Brandon Som with Nicholas Wong

Nicholas Wong
Nicholas Wong

In 2014, Kaya Press celebrated 20 years of publishing innovative Asian Pacific American and Asian diasporic literature. Since relocating to Los Angeles in 2011, Kaya continues its mission to publish “challenging, thoughtful, and provocative” work. In this conversation, Brandon Som talks to Nicholas Wong about his book, Crevasse, published by Kaya Press.

Brandon Som: Crevasse begins with a quote from Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “… my body itself is a thing, which I do not observe: in order to be able to do so, I should need the use of a second body which itself would be unobservable.” Your poems seem to take up this conundrum of body and perception as a kind of challenge. In the poem “Trio with Hsia Yü,” you write, “Use a pen to write on the body, / then use the body to unbind // the heart. Roll the heart / over a few pages of grammar // and see whose rules are cruder.” Here, the speaker is both a writer of the body as well as a body that writes. Can you talk a little about the book’s project in regards to the body?

Nicholas Wong: The body does play a significant role in “exchange” within the queer community. At least, it is how I experienced my 20s and 30s. As a gay poet from postcolonial Hong Kong, the body is also an inevitable subject matter in most discourses (academic or not) about the city. I did not intend to relate Crevasse to the body, but body politics is just part of me, my upbringing; it is queerness, and also me. After Gerald Maa finished reading an earlier draft of the manuscript, he pointed out that it had lots of diseases, which I was not aware. I took it as a sign that I was moving from exploring what a body could do to writing about its limitations.

BS: I see this in the poems. What strikes me is how in writing about disease and the individual body, your poems are able to also address issues of colonialism and the national body. A poem like “Side Effects of Leukemia” reminds us of how we often speak of both cancer and colonialism in a similar or shared set of metaphors. In that poem you write, “Holes are drilled around your / clavicle.” I know from my own father, who has been fighting cancer for several years now, that these holes (used for administering chemotherapy) are commonly referred to as “ports.” This particular poem works with language from Susan Sontag’s work, specifically, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Can you say a little bit about your use of metaphor and how your poems explore body as nation and nation as body?

NW: “Side Effects of Leukemia” still speaks intimately to me, perhaps because I actually called my sick friend (during his short homestay after weeks at the ICU), and asked him for specificities about the body. Yet, I never knew they are called ‘ports,’ which sounds awkward to me, because of the connotative departure of the word, which we have no other ways to interpret, except to recovery. If you believe in the theory that the body is a contested site of numerous cultural, gender and racial discourses, you probably understand why I have to write about the body as I do. I cannot write about the black body or the trans body, as my body has only been informed and disturbed in certain ways. I am a body poet, and I am sure I can find many more out there. But a Hong Kong body is different from an American body, and the queerness experienced is therefore different.

Cover of Crevasse
Cover of Crevasse

BS: You were a teenager in 1997 when Britain “handed over” the island back to China. Throughout your poems, we find descriptions—centaur, conjoined twins, second tier citizen—to represent Hong Kong’s doubleness. Could you talk about growing up within colonial and post-colonial Hong Kong and how this has informed your poetics?

NW: What British colonialism affects me most is that I, like everybody else, grew up in an English literary vacuum. I think it is also showing in my poetics, which may or may not be a bad thing. Our English textbooks are outcome-based, very practical, and contrived in a way that the language can only be approached in a certain way. There is no emotion in them, thus in the language. Channeling emotions and verbs is what I often struggle with when I write poems. Also, Hong Kong is about density and intensity. One can quickly lose his momentum in the city, because speed is everything–the way people walk, work, and talk. It is not the only means of survival, but is an uncoded way of living here. When I read my own work, I find that the space given in some poems is always diminishing. I cannot help it. I just have to admit that I cannot write about stars and birds. To me, even animals are urban. Does the city offer me a lot of inspiration? Not so much as it does constantly ask me to think about who I am, especially in recent years, because of our socio-political ties with China. The whole identity thing is becoming an erasure. However, my ‘doubleness’ allows me to speak two languages (or three, if you regard Mandarin and Cantonese as different languages), hence better accessibility to two different canons, popular cultures, and sound systems.

BS: Fascinating. Could you say a little more about your relationship to English? As a writer, are there things you can do in English that you cannot in Mandarin and Cantonese? What are some of the constraints of English? What are some of its pleasures?

NW: Constraints? Yes, many: grammar, syntax, punctuation, pronunciation, intonation… Basically, it’s everything. For example, I find Carl Phillips’s syntax very sexy and luring because of the way he uses appositives, which do not exactly exist in my mother language. To answer this question, I need to reveal my true personalities. Weirdly enough, I find myself a nicer person, when I speak in English. And I often ask myself if I mean it. Also, I don’t listen to western pop. A student in my creative writing class wrote T.S. in his poem, and I thought he was referring to T. S. Eliot. I only found that he meant Taylor Swift when we’re in a workshop. I listen to Canton pop. There’s so much wisdom in the language.

BS: Throughout Crevasse, we find poems titled “Self-Portrait.” In the poem, “Self-Portrait as a Cubicle,” the speaker explains “On my body, / there are words, / drawings, // phone numbers. And / a hole, // small, but beg enough for your eye.” Could you say a little more about the poem as self-portrait and the tension between private and public bodies in your poems?

NW: It is hard to “make it new,” if I am to write about gay cruising from the perspective of the cruiser(s). When I worked on this poem, an idea I had was to write about what separated them, yet through which the sexual transgression took place. The cubicle was both confinement and facilitation, a covering and an unveiling at the same time. This thought intrigued me. I always like to think about undercurrents in things.

BS: You explore the tensions between public and private, between “covering” and “unveiling” in the poem “Neighbor.” In that poem, in which these issues culminate in tragedy, you write, “The way a tent is zipped / to eclipse his plunge from public talks / because he has taken another he too personally, / privately—” The poem is powerful because it observes and critiques accepted practices—”the way” in which we cover up and avoid what is clearly evident. For you, is poetry a kind of witnessing, a refusal to turn away?

NW: I think all good poems should explore how the world covers and unveils at the same time. Isn’t it Louise Glück who once said that poetry starts with what a poet tends to confront, and ends with what a poet doesn’t know?

BS: Considering the poems’ obsession with writing an account of bodies, I’m wondering about the measure of the line—its ability to contain bodies, its ability to give shape to bodies. I note in several poems throughout the book the presence of iambic meter. Can you talk a little about form, specifically about the aesthetics and pleasures of your line as well as the politics of using what might be considered Western measures?

NW: Form is my weakness. I have not read lots of classics, and always shy away from rhymed verse. I am not intrigued by metaphysical, or Romantic poets. This is probably why I have put Marilyn Hacker’s new book on my summer reading list. This said, “Physiognomy” is a syllabic poem. Writing it was a fun self-given training. The form forced me to alter the syntax, or drop things that extend a line unnecessarily. Poets with English as their first language are definitely more advantaged in executing “Western measures.” I do what I do comfortably, which allows the voice to flow better. I like to see how poets manipulate forms, yet maintain the energy either horizontally or vertically in a poem. This includes, to name a few, Kimiko Hahn’s zuihitsus, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, Timothy Liu’s powerful poem “A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits” that opens Don’t Go Back to Sleep, Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, and Terrance Hayes’s new poems that read like a police report in How to Be Drawn. These are what I want to read and do.

BS: One of the first poems I read of yours was the “Schuyler Haikus, 1954-58,” first published in the Asian American Literary Review. The poem is an erasure of Schuyler’s letters to Frank O’Hara. In addition, you’ve crafted the poem as a series of linked haikus. I am struck by the daily-ness or quotidian of Schuyler and the presence or mindfulness of the haiku practice. Add to that erasure—a redaction, a whittling but also a correspondence with correspondence. Can you talk about how you came to the project and the process by which you made the poems?

NW: I remember picking the book from my institute’s library rather randomly. I did not know their work very well (and still don’t). But look, this is a book of letters between two men. That was interesting enough, and when I read the first letter, I saw the line: “your check bounced.” Then I immediately knew I had to do something with it. I chose to erase their correspondences because I was trying to see if I could outline (or impose?) certain erotics in their relationship. Also, I was bored with my day job, and I had to do something with language that made absolutely no sense. I was erasing a book about how to raise cats. I was erasing a notice from the U.S. Transportation Department left in my suitcase, telling me that they opened my suitcase for a regular check. So, I erased the book, trying not to know too much about what was actually being said. (Mary Ruefle compares this erasing practice to picking flowers – no one actually “reads” each flower; we stand in a distance, and pick those that jump out at us.) After I erased the book, I got some lines. How to render them was a problem. However, I was lucky enough to have come across Ravi Shankar’s “Lines on a Skull,” which is a haiku erasure of a Lord Byron poem. The syllabic requirement breaks my erasure into lines in a way I would not normally do, and I find the outcome elliptical and mystical in its suggestion of a queer subtext within the appropriated text.

BS: You mentioned your institute, which was the international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong. The program was recently shut down, a move that is widely seen as a reaction to the Hong Kong Protests of 2014 and an overt suppression of free expression. Could you talk about the importance of the program for you as a writer, and the importance of a multilingual and multi-canonical international program in creative writing?

NW: The program is the first of its kind: a low-residency MFA with an Asian focus. I was the only poet in the first cohort, and it was not until recently that I learned the real deal of being a writer is to function and serve the community as one. I have lots of amazing teachers and alumni fighting this with me. But doing things that are different is always difficult in Hong Kong because there must be people who only know how to follow rules in your way. I know the press (local and overseas) is keen on relating the closure of the program to the protests, thus the issue of government censorship. We don’t know it, and we won’t. The MFA has been nurturing writers who want to engage with Asia (either personally or thematically in their work). Even Junot Diaz said he’d love to trade his position at MIT to teach here. There is value in new Asian writings. The demise of the program is going to affect the English literary scene in all of Asia.


 

Brandon Som is the author of two poetry collections: The Tribute Horse, winner of the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Babel’s Moon, winner of Tupelo Press’ Snowbound Chapbook Prize. His poems have appeared in Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, Octopus Magazine, and Prairie Schooner. He has received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he teaches composition in The Writing Program at the University of Southern California.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, Nicholas Wong received his MFA from City University of Hong Kong and has been a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Award and the Wabash Prize for Poetry. Described as a “firestarter” by Time Out: Hong Kong, he is on the teaching faculty of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Leave a Reply