. So that's been a measuring stick for me for if the poem has settled into its right shape.

MS: Hmm. Yeah. So the thing that you were just saying about composing on your phone, I think it's interesting. Obviously for a lot of us—I also have kids and it changes your life in a lot of ways, and I don't know anybody who is an artist who parenthood hasn't had some influence on the work that they make. But hearing you talk about the medium in which you are composing these things, I kind of wonder, do you find that your work—that the medium on which you're composing, whether it's like writing it longhand on paper versus writing on sort of a cramped phone screen, do you feel like that that influences the end product at all?

MBR: I think it definitely can. I've noticed I would write in the same size journal. So sometimes I would feel like, "Okay, I'm getting a little bit too consistent." In the sense of limiting myself in terms of the possibilities of what the line can do. And I found it interesting even in the production of the book, what poems looked like once they were on the smaller book page as opposed to 8.5x11 printer pages. It was completely different. I felt like I had to reacquaint myself with the poems all over again because the white space shrank or a poem that I had always thought of as a one-page poem was now a two-page poem. Or having the book in front of me and reading and realizing, "oh, now this is a left page poem versus a right page poem." Having the poems face each other. I'm really interested in the relationship of the poem to the page definitely. And trying to consciously work against whatever format I'm in to make sure that I'm getting to what the poem really wants to be as opposed to what's comfortable and trying to get beyond the comfortable limits.

MS: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the trick for all of us is sort of... I think you get to a certain point, especially after you've been making work for a while where you kind of know what you're doing, but then these rhythms of your work become familiar and comfortable and maybe that degree of familiarity and comfort can itself present an obstacle to making work that feels exciting. I think we all have to sort of work against that tendency.

MBR: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I know for me a comfort zone is couplets. And it feels like, "Okay," and I write about halves or doubles and it just feels like, "Oh, I want this line to speak intimately with this next line and then have some space." But I think that pushing against what feels instinctive and kind of growing the space in which we can create as is always a good thing. So that was another part of creating this book was for me thinking about how can I do something that still feels natural but wasn't the first place that I went as a writer.

MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that in this book, certainly there are a lot of poems that have a lot of different forms, whether you're using couplets or tercets or no stanza breaks at all, or, you know, different ways that it looks on the page. I find that interesting and in the context of what you were saying just now—although, you know, another thing that I think of myself, for my own work is that sometimes the impulse to want to get uncomfortable with something might make me... Like I might say to myself, "Well, this is what I always do, so I shouldn't do that." But in some ways that also might not be—that impulse might be taking me away from what this particular work might... What might be right for this. Does that, you know what I'm saying?

MBR: Sure. Yeah. I mean we can always do both, right? We can write the version of the poem that feels really safe and then keep going or change it around and then change it back.

MS: Yeah. So one of the things that I—I think one of the things that really drew me to this collection, especially the first section of it is I really related very strongly to—which we already mentioned this sense of between-ness, because a lot of these poems are about being biracial and bicultural. And that's something that for me has always been an important part of my experience of life as well. You know, I'm Japanese, but I'm only three-quarters Japanese. My mom's dad was white and his family has been—he came from Arkansas originally. But then, even at that, her mom came from Japan and then on my dad's side is ethnically completely Japanese, but his family has been in California for five or six generations now.

MBR: Wow, that's so interesting.

MS: Yeah. But like I felt like a lot of these poems, this way that it addresses that feeling of both being at home, feeling familiar but also feeling foreign everywhere, that that was something that really resonated with me. It felt important to me. And clearly it seems like it must be important to you as well since so many of these poems have that feeling to them. But, yeah, I mean, can we talk about that a little bit?

MBR: Yeah, definitely. I can really relate to that feeling of—I mean, this is me speaking of my own experience, I don't know if this is also yours—but hearing you talk about on your father's side having such a long history and multiple generations being in this country and my father's side of the family, we can trace back to the gold rush coming to California in the mid-1800s. So on the one hand, I feel this great sense of "This is where I am from, this is where generations of people before me that I'm related to by blood, we're here in this land." And I think that also is part of the draw for me of writing about place. But then on the other hand, being the child of an immigrant who moved here already as an adult and seeing the land also from that perspective of it being completely foreign and different and compared to another place. And so trying to reconcile those two really different feelings of being completely familiar and unfamiliar with the place. And I write about California, but then I also have a lot of poems set in Malaysia and wanting to retain that same feeling of feeling very connected and belonging, but at the same time having moments of standing outside of it and wondering my place within that context.

MS: Yeah. And there are several points at which in these poems you're describing experiences of being there or being—in some cases it might not be completely clear where the action of the poem is happening. Like for example, in several of the poems there's this experience of not being able to communicate. And that's something that really for me as well—like I don't speak Japanese and neither of my parents speak Japanese. And on my dad's side, neither of his parents spoke Japanese either. So it's something that, I don't know, there's this kind of anxiety for me that whenever I see mixed-race people writing about visiting their ancestral country, I'm always a little jealous that I've never been to Japan. And part of the reason is because I have this anxiety about not being able to speak the language. I don't know. I think there's something sort of weirdly isolating about that, you know?

MBR: Same. Or—but then I try to comfort myself by thinking, well, even if I knew the language there would probably be some other aspect that would betray me, whether it's, you know, looking ambiguous or the way that I carry myself or having an accent. So I guess there's no real way to get to that.... I don't know, this trying to search for some like authentic connection to something, but then it's like, who defines that and why is it such a narrow definition of identity or needing to belong. But that is something that I'm constantly thinking through.

MS: Yeah. The idea of between-ness and this aspect, sort of going back to what we were saying before about perimeters and about edges, that I feel like this is a question that especially for mixed-race or mixed-culture, people becomes really relevant because I know for myself that there might be this tendency, especially when I was younger, to want to sort of define myself in terms of one or the other. Like in a similar way in that many of these poems are like very sort of literally taking the edges of the Pacific Ocean for example. And so I might feel at times defined by those two edges, but I feel like as I've gotten older, there is more of maybe a drift towards defining the middle as its own thing rather than being completely defined by just one end or the other. Is that something that resonates with you?

MBR: Absolutely. And I like that a lot because I've read in some articles about mixed race and sometimes people will talk about having a third thing, like two sides being added creates this whole third separate experience. And maybe that's true too. And I don't want to completely write that off for my own self. But I think I'm much more identifying with there's the center, there's this convergence where there are elements of everything kind of swirling together. And it's not always easy to pin it down or it can shift based on context or company or our moods. But yeah, I like that idea of embracing the middle.

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

MBR: Okay. Sounds good.

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?

Michelle Brittan Rosado: So I just recently finished a long scholarly project. I was in a phd program and finished my dissertation. And on the one hand, I don't want to talk about it, but on the other, I'm still kind of in this transitional space of like, okay, I had this big project that was taking up a lot of my mental energy and my time. And so I'm kind of reconfiguring my life around that newly open space. And so I've been thinking about this project that I had from more of a purely poetic, creative perspective. And what I'd written about in my dissertation was the poetic form of the pantoum, which is a Malay form, or sometimes described as a Malaysian form. And it was interesting to me to think about my sense of a literary heritage or literary inheritance. And it's also something that I find really interesting to talk about with other writers and poets in particular is where do we get a sense of where we come from as a poet, like our poetry genealogy, I suppose. So that's still lingering in my mind as I now focus more on my creative work.

MS: Yeah. So I—well, first of all, congratulations on finishing your dissertation.

MBR: Thank you. And it was so nice to be invited to do this podcast afterwards. So then I could really feel like, okay, I'm taking off my scholar hat and can really feel like a poet.

MS: Yeah. I mean I think it's a really interesting question, this idea of lineage or genealogy. I wonder sometimes if that has like a particular significance for writers of color in America. Yeah, I'm not sure. Do you think that might be true?

MBR: I think so. I mean, in a way that I'm thinking of it, it is tied to identity and it could be racial, ethnic, it could be gender or sexuality. But I find that it seems like there's usually that one writer for someone that kind of unlocks a whole new way of writing and being in the world, and who are instructive to us about what we can write about and that there are things that really can appear in a poem and what that would look like. And I had this sort of strange experience with encountering the pantoum form because as a student of poetry I wasn't aware of it until I had read it was Natasha Trethewey's pantoum called "Incident," from her collection Native Guard. And I had already this interest in formal poetry, even though most of my book is free verse, definitely, but interested in particular in how poets of color write within forms and can challenge the conventions of those forms. So when I read her pantoum, I didn't even know what form it was in, but then when someone had pointed out to me that was a pantoum and then I decided to read up about it and I liked it right away. I loved the repetition. I loved how whole lines would reappear. I loved the quatrains. Just something about it was really compelling for me. So then to discover that it was a form that had its origins in Malaysia, it was very surprising to me because I just had felt this connection to it. So then that kind of began my obsession with tracking down different descriptions of the form and its history and what was left out and then wanting to kind of write into those gaps.

MS: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting because I didn't go to school for poetry, so a lot of this has been sort of a new experience for me. And I didn't start reading pantoums or know about the form was until maybe a couple of years ago. But one of the things that I was interested to learn was that the form is that it is derived from a traditional Malay form, but it's not the same as, and I thought that was really interesting.

MBR: Yeah, it's transformed a lot through its journey out of Southeast Asia, through Europe, French and English poets had appropriated it and had kind of just settled on one specific strain of pantun. That was the name before the French had kind of renamed it or Frenchified it, right. It was P-A-N-T-U-N. And I was surprised to discover that there was this pantun tradition from the Malay peninsula and then in the surrounding areas that really took—it was usually just a single quatrain that was the basic form, but then there were all these variations on it. So the one that we see in contemporary American poetry, it's really just this one very specific type of pantun that isn't as common, I don't think, over there. So that was interesting to me as well, how it had changed and whether it could even really be called the same form or like a cousin of the form.

MS: Yeah. One of the things that I often think about with cross-cultural forms or things like that is for me, the haiku. Where, you know, the English language haiku is often very different from it's Japanese origins. But, you know, sort of oddly, sometimes I find myself even more drawn to English language haiku then to translated Japanese haiku, which I—that makes me feel just completely weird.

MBR: I know, but then it's like what traces remain even in the English language haiku that is still that DNA from the original form is still there, even if it's really different. But I know what you mean. Like there's this—I feel the same, and then when we go back to what we've been talking about earlier, about that language barrier as well, then that's like another layer of remove. Right?

MS: Yeah. Yeah. And in sort of looking at how American English-language authors write in Haiku... I mean, I think I'm a little more familiar with that just because we studied a little bit of that in my college lit classes, general ed classes and how that came across with the Beats more than anything else. I couldn't help but feel like there is this sort of... I like it, but also... I like that it came across. I like that that happened, and that it was able to give me these poems that are in some way connected to something about my heritage, but that are accessible in a form that I can actually read. At the same time, there's this sort of weird orientalism to it, you know what I mean?

MBR: Absolutely. Yeah. No, and those are, those are those same things I was thinking about while writing about the pantoum. On the one hand, I'm happy that that exists in contemporary American poetry because here's something that feels like I can connect to or that has brought me down a path that I wouldn't have probably gone down without it, you know? And especially not knowing the language. But then, yeah, there is this sort of appropriative, orientalist, in the case of the pantoum colonial colonized aspect as well. Cultural appropriation. So yeah, it's this kind of troubling inheritance or an ambivalent inheritance, like you're happy to have it, but then also the history of its origins can make it more complicated.

MS: Yeah. And it's on my mind, too, a lot that—I mean, I guess if I'm being honest, I don't actually know that many Malaysian American poets. But at least with haiku, it has occurred to me before that most of the English-language haiku that I have ever even heard of were written by white people, and that very few Asian American—not even just Japanese American, but Asian American in general—poets seem to work in that form. And I feel like there's something kind of weird about that. And I don't know if the same is true for pantoums, but I've got to imagine that it might be.

MBR: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, and also I don't know many Malaysian American poets writing in English in the US either. I mean the big one I think is Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and she has a pantoum which she titled "Pantoun"—and she kind of hybridizes both spellings of it, it's P-A-N-T-O-U-N—"for Chinese women." And I think her poem is a really interesting example of that form because she's writing as someone who is ethnically Chinese from Malaysia and then writing about female infanticide in China. And so she really complicates that tradition as well. So maybe that's where I feel like she opened a door to write in that form. But not necessarily in these expected or cliched or orientalist ways that really challenge [a] sense of... What's the word I'm looking for? Affinities or... Yeah.

MS: Yeah. I mean, for myself, I think this idea of lineage is really interesting because, for me, when it comes to the idea of writing in Japanese forms, like a haiku or a haibun or something like that, there's something attractive about that to me, but also something a little repellent about it. And I can never quite put my finger on exactly how I feel about that idea. You know what I mean?

MBR: Yeah. Like if it's like too expected or—

MS: Yeah, yeah

MBR: —an expectation or it can become this like sort of co-opted performance.

MS: Yeah.

MBR: I mean, something I'm really interested in in terms of the pantoum is seeing other poets—Asian American poets, but then also poets of color writing in this form. I'm thinking of Natalie Diaz has a beautiful pantoum that's really haunting, I think it's "My Brother At 3 AM." And Nicole Homer has a pantoum called "The Dead Line," which is about Alton Sterling and Black Lives Matter. And it just seems like the form is really suited to writing about difficult, traumatic subjects. Natasha Trethewey's pantoum that I'd mentioned earlier is about the KKK visiting the speaker's house and just sort of this Freudian working through of something bad that happened and getting a sense of what it means and the repetition becomes a way of reflecting or redefining or revising that trauma.

MS: Yeah, it's, you know, it's interesting hearing you say that and bringing up other American poets of color because in a lot of ways when I think about what I write about, what I feel like my work might be responding to or in conversation with or maybe even given permission by is less other necessarily Japanese or—certainly Japanese, but even Japanese American writers and more these other more contemporary writers of color who may not belong to the same communities that I do, but the fact that they are writing about their own experience is something that does feel very freeing for me, you know?

MBR: Yeah. It's like uncovering these other facets of what that form can do, put in a different cultural or identity context is also really fascinating to me as well. Have you written any haikus or haibuns?

MS: I mean, I have. I think everybody has, right? I cannot claim to have written a good haiku.

MBR: I think we don't have to go to the middle school archives. Yeah.

MS: Yeah, I mean, and, you know, sort of going back to what we were talking about in the first segment too, I also find that a lot of—partially this is just because up until fairly recently I never had much opportunity to read literature from people of color at all, and certainly not Asian American writers—but a lot of the work that kind of lives in my bones is work that isn't even necessarily poetic. Somebody I talk about on the show all the dang time, maybe the listeners are tired of it by now, is John Steinbeck, just because he was writing about things that were really important to me. In kind of a similar way to what you were describing with the landscape of California and particularly Northern California, your little slice of Northern California that he was writing literally about the city where I was born and that landscape. And so that was also something that really made me want to talk about those things in a similar way, you know?

MBR: Yeah. And how a writer can give language to something that maybe... You know, I feel like my connection to the landscape that I was raised in is—I'm so enveloped in life, those sensory details of it, like the smells and the colors and the sounds and then to see it rendered in language by another writer can definitely be powerful because then it's recalling all of these details that are so familiar to us. For me, I would say some of those writers that came to me as an undergraduate student. I was actually in the Pacific Northwest going to college and then I had come across all of these Fresno poets that I didn't even realize they were from Fresno. But like Gary Soto's Elements of San Joaquin and he's describing the fog and the fields and the farm workers. And that was just so familiar to me. And then reading it in this completely different context of the Pacific Northwest, which is so lush and green and dense with vegetation. And then seeing that sort of flatter landscape edged with hills was definitely transporting.

MS: I think we're getting pretty close to time, but there's one question that I like to close with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

MBR: Yeah, I just finished Arthur Sze's latest poetry collection, titled Sight Lines. I had heard him read from it a year ago. He had come to USC to give a reading here in LA and the book wasn't out yet. And then I heard him read from it at AWP this past year and I really enjoy it. I love and really enjoy his work overall. And I was reminded of how his poetry, which can really place these harsh contrasts side by side, of a very tender moment between two people and then an ecological disaster will happen within the same stanza, right next to it. And it reminded me that poetry can be instructive in telling us how to survive the horrible daily news, that it can all coexist. And so that was something I really appreciated from his book is how to hold opposites, and not having to explain it, but just to bear witness can be a kind of power.

MS: Great. Well, thank you so much and thanks for talking with me. I really appreciate it. I had a good time.

MBR: Thank you, Mike. Thanks so much. I enjoyed the conversation too.


Mike Sakasegawa: OK, once again, Michelle’s book is Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, there are links in the show notes for where you can purchase your own copy, which I highly recommend. And you can check out her website at for upcoming events and news.

And that is our show. You can find me and the show on Instagram and Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at, or you can send an email to If you’re enjoying the show, pass it on to a friend—and, hey, if you do that on Twitter do tag the show, it’ll bring a smile to my face. You can also support the show via our Patreon campaign, where a monthly pledge in any amount gets you access to the complete bonus archive. You can find that at, 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 We’ll be back soon with a new conversation. Until then, remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa