This conversation between 1913 Press authors Cynthia Arrieu-King and Lily Hoang began with their latest books. Unlikely Conditions (1913 Press) is Cynthia Arrieu-King’s collaboration with the late Hillary Gravendyk. Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary was published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
Cynthia Arrieu-King: Where did these essays begin for you? What does essay writing allow you to do that poetry might not? Or does it matter to you at all?
Lily Hoang: Form and genre are really important to me, actually. I am insistent when I call these essays—and it all goes back to etymology, right? To essai: to trial, to experiment—even though it’s already been classified as both poetry and fiction. The essay declares itself as a challenge, to self and to form, by definition. This isn’t fiction’s concern, at all, and I’m a fiction writer, first and foremost, and so the rhetorical qualities of the essay—its ethos, pathos, and logos—were also foreign concepts to me, things that I had to learn. I think the essay demands a self-rigor that isn’t necessary in fiction, which is not to say that fiction isn’t rigorous! (I’m not really qualified to talk about poetry in the least so I’ll leave that kind of thinking to the poets and scholars.) All of which is to say: the essays in A Bestiary are essays, intentionally so, I argue they adhere to form and follow the rules of the genre. But that wasn’t in question at all, sorry.
Or, rather, will you talk to me about empathy? Especially in relationship to your poetry, obviously, but also applicable to life, whichever you choose or both.
CAK: I hear what you’re saying about an essay/essai. That notion of the essaying being “a try” always makes me think of an avatar bumping through a maze. I think you transformed/avoided the literal texture and laborious quality that sometimes crops up in essays. There’s a kind of space set up for the reader to inhabit as she puts together the pieces you lay out. The “trial” is an active mode for the reader too. It’s interesting to think about the ethos, logos, and pathos of an essay that has a lot of parabolic qualities or fairy tale qualities: the story about the young man who wants to shoot the tiger who killed his father, for example, has an authority by wisdom and uncanny circumstances. It’s like you made a way of making a “proof” that allows you to stand outside the more prosaic language of proof writing.
Empathy. In our public discourse it seems to be all empathy or no empathy. Useless.
I have a friend who hated to have a dog bring her a ball because of the never-ending back and forth throwing and retrieving and when she told me this I remember being mystified. My watery personality tips me towards personal and intimate communication; I assume this makes my poems contain more private language and lyricism, but also, I assume I will find something to relate to in everyone and that a poem should be available for others to enter. I think it’s easy for me to collaborate because it’s easy for me to play and make space for others; Hillary was game for articulating and understanding the subtlest things your heart might be going through. Hillary was very intuitive about people. In poems she was able to assess precisely the most fine observations and I liked providing a vehicle for those images and insights.
Maybe the flipside of empathy are those moments when people say things that are completely outside the common ground or destructive, intentionally or not. I wonder if you can say something about what you get from writing around or through difficult moments when empathy fails?
LH: I guess selfishly I was asking about empathy because your very first poem calls that into attention but also because I’m working on revisions on a serial killer novel, one where I empathize—deeply—with the killer while constantly recognizing that she’s a monster who has acted monstrously. Your answer, then, is especially compelling to me, about the all-or-nothing quality to empathy discourse. There must be gradients, and we must never forget scale.
I’m not sure I’ve ever failed at empathy. People wrong me all the time, and I somehow always understand why they could justify their actions—not that this necessarily leads to forgiveness, but they always include my understanding when weighing matters. I don’t hold grudges, and maybe I should!, but it’s just not in me.
Grudges are conceptually fascinating to me. This has nothing to do with your book, but do you hold grudges? What are your thoughts on it? (And then we’ll get back to books!?! Not at the rate I’m going!)
CAK: Ah, oh it seemed to me your essays showed a lot of people not being very empathetic to where you were coming from or somehow outside of some area where they could understand you. But then collaged with people or situations that did/do understand you. And that the collaging between, say, your life and fairy tales and scientific facts seemed to me to give a charge to the empty space between them. Maybe to give pressure to the ways recognition or mis-recognition persisted against you without resorting to explanation which can be somehow less satisfying. It may draw more definition into the picture of Lily and the world. I like hearing you do not hold grudges. I’m trying to get better at that.
Grudges. Now I’m having fun attempting to think of a grudge conceptually! I think there’s a kind of wielding of the power of silence that sometimes feels like authority but might just be an attempt at authority or even protecting the self. I have seen very intimately what grudges do within families (haha, not naming any names, but I know some champion grudge keepers). Sometimes it’s the power of not using words, not making contact allows the grudger to stop the normal processes within the group/relationship. It makes everyone suffer. I remember once a student told me someone suddenly broke up with her and never explained or talked her through it and it devastated her so much she became profoundly ill. Can we establish just for the sake of essai that ghosting is a kind of grudge? Does that work in your way of thinking about it?
And since then I’ve always thought it’s just not kind to be silent that way, even if you have to articulate something that is painful, be a human and articulate it. Or the grudge that is a re-stated wrong done against you! I don’t know, I don’t think nature rewards that kind of stasis with anything but catastrophe. Unless there’s a way to be funny about it.
What have you come up with in thinking about grudges? For some reason I think of the son who learns how to shoot the tiger … isn’t he totally grudge driven? Yet he manages to transmute his grudge into a kind of weird accomplishment. A sickness of persistence.
LH: I love the idea of the silence of the grudge. And then there’s your drawing in of nature rejecting stasis! In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes, “The slowness of revenge, like the insolence of desire, belongs to nature. There is nothing that the madness of men invents which is not either nature made manifest or nature restored.” (Note: please don’t be impressed with this totally apt Foucault quote. Haha, I definitely don’t have Foucault quotes ready in my hip pocket or anything. It’s the epigraph to the book I just finished writing.)
So maybe I think of the grudge, conceptually, as obsession and revenge as compulsion.
Yes, the boy who hunts the white tiger holds a grudge. The white tiger did, after all, kill his father. Obsession leads way to compulsion, to action, a movement away from the interior, an externalization against these things that haunt us. And so the boy eventually works hard enough to achieve the American Dream (killing the white tiger, saving his father and a totally hot chick, and on top of it all, he gets an amazing job, which, of course, all adds up to happily ever after), but then you learn how the tiger became white and suddenly, the boy is no longer heroic—what justifies killing? Revenge? Is that enough?
In the previous incarnation of this interview, you asked me, “Is there ever relief from obsessions? How do you come to that relief?” No, obsession never leaves, even after it has been enacted through compulsion. Compulsion doesn’t expel the obsession. The best you can hope for is transference. That being said, whereas my obsession continues to party hard, I can somewhat control my compulsion.
Here’s a funny example of my failure to control both obsession and compulsion: “Jacob” from A Bestiary and I were texting and everything was fine. “Harold” and I had—at this point—been broken up for a few weeks. (I had already completed A Bestiary by then, so this isn’t in the book.) Everything was going fine. I took a trip to Martinique with Jackie Wang, and suddenly Jacob stopped responding. OK, so when I was 18 I used to call him more times on any given night than I care to admit—but this was back in the day before Called ID so whatever. I would call that action a compulsion. And I thought I had a handle on it now, as a 35-year-old adult, and then before I knew what was happening, I was sending increasingly crazy messages to this guy, messages so desperate and embarrassing that I’d delete them from my phone so I wouldn’t have to be witness to it ever again (which doesn’t work, by the way, if all your devices are synced. I still have what I sent him somewhere in my Messages on my laptop, ugh). And he kept not responding, so I kept sending stranger and stranger texts—and then one day he responded. Two weeks later. Turns out he’d been on vacation and he intentionally turns off his phone overseas.
I want you to imagine this. It’s one thing if I’m sending texts that he’s ignoring for whatever reason. Now imagine my shame that he turned on his phone and got them all at once. And so I learn again why my compulsive acts are bad. But, also—what kind of guy gets all these insane texts and then actually responds? If you asked me, he should have no business with the likes of me, ha!
Tell me your thoughts on obsession. And how did you balance that obsession during the process of collaboration?
CAK: I just have to say this bit I italicized made me crazy clown laugh: “before I knew what was happening, I was sending increasingly crazy messages to this guy, messages so desperate and embarrassing that I’d delete them from my phone so I wouldn’t have to be witness to it ever again (which doesn’t work, by the way, if all your devices are synced).” I see this as a little play: a man comes in with a suitcase, opens it on his bed to return things to their place. He takes out a phone and turns it on. The lights dim: a woman comes out of the darkened other half of the stage and just recites all the texts she sent him. Well! We’ve all been there.
Obsession. First, I have had a long series of obsessions since I was little and I think they just form a continuous parade into adulthood. I mean, seriously, from learning to tie my shoe, to getting a dog, to making quilts, to celebrities, to colors. It’s like that cartoon where the one stick figure says, “What the hell is that?” to the other stick figure who has this multicolored smoking scribble coming out of its head and second stick figure says, “Oh that? That’s just my mind.”
As far as how this hinges with art, I definitely have a distaste for things being organized and perfectly done. I really shudder when I am around that kind of control. So obsessions to me signal what you’re after artistically and, seeing several different obsessions together, ones’ obsessions in a collage if you will, can really be instructive. (I wonder what do we get from a collage of Lily Hoang’s obsessions? Easy answer is The Bestiary). While things are tidy here in my living room, there are at least three piles of total chaos. My friend Margaret calls literal messes like that the subconscious.
With regards to the collaboration, I think maybe I’m realizing right now that friendship is often built on shared obsessions and that making things/art can certainly be one of them. Making things manifest. With Hillary, the fun lay in our perceptions illuminating an idea and our enjoyment of the others’ illuminating idea. She was tremendously empathetic and also hilarious. I’d say she was more illuminating and I was more bringing in the flotsam of the world. She got some momentum from my chaos and I got form from her decisiveness. I will indulgently say that once, we were talking about animals in a poem (the long poem in the book) and I blurted out “never follow a hyena to a second location” (after “never follow a hippie to a second location”). I think we laughed about this for five minutes. I wanted to tell her that joke again after she passed away. Wherever she may have ended up. Jokes may be related to obsession!
What about traveling? Does that inform your writing at all? What does it do for you? I know you’ve been to Europe this summer and then I think are going back and just mentioned this cool trip to Martinique.
LH: Once, Jackie Wang was over at my house and we were talking about obsession—which was and is a common topic of conversation for us—we indulged in and divulged our obsessions. So we were talking about stalking, without recognizing that stalking is aberrant behavior, even though we all do it, right? Or do we? And so we started asking around and it turns out a lot of people have never stalked anyone else, and this struck us as strange.
Although I am prescribed Xanax, I don’t like to take it and rarely do because it messes with my memory too much, and I already don’t sleep so my memory is at a deficit from the start. I don’t need to make it worse. But when I do take it, the delight: I float. And I always wonder if this is what people without anxiety feel like. But the answer is no, it is not. What I am feeling is strictly chemical induced. Who are the people without anxiety? Medical diagnosis is a privilege.
On the subject of privilege, last winter break I went to Martinique with Jackie. She’s getting her PhD at Harvard and had just finished a class with Jamaica Kincaid. I have taught A Small Place twice, once to my Creative Non-Fiction workshop and another to a Women Writers lit class. Which is to say, we stepped onto Martinique soil with the shameful mark of “tourist” on us. And yet—we were in paradise. And yet—the races of people who have died on that very island for me to enjoy paradise. And yet—we were in paradise: I’m not sure you get that part. People often misuse ambivalence to mean that you don’t care, but it’s the exact opposite, right? It’s an excess of care, antipodally placed, it’s that we think we are limited to feeling only one emotion—one sensation—at a time.
CAK: I love that you travel with Jackie. I don’t know who that is, but it sounds great to have a buddy to travel with (and I will look up their writing). A great way to pursue moments in which life feels simultaneously like a fairy tale and the tainted, complicated part you mentioned.
The fast track/awkward way to end this interview, since we’re wrapping up, would be to say: I’ve gone through the process of getting a restraining order in a city courtroom and I declined a free trip to St. Lucia because I couldn’t deal with the idea of being waited on the way they do, lol … But wait! I did once in college leave a dead bird wrapped in newspaper on someone’s doorstep cos I knew he needed one for an art project and I thought he was cute. It did not work, go figure! That guy and I lived to laugh about that day in a conversation many years later. I also visited the island of Guadeloupe when I was a tween (before they were called tweens) and along with the paradisical hammock overlooking a cliff to the sea, there was a revolt: someone got put in jail for stabbing someone with a machete so all the groceries and government went on strike. My mom and aunt couldn’t get bread. (Imagine explaining this to a tween). I have lived the both ends of paradise and I suspect you have too. And so ends our tour of obsession, empathy, excess, the landscapes we can get to in our minds, usually in that homeland of ambivalence, negative capability. I’ve had a lot of fun, Lily. I hope you have a lot more great travels and that we all get to read more of your fabulous books.
LH: St. Lucia and Guadeloupe are Martinque’s neighbors! And check out Jackie Wang’s work! She’s more than brilliant: she’s a visionary.
This is the most fun interview I’ve done. Thank you so much! My brain worked hard!
CAK: Mine too. You’ve made me laugh so much.
Cynthia Arrieu-King teaches at Stockton University and is a former Kundiman fellow. Her collaborative book of poems written with Hillary Gravendyk, Unlikely Conditions, was published in spring 2016. Her poems will have appeared this year in Fence, Jacket2, and The Volta.
Lily Hoang is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. Her choose-your-own adventure love story Old Cat Lady (1913 Books) is forthcoming. With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head. She serves as Prose Editor at Puerto del Sol and Non-Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.