This conversation between Haven Gomez and Michelle Lin focuses on Lin’s first book, A House Made of Water, and is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations between poets of color.
Haven Gomez: In your book, A House Made of Water, you have two poems entitled, “In the House Made of Water,” which, in some aspects, speak of a struggle with identity, one of self and the other in the eyes of the grandmother. Would you say that these two are the heart of the book? Were these poems inspired by the name of your book, or was the name of your book a product of them?
Michelle Lin:I like the idea of these poems as being the heart of the book, because it implies that the book may in fact have two (or more) hearts, which seeks to complicate the book’s life (which is what I hope it has: a complicated life).
JP Howard (aka Juliet P. Howard)’s poetry collection/memoir SAY / MIRROR is both a self-excavation of her childhood and a testament to her beauty queen and professional model mother whom she frequently refers to as “Diva.” Her poetry salon Women Writers in Bloom has featured many emerging and established poets such as Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Xanath Caraza, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Venus Thrash, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, and Arisa White; it has recently been awarded a Brooklyn Arts Council Community Arts Fund Grant. I asked JP some questions about her debut book, her process, and what’s next. This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color.–Rosebud Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni:SAY / MIRROR strikes me as both a collection of poems and a personal ethnography that sheds light on the worlds of beauty, performance, and maternal expectations. The photos and news clippings themselves help piece together the world you’ve (re)created as poet and daughter. Can you tell us about the conception of this work, and your process?
This conversation with Gregory Pardlo is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).
Ching-In Chen: I’m interested in the choice to begin Digest with “Written By Himself,” which at first, felt more familiar in its music of anaphora and its lyric strategies. But that title begs a twist to what follows. It makes me wonder if such attention is called to authorship, who wrote those lines, where they came from and which speakers have been brought before the reader to witness and for what purpose(s). And when I return to this poem after reading the book, it hints towards what’s to come, with your longer sequences and variations (“Marginalia,” the Improvisations series). What kinds of conversations do you envision curating on the page for your reader(s)? Has this changed from your first book, Totem, to Digest?
Gregory Pardlo: Since Totem, I’ve gotten more self-conscious about sincerity and authenticity and the emotional range I, a person assigned to the social registries of, among others, male and black and American, am allowed to articulate before my words are pronounced false or unrecognizable by the audience, my auditors. The slave narrative genre is like a starter kit for all my obsessions in this regard. Slaves weren’t supposed to have access to the kind of subjectivity necessary to string together a narrative. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be literate enough to record their narratives by their own hands. Someone—sometimes several someones—had to serve as witness to verify the conditions under which the formerly enslaved person claimed to speak. That is, someone had to confirm that the text was indeed written by the former bondsperson him or herself. This gets me thinking about the ways my own or anyone’s work relies on various types of—usually institutional—mediation to be heard and recognized. While reading slave narratives I wonder how does the author’s awareness of the reader’s blind spots or threshold for credence influence the writing process. What performance does one have to give, what pass/words does one have to recite, to gain admission to the fellowship of intelligibility—or any institution for that matter? When I consider the word “written” do I mean arranged, curated, inscribed, mimicked, published, appropriated? And the strangely third person subjectivity of “himself”: from whose subject position is the reader supposed to enter the narrative frame? Who “authorizes” me to speak? Who licenses this “I”? (Even in this, I hear “who takes this bride,” the constant hum of patriarchy.) In some ways, my suspicion is that I can’t get much farther than the assertion “I was born” before having to negotiate with a public (however internalized) that is prepared to judge my performance of myself as implausible or unacceptable. The slave narrative foregrounds these problems of narrative authority.
This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).
Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California as the only child of migrant farmers in 1948. These childhood experiences as well as his continued community activism, including a stint as a director of an arts space in Balboa Park converted from an occupied water tank, has shaped his writing. For the past four decades, Herrera has been a lightning bolt, a master at channeling the energy of the moment and documenting the world around him in his poetry. Known for writing on the edge of possibility and for his high-energy riffs and improvisations, Herrera has been celebrated by critics for his innovative style and constant re-inventions. This conversation was conducted shortly after Herrera won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems.
Ching-In Chen: Is it part of your writing process to write against what you’re comfortable with or known for? I’m thinking about your story about listening to John Ashbery invent a poem and feeling that you’re “condemned” to write political poetry.
Juan Felipe Herrera: When you’re a writer from the margins (or more than one margin, as Gloria Anzaldúa says), then it’s almost like a preliminary, required, or organic project to write and reclaim ourselves and our community. In the mid-80’s at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in southern Arizona, Ashbery read a piece from his new book Wave where he reconstructed a Nordic myth. I said to myself: well, he appears to be just choosing at random something he likes, reconstructing it and writing about it. I feel like I’ve been condemned to write in the manner that I write—to reclaim our history, our language, our various identities, to re-align what’s been said regarding our experience—since I started to write. Can I write like Ashbery—not in terms of style or craft, but metaphysically? Can I get out of myself that way? Can I reposition myself that way or will I be condemned to write as my own other?
This piece is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation). Celeste Guzmán Mendoza shared an earlier version of this talk at the Intersecting Lineages panel at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston.
I am not a drama queen but a drama connoisseur. I’ve always enjoyed a good monologue, a booming rant. Since I was child, I would act out monologues, or what I called back then my shows, personas I would create loosely based on a family member (or more) and characters I saw on TV. My favorite was Mae West with a dash of my grandmother, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime, no que no?”
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.