This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Yunte Huang’s CRIBS (Tinfish Press, 2005).
H. L. Hix: Found texts (or texts presented as found texts—I didn’t try to check) appear throughout the book as early as “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths. . . ” (8). They seem to me to help introduce thematic concerns and to create a dynamic tension with the “made-up” poems’ interest in language itself (by attending to the referents of language). Are those roles at all related to your own purposes in including such found texts?
Yunte Huang: “Words as they are” is certainly one of the central concerns of CRIBS. As such, they are subject to cribbing in the sense of borrowing, stealing, plagiarizing, (mis)translating and so on. I didn’t provide citations for the “found texts” because the book sets out to undermine the idea of originality. It would be poetically self-defeating to provide citation. The found texts, as you have keenly observed, are treated as my “made-up” poems.
HH: I take the piece on pages 40-41 as a statement about society’s enforcing our confinement within language (that what matters is the “coaching notes,” our agreement with others, not with “reality”). Am I wrong to extend that thematic concern to the whole book?
YH: For a better understanding of that section, you can consult my recent book Transpacific Imaginations (Harvard UP, 2008), in which there’s an entire chapter on Angel Island poems and the “coaching notes” the detained immigrants used to beat the system. I’m a translator. The most interesting stage in translation for me is the stage of “crib” (literal translation), where the two languages meet face to face, like two lovers in an erotic embrace (hence the prevalent linguistic erotica in CRIBS). In real life, I’m interested in listening to nonnative speakers struggling and playing with a language, a crib in which they were not originally born. Most linguistic cultures tend to defend themselves against such intrusions, building walls and boundaries to demarcate acceptable from unacceptable usages. As cribs, poetry cuts through these restrictions to imagine an outside for a language.
HH: Joseph Conrad’s grammatical mistakes (35) and Pound’s use of “an enormously learned crib” (50). Your Cribs are enormously learned, but also highly aware of limitation. Is that awareness of limitation as definitive of the work as its learnedness?
YH: The affected learnedness (Wittgenstein, Pound, Benjamin, Fenollosa, Conrad, Twain, Poe, Deleuze and Guattari, Thoreau, etc.) is a mockery of learnedness as mastery; hence, the quote on page 42 follows immediately the coaching notes on page 41. I was trained in the traditions of poetry and scholarship, a traditon that tolerates and even encourages a certain amount of poetic wackiness in scholarship, and vice versa. So you are on the mark by suggesting that there is an awareness of limitation.
Born in China, Yunte Huang is the author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton), winner of the Edgar Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Huang has been featured on NPR and C-SPAN, and his writing has been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Week and the Boston Review. His other books include CRIBS (Tinfish Press) and Transpacific Imaginations (Harvard University Press).