The poems represented here seem part of a larger project. Are the Labyrinth poems a book-length project?
Initially I thought the poems were either a secondary or tertiary sequence of another book project, but as I kept writing the labyrinth poems I realized that it was its own autonomous entity. I'm not sure if it's a book or chapbook at this point because I'm still in the midst of it. What I do know is that I don't know where it's going, and that's what excites me about the work.
I’m thinking, of course, that the poems are based on your observations of your three-year-old son.
Not initially. At the start, I wrote the poems in reaction to something I had heard from the Chicago poet David Welch when he read for the Slash Pine Poetry Festival held in Tuscaloosa, AL. He had these character driven narrative poems that were spare, but confident in the projections of their interior spaces. I liken it to hearing a nice long note after you strike a hollow metal tube. From there, Welch's poems reminded me of David Lynch's Inland Empire, for some reason. The actress in the film begins to take on the persona of her character. So much of the film seemed to belie the idea of coming to a consciousness and that particular idea drove the writing of the labyrinth prose poems. But of course, as I got deeper and deeper into the work I came to understand that the sequence as I know it now is a about becoming aware of one's senses. Such discoveries are not unlike what my three-year-old is going through these days as he comes to understand how rule-governed his world is—his struggles with that.
Why prose poems? How did you match subject to form?
You know, I tend to write prose poems when I reach an impasse with my lineated poems. I write them when I need to get a handle on my sentences. My default mode during composition is the couplet. I write couplets all the time when I'm composing new poems because I can't hide in a couplet. I can see all the wrinkles and can immediately test the integrity of a line and a line break because there's less clutter for my eye as I read the poems during revision. But I can sometimes lose track of my sentences. So when I need to get a handle on the musicality of syntax, I write prose poems as an exercise for my ear. Because of the density of the form, I can't rely on the space a line break affords for effect.
Now, as far as the content matching the form—sometimes you find a subject and the form finds the subject. Such was the case for this. The very first labyrinth poem was a prose poem with syntactical qualities I had been hoping for and so I stuck with the form. It's pretty apparent to me that I'm writing a whole bunch of parable-like bits, so the prose form seems to naturally lend itself to the work.
You’re a busy guy. You’re currently a board member of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). The mission of AWP has morphed over the years; it now serves roughly the same role for creative writers in academia as the Modern Language Association does for other educators in the field of English. What do you see as the organization’s role at the current time? Are you happy with it, or do you see AWP as needing to move in any particular directions? Has it, as some complain, gotten too “big?”
You're trying to get me in trouble with this question. I disagree that the mission of AWP has morphed. I think the mission is the same. What's happened is AWP's constituency has changed. It's gotten broader. It has grown. On this end of things, I'm more aware of what AWP does outside of the conference. During this difficult economic climate, representatives of AWP were lobbying for art funding and educational funding. AWP is still very much an advocacy group. It so happens that there are more organizations to advocate for. And like all non-profit organizations, ultimately it needs to continue to play the role it plays while ensuring its long-term health.
As far as the size of it is concerned, my first AWP was held in Portland, OR. The program was a saddle-stitched rag as a conference goer, you could almost go to every panel. That was back when AWP was recovering from financial troubles, so the scale of what AWP could be was very limited. AWP is a much healthier organization now, and one way that its health is being exhibited is the size of its conference attendance. Some view the large size of the conference as a negative, but what I see is that the interest in creative writing, writing programs, and the literary arts are rising and this is a good thing.
Have you enjoyed your AWP tenure?
So far it's been great, but I was JUST appointed to the board this past February and I haven't really done anything as a board member just yet. I'll tell you this much—my board cohort is fantastic. They're a practical, hard-working, and sincere group of writers who believe in the literary arts and serve the literary arts with all that they have. And the staff members at AWP are incredibly vibrant, supremely talented, and also extremely hard-working. So that part's been a joy. Sure there are complaints about things, but what makes it all work is the collaboration of the staff members with the board members and a clear understanding of AWP's mission.
You also co-chair the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry. Can you tell us about that organization and the role you play there? What projects of note are underway there?
Kundiman was founded in 2002 by Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi. I was one of the founding members of the organization. Sarah and Joseph came to visit my apartment in Utica, NY, with the idea for Kundiman back in the Fall of 2002. The idea was to create a retreat for Asian American poets modeled after Cave Canem, an African American not-for-profit arts organization for poets. I told Sarah and Joseph that they were crazy and that I would support them. In 2003 we had our inaugural retreat at the University of Virginia with a core faculty of Rick Barot, Ishle Park, Marilyn Chin, and David Mura. Since then we've hosted seven other retreats with poetry faculty members such as Patrick Rosal, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Myung Mi Kim, Prageeta Sharma, Lawson Inada, Arthur Sze, and Kimiko Hahn. We're planning for our 9th retreat as I type this.
My role in the organization is to serve as an advisor to the Executive Board—the board that does all the planning and creation of the events of the organization. Initially, I was a staff member, but as my life circumstances changed, I've had to pull away from assisting with direct oversight of the organization. And besides, Sarah, Joseph, Vikas Menon, and Purvi Shah have the organization humming along.
One of the cool projects that was started a couple of years ago was the Kundiman Prize in poetry—it's a book prize in collaboration with Alice James Press. Alice James just released Janine Oshiro's Pier, which was the inaugural prize winner. Janine was a former fellow of our Kundiman retreats, however in order to enter the book contest, entries needn't be from former Kundiman fellows, just from Asian American poets.
Members of Kundiman also performed a Re-Vision of 9/11 entitled Together We are New York at the Paul Robeson Theater as part of Kundiman's Kavad project. Kavad is a community-based storytelling program comprised of interviews, readings, workshops, and online media. The performance of Together We are New York was so well received that they gave an encore performance a week later.
Among the other things that are happening at Kundiman—the reading series at Verlaine in New York continues to feature readings from established and new Asian American Poets. So lots of things are happening with Kundiman and I'm proud to be a member of such an outstanding organization.
I’m lucky enough to be a part of another project you’ve recently undertaken; you are the co-editor, with Stacey Lynn Brown, of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U of Akron P, 2012). What led you to this project? Why does the world need this anthology?
I wouldn't say you were "lucky," John. I think your poem's pretty terrific and I'm glad to have it in the anthology. Stacey came to me with the idea fro the anthology back in 2008. I had always been fascinated by persona poems having studied with Norman Dubie and having spent time with the poet Ai, two of the most renowned practitioners of contemporary persona poems. So as we started to think about how to set about collecting poems for the anthology, we looked around at various poetry book catalogs to see if there was an anthology that had already paved the way. Seeing none, we set about collecting poems.
The "why" of the anthology is simple for me—my previously mentioned three-year-old is now at the stage where he is exploring his own identity by taking on other identities. The other day we were watching the film Wall-E and my son decided he was Wall-E for the day. His other favorite character is "fox." At times he's been a kangaroo. Other times he's been a puppy. It is, of course, important that I play along. That I engage him as one of the above mentioned characters in order for the fantasy to be sustained. As I've been watching and playing with my son, I've come to understand how vital it is for children to grasp what it means to imagine one's self as someone or something else. But the lessons of this do not end with childhood. This same understanding is the key to our humanity. It is this very same ability to engage in role-play that is key to the human capacity for empathy. It allows us to understand what it means to "walk in someone else's shoes."
The boy in the labyrinth raises his arms above his head. The torch behind him projects the shadow of a horned monster. This dim abdication of the boy's shape makes the silence of the maze stretch its legs like a proud house cat. The horns rising out of what was the boy's skull is a dream. There are dreams and there are dreams. The boy's shadow returns as he drops his arms to his side with a slap of his thighs. The rush of wind as his arms fall causes an ember to lift from the torch with a pop. Other shadows try on their shapes in the stutter of the torch's hungry machinery. Other shadows circle in the sovereignty of their forms.
The boy in the labyrinth hears all its sounds: the breath’s translucent cellophane in the cold; water’s uncurled parabolas with each metronomic drip; the stalactites shearing winds into discordant vipers; and in the far reaches, the minotaur—his incongruence, a bass drum. In the labyrinth, a sound knows its place. There are fingers in the darkness, pushing the black keys hard on their mallets. And lo, the quiet is the most violent string. The boy stands still. Somewhere on the surface, electric fans on rows of office desks push their thrombic hums. Somewhere reams of paper let loose their repetitions like faucets spitting sawdust. Here, the dark’s homunculus pads about on its bare feet while the spiral of the ear doubles back on itself.
The boy in the labyrinth makes a mask with his fingers by pressing his thumbs to his middle fingers for eyeholes. He looks through the spaces between for vision. For clarity. In the darkness, he thinks he sees a doorknob's spherical elegance. Through a spider web lattice, he crosses. The resins of the web, stick to his hands, still forming a mask. These web remnants affix from one outstretched pinky to the other. A mask over a mask. And the spiders in the corner dance a little jig as they pull up the frayed strands. And the mask over the mask disintegrates into another parlor trick with the speed of the boy's gait. And the doorknob turns into a spherical stone. And the stones fail to apologize to the boy, their bludgeoned faces reflected in the haughty dusk of other stones.