Nicholas Wong: Let’s start by discussing the title of your latest poetry collection Steep Tea (Carcanet, 2015). How did you arrive at the title? In an interview published in Lantern Review, you mentioned how distance was necessary for you to write about Singapore, your country of birth. What about time? After having moved to the States for more than a decade, how has your view on poetry changed?
Jee Leong Koh: I named the book after an autumn kasen renga in the collection. The renga (Japanese linked verse) was written with R.A. Briggs, an American poet living in Brisbane then. That was in part what drew me to Ray, the fact that we were both living away from home, both writing to discover and inhabit our new environments. Ray wrote the hokku that started the renga:
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?