This interview, focusing on Jason Koo’s new book, America’s Favorite Poem, is part of Intersecting Lineages, a new Conversant series focusing on cross-community conversations with poets of color. Ben-Oni and Koo conducted this interview during the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs in May, before the Heat lost to the Spurs in the Finals and LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I’m transfixed by how you play with space: the way the lines sprawl and spill over in many of the poems such as in “America’s Favorite Poem,” and the racial and social tensions in “Model Minority” between personal and public space: “…while enjoying your extra space // People move on me like a magnet.” Can you talk about movement in your work, as a poet on the page and in the world?
Jason Koo: I’m always looking for movement; I think, in some ways, I go to poetry for movement. So often I feel dead, cramped, like I’m just sitting there—mostly, because my work requires me to just sit there. A typical workday involves me sitting in front of my laptop for 9-12 hours; and when I’m not writing, those hours are taken up by grading and doing work online for Brooklyn Poets. Those hours don’t feel like flying. But when I’m working on a poem, sitting there can feel like flying, or at least fluttering the wings. I think this is why when things start to go well in a poem I’m hopping out of my chair every few minutes to pace around the room, fiddle with stuff in my kitchen, try some handstands against a wall.
Anyway, here I am, moving away from the question. For me, poetry is movement; a jazz musician might call this “swing.” Hart Crane might call this “swing”—you see him use this word over and over again in his poetry. The Brooklyn Bridge has swing. A great metaphor has swing: a little loop from one thing to another. If I can start moving in a poem, if my mind starts to rev itself up, I can start making connections between the disparate things of the world and perhaps start feeling those connections myself. You are trying to bring things into a motion, a suasian, as A. R. Ammons would say. When you don’t have motion, the imagination can’t get started; the natural inertia of things takes over. The reader just sits there. If you can bring a motion to the page, that motion starts in the reader’s mind and then all kinds of good things happen. I like the word moved as it applies to our experience of art. We’re moved by a poem—we feel it emotionally. But this is physical as well: something shifts inside you. Hopefully if we can bring a motion to the page, if we can move people, they will themselves bring that movement to their own worlds, move other people—start a “movement”—and then the racial and social tensions you speak of in “Model Minority” might be alleviated.
RB: America’s Favorite Poem seems to me to a raw, candid examination of the performance self of the poet—particularly in “Empty Orchestra” and “For Every Atom Belonging to Me” and all the discomfort that follows thereafter in looking back—more revelation than confession. What prompted this?
JK: It all started the morning after the book party for Man on Extremely Small Island, which was at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, back when it was in Koreatown. After the party, some of my friends and I went to a karaoke bar nearby called Wow! And, um, wow. I’d never done karaoke before, because I’m a terrible singer and was embarrassed about singing; but in K-town the no reh bang have private rooms for just you and your friends, so I was up for the idea of embarrassing myself in front of my friends with my Axl Bon Jovi falsetto. And I had a great time—a little too great. I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d made a complete ass of myself, remembering the looks on my best friends’ faces at the end of the night, how tired of me they looked—like they’d gone from being happy for me to completely sick of me. Some of this was probably projection and self-loathing, but the feeling was strong; instead of waking up the morning after my first book party feeling like a king, I woke up feeling like I was the worst friend on earth. So the seeds of “Empty Orchestra” were planted there. I Googled “karaoke” at some point and saw that the literal translation of the word from Japanese was “empty orchestra,” which I loved—that seemed like the perfect description of my “performance self,” as you call it, on the night of my book party.
One of the things America’s Favorite Poem explores is the problem of imperial drive in the American imagination. Usually, you hear poets take a default position on things like imperialism and power, assuming they’re bad; but everyone seems to be forgetting that when you read a great poem, you are, in some sense, under its power, i.e. it’s colonized your imagination, at least temporarily. The poet has extended his or her imaginative “empire” into your mind. And when you yourself write a poem, you are extending your own empire into your readers’ minds—despite what you may think about “writing for yourself” or how much negative capability you have. When you publish a poem, when you share that poem on Facebook, when you give a reading, when you publish a book, you are extending your empire. It’s time for poets to own up to this and understand that they are not exempt from the prevailing cultural critique of imperialism. Just because you’re not making money doesn’t mean you don’t have the same imperialist drives within you. And I think what’s interesting is that these drives, in many ways, are healthy—they lead to great works of art, like, say, the Brooklyn Bridge. I would rather see poets today own up to these drives and go after “power” in their poems—not monetary power, but imaginative power. Power is not necessarily a bad thing. Authority is not necessarily a bad thing. There are good and bad versions of these things. Look at the way we talk about great athletes; when LeBron James dunks a ball with “authority,” that is a good thing. When we talk about a book having real “power,” that’s a separator; it means not merely “good” or “fun” or “charming,” etc, but capable of saving nations, as Milosz might say. That ideally is the kind of book I’m interested in writing, but of course that comes with pitfalls. You can start developing an inflated idea of yourself, pissing off your friends, your significant other; you can start sounding like an “empty” orchestra instead of a real orchestra. Whitman in the first edition of Leaves of Grass writes with real power; in many subsequent editions, with all their terrible additions and revisions, he starts sounding empty—the lines start reading like rhetoric instead of poetry. But there’s no easy either/or between ego and non-ego, which is what a lot of poets seem to misunderstand about Keats’s negative capability. You can’t just get rid of your ego and start writing from that place. Seems more true that you have to write through your ego, more deeply into it, to emerge into a bigger, non-ego driven space of consciousness where you’re aware of the whole world within you.
RB: Rather than question authenticity, poems like “Struck from the Float Forever Held in Solution” seem to reconfigure art and legacy. Here we find literary icons—and their shifting, superseding selves—fueling both the city and the speaker. “Whitman, Kang, Crane move through” the speaker, can you talk about any conflicts that arise in imbibing these influences together?
JK: I’ve never thought about the conflicts of influences. I’ve always been open to influence of all kinds, whether they be white American poets like Whitman and Hart Crane or Korean American writers like Younghill Kang. My favorite writers have never seemed to me to be particularly aligned with any one school or set of influences, poets like Whitman and Crane and Ashbery, who were very important to me my first two years in college when I began writing poetry seriously. What I loved about Crane was that he seemed to be trying to fuse the influences of Whitman and Dickinson into one style, writing expansively but also with tremendous intensity and compression. I think this is why he loved the Brooklyn Bridge so much: utmost expansiveness and flight within the tension of the cables. What Crane called “power in repose.” I’ve always wanted my own work to be as open and inclusive as possible, after these writers that I liked. I wanted to write free verse but also poems in meter. I wanted to write in high, Romantic modes but also in colloquial, pop diction—this is something that Ashbery does effortlessly, shifting between these modes. The history of my reading has been a history of breaking down my aversion to styles so I could learn from writers I thought were very “different” from me. And these writers have ended up helping me evolve. For instance, I used to hate Frank Bidart. I saw him read when I was just out of college and just couldn’t stand how dramatic he was. Actually, I think I saw him read with Louise Glück and I couldn’t stand her either; she seemed so self-consciously vatic. They seemed pretentious and inauthentic; they didn’t have the genial, open, inclusive style and voice that I liked. But other people you respect read these poets and tell you to read them and, after a while, you listen, if you tell yourself you’re interested in openness, and eventually you open up the right acoustic in yourself to hear them. Or perhaps your living conditions change and that opens up the acoustic. So when I moved to Missouri for my PhD, Glück and Bidart became very important to me because I began to feel incredibly isolated and surrounded by silence and started writing a lot of poems out of that alienated silence, as they do. Bidart, in particular, I became interested in because of his dramatic monologues; for about a year, I seemed to be writing nothing but dramatic monologues. And he taught me to intensify my poetry, make it dramatic—this very thing I had an aversion to in his work before. I realized that was everything, that there had to be something dramatic in your voice, even if you were writing about the mundane, as I often was when I was younger. One of my teachers at the University of Houston, Adam Zagajewski, once asked me when we were discussing my poems, Where is the drama? And I thought that was kind of a stupid and borderline offensive question, as if there was nothing going on in my poems, but now I know what he means.
I seem to be completely off topic again, but somehow this is all related. I think possibly your question is getting at the possible political pitfalls of imbibing the wrong influences, or not aligning yourself politically, which I do think is important. But I’ll always believe in the mongrel American mode as a way to creativity; politically, I support Asian American poets and poetry, of course, and I now have very real ways to implement my support through Brooklyn Poets, but imaginatively those are not the only poets I’m going to read. And I think as long as you are constantly keeping yourself open to influences and trying to break down your aversion to styles and your own blind spots about reading, more and more you are putting yourself in a place that is not prejudiced. I used to be in a place where I didn’t read Asian American poets—I thought they weren’t as “good” as poets like Whitman, Crane, Ashbery, etc. When the truth was I wasn’t even reading them. (Of course I wasn’t being taught them either, but that’s another story.) I was kidding myself that only aesthetics were important, that I didn’t want to be seen as “just” an Asian American poet, that I wanted to be seen as an “American” poet. Whereas many poets of color probably naturally gravitate to writing by other writers of color, as I do now, when I was younger I had to force myself to sit down with these writers. I knew I had to break down that aversion in myself, which was instilled culturally from who knows where. Finally I read Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life in a course at the University of Missouri and was blown away—I thought it was one of the greatest novels I’d ever read. I still think this. I have hope for Asian American male writers because of Chang-Rae—we’re only all but invisible because of people like him. And the closeness I feel to Chang-Rae is of a different kind than to writers like Whitman and Crane; he’s inside my experience of the world in a way they could never be (of course, they’re inside that experience in ways he could never be as well). When I read Younghill Kang for the first time a few years ago, I had a similar revelatory experience; but what was interesting this time was that Kang sounded so much to me like Hart Crane, his ways of writing about the city had the same kind of ecstatic revelation. And they were living in the city and writing at the same time. I thought if Crane had ever discovered Kang, he would’ve loved his work. The melding of these two guys in my mind was exciting to me, not only because of their work but because I now felt a real openness in my mind that hadn’t been there before. Too often we read writers like Kang against their own “tradition”; we don’t see he might have more in common with a writer like Hart Crane than he does with Korean writers before him. We teach writers like Kang in courses on Asian American literature rather than in courses, say, on Modernism. That’s a problem. But it’s only going to change if people start actually being open when they read, rather than just paying lip service to the idea of openness. You have to be willing to sit down and try and try again to read writers you think you don’t like. When I was a freshman in college, I thought I hated Wordsworth and Pope, mainly because one of my older friends told me he hated them. I wrote “I am not a poet” on Pope’s forehead on the cover of his book. A few years later, I read these poets again and loved them. If you’ve never had the experience of loving a writer you used to hate, not just “respecting” or “admiring” the work in spite of not “liking” it, you are not really reading and probably much more prejudiced than you think.
RB: Let’s talk about “To LeBron’s Elbow.” I’m a big basketball fan myself, and I have to admit that when “The Decision” aired, I refused to watch it for a number of reasons. However, I will also admit that I’ve carefully followed LeBron’s career—and his personal narrative—since he was first drafted. So while “the war is still on / for LeBron’s James narrative” post-Cleveland, the speaker too flees “certain judgments I now call ‘small town.’” How important is it to own one’s narrative? Is it even possible? And what does it really mean “to quit the entire city”?
JK: It’s very important for us to own, or feel like we own, our own narrative, and it’s become easier than ever in the age of Facebook, where you can repeat images of yourself online in ways that are flattering to you and receive affirmation via Friends, Followers and Likes. At the same time, if you happen to screw up in the digital public, then you’re screwed in ways people have never been screwed before, as those same screw-up images are repeated ad infinitum (or nauseum). LeBron James’s “Decision” was an epochal moment in American culture, showing how an individual could be so puffed up by the media narrative he and his “team” were devising that he could fall completely out of touch with reasonable reality, and just how quickly that individual could be destroyed by the same powers he hoped to manipulate for the further puffing up of that narrative. The image of LeBron on “The Decision” seems to epitomize the masturbatory self-imperialism we all fall prey to consciously or unconsciously in this culture—just not to the extent that King James did in that moment. As I watched this event, of course, I was horrified, but not exactly surprised, as watching Cleveland sports your whole life teaches you to be prepared for catastrophic disappointment. But this event, I realized, was not about emotional loss for me, as every other Cleveland disappointment had been throughout my life; we’ve lost other great free agents before, and I’d always just been sad and/or angry about it. LeBron’s decision to leave made me angry in a way that turned back on myself—I felt I was complicit in it somehow. When I really considered my anger toward him, how pissed I was that he was abandoning Cleveland after the “LeBacle” of his tank job in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Celtics that year, I realized that if I judged him, I’d also have to judge myself. He was leaving Cleveland and the burden of total responsibility and past disappointment and family and friends to go to a bigger market, a sexier lifestyle, shared responsibility, a team that gave him the best chance to win a championship. Did I want to stay in Cleveland after graduating from high school? No, I went to Yale. Did I want to live there as an adult? No, I moved to New York. During my years in Missouri in grad school, all I could think about was getting back to New York, where I felt I could be really me. And so much more was at stake, of course, for LeBron James, in that moment of his career, than there was perhaps for any of us at any moment of our own lives and careers. If you’re LeBron James, are you going to choose to stay with a team that might win a championship simply for the “loyal hometown hero” narrative over a team that most likely will win a championship, perhaps several? He could choose the hometown hero narrative and never win a championship and then, when all was said and done, people would read him as a failure, even in Cleveland. He sacrificed that narrative for the better bet at the “champion” narrative, the “possibly the greatest player of all time” narrative. Obviously he would’ve liked for those two narratives to coincide, but at that moment of his career, it didn’t seem likely to him.
So he chose Miami and guess what? The fucker was right. The Heat have been to the Finals three straight years and won two championships in a row. If not for his choke job in the first Finals, they would’ve won three. And now they’re up 2-0 on the Nets in the second round and looked primed for another championship. The Cavs, meanwhile, are a mess, even with two first picks in the draft over the last three years. No one can say LeBron made a bad decision anymore. People might talk about “The Decision” as silly and embarrassing, but they forgive it because he’s gone on to fulfill his narrative of Greatness. And you know what? Good for him. He’s got that imperial drive in him, conquering the narrative of failure that everyone was trying to write for him after “The Decision,” including me. This was in the court of public opinion, not in a legal court, and as Camus notices in The Fall, the “keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law.” I have known these torments myself. I’ve had enemies in previous places—shit, in Brooklyn, too—who have mocked me and wanted me to fail. And they did everything they could, or everything they could not do (i.e. help me), to write me into that narrative. What are you gonna do, be Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by the conquest of other people’s narratives? Or you gonna break out of those narratives and reclaim your own? You either play or you get played, as Omar says in The Wire. You don’t have a choice. So if I, or you, or we are going to do what’s best for us and be damned if anybody’s going to shame us into slaving ourselves to their own narratives, then of course, King James is going to do what’s best for him. This is our greatness as a culture and our failure.
RB: Gentrification and all its complexities pop up in the collection in both implicit and explicit ways; how do you see these powers transforming the Brooklyn you call home?
JK: Well, again, our greatness and our failure. We can’t seem to have one without the other. There is always something conquering in the creative, to quote my new book in a typical conquering move. Gentrification is obviously bad in a lot of ways, but then it also creates a lot of good. Gentrification saves neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights by making them “historic.” I can walk around the corner and see Auden’s old apartment with a little plaque on it that says it’s Auden’s old apartment. You could be cynical about that, but imagine the BQE there instead. Gentrification puts a yoga studio in a neighborhood like Sunset Park, where I met my girlfriend of three years. Is yoga bad? Is love bad? Gentrification, let’s face it, writes poems. Are poems bad? Gentrification creates organizations like Brooklyn Poets. Is Brooklyn Poets bad? Well, I’m sure there are people who think so. But I try my damnedest to use Brooklyn Poets to create a space for people who have not been included in the poetry “community” in Brooklyn. Again, other people are conquering, you have to conquer back. You have to fight for you and your people. It’s too easy to blame “gentrification” for all the problems; you yourself are likely part of the problem. So the only thing you can do is make sure you create; you’re going to be doing some conquering, believe me, you can’t avoid that, but at least use whatever powers you have to create something that does good for other people who are conquered. Right now we don’t have a poetry “community” in Brooklyn; we have communities. Maybe the multiplicity is good, but I see very little mixing going on between these communities, almost nil. And the main reason why is just laziness, not racism or classism or anything like that. People are simply not trying to include others, to think about others. Just look at the reading series scene in Brooklyn. Virtually every reading I see posted on Facebook is all white. When there are poets of color, they are usually reading with other poets of color. Women are being represented—in fact, I usually see more women than men—but not poets of color. And nobody seems to care. VIDA may have a count for women vs men in journals, but where is the count for poets of color in reading series? I get it, you care about aesthetics, you want to invite the poets you like to read, hell, you want to invite your friends, so do I, but if you call yourself a “curator,” do that—curate. You have a responsibility. You need to try. If I just invited the poets I wanted to read for Brooklyn Poets, our reading series would look very different than it does now, where I make sure we have a gender and color balance of readers throughout the year. That shit is not easy. But the difficulty is like the productive constraint of poetic form. You have to mix and match and push yourself to read a lot of new work you haven’t read before. How do you know what you really want, what you really like? You like and want what you like and want at that time. But if you’re only reading white poets, well guess what, you’re not going to “like” and “want” to invite poets of color to read. Duh. You have to try to read those poets. And hmm you will probably end up liking some of them. I want to live in a Brooklyn that celebrates both Walt Whitman and Biggie Smalls and their representative communities equally. I feel and see this in my imagination, but I don’t see it play out in reality. I’ve been to readings in Brooklyn where I was the only person of color. I thought that would never happen when I left Missouri. But this place is more segregated than Missouri. And that segregation is more pernicious because the prevailing sense is that this is a liberal place, a racially conscious place. People let that shit slide. You might, of course, hear Biggie Smalls played at a dance party after one of those readings. He shows up there, as consumption. But the people he represents are not at that party.
RB: What are you working on next?
JK: Poems. At the end of last summer, I started working on a sequence. Wrote about 17 pages. Then I didn’t write another poem from September to April, what with the obligations of the school year and the insanity of Brooklyn Poets’s Indiegogo campaign last fall. Now that all that’s over, I’ve written three new poems, all very sad love poems. I feel I’ve got another 80 of these poems in me. It’s a sad time. But I’m trying to inhabit that space as patiently as possible. You know how Rilke says we squander our hours of pain? Because we can’t write when we’re in pain? More and more, I feel I am able to write out of that pain, and poetry feels like real good because of that. When I was younger, I couldn’t do this; I was just obliterated by pain. But now I can enter that pain and write my way out of it, to some extent. Hopefully, that means I’m maturing. I’d also like to write some essays about Asian American masculinity, which not a lot of people have written about. I’ve been planning to do this for a while, but prose takes such a huge commitment—it takes a lot out of me. Maybe when I’ve written those 80 poems first.
Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. An assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is also the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization celebrating and cultivating the poets, poetry and literary heritage of Brooklyn, where he lives.