blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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A Conversation with Sandra Lim
captured October 8, 2015

Gregory Donovan: Today we’re having an opportunity to have a Q&A session with Sandra Lim, the winner of this year’s Levis Reading Prize. So, welcome, Sandra.

Sandra Lim: Thank you.

GD: And congratulations on the award.

SL: Thank you!

GD: Sandra, often your poems begin with a provocative statement. They’ll start with something that almost sounds like a philosophical statement or even a challenge. For example, the poem “Certainty,” (there are two poems titled “Certainty”) the one that begins:

Perhaps you can tell children that the world is always a more
beautiful place than you can suppose,
and then you release them into their future, the black row of trees
in the distance.

So, I’m interested in is how you move from that one perspective, that one strategy of communication, and then, almost always, you’ll zoom in on an image as if that resolves into that, and I like that movement in your poetry. I wondered if you would comment on that strategy.

SL: I hope I can. Thank you for the question. It’s interesting that you ask that because one of the difficulties of writing the poems that became this book—a struggle that I had early on—was with finding the right form for the different poems. Sort of the shadow behind this particular collection  . . . There’s another, I guess, manuscript that I kind of threw away in 2010 or so, and it really was because I couldn’t find the line or the form for the poems, so some of those sort of longer-lined, end-stopped poems, like a lot of the “World” poems, or “Certainty,” came from this impulse to try to say a thing clearly; maybe that’s where some of those philosophical statements came.

It wasn’t as if I thought, “I want to say something about the subject matter ‘X’ clearly.” It was just that I felt frustrated and wanted to be able to say something with some kind of confidence or boldness. I think the form came first, in a way, and within that form, I was able to somewhat confidently make a statement. And then the move into the image—I felt like the image could then be another form of inquiry, so sort of backing up, in a way, these sometimes maybe audacious statements or things that I was testing out in the poem. But, of course, I wish I had known that sometimes when sitting down to write some of these. It was a lot of trial and error.

GD: You have an interest in the book in forms, as well; some of them, I think, invented forms. At least, there’s one poem (I’m trying to remember which one it is) that uses repetition really strikingly. Go ahead, David.

David Wojahn: I wonder if you’re thinking about “Cheval Sombre” which is kind of a palindrome poem.

GD: Yeah, exactly.

SL: I wanted to write . . . I don’t normally write in very fixed forms, even though . . . I guess that’s unfair that I make my students do a sestina or villanelle, but something about that particular poem, I guess it’s a sort of love poem. The repetitions seemed important. I wanted to see if the line, as with so many palindromes, said the second time around would take on a different valance. So that was fun to write. It also brought me back to looking at other poems written in that form, so it was sort of fun to revisit other works written in that form. But it’s not a usual move for me, I guess.

DW: You know, one of the subjects we have some discussion about—particularly when we were talking about it in the undergraduate workshop—is, in terms of the poems and the long lines, there’s a lot of debate as to whether we were to be considering them as prose poems or as poems in long lines, and some of them do carry over to the second line, and our right margin adjusted, which, typographically speaking, suggests it should be read as prose. So there’s a real chicken or the egg debate going on about how the line was conceived in the book. Could you talk a little bit about that?

SL: Yes, I think that was why I had a lot of anxiety, too, because I did at one point thing . . . I think the way I come down on it now is that they are lines of poetry. But, if I could have it in both ways because I don’t think of them as prose poems, I think because of the stanza breaks, even if you could think of it as a very airy prose poem, in a certain sense. One of the ways in which it came back was, when the book was in proofs, they had it in the type settings. I was so used to seeing the poems in my word document, so they cut off always at the same place, even if they wrapped, just because of the right-hand, justified margin. But then there was this debate about whether, where it broke off, if they were going to be indented or how it was going to look, and it kind of brought up the question of it all again. But, I think the way that I hope that they are read, or how I intended it to be read, is that I do have a kind of investment in the prose-like rhythm of that long line. I think that whatever I was saying in each poem, that long line really helped me to be able to say it, I guess is how I’m going to articulate it now. But it’s something that is hard now that I’m trying to write new poems. I think it was very specific to that moment or this particular collection. Now, if I try to write in that form, I either feel a little bit mannered about it and I’m thrown into that question again of “am I really looking for a prose poem here or for a poem in lines but it’s a prose-like line?”

Q: Earlier we were talking about “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and how you had mentioned that you wanted to participate in a conversation that [John] Berryman was having with her. The first poem has the lines: “So let me consider it from here, from inside the head of my demon,” which summons also Socrates talking about his demon that guided him about what he should do, kind of a conscience or a guiding spirit guardian. I was wondering if you could talk about, in this poem, but in other poems, too, how you work with that guiding voice, that “inside the head of my demon.”

SL: That’s funny because one of the ways—and I haven’t thought about it until now, until your question—is when I was sitting down to write, well that poem in particular, but any other poems, there’s such a sense now in writing poetry (I guess it’s been like this for a long time) where [you have] that sense of encountering something for the first time and writing about it freshly without a sense of immediately, the thought after, thinking “Well, this has been said before; this has been thought before.” That mediation is always so present. In a funny way, I thought when writing that poem—not that that was the main subject necessarily— but, there because the conversation was so peopled already with Berryman and [Anne] Bradstreet and all of the other people that have kind of weighed in or been in that, that it was almost easy or sort of an easy way to admit that or acknowledge that mediation and make something of it, I guess. Make something poetic of it. I don’t know if that makes sense, exactly, but I think that’s there in the poem and in other poems, too.

Q: I think that you had mentioned earlier, that you felt as if you had come late to the poetry party, as opposed to writing a poem when you were six or seven years old . . . I wondered if you could kind of talk about how that happened. You actually got your PhD before ever going to get your MFA, so obviously you were on one track, to the study of literature, to all of a sudden creating it. I was just wondering if you could talk a little about that path.

SL: When I was younger, and I think as we probably all are, we’re big readers, and falling in love with reading, and I just thought I would be a fiction writer. That’s mostly what I read in high school, too. Most of what I was exposed to . . . It’s probably still the same way: people are probably exposed to more prose, fiction. When I teach too, my students are still, more in my intro class, we do fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and everyone sort of gets a little uncomfortable when we do the poetry section because it seems somehow harder or more difficult. That was probably all there for me, too. I took a reading and writing poetry class in college, kind of by accident because it fit in with my schedule, and I just really was so excited. Of course I had been exposed to poetry before, but maybe not a lot of modern poetry. Later, when I went to get my MFA, I know so many people that can do both or can do so many different genres, but I can just remember asking a friend of mine, “How do you sit down and write a story?” But with a poem I feel comfortable, somehow. And he’s like, “How do you sit down and write a poem? Can you tell me? How do you do that?” There was a way in which I feel like you feel more comfortable or you feel chosen, or the genre chooses you somehow—again, aside from the people who can somehow do everything really well.

Initially, I was very shy about thinking “Oh, I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to be a poet,” and I wanted to read more in both poetry and fiction just to get to know American and British literature. But towards the end of my PhD, I felt like I wasn’t naturally a very good critic. I was always writing poetry on the side. In a way, it was very freeing because if you’re doing something on the side it’s just, “Well, I’m just doing it on the side, it’s not my main thing.” But, It was important, I think, to go get my MFA after because, then, to declare, “Okay, I’m going to be responsible to my imagination or to this investment,” it was good for me to do it in that order because I felt like I had some time to do a lot of reading, do a lot of thinking. I think if I had gone right after my undergraduate time . . . I mean, I like to write, but I don’t know if I necessarily would have had anything to say. I’m a very slow writer, too, so I probably needed those eight years. And then it was just sheer fun to be able to be in a place where people took writing so seriously and just to be able to do that all of the time. I like to write in coffee shops. Being in like a great coffee shop, you would see peo really, really passionate. You would see people get into arguments at bars about poems and poets, so that was so new and exciting to me. It was great. And then I was able to field the questions of people who were then thinking of doing their PhD, so I could tell them, “Maybe, maybe not. Here’s what my experience was.”

Q: When compiling your second book and writing it, were there any joys or frustrations that were new for the second book that weren’t in the first one? Was there anything that was wonderful or anything that was—

SL: Torture? Yes, a lot of frustration. I think, at least with one’s first book, it’s like your whole life, and then there’s your book, whether it’s autobiographical or not. I remember talking to a friend, you know, I can see with second books, there’s a lot of project books, and I feel like I understand that impulse because people  . . . maybe not necessarily being at a loss for what to write about, but there’s a self-consciousness there. There was that to deal with. Also, I really wanted to not sound like or not work in the same forms or voices as I was working with in my first book, so that was a very conscious choice or decision, which became frustrating, too, because then it was a matter of really exploring. That’s why I think that the manuscript that I wrote—or that I finished in 2010—was just really inert. I think it was too consciously a project. I couldn’t even tell you exactly what that project was now. Then I had to go poem by poem. And sometimes I’d think, “Well, why am I writing a poem about this frontier man” or “I don’t want to write a whole book of poems about that necessarily.” And then another one would be, “Oh, a family poem is coming up.” But I just trusted that I’ll just go poem by poem and then see if it comes together as a collection.

DW: Sandra, a lot of your poems, especially in The Wilderness, often commence with a statement; sometimes a really disarming statement that is provocative. It’s such a poetry workshop cliché, particularly among undergraduates, that do the [Ezra] Pound thing and tread in fear of abstraction. How did it feel in composing the book to be so reliant on statement and having it be this received piety among poets that you’re supposed to not really use them too much?

SL: Right. Yes. I mean, it was very scary and probably why it was such a struggle, actually, to write some of the poems in the book. But in some ways, I never felt as if I was that good at writing images, actually, writing description. I would look at Elizabeth Bishop and be like, “How did she do that?” It didn’t come very easily to me. In some ways, I think it was just having to trust, again, poem by poem. If I thought too much, “Wait, here’s another poem that starts with a kind of alarming or provocative statement,” then I might have shied away. Just going poem by poem helped a little bit with that. After a while, I thought, “Okay, this is me, or this is how I’m writing, so I’m just going to have to follow it,” because of this impulse of wanting to sort of say something clearly, because I was getting tired of writing my own poems where I thought, “This is veering now into soft-focus realism,” or something. “What am I doing here? What am I saying? Can I just be there, kind of nakedly, with a statement and see what I could make out of that?” So that was kind of the challenge of writing some of the poems.

Q: A few of the poems I read, you step out and address the poetry, or in a few, you address art, which is like addressing image. I wonder if there was an edge that you sometimes played where you felt like, “Okay, maybe I’m stepping too far out of the poem. How do I pull it back?” I found that very interesting. I really liked that idea. I guess you could call it “meta,” the idea of addressing what you do and what you are in a poem that’s really about something else, but using that also as image, in a layer. It feels very tempting to then step out into the autobiographical realm and out of the poem itself. I’m wondering if you struggled with that. Or how did you manage to do that so successfully?

SL: Thank you! That’s such careful reading. I think it was frustrating in a lot of ways. That was the management. The way I see it, maybe, if I am understanding correctly, it was a managing of tone in a way, and especially these days as I try to write new poems, it really starts with sniffing out a tone of some sort and then following that in order to write the poem. I think some of those moves where I’m stepping out and being more “meta,” as you say, I guess I would say I managed it by kind of testing the tone of the poem. I think so. It’s hard to know how conscious these moves are sometimes, right? Because it just sounds okay, or it sounds right, or it sounds not okay, or it sounds mannered. Or it’s inert all of a sudden because I’ve done that too much.

Q: Did you have a sense occasionally when you were working on it—I don’t know, it’s almost as if reading it, I feel like I can feel that moving out of that space a little bit, just to the periphery, and I wonder, as the author, if you almost felt like you needed to be drawn back in? It really has this kinetic sense to it when I read that. I recently tried to do this—so that’s why my curiosity is heightened by this—in creative nonfiction, but that sense of being pulled away and then being pulled back in . . . I’m just curious if that was a feeling sense in the creation process or if that’s just a lucky happenstance in my reading of it or something. I don’t know.

SL: I’m sure some of it was luck, but I’m not sure if this is exactly in those moments if this is happening, but sometimes I wonder when you’re writing fiction or if you’re writing a poem, there are moments when you’re like, “There I am. There I am doing that again.” You know? “There’s my tick.” So then that’s easy to throw out, even if sometimes I’m really in love with the line or something, but it just doesn’t quite go there, because that’s just my . . . I guess I’ll call it a tick. “There I am doing that again,” and then I think it would be brave enough to throw that out and start over. Maybe there’s a little bit of that, of going out too far and coming back in.

Q: Thank you.

GD: Your book frequently alludes to or directly takes up the subject of seasons. The season that is dominant, at least in my reading of it, is spring. Particularly the long poem, “Ver Novum,” early spring, takes that up and then also deals with this certain, almost inherent irony—I think that’s present for all of us now—which is that you’re primarily an urban person, but you’re referring to the georgics of Virgil and you’re making allusions to a pastoral tradition in past and poetry. I found it interesting that what you seem to reach for as a counterpoint to any kind of antique orientation in a poem like that was allusions to magic or to magic tricks. I really found that part in “Ver Novum” where you talk about:

This time of year challenges you
like a little magician

fanning the day’s cards brusquely in your face.

Pick a card, any card.

That also seemed to express a kind of taunting that these seasons do to a person in our time. Almost like it draws you out into this mythic territory and then: “But I’m not really living in there.” So I was wondering if you could comment a little bit about how you entered into those poems, what you found yourself discovering as you wrote them.

SL: I’m glad you said spring, too, because it is such a wintery book in other ways. People are like “Winter, winter . . . I hope your next book is about spring,” and I’m like, “It is about spring!” and my fraught relationship with spring. Some of it is—even though some of the poems began before I moved to the Northeast—because I’m originally from California, and I was not used to such well-defined harsh seasons. The drama of the seasons was so beguiling or enchanting to me, even last winter when sometimes we felt like we were being buried alive under all that snow. It’s also not a bad atmosphere in which to do some writing. I felt very nervous about description and image and not feeling like I’m naturally a nature poet, or anything like that, and if anything, I think of myself as having an urban sensibility.

In that particular poem I was very taken with—I forget the number of the canto—but [Ezra] Pound, where there’s the line in “Ver Novum:” “. . . and this makes the spring.” I think in that particular canto, I wish I could remember the number, he’s talking about transmutation and magic on a deep level, and sexuality and seasons. So that was sort of the inspiration for that, and elsewhere in the book, too. There’s something so tricky and so taunting, as you say, about—for me—spring, especially, and also being in the Northeast. You think winter is over and spring is coming and then no, it’s snatched away from you very suddenly. It’s supposedly the time of rebirth, but all I can see sometimes is just examples of death or things dying. In a way, it’s more vivid at that time. And depression and spring, all those things came to the fore. I think it was just a rich ground for me to play around in.

GD: I found it humorous and really enjoyable, too, that you figured in the poem: spring acts like a kind of a bad boyfriend. That’s addressed at the end of the poem. It says, “Spring, which says it’s never been unfaithful, / mixing insult and provocation.”

SL: Yeah! Sort of “come closer; go away” in the same move.

DW: That’s an interesting line, too, because it brings up the question I wanted to ask you. That line sounds almost like giving the middle finger to the beginning of The Waste Land, you know, “mixing / Memory and desire.” There are myriad literary references and literary debts that you pay in the poems that is really refreshing because you’re always trying to find a way to renegotiate and refresh the tradition. I was wondering who among the people in the tradition and your contemporaries you feel are your touchstones, the people you come back to and draw your inspiration from?

SL: I love T.S. Eliot, so he’s there. Although, it’s funny because whenever I teach, say, something like The Waste Land, my students haven’t been that excited. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, or the fragmentation quotes, they’re just like, “Eh, it’s kind of old hat or whatever.” I also very much love “Four Quartets.” I love T.S. Eliot, I love [Rainer Maria] Rilke, although I have never read him in German, only in translation. And some of the older poets.What I did my dissertation on when I was in graduate school was the New York School of Poets, actually, so Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, [James] Schuyler, the first generation, and their negotiations with the visual and performing arts. I think of those three, people are like, “Oh, I can sort of hear O’Hara,” but I was really taken with Schuyler at the time and now I think that seems more apparent.

In terms of older poets that I sort of return to, I love, I guess I like the modernists, like Eliot, Stevens, I return to. I’ve been getting a little bit more into Marianne Moore—she wasn’t ever a huge favorite of mine in the beginning—lately. And I love American mid-50s poets, so the New York School, but also Plath, Berryman. Part of it is the poems themselves, of course, but that kind of fire and energy. It’s very different, I feel like, from my kind of sensibility, but that announcement of ambition, it just seemed like an exciting time. And that comes off in their books. Those are some of the people I guess I return to.

GD: Pound himself wrote a poem called “Ver Novum,” and I was trying to make parallels between that. I’m teaching a modernist class right now, so I’m very conscious. I know David has been teaching that, too, lately. I’m very conscious of hearing those echoes in your work and that’s really interesting. Another thing that you take up frequently in the allusions that you involve yourself with are . . . they’re not exactly, in fact, they’re definitely not ekphrastic poems, but you allude to a visual artist in the very first poem in the book; it was to Rembrandt. A number of things that drew me to your book is that your poems are not ekphrastic in a traditional way. It’s almost like you’re doing battle or responding to the visual artists whose work you take up and take an interest in.

SL: I think it’s partly I love looking at visual art and from all sorts of periods. I feel also like, with writing . . . obviously I write and I feel like sometimes I even have some musical ability but no visual ability, so it’s partly that fascination with the thing that you’re very bad at, in a way. But, I also love looking at paintings or visual art. The material is so apparent. That sounds like such an obvious thing to say, but I think sometimes with palms—that’s why I’m drawn to writing about them—sometimes the fact of making art seems so on-the-surface, or so present, or foregrounded, in the visual artwork. So I think that’s a lot of the fascination with it, and from all periods, because there’s a poem later in the book where I just steal two lines from a contemporary artist, I think he passed away now, but where he would do these sculptures with yarn and light and things like that. I liked having that kind of modern counterpoint to starting out with someone like Rembrandt. I was also interested in self-portraits, too. I love that kind of weird disconnect of a visual artist doing a self-portraiture, but the many kinds of removes that happen there, or maybe, in some ways, that’s fascinating to me as a writer.

Q: How do you know when a poem is finished?

SL: It feels right.

Q: It feels right?

SL: Yeah, it feels right, it feels done. But I let them sit around for a while. Some of them I’m just like, “Yep, that’s it,” but I let them sit for a while because I have to come back and see if it still feels done.

Q: Sticking with the few lead questions, how did you come to understand a lot of the poems that are compiled in this collection as a collection?

SL: It was a much fatter book, I guess, at first. I think I did what a lot of people do, I just grouped things that seemed to go together. But, yeah, I guess this is in line with the feely question part of it. Certain strands seem to connect and belong so that I thought, “Oh yeah, I can put this poem about Puritans and this larger poem about Puritans alongside these other poems, and there is a kind of conversation or resonances that I can see happening.” But I also didn’t want it to be heavy-handed either and be like, “This is the theme of this book, and therefore it will be titled this.” Even the cover I was very nervous that I wouldn’t have any say, and they were very nice in allowing me to give suggestions. But I was just like, “I know it’s called The Wilderness, but please no trees on the cover.” I wanted a kind of contrast, decidedly so.

Q: I would like to ask you if you would be willing to elaborate on “Unfleur.” Am I saying that right? If you would be willing to elaborate on it. Especially:

What is death
but reason
in flawless submission
to itself.

SL: Oh, this is a spring poem. I thought you were going to ask me about the title because, at first, I thought . . . you know how sometimes words come to you and you’re like, “How did I know that word? Is it a real word?” Of course, right? I’m sure it happens all the time, and I’m actually not sure this is actually a real word. At first, I thought “Well, fleur. French.” You know? I’m sure I’ve seen it or heard it somewhere, but I don’t think it’s actually a French word in and of itself. The poem came from the title. And not wanting to kind of spell out the poem, I wanted to sort of explain the title. Does that make sense? Can I say that without actually spelling out the rest of the poem? And there was a change that I made, actually in that stanza, “What is death / but reason / in flawless submission / to itself,” I think, first, I had something much more dramatic like, “What is death / but reason / cutting its own throat,” or something like that. And I thought, “No, that’s too much. That’s too dramatic.” So it became that. If that’s okay. If I can say that much.

GD: One of the things that you take up in your book, in addition—I suppose this is not surprising—but there are a number of subjects that are spiritual or even religious in nature. “Garden Quarrel,” of course, takes up the story of Adam and Eve and reconfigures it and examines it, interrogates it. It seems to me that when you are most attracted to a subject, you then fight with it. And so you have, “I was always a religious bitch, / all prolepsis and superstition,” you know? A kind of ironic or even self-examining voice comes in. The ending of the poem about:

the moral impunity of the apple. I ease it from its branch,
so that it is snake-low. She eats it carefully,
inspecting the potential of the snake with each bite

And so there’s even quite a bit of humor in that poem, too. I’m observing that, but I wonder how you felt in composing it.

SL: It’s funny because when I wrote the poem, a friend of mine who looked at the manuscript said, “Oh. There’s your Adam and Eve poem. Usually, that happens in first books,” and I said, “Really? Again, I’m belated.” I didn’t know that everyone had an Adam and Eve poem, so this was news to me. And my friend is very smart and a voracious reader, so I believe her, but there were many reasons, I’m sure, why people write their poems about Adam and Eve, or rewrite that story. It was a moment for me, in those parts, to sort of be humorous. I never wanted to be just plainly ironic about spirituality or religion; that’s not how I feel. But there is a way in which I was always trying to be sincere but look at it with a little bit of distance, from a distance—a little bit of nuance.

So I think in the different sections, I was curious . . . At first it was conceived of as, I would do it from their different perspectives. The perspective of the snake, the perspective of Eve, the perspective of Adam, and it became a little bit different. It’s such a hallowed subject in some ways, and I think it’s very funny, in a way that these are our sort of touchstone stories, our spiritual stories. They’re eating fruit, you know? There’s a lot of just inherent humor in it for me, in some ways. And how they could have been feeling, that they might have felt, again, self-consciousness about this dramatic thing happening to them.

DW: That “I was always a religious bitch” quote. That’s from Billie Holiday, isn’t it?

SL: Billie Holiday, yes. Who I think is, you know, you may not think of her as . . . well, I think of her as very spiritual. And I think, again, wanting to haul it in that sense or that tone. It’s also very moving to me because, again, you don’t think of her first as a very religious person, but then, listening to her music, looking at her life, I just think, “All I can see is a great spiritual struggle, in a way.” But yeah, that’s exactly where the line is from.

GD: In your poem “Human Interest Story,” in many of your poems, there is a background reference to your coming from a family that comes from Korea. But in that poem, “Human Interest Story,” there’s an expression of a certain kind of intense and even angry awareness of all that’s implied in that. You talk about your father and his older brother having hanged himself, and you talk about the father saying, “No one can evict us from books,” and that sense of being threatened that occurs in the book. And the references to trials and things like that. Could you talk a little bit about how that background has affected you as a writer? You don’t have to allude to how it shows up in the poem, but if you want to, that’s okay, too.

SL: You mean just the background of . . . I was born in Korea, but came over very early; I think it was three-and-a-half, almost four. So, I was telling you the other night, I joke that I’m like 1.5 generation. I think some of the poems that directly allude to my family background, I mean, it’s not like I sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a poem about my uncle,” who I didn’t really know very well, but in our family, there were not even mythic stories, I mean, because he was a suicide, it was an intense topic, but my parents never spoke about it with any hushed tones or anything. And I always felt a weird—and he wasn’t an artist—but a weird sort of kinship or something to him.

So I knew, I think, somewhere in the back of my mind always that I would write something about him or something about maybe that time, which I don’t know that much about. I’m sort of always on the fence about actually sitting there—I don’t want to lose the story, as any family story is—like with a tape recorder with my parents. But I also think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write kind of a straight memoir or even straight narrative poems about them in that way. So to me, that particular . . . even why I title it “Human Interest Story,” it’s in and of itself, it’s a curious story to me and I think my feelings about how you use family history, about how you use things that are sort of senseless and unexplainable, and then how you tell stories anyway. Those are really the things that are in the fore for me.

In that poem and even in the other poem about my mother and grandmother and everything, I still haven’t figured out, in some ways . . . I don’t know if it’s supposed to be figured out, how to use even the phrasing, how to use my background. Right? Like in a way, it’s always there, even when I’m writing about Edward Taylor. It’s always present in some ways, but it may not always be the subject matter out in front. Which, I think I want to hold on to that freedom. You know, because I’ve certainly had more with the first book. I’ve had, actually, people come up to me after readings saying—and that book had even less poems that were directly about family—you know, “Why don’t you write about . . . ?” What I think they’re asking me about is a very legible story about being an immigrant or being Korean American, et cetera, kind of thing. And it was odd to me, back then, during the readings for the first book that people would ask this. Now it’s less odd, I kind of understand the impulse. I’m sort of defensive about being able to write about whatever I want, in a sense. And then having it naturally come up and not being too self-conscious about writing those things. And now there are people writing with fake Asian names, as well. Things are coming all over, or full circle.

Q: That is something I wanted to ask you about: the courage to go forward with a subject matter that is important to the writer but may or may not be important to readers. Seeing the talent, obviously in the writing, but in the manuscript process maybe questioning my own aesthetic or what it is I want to write about and hoping, you know? It’s like throwing and seeing what sticks. Writing about the stuff I want to write about and hoping it’s appreciated. Or maybe, you know, in my own fear and my own self-doubt, hoping the writing is good enough that they would appreciate the story. How do you go forward with that big question mark of, “This is what I wanted to write about,” knowing that somebody may be like, “Hmm . . . no.”

SL: I like that gesture that you make.

Q: It’s like, “Everyone else is writing about this.” Maybe I should be ending my lines with the word “bone.” Or “teeth.” Or, you know, how do I go in my own direction? Some of these poems I had to read them so many times because it’s so unique from what everybody else is doing. I appreciate it, and all I kept thinking was the courage at first to [say], “This is what I want to write about,” and going with it. How, where did you get that?

SL: Oh, thank you, that’s so nice. Probably at the time of writing, I didn’t think of it as very courageous, but some of it is—I don’t know if this is the right image—I was going to say “backed into a corner.” Like, that’s what you can write about, that’s what you can do. So it didn’t feel necessarily like, “Oh, I’m being very different and going forth,” if anything, I think when we were talking earlier I was like, “Am I really going to write a poem where I use John Berryman’s actual title. Am I going to do that?” But at least the great freedom before anyone sees it or takes it as a book is that you can do whatever you want, right? And see what happens.

There’s also something about poetry, too. This is just from talking with friends who write fiction, maybe because there isn’t like some big, financial book deal behind it, or something. I just feel like there’s a lot more artistic freedom. Initially, anyway, I guess. So you can experiment, you can do whatever you want. I love that about poetry. Or about the particularly gift economy that it’s a part of. So I didn’t necessarily feel, “Oh I’m being so brave by writing about this,” I mean, maybe the other side of that question is, “Well, will this find a readership?” which anyone is afraid of, or wants a wider readership. But that . . . I think then, you’re writing to something else completely. So I don’t feel like it enters into it that much. I mean it’s just always scary to sit down and be like, “Can I ever write another poem that’s like halfway decent?” Like that happens every day. That’s maybe the courage part; like, “Why would anybody else keep sitting down to do this weird thing?” Except that it’s a joy, too, on the other hand. This miserable joy? I don’t know. Joyous misery?

GD: Well, thank you. That last set of comments and questions really reveals that you’ve transcended any kind of narrow boundaries of identity politics and that you’re moving along something that’s, I think actually, more profound. Yeah, more profound. Thank you.

SL: Thank you.

DW: Thank you.  end  

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