After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on Brandon Som’s The Tribute Horse and was recorded August 21, 2015 and transcribed by Nicole Monforton.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: In college, I read Houston Baker, Jr.’s claim that the sound of train wheels running across train tracks remains the dominant trope or onomatopoeic device of all blues music, of any blues idiom (musical or otherwise) still rippling outwards in ever-more diversified cultural profusion. I loved the breath of Baker’s sweeping structuralist claim, regardless of its accuracies. I had forgotten about it until reading The Tribute Horse. So I wonder if you could begin to describe what prompted, or how you went about, sounding the sea here. And of course, we could ask whether one ever can sound the Pacific’s depths. But could you address sounding that sea, the passage across that sea (or singing beyond the genius of the sea, if we want to consider points of literary reference) by bringing in, as this book does, whatever personal, social, historical, literary/aesthetic impulses seem to fit best?
Brandon Som: Sure. I think a lot of the impulses to the book come from the strangeness of my last name, Som. It’s a Chinese-American name, but I’ve never met anyone not directly related to my family who has that name. So it’s a pretty unique Chinese-American name. I was thinking about that for some coursework, and I originally thought maybe it was one of these … like a story that you often hear: a border-crossing or immigration story, where there’s a moment when the name is said and then it is written down phonetically, a transliteration. So I was imagining this originary moment of speaking. So I think with that in mind I was thinking about my own grandfather’s crossing to the United States, and what happened to his Chinese name as he crossed over and entered the United States.
This led to me exploring the fact that my grandfather’s name is a paper name. It’s a false identity that he used to enter the country during the Chinese exclusion laws. I knew of paper sons and paper-name history through Asian American studies college courses. But I really never got a chance to talk to my grandfather about it. He passed away when I was about 20 years old. So in terms of a historical or archival project, there was a real disconnect for me. I couldn’t go to a primary source to learn about this history. Instead I learned about this history through coursework, through history books, through scholars. I had to come up with invented ways to get at this history, to get at these archives. As a poet, sounding out this history was one way that I was able to explore it.
AF: I’ll want to return to questions relating to your name and to sounding it. But just as you offer historical context here, could you also give some detail on the generative force that Angel Island has provided for you? I’m totally out of it with popular culture, so maybe a hundred movies over the last decade have depicted Angel Island. But to me, only with your book did it take on historical stature similar to Ellis Island, with obvious parallels, obvious differences: as a portal from Asia primarily rather than from Europe, operating on a slightly later historical timeline, loaded not only with fraught legacies of Native American removal, but of acute legislated exclusions, as well as legacies of Spanish rule—as the Spanish register within your book attests. So foregrounding Angel Island’s parallel, if less celebrated, status (relative to Ellis Island) might help. Or I could ask a more specific question, perhaps addressing your relation to this line written on one barrack wall: “Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.” Or we could discuss the wall-inscribed Li Po poem you came across. But could you begin to flesh out Angel Island, specifically in relation to the development of this book’s poetics?
BS: Certainly. I would say that the distinction between Angel Island and Ellis Island is made by scholars like Erika Lee and Judy Yung. They point out that the history of that island and that immigration center is really tied up with Chinese exclusion policies. It was far from being a place welcoming immigration. It was really built to house, to detain and to interrogate Chinese immigrants, and to find and flesh out those immigrants who were trying to enter illegally during the Chinese exclusion period. So that’s the main difference.
I also was imagining that my grandfather was practicing this false name, this false identity. What Chinese immigrants encountered at Angel Island, sometimes passed off as interviews, were these interrogation sessions aimed at catching people lying about their identity and lying about their name in order to enter the country. So I was imagining my grandfather practicing, in a very performative way that has to do with sounding out this new last name and this new identity. Scholars talk about how when Chinese immigrants purchased a paper name or received a paper name, they also received these coaching books, these coaching papers which allowed them to rehearse, practice, memorize and recite these new identities.
So I was thinking about this idea of memorization and recitation, and how those are parts of a poetic practice as well. I was imagining my grandfather on a ship doing these recitations and this memorization work. The other interesting thing, and this is in the book’s opening poem, is that many immigrants threw out their coaching books before entering the port. They threw them into the sea. This allowed me to imagine the sea as a kind of archive, absorbing sound but also receiving and churning up these pages in the Pacific Ocean. I asked my family about this coaching book, and they assume that my grandfather had one. But of course, like with so many other immigrants’, it had been lost.
So my book is interested in this kind of impossible recovery. I can’t get to that coaching text, so I get to that text through other texts. I can’t get to that sound, so I get to that recited sound through other sounds—whether these be the sound of a cricket or the Li Po poem that is carved into the wall on Angel Island.
AF: If we think of the punitive/hostile discourse around immigration that often takes place in the contemporary US, this seems more aligned to Angel Island’s history, rather than to the nostalgia-hued attention Ellis Island typically receives. But I hadn’t known much.
BS: No, it’s part of my project, a longer project that I hope to continue to pursue, because I’m not only Chinese-American but also Mexican-American, Chicano. I’m also from Arizona. So these ideas of borders, exclusion and immigration are literally close to home for me. It’s important for me to investigate this history, and what I’ve found out is that actually some of the first “illegal” immigrants arrested in the Arizona desert were Chinese crossing the border from Mexico—because Chinese exclusion laws made it very difficult to enter the United States, a lot of Chinese immigrants entered Mexico and tried to come up through the border.
There is actually a photograph in Erika Lee’s book, almost this Most Wanted poster, with pictures of immigrants who were Chinese and trying to pass as Mexicans because, at that time, Mexicans could cross the border. Often you hear Mexicans and Mexican-Americans talk about how we didn’t cross the border; the border landed on us. But because of Chinese exclusion, it was the Chinese who were initially targeted at the borders. So I’m interested in how that targeting historically changes to the discriminatory policing of Mexican migrants along our present-day borders.
AF: Yeah, it fascinates me how those early exclusionary acts anticipated much constrictive US policy on immigration, ethnicity, race—especially given debates in the American labor movement around the same time, prefiguring the exclusion of African-Americans in unions by first excluding Chinese immigrants. From what I remember, the American labor movement became much less of a class-based egalitarian movement, with instead much more of a trade-unionist “we protect ourselves” focus, during that same era, with at least one big debate addressing concerns about “The Golden Door” to the east. And returning now to the sounding of your name (often cited, in responses to your book, through the line “Som—aspirate, vowel, liquid”), I also hear “sum,” and think of this potentially introducing a composite, perhaps quintessentially wide-ranging American identity. Or with the concept of “paper sons,” I can’t think of a better subtitle for many Harold Bloom books on poetic lineage, for Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, for Emerson’s notion of language/identity as a poetic act. I don’t want to move too far from the historical specificity you’ve described, but how about, at least for “sum”: do other echoes and resonances deliberately linger here?
BS: Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that but definitely others have pointed it out, and I have noticed other homophones working throughout the book. There’s a close line between Som and “song.” I think that’s a huge part of the book. Also I think there’s another kind of play on “psalm,” which appears at the end of one of the prose poems. I’m definitely interested in this kind of resonance throughout the book. I’m definitely interested in this kind of sound sense. My parents divorced when I was quite young. I kind of bounced around from family to family, with one family speaking Spanish and another speaking Chinese. I didn’t grow up speaking either language, but when I went to grandparents’ houses I heard these languages that I didn’t know, that I wasn’t fluent in. So I would often sit in my own silence, and I think that created a kind of interiority for me. But I also feel that my initial sense—and I guess this is true for all of us, but I think for me it was emphasized—my initial sense of language was more musicality than meaning. So I am interested in allowing my ear to have its own agenda in some ways.
AF: I don’t know why that single sound “Som” seems to hold so many potential meanings, but now I also think of “some” as an indefinite partial quantity, as opposed to “sum” a composite whole. I think of John Ashbery’s Some Trees, another debut collection, and how that title seems to play off the sumptuous delights you’ll find if you open the book. So “Som” seems to hold a lot. Then to pursue soundscapes from a slightly different angle: when you write “They say in certain shells / you still hear the sea,” among the “they” here I sense a Transcendentalist element, further widening the diverse range of source texts that this book absorbs and integrates. Both Thoreau and Emerson use that same metaphor, that same example of hearing in certain shells the sea. Emerson actually does so in his famous “fossil poetry” passage. And just since Thoreau appears so often in this text, I kept recalling his lovely Walden chapter “Sounds.” We’ve discussed some historical, familial, experiential forces producing homophonic or onomatopoeic sonic equivalences. What literary points of reference would you add to contextualize your explorations of sound?
BS: I was definitely reading Thoreau when writing these poems. I had the amazing opportunity to work out in Provincetown. I was a fellow at the Work Center. I was reading Thoreau there. Definitely I think first and foremost I love his attention to landscape, but also to the senses. I found myself gravitating to his journals and his writings.
And I think in another sense I was really interested in putting the history and the poems of Angel Island (carved into the walls there) into a larger conversation in American literature. The first wave of Chinese immigration is often cited as being mid-nineteenth century, so contemporary to those writers. So I wanted this work to speak to how these poems of Angel Island are both Chinese literature and American literature, and how the history of my grandfather is an American history. That doesn’t get to your question about sound, per se. I would just simply say that I did like the way … I know that Thoreau chapter you speak of, and I like the way it attends to the physicality of sound. Soundscapes play a big part in the poem “Bows and Resonators.” I had returned to those poems carved into the walls of Angel Island. And reading through those carved poems, I often encountered the presence of crickets. The Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island were hearing crickets and citing those crickets in their poetry. So I was underlining all of the cricket or insect sounds in those poems as translated in the anthology Island, which collects some 135 or more poems carved into the walls.
So then I started writing this poem about crickets. I was interested in how crickets might offer a kind of access for me into not only those carved poems, but also into the soundscape that maybe my grandfather was hearing as he came through Angel Island in 1928. Also, I was fascinated with this idea of carving poems into the wall, this idea of inscription and the fact that crickets don’t actually sing but rub or scratch their legs together.
AF: How precisely does this all relate to the Folkways recording, and your homophonic translations? Could you describe the soundscape (and your place in it) of that particular recording?
BS: I’d found this Folkways album from 1964 of a man reciting classical Tang and Song dynasty poems. I started doing sound translations, while listening on headphones, to the recitation of the Li Po poem. It was a really lovely accident. It was only later when I went to visit Angel Island that I found the very poem that I had heard on headphones carved into the wall. When you go to Angel Island, which has been turned into a museum, this particular Li Po poem gets pointed out. So initially I started this sound-translation project because I was interested in exploring the practice of transliteration, specifically how Chinese names get transliterated phonetically into English names. I thought that that process would be mirrored in my own sound translations of the Li Po poem. But then going to the museum and seeing the poem on the wall opened up this project even more. I felt like I was actually listening to that wall in some ways, a kind of close listening to the history represented or contained within that wall.
AF: Well, in terms of walls: homophonic translations often get presented as playful, scatological, liberatory and/or crazy language generated outside conventional poetic subjectivity. But here I found it especially impressive how a compelling sense of semantic continuity, of thematic continuity, carried between this “Oulipo” poem and the rest of the book. And since we’ve already touched upon literary allusion, acoustic transcription, transcribing the physicality of Angel Island itself, its walls, I wonder if we could discuss some more general draw to transcription—perhaps in relation to your ekphrastic engagement with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, or to this book’s title poem, with its self-portrait in a convex mirror, its inky echoing of calligraphic handscrolls. So first, could we consider how identity-based readings of this book get further complicated by your engagement with a contemporary Japanese photographer also meditating upon monochromatic horizonal seascapes? How does that help to prompt or to problematize any reading of this text that would focus solely on Chinese identity, or on some reductively homogeneous and uncontested Asian American identity? Or what potentials for a globalizing poetics do you find in the fact that Sugimoto’s photographs so clearly echo Mark Rothko’s paintings?
BS: A couple of things come to mind. You mentioned Rothko and Sugimoto, and I had that experience too. I first saw those photographs in the museum, and I saw one of those photographs from a distance, and I was like Oh, that must be a Rothko. I thought it was a painting, and as I approached closer I realized it was a photograph of a seascape. That’s neither here nor there. I just wanted to make that connection with you. Then, as far as this idea that the transliterations kind of compliment some of the narrative aspects of the book: I have to say that a lot of it was accident. I had started doing those sound translations before I even visited Angel Island. I had done a lot more of the stanzas and I paired them down. So there was a kind of selective process in the end.
Initially though, there was a lot of nonsense-making. It was at times pleasurable, and sometimes there was some anxiety, like Is this going anywhere? What am I doing? But I’m often looking for projects which allow me to … well, in some sense you could say they allow me to make nonsense. In another sense, you could say they allow me to use all senses in some ways—or a more heightened or a fuller sense of sense. I’m always trying to find a project that will help me surprise myself, help me investigate, help me to think differently, to think radically differently. Sometimes procedural projects really do lead me into different ways of thinking.
AF: And one other topic in relation to transcriptive processes: for the title poem “The Tribute Horse,” it interests me that its source text, the painting Finches and Bamboo, gets attributed to a Song dynasty emperor. I don’t know how attribution gets determined, and if this emperor actually considered it worthy of his time to engage in such disciplined artistic practices. But in that poem I came across the lines “with some beauty you feel the need / to talk aloud to it.” I wondered how these lines relate to your transcriptive processes. Could we in some ways consider this book a catalog of beauties, or of discussions with beauties? What place does desire have in your ekphrastic, transcriptive processes?
BS: Well, I would say that particular line goes back to the heart of the word “ekphrastic,” those ideas of “phrases” and “ek,” of outphrasing or phrasing out something, so actually speaking out. That particular poem was one of the earliest poems, or from one of the earliest projects. It went through many different versions over the years, but at the time I started, I was going to the Met in New York City. I was living in New York and I was going to the Met because I could just go in and donate money. I was a little bit poor at the time, so I would go into the Met and I would sit in the Chinese or East Asian section, right across from the scroll.
And as the poem went through revisions, I was interested in pursuing my limited knowledge of the art of calligraphy, specifically thinking about the instruments that calligraphy requires, thinking about the paper, thinking about the ink, thinking about the brush, and interested in attending to the materiality of the painting and all of its parts. And just as we started by talking about meditating on paper, on the act of writing and engagement with the materials of writing, I like the fact that the book ends on this similar investigation. Definitely the theme, the idea of transcription connects the opening poem with the last poem.
AF: I’ve spent many, many days in those same rooms, perhaps sitting beside you. I have a couple much smaller questions. You’ve mentioned specific words that arise almost as sonic ciphers within this book. Certainly phrases repeat as well, again enacting or embodying poetry as memory device. One such persistent sonic cipher was “seine.” It seemed some kind of displaced Parisian reference. But I also heard “seen,” and “scene” and “sign,” like a Barthesian semiological sign or a Derridean sign in a signature. Also, because of these ongoing French associations for me, “sang,” like blood. But independent of my own presumably dumb/errant readings, could we take one such elemental unit within the book, one which doesn’t break down to fixed and finalized semantic meaning, and discuss how it plays out?
BS: Again, I was literally thinking about a kind of seine net and this idea of … well, it’s funny, because I was in a book-making course while working on some of these poems. And so thinking about material aspects of book-making and material aspects of the page, I was really thinking about the pulp and slurry of paper-making, and thinking about these coaching papers disintegrating in water and what if I could seine or sift the waters and gather those pieces together again?
So that’s where that seine imagery comes into play. I think also with the idea of “seine” there is the idea of weaving. I think there’s a good amount of weaving going on, whether that be birds’ nests or that finch at the end—so again back to paper-making. But also weaving in terms of the citational practice at the heart of the book, weaving other words from other writers. So for me that’s what I was thinking with that term “seine,” though I really like the sound play and sound sense at the heart of your question.
AF: Well also, in terms of sound play, or sound waves, how about lines such as:
the moon tills
o o o
disav w av w v w
Here something like “disavowal” surfaces amid a wave-like patterning of letters. We see “wave” there too, washed out at the same time. And by this point your book has presented so much homophonic play that when I hear “disavowal” I project some nerdy rap song, like your poem had dissed a vowel or something. So maybe I took the sound play too far, but how could this one single unit speak to other types of meaning-making we haven’t yet addressed?
BS: That particular series of poems works from this children’s story called “The Five Chinese Brothers.” In a nutshell, the story involves five Chinese brothers who all look alike. They’re not twins but they look alike, and that’s central to the plot. They all have these specific powers, and one of the brothers has the power to swallow the ocean, swallow the sea, and that’s how he does his fishing. This leads to an accident involving the death of a young boy. This one brother is accused of killing the boy, and is sentenced to death (it’s a really violent story for children). To evade this death sentence, the accused calls in the help of his brothers. Since they all look alike, the authorities don’t know the difference. So there’s a series of execution scenes where each brother evades execution because of his special power. For example, one has a steel neck and so he can resist the blade of the sword coming down on his neck. It’s really a very violent story.
So I was revisiting that story and seeing in it the proliferation of brothers and the attempt to eradicate, to get rid of these brothers. I was sensing some resonance with current immigration rhetoric, so that’s kind of where the poem comes from. But to your question: I’m really interested in attending to language on the page in its fullest possibility, which means both sonically and visually. I’m excited by poets who do that kind of work. I’m excited by … when I read that poem out loud, the experience of seeing those “o’s” flow away from the line like small moons, that’s a reading experience. I don’t enunciate it any differently, but I like the possibility or the multiplicity of a text having different reading modes. I think there’s something about the play or tension between a kind of spoken act and a kind of written act that is at the heart of this book as well, and I think it goes back to that paper-son experience—that subversive act of the paper sons performing identity before interrogators at Angel Island.
AF: So does “disavowal” not even appear in your reading of the book? Here I think of disavowal, different from denial, as a half-hearted acknowledgement of an uncomfortable fact, as an emotional or affective state that seeks to displace or distract from this fact’s reality. So here I think of your grandfather not only adopting a new identity, but potentially acknowledging his life left behind, which of course comes with him yet no longer can reach the same register. I also think of reading’s multisensorial elements, as you have described them, and how we tend not to acknowledge these while absorbing content.
BS: That is all there, and actually goes back to this particular poem’s title, “Confessions.” So the other aspect of this poem is that there was a confessions program instituted in the 50s by the United States government. The program allowed paper sons to come forth and confess that they had entered the country illegally. They would then receive a kind of amnesty. While some Chinese immigrants did come forward, a large number, many more, did not. This is in part because these paper sons’ identities were connected in a complex family tree. They were connected in such a way that to confess one paper son would mean outing a whole host of other paper sons.
So I was interested in that historical confession program, and interested as well in these five Chinese brothers and the idea of them confessing, and the fact that they couldn’t really confess because of their powers. This is quite literal to the story: it’s hard to confess when you’re holding water in your mouth. It’s difficult to confess when your neck is made of iron. Another brother can hold his breath for a very long period of time. So all of these powers made it impossible to confess, made it impossible to self-express in many ways. So I was interested in exploring the difficulty, even the impossibility, of confession.
AF: Especially if you often approach language as this euphonic experience, as this musical or sonic experience.
BS: One larger conversation I was thinking about while writing this book was this idea of self-expression, and the criticism of self-expression and lyric self-expression. I was thinking about my grandfather arriving, and these poems carved into the walls at Angel Island. I was wondering Are these lyrics? Are they expressing a self? Yes, in some ways. But many of the poems carved into the walls weren’t signed. And they couldn’t be, because many of these poets/immigrants were coming in under false names. So the idea of leaving one’s name on the wall was slightly problematic. Or they did sign a name but maybe it was a paper name. But this idea of a self-expressive lyric is really complicated with this whole paper-name/paper-son identity. I think about my grandfather and him coming into the country. The idea of self-expression is complicated for him, because he can’t express himself as a subject in an honest way. There’s a performative aspect to it.
AF: So given this complicated, historically attuned investigation of the lyric that you have pursued, how does that situate you in relation to Nightboat’s catalog? Do you sense affinity here to other Nightboat authors?
BS: Absolutely. I could list some writers. I’ve been reading Orlando White’s book Letterrs. Going back to what you were pointing to in the “Confessions” poem, definitely White’s investigations of language, his investigations of both the written and the spoken word, excite me. I’m really excited to be on the press with him. Dawn Lundy Martin’s work is phenomenal in its engagement with race and culture. Nightboat consistently publishes work that investigates, interrogates, thinks about language in very conscious ways, and I’m constantly looking to its authors not only for inspiration, but to see how other writers are going about negotiating language and culture.
AF: And what has it meant to have your well-received debut collection focus at least to some extent on your personal origins? How does that shape your writing going forward? Do other types of soundscapes have equal appeal to you, perhaps wildly different from what you have so far explored? You’ve also mentioned an ongoing research component to your poetics.
BS: My current project is still invested in origins, sources and family narrative. It revolves around my maternal grandmother. For 35 years my grandmother worked at Motorola. During that period, some of the first cellphones were created. She was working on the line there in Phoenix, inspecting semiconductors and assembling electronics. So I’ve been investigating, exploring, researching that work, and thinking about the poem as a telephone, thinking specifically about verse lines in relation to phone lines, to factory lines, to Motorola lines and to ancestral lines.
The other thing about sound in this poem is that the poem uses a lot of Spanish. I’m not fluent in Spanish. I’ve actually been hesitant and kind of scared at times to even use Spanish. Definitely Spanish was a heard experience for me, a listening experience where I definitely heard more than I actually understood. Later, I would encounter Spanish in schools and classrooms. I would see the Spanish words written on the page, but I wouldn’t recognize them visually. I’d have to hear them out loud, and once I heard them out loud I’d think Oh, I remember that word. You know, that kind of sonic experience. And I think a lot of Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, have that experience. So in some ways I’m trying to build a kind of … to have fun between the Spanish and English, and build a phone line between the two languages.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling soon will release his ebook Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Brandon Som is the author of the chapbook Babel’s Moon (Tupelo Press) and the full-length poetry collection The Tribute Horse (Nightboat Books), winner of the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He teaches composition in The Writing Program at the University of Southern California and is currently the Anne Newman Sutton Weeks Poet-in-Residence at Westminster College.