Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Hong’s book Engine Empire (Norton). Recorded June 26th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with the title, Engine Empire? Placed one on top of each other, those words look like a reflection. I pictured hood ornaments and vaguely assumed a book about cars or Detroit would follow. Instead we travel to the mythic/historic American West, to contemporary (yet industrial age) hybrid-city China, then finally to virtual, cybernetic spaces from a computer-driven future. Chronology contorts as places and times get combined and conflated. Though does your book trace something like the material genesis, evangelical spread, imminent internalizations of a rapacious capitalism?
Cathy Park Hong: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound like an editorial on rapacious capitalism, but, of course, capitalism was on my mind. The title actually came much later. It riffs on John Crowley’s Engine Summer, this beautiful sci-fi novel, and it definitely produces a mirroring effect—both words beginning and ending with “E.” At first I’d thought of the title as “Engine West” but that felt so fixed, so located, overemphasizing the book’s first section. “Empire” you can interpret any number of ways. And “Engine,” yeah: you think of cars, Detroit, but it also fits with the final section’s search engines and so forth. I should clarify that though I called capitalism one of this book’s buzzwords, I never had that deliberate thought while writing. I didn’t set out to provide some commentary on Western imperialist/neo-imperialist expansion. I tried to stay attentive to the present, beyond the interior self, tracking the individual’s relation to community, to the city, to family, to one’s civic duty. When you think about such topics you can’t avoid the ramifications of corporate life. Likewise Manifest Destiny kept popping up. All three sections. . .well the first two happened accidentally. I’d lived in California. I started watching lots of Westerns and writing Western poems, then it spiraled into thinking about the frontier, about expansion. I wondered where does expansion now occur, once we’ve completed our geographic mission? But I also want the book to feel intimate. It also explores individual lives.
AF: Before we go through the separate sections, can you talk a bit about serial production? Engine Empire’s architectural contours get clearly and deliberately delineated, shaping our overall experience of its three extended sequences, though each section contains concise lyric installments at the same time. Do you have any favorite literary or non-literary models for this type of modular narrative construction? You mentioned sci-fi books. And film comes to mind, but more like gallery-based film, in which the discrete composition of individual frames takes equal precedence to a gradual accrual of meaning.
CPH: I’d wanted to push beyond classic poetic seriality, where you get one series then another and then another. I’ve described this book as a structural triptych. Movie series often come in triptychs, though perhaps made by multiple directors. I also thought a lot about Pessoa’s heteronyms and trying to create different worlds with their own vernacular and characters and laws of being. Of course conceptual ties hold my three parts together. But I tried to construct a different self and then I ventriloquized as much as possible from section to section. You’ll see this a lot more in fiction than in poetry. Poets tend to place themselves into specific aesthetic camps like Flarf or post-confessional poetry. But in Engine Empire, I wanted to assemble disparate lyric forms and genres to convey my concepts. I don’t produce conceptual poetry in the way Vanessa Place and Kenny Goldsmith use that term, but some similarities do exist between their ideas and my ideas. I’m influenced by conceptual, post-studio-practice artists who first conceptualize their projects and then use whatever materials to implement their ideas (which seems quite different from what material-driven artists, like painters, do). Engine Empire presents that sort of conceptual approach to the triptych. The Western section introduces more traditional narrative elements, whereas the final section provides broken lyrics. Oulipian formal devices occur as well. And genres mutate in various ways, again more along the lines of fiction, someone like David Mitchell.
AF: Many poets work with genre, but I know few who combine so many different genres into a single text—actively inquiring into the nature of genre. And then as you discuss conceptual conceits in your work: when you develop a sequence, like “Ballad of Our Jim,” do you design it subtractively, plotting in advance an overall story line, a narrative frame, subsequently split into a series of lyric instances? Or to what extent do you work additively, composing short, self-sufficient units which later combine into broader vectors of meaning?
CPH: I like that question. I’d say I tend to work additively, though still within a loose framework. The forms actually come quite late. I have to get it all out there before deciding to write some loose iteration of a ballad. Or with “Ballad of Our Jim,” I did want to write ballads and did have titles, yet didn’t plot out the story or voices or what would happen. That story kept unspooling as I wrote it. So usually I start with some kind of framing structure, some canvas but often just a vague sense of setting which I people with poems.
AF: “Ballad of Our Jim’s” compressed poetic lines and phrases suggest a super immaculate process of elision. But I also assumed the vernacular dictions you adopt sound quite elliptical to begin with. Did you have to chisel this idiom out of some more sprawling draft? Or did working with the laconic faux-cowboy lingo bind you to quick, slangy references? You’ve mentioned film, but another art form that came to me—which I mean in the best possible way—is the musical. I hope “Ballad of Our Jim” gets made into one.
CPH: That would be awesome.
AF: If I cite the sheer excessive musicality imbedded in certain lines, if I give an example, such as “Marshal’s a marksman, maps Kansan’s track, / calm as a shaman, sharp as a hawk,” if I point to your playful embrace of an idiom not your own, though worked through familiar formal confines, can you relate to high-camp Stephen Sondheim or Cat Ballou or the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” or something?
CPH: Thanks for mentioning that. I want to play up the camp. And I appreciate your reference to this section’s musicality. “Ballad of Our Jim” contains serious elements, but I also hoped to emphasize the camp factor of appropriating a Western dialect—donning my cowboy boots and hat and affecting this bad Western accent. I tried to emphasize this performativity of the Western. Because the Western always has been a fake, a genre, coming from musicals and film and so forth. The Western is theatre, myth, fantasy. Here I convey that through the excess of language itself. And when you write any kind of poem, whether you use “plain” vernacular or not, you have to start with some kind of pulse, some musical pulse that drives the poems. So even for these Western poems, rhythm drives me more than anything else. If you can think of this propulsive beat as a clothesline, then I just adorned that clothesline with words accrued, collected from rancher novels, Sergio Leone films, cowboy dictionaries. When you read cowboy slang dictionaries, they sound so campy, filled with all these corny cowboy puns. I wanted that spirit in the poems. Still at first I feared not getting it right. I grew up in L.A., so in the West, but what did I have to do with the Old West really? Though because the Western constantly gets played and replayed, it seemed OK to write a Western with a bad accent.
AF: Well when I began your book, Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger came to mind, especially Marjorie Perloff’s consideration of that project’s idiomatic dexterity, its positioning of language itself as the epic subject. And of course we could think of Western texts as spare, solitary, with a macho white hero, perhaps a Native American or Latino sidekick or enemy or love interest. Yet your Western landscape seems much more diverse from the start, with its hero a “two-bit half-breed,” its secondary characters slipping into scat, cross-dressing, always advancing that glam cowboy idiom we’ve discussed. Did you set out to re-envision a cultural as much as a physical landscape, to subvert purported hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, anthropocentrism? Or did you find yourself tapping some underground Western tradition that already exists and deserves renewed attention? I vaguely remember Ralph Ellison essays about growing up in multicultural Oklahoma, a frontier different from the more orthodox “West.” Or I think of Spaghetti Westerns—European, with Leone’s first film itself based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Wasn’t the West always this much more multiethnic, transnational, transgender phenomenon?
CPH: The transgender part might come from me. I also want to mention that Joyelle McSweeney did a terrific hybridization of Annie Oakley and Hannah Weiner, called “Hannie Oakley.” But you know, more generally, the Western gets fucked so often and always has been predicated by our geopolitical policy at the time. The Western offered these triumphalist Cold War narratives, then during Vietnam became this dystopic myth about America’s hubris, American failure. Somebody always revises and reinterprets and subverts (but also upholds) the spare West, the white masculine hero, the villain. Still as you say, some of these playful or politicized debunkings seem more historically accurate than that Western myth itself. Because the boomtowns, for example in San Francisco or all along California, stayed incredibly diverse. Depending on the era they might contain freed slaves, huge Chinese populations, Irish immigrants, of course Latinos, Native Americans, even French immigrants. I just recently read a lot of French people immigrated after the French Revolution.
AF: So very late 1700s?
CPH: I’ll have to fact check that. They migrated to the boomtowns and became these lawless assholes. They weren’t the revolutionaries but the henchmen. All kinds of characters filled these boomtowns. So I didn’t need to exaggerate or skew the facts.
AF: One last question about “Ballad of Our Jim.” In terms of nomadic trajectories, I seemed to sense a narrative momentum progressing outbound, toward the frontier. Page 23 describes passing the last barricade. Page 24 moves “beyond the forts.” But of course, as the plot progresses into supposedly open space, more violence ensues—conflict and unchecked exploitation of resident humans and resources. And here the sense of this mythic frontier as self-deceptive spatial construct (obscuring other cultures and species) seemed to get grafted onto a temporal, historical scale with your “Abecedarian Western.” That poem reminds me of Juliana Spahr’s “Unnamed Dragonfly Species,” in which she addresses global warming and simultaneously lists, in alphabetical order, various animals going extinct. I just wondered if you see “Abecedarian Western’s” alphabetical catalogue providing some analogous scenario of ruthless eradication.
CPH: I didn’t consciously think of that, but I like that interpretation.
AF: Western narratives often get nostalgically hued, as if to preserve our glorious golden age, but as your catalogue takes us from “A” to “Z” we begin to sense it all will end and won’t be pretty.
CPH: I did try to foreground an end-time tone. Though I hoped to avoid any specific apocalyptic thinking. Considering the frontier and the West can encourage a death drive. You sense no termination, no end, permanent continuity, so you travel to the frontier to defy your own mortality, to live again, to build a second Eden. Then of course life doesn’t work out that way. We try to fend off Z for as long as possible. The frontier helps with this, its supposed condition of endlessness.
AF: And I guess your modular pacing presents its own implicit frontier space. You provide no single sweeping movement westward. You build up tiny settlements, hinting they’ll all get stitched together in the end. So even your movement from A to Z never winds up offering some scary crescendo. Gradually the spaces starts to fill in with little pockets that eventually might suffocate everything. I don’t mean this in a bad way.
CPH: Go ahead. I like it.
AF: Or when a character dies first off in a movie or book, though then remains an important figure throughout, that’s my favorite kind of work. You know the ending, yet stay to see it play out anyway. You move beyond the stupidity of suspense. You can internalize regret and desire and appreciation for beauty about to disappear—like wishing a compressed lyric could continue a little longer, with linguistic constraint keeping you on the verge of total liberation. Here perhaps we should pivot to “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!” “Shangdu” the city seemed some hybrid of Shanghai and Chengdu. I love the choral choreography, the different voices that emerge simultaneously. I couldn’t help picturing Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with all its humble voices overlapping as you watch this town arise and eclipse the landscape. But also, am I right to hear in “Year of the Pig” a parodic response to Pound’s take on “The River-Merchant’s Wife?” There’s the Kublai Khan inflected tête-à-tête. Do colonial parent texts appear throughout, and I’m just too stupid to tell?
CPH: They don’t occur all the time, but definitely this second section tracks Western imaginings of the Orient, with some hopefully sly allusions.
AF: So Engine Empire first constructs the West, and only then constructs the East?
CPH: Yeah. I didn’t plan it that way. Now I can’t. . . it seems so obvious a construct I should just say yes, I planned that all along: the Old West fading into the New East. Yet actually “Shangdu” comes from anecdotal inspiration. China now contains all these boomtowns. I spent time as a journalist in northeast China (in Yanji and Shenyang). These cities really had no regulation. Cars would drive in the wrong direction. But then new highrises kept opening—though not with Shanghai or Beijing’s frenetic pace. It actually felt incredibly poor. It had a rag-tag Old West aesthetic. I made these intuitive sensory connections. Though maybe the other part of my brain thought, yes, now that I’ve written about the West, let’s talk about the East.
AF: Could you discuss this section’s choral staging or orchestration? Did you build that up as you thought through “Shangdu’s” place in the overall triptych?
CPH: For all three sections I wanted to fray the narrative. As you progress this narrative feels more fractured. The first section adopts the first-person plural and sustains that voice throughout. But the second section moves toward greater multiplicity. I wanted to address Shangdu as a city, a populous—to break away from the individual, or the romantic idea of Old West individuality. Chinese society focuses much less on the individual. This prompted my decision to jump from voice to voice. And also, going back to “Shangdu,” the title: it definitely echoes Shanghai and Shenzhen, though actually comes from another text. Marco Polo’s travels include a city called Shangdu. And Shangdu sounds like Xanadu. It’s my fantasy of the occidental fantasy of China.
AF: Shangri-La’s also there. But this section’s prose-vignette style moves much faster than what came before. Like in that passage “Lucky Highrise Apartment 88,” every condo has one wall missing amid the haste. Did you deliberately provide quick glimpses then move on? How does this speed and its corresponding points of access, its kaleidoscopic types of vantage, compare to the embodied duration of the “Our Jim” ballads?
CPH: Well in this longer sequence, “Adventures in Shangdu,” with the apartments all missing one wall, I wanted to dramatize a panoramic glimpse, or these different glimpses of city life. Here Calvino also became an inspiration, alongside Marco Polo’s journals. The “Millennium Aquarium” title again riffs on Polo. So speed definitely serves as a formal device throughout this collection, though also as kind of a subject matter. One passage says “History intones catch up, catch up.” Basically I hope to capture a desperate eager energy in different voices trying to catch up. But what are they catching up to? The impressionistic quality of “Adventures in Shangdu” implicitly poses this question.
AF: That impressionistic quality, with its increased conflation/dispersion of localities, sets up the digitized space of the final section’s World Cloud, in which one’s imagination can link to any nation. Here a further reduction (to pixilated units) takes place.
CPH: In “The World Cloud,” globalization exists as a virtualization—which yes does get set up in the second section. Shangdu presents this imagined city, this fantasy of a global economy but with everything becoming further and further dematerialized. But I should say that Shangdu also situates itself in an industrialized age, again with its own idiom, though I never try to authenticate the experience of being Chinese, living in Shanghai, working at a belt factory or something. Instead I borrow from Victorian poetry like Hopkins and Kipling.
AF: Then “The World Cloud” seems more comprised of short, declarative sentences. Do these again suggest a modulated, pointillist, pixilated consciousness?
CPH: I hope so. No real formal constraint drove these poems. They seemed syntactic gestures more than anything else.
AF: In terms of the snow metaphor, which your epigraph from Joyce’s “The Dead” introduces, did you write this book before the Fukushima meltdown? Does that event somehow haunt this?
CPH: Oh no, this came way before. Of course the concept of nuclear winter resonates here, but I wanted to keep the snow a really loose image.
AF: It is, suggesting fractal space and all that. Then finally, with the “Fable of the Last Untouched Town” (a town which sounds a lot like North Korea—again conflating historical time and place, through this last Stalinist anachronism) your book’s final line, “And this is what I saw,” contains this conclusive, valedictory tone. Given the oppressed, administered poetic-subject that has come before, did you deliberately offer an optimistic ending here? Or one totally hollowed out of value? Or did you just want to end the book? That ending works well either way.
CPH: I’m glad you think so. I don’t want it to seem a hopeless book. I didn’t want to end hopelessly. First this book had ended with “The Quattrocentro,” on the phrase “swallowing it whole.” That really smacked of closure, whereas “This is what I saw” sounded more hopeful, slightly more ongoing, even as it circles back to the start. So these three different sections get bound together, despite addressing three different time periods. That’s why I wanted to end with this line.
AF: Which returns us to the present, facing the unknown.
CPH: Right. That was my intention.
Cathy Park Hong’s latest book of poems is Engine Empire. She is an Associate Professor at Sarah Lawrence and lives in New York.