Grace Shuyi Liew interviews Ginger Ko, author of Motherlover (Coconut Books, 2015) and the chapbook Inherit (Bloof Books, 2015). In this conversation, they discuss feminist poetics, the poetry community’s sexism, Coconut Book’s recent hiatus, and more.
Grace Shuyi Liew: You know, I was standing over my desk when I unwrapped the envelope that held Motherlover. I wound up reading most of the book on my feet without even realizing it. I think it was this restlessness within the book that kept me standing, moving, strolling around the house … But then, now and again an acute hush cuts through the breathlessness:
Instead: a metronome on the slowest setting
for a song that lasts the rest of your life.
This kind of movement: lull—then vigor—then lull again—just this constant push and pull, very much carried me through Motherlover.
Ginger Ko: Yes! Oh. I feel restless all the time, mostly alternating between feeling frantic and feeling sad. My partner will tell you that I am very physically sedentary—if I had my own way, I’d spend all day in bed with my laptop—but I’m always emotionally grappling, am probably spiritually insecure. I’m glad you brought up restlessness, because Motherlover represents, to me, my initial foray beneath the surface. I was frozen-over and latent for almost a decade. Then I started writing, and this manuscript is what I got from just beginning to take account of all that’s going on, all that’s there. I feel much more deep in this restlessness these days, so in a lot of ways I feel a little distant from Motherlover now.
GSL: Ah yes. I keep seeing lines in Motherlover that echo what you just described, of dipping beneath that sense of being frozen-over and latent: “What if I just stopped / What if decomposition sweetened me up a little.” And: “a bit of ocean in a cup / a bit of sky in my lungs / color doesn’t reach me here.” And finally, this: “Above all I’m rooted / to the edge of the sea.”
I’m curious about getting deeper into that restlessness. Does it change it? Make it feel safer? More rooted? Then what?
GK: I think, in my restlessness, I am feeling less safe—I am becoming more aware of the trauma that familial and romantic love can endure in the various arenas of intersectionality—but I am also comforted by this awareness. Gaining awareness of the way families can treat childhood abuse (subject of the “Gaslight” poems in Motherlover) with silencing and repression took me outside of my own experience. If it has happened before, then I am not the only one—I am not alone. And those before me have written about it. This also goes for romantic and sexual relationships; I often feel isolated by the crazy-making ways that relationship power dynamics can happen behind closed doors. I’ve gotten really heart-boosting feedback from women, about how they really identify with my poems addressed to the significant other. I hope that they reflect this underwater feeling I often had with my past relationships, where I couldn’t quite see or hear clearly enough because I was so caught up in the everyday dynamics. I’m making this sound very dire, but I don’t feel that way. It’s just that now I understand that I am participating in relationships in the context of our universal misogyny, rape culture, and racism, and my restlessness is a constant checking-in with these vectors. I must seem like a tedious partner. My current partner will probably tell you that I’m at least challenging-bordering-on-exhausting.
GSL: I think yes, more than anything, I am grateful for your poems’ constant interrogation and articulation of rape culture, racism, misogyny, colonialism, and any and all other power dynamics that govern our day-to-day lives. How these overarching structures trickle down to our private lives, behind closed doors. How to sit with the suffering, how to (or how not to) transcend them, and so on. Your work becomes an active reminder that my own despair/trauma is not locked in, and that there are ways to name the despair in order to engage with it. Going back to rape culture—Coconut’s founder was named, alongside several other men, of sexual harassment and abuse in a document that circulated at AWP 15. One outcome of this is that a lot of conversation surrounding misogyny within the poetry industry—and women’s right to safety—have followed. Another outcome is that Coconut announced an indefinite hiatus. Several months later, the press announced a re-emergence as a collective, only to quickly announce that it was closing again. The founder of Coconut publicly addressed his decision to send cease and desist letters via lawyer to many in the poetry community—including Coconut authors. How are you taking all this in?
GK: Hah! My big talk about restlessness, and then a topic that can bring me to an absolute standstill. About the anonymous pamphlet, and the subsequent fallout: I support women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault. I have made a choice—and I feel it is a choice, because my gut reaction was also to deny, disclaim, turn my eyes away in fear, and exonerate—but what does a gut reaction comprise of? Is it truly visceral, or is it ingrained, conditioned? So my choice is to live outside the binary that has been set up (are you for? or against?), and maintain sensibility of a world thoroughly permeated by rape culture. I support women who come forward with allegations of sexual assault.
News of Coconut’s revival almost had me in tears, because this sequence of wrongness that felt irrevocable also began to feel unending. That the press went away again felt like a resurrection of trauma. The first time that something ends, the transition of my life into a post-ending, post-disappearance framework is horrible. If something comes back, and then shutters up again, I can’t even fucking take it. I think things went wrong from so far back that the pain feels just as inevitable as it feels unfair. It is really sad that there was almost no way for Coconut to make the situation okay. I am also sad for that.
At this point, I don’t personally know what the future of the press will be, nor what form its future may take. As a member of the poetry community, I am relieved that the press is going dormant for now. As a victim of sexual assault, I want to curl up and die from the terror of it all. Of this world that we live in, in which power, power, power governs every interaction with another human being.
GSL: Thank you for your honesty. It must feel like being caught in paradoxes, given the pertinence of having to confront the issue, alongside a paralysis given your own personal history of sexual assault. The nature of gender violence often leaves survivors isolated, questioned, and ultimately denied and dehumanized. The impulse to look away becomes tied to survival.
But I have seen your feminism bringing you back to the conversations—and conversations are still being had, whether in private or public. The Chicago Review recently published a discussion forum called “Sexism and Sexual Assault in Literary Communities,” with curated responses from poets, writers, and activists on the topic of gender violence. Maybe it comes down to imbuing the notion of “safe space” with utmost specificity—which means holding individuals accountable, keeping an eye out for one another, spreading the word, and so on—and that such commitments are not merely abstract ideals either, but that they absolutely affect our lives, our literary imaginations, which in turn colors the work we write, read, and disseminate, and so on.
GK: Yes, that forum in The Chicago Review was so great for me because it brought me back to my personal complications with the idea of community. I crave community (closeness, family). It is probably what I desire most, and it’s something I’ve never really had due to a really itinerant childhood and reckless adulthood. But I still don’t know what it means, and what kinds of expectations can be foisted upon the idea of community.
I feel naive in a lot of ways, because I wasn’t really a part of any concrete poetry community when the AWP pamphlet came out. I was, and had been for a few years, living in a very isolated place, and the poets I was reading, and the journals that were publishing me, were all very physically distant. The remove was at once inspiring—that poetry can transcend such space!—and also a real dissonance of reality vs. abstraction. So the online discussions about the pamphlet, and Coconut’s resultant indefinite hiatus, that centered around loyalty and the ties that bind really threw me. I felt like I was being called upon to pick a side, when really I felt no pull from any side except that of women living and working in a dangerously predatory environment. I’ll be called awfully naive for saying that my listening to victims of sexual assault trumps all. But I don’t know how else to act—that is my alignment. I’m also not sure how we can impose any expectations on community, as far as loyalty and queuing up for the draft, each time there is a crisis like this. If communities can be fluid, its parameters allowed to evolve, then maybe we can only count on what happens when choices can be made about our commitments. In this instance, I wish to align myself with the anonymous accusers of sexual assault. I want her to know that I believe her, and that if she had a violence committed to her, that I will listen.
GSL: Your chapbook, Inherit, won a place in Bloof Books’ 2015 Chapbook Series. The voice throughout Inherit is one that’s simultaneously multiple and coherently united. The tracings of inheritance, through emigration from China, through a lineage of suffering confined to domesticity, through a desire for flight, is palpable. How did this project come about? What’s the progression from Motherlover to Inherit?
GK: The chapbook Inherit is the first section of an entire manuscript of Inherit. The manuscript doesn’t have a place yet, and I’m trying to decide if an entire book of the unrelenting inheritance is too overwhelming/tedious to be other than an inconsequential exercise in authorial sadism.
The project came about during the last semester of my MFA. I was lucky to have a semester of no classes, just teaching. It was probably the most gloriously free semester I’ve ever had, and the excitement of that must have caused a flurry of “I have all this time and energy and voice so I need to get it all out!” Whereas I’d hit my stride with Motherlover—as far as getting stuff out, any kind of writing, any kind of voice—Inherit was my exercise in using that voice to speak in the “I” instead of “to you.” I was also reading a lot of Sara Ahmed’s work on affect aliens, and trying to wrap my head around the physical damage, on a genetic level, that trauma can inflict intergenerationally. I was raised in an almost-matriarchy, and that legacy colors how I think of myself, both past and future selves. All of that made up what I wanted to write about, once I had the chance to really write what I could.
GSL: Well, that’s one question in poetry, right? A poem’s “redemption value” or “levity.” Whether that is / has to be a “natural” progression for a poem, or if some kind of power dynamic is embedded within such a condition. Because I would be interested to see tediousness as a formal accompaniment to a subject matter that perhaps cannot be / does not ask to be redeemed…and so why not a whole book?
A couple sections from Inherit:
Every autumn the blinding desert dust.
The wind beheads.
The goods from the market squeal.
Find truer than the unfluffed giant-lidded hatchlings.
Wrench open a head of cabbage with bare hands.
From my father’s land-born riches: strange wild parrots;
my friends are educated and we enjoy witticisms—
affectation, I say aloud over tea and cake.
A constant fear of furthering the sequence.
His scoffing was a kind of wincing that clefted each side of his face beneath the eyes. “You always point out the uncomfortable, and I don’t want to hear it.” She thought she might try to stop pointing out the things that were unfair, cruel, implicating. But she couldn’t find much to say about sunshine and peace, so he eventually left her for someone who could.
A lot of Inherit is about balancing the question of becoming aware of inherited circumstances, traits, and conditions, vs circumventing and overcoming them. Tracing and untracing. In terms of poetics, how do you think about genealogy, if at all? Is there a traceable lineage of formal / linguistic traditions that you consciously hold in mind? Or perhaps specific poets or persons, or styles, etc?
GK: With Inherit, I think I became less interested in form and more interested in what the voice had to say. For years and years, I was in love with reading the beautiful lyric and the comforting pastoral. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve found I can also be emotionally fascinated with the testament. Camille Dungy’s first two books, What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, and Suck on the Marrow, were guiding lights for me when I was writing Inherit. My writing was also radically changed by discovering Ito Hiromi’s work, the straightforward telling it of feelings and experiences that may not have any resolution except for their existing as a record to be read by others. I hope, if I’m working with any genealogy, it is the feminist tradition. Writing as a woman first.
GSL: Oh! I just finished Hiromi’s Wild Grass On The Riverbank. That book really does embody that relentlessness you were talking about. I’m interested in the straightforwardness of “telling it as it is,” of aestheticizing the testimonial. Where to go from here, stylistically? What are the kinds of poetic progression you hope to attain?
GK: I’d definitely like to work on my theoretical grounding and more clearly defining the parameters of my politics. I’m still working out what it means to testify as an observation, versus testifying to the bodily and historical experience. I’m working on a series of poems now, which—I don’t even know if it’s successful, but I’m trying to work it out—utilize parentheticals to represent the unused asides that happen in both the spoken and written medium. When asides go unspoken, is it internalized censorship or self-protection? Or is its silent presence a rhetorical device? This new project tries to explore the unpleasantness of laying bare all the words that come up, and I don’t think they have any beginnings or endings.
A new poem in Sixth Finch that is the product of this experiment: http://sixthfinch.com/ko1.html
GSL: And what is coming up for you in the coming year? Projects, dreamthings, etc?
GK: I want to keep working out what community means to me, and what kind of community I need. I’m imagining an ideal future of endless, associative reading lists accompanied by tea and ice cream, meeting more people, and collaborating. And specifically, a collaboration with you! Readers, please look forward to it.
GSL: Yes yes yes. And thank you, Ginger.
Ginger Ko is the author of Motherlover from Coconut Books, and her chapbook Inherit is forthcoming from Bloof.
Grace Shuyi Liew’s chapbook, Prop, recently won Ahsahta Press’s chapbook contest and will be published in 2016. Elsewhere, her work can be found in West Branch, cream city review, Twelfth House, Puerto del Sol, H_ngm_n, Winter Tangerine Review, PANK, and others. She is from Malaysia.