Gary Jackson Interview with John Hoppenthaler
Gary, Id like to start with the shortest of the poems represented here, “Twigi,” as a way to get into this conversation. According to a piece in the November, 2009 New York Times by by Choe Sang-Hun, “Centuries ago, when Korean women who had been taken to China as war prizes and forced into sexual slavery managed to return home, their communities ostracized them as tainted.” She goes on to reveal, “In the last century, Korean ‘comfort women,’ who worked as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, faced a similar stigma. Later, women who sold sex to American G.I.’s in the years following the 1950-53 Korean War were despised even more. Their children were shunned as “twigi,” a term once reserved for animal hybrids . . ..” The mother’s ironic laugh in the poem, the darkness that shades “everyone” and how that word picks up on how you use the darkness in “Creature,” where you write, “Summers / women smiled at how dark I could become. // When I say dark / I also mean young . . .”, the suggestion seems to be that the anger you felt as a younger man about your origins have, if not diminished, at least have grown beyond anger into the more complicated realm of coming to terms with your reality: “Hereditary, she said. I’m still learning / what it means.” I also think of these lines in “[Banana-less, my lover returns home]”: “We blame the origin of things / instead of the things themselves.” These seem the words of person who has taken a more philosophical view.
I first encountered that term twigi when I was living in Korea, and was fascinated by how the origin of the word is connected to a sense of national pride—the idea of a homogenous society in response to the years of forced servitude as comfort women and sex slaves Koreans suffered under neighboring countries. Though that idea of homogeneity has been changing, with my family being one example: my grandmother being one of many women who decided she had a better chance of starting a new life in America with an American G.I. She just made the unfortunate choice of marrying a black man and moving in with him and his family in the Heartland of the USA in the early ‘60s. Ha! And here I am, the product of this, growing up years later, more ignorant than angry: I never truly understood my family’s history. And my family (like all families) loves to tell stories, build myths that function like most myths—as cautionary tales and explanations for the unexplainable. But then you get older and start to question those stories, not to poke holes in them, but to better understand who’s telling the story, and why. It took another poet to really point this out to me—but all of the poems I’m working on now serve as an origin story of sorts, though not necessarily mine.
You were born and raised in Topeka, Kansas and now live and teach in Charleston, SC. Night and day? Beyond the inevitable Wizard of Oz reaction you mention in “[Banana-less, my lover returns home],” how has this new landscape affected your poetry, if at all? Is identity a similar matter in the Deep South as opposes to the “heartland?” What necessary negotiations have revealed themselves?
I can say I’m simultaneously more visible and invisible living here in Charleston when I compare it to anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There are more spaces here where I’m much more comfortable than I’ve felt in a long time, and many more spaces where I’m hyper-aware of my presence, and I feel (know) everyone else is as well. But it takes a long time for things to work on me. And it takes me a long time to process experience (and there’s a lot to process, living here in Charleston). But I was living in Korea before Missing You, Metropolis was even published, and you can see that I’m still wrestling with those experiences on the page. I’m a slow writer when it comes to the actual act, as well as the process behind the curtain. I’m okay with that.
Writers like Toni Morrison, Natasha Trethewey, Paisley Rekdal and others have contemplated the experience of mixed race identity in their work. Have you taken any inspiration from such writers?
Definitely. Natasha Trethewey’s “Pastoral” comes to mind often—the way it captures the speaker’s unease with being grouped with other southern poets, the dual southern settings of the Atlanta skyline and the more traditional southern pastoral landscape that the photographer provides as a more genuine (re: manufactured) and accepted rendering of the south. How the speaker does / does not want to belong, and that final incredulous question: You don’t hate the south? You don’t hate it? I feel all of those things often when I think of my own ambivalence towards belonging—whether it’s being a black expat in Anyang, South Korea, or black in Charleston, South Carolina, or back home in Topeka, Kansas. Whether it’s being biracial in America, or biracial in Korea. And how often my own sense of self is put upon by the people I’m surrounded by, even though I know I shouldn’t let that happen. And that question You don’t hate it? I’ve been asked versions of that question by everyone—Koreans referring to me living in America, Americans referring to me living in Korea, anyone not living in Kansas referring to living in Kansas, living in the South, living in the southwest.
I’d like to expand a conversation you had with Emilia Phillips in 32 Poems about memory. In that interview, you state, “I’m a fan of the lie. I’m a fan of memory too, but that’s because memory is so fallible and permeable to time: it’s the oldest, truest lie.” You’ve also written, “Perhaps there is no worse failure than memory—than using language to preserve it.” In an interview on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge, Natasha Trethewey says, “And when we say memory I should clarify what I mean by that. I actually mean cultural memory, collective memory. . . So, my personal memories have a lot to do with it but I'm more interested in the collective memory, which is really another way of talking about history, or the myths that we create about our past.” Can you speak to these poems, and your poetry in general, in terms of these two quotes?
I may have said this before but my own memory is such shit that I don’t trust it anymore. But after Missing You, Metropolis came out, my family began to reach out to me and wanted me to write about them! What!? I pushed back against the idea for a long time—I was (still am) wary of collecting experiences just for the sake of writing about them. But then family started telling me these old stories that I had, of course, forgotten, and some I had never heard before. Then family started contradicting each other’s stories, and then family I had never met before, never even knew existed started showing up, not to talk to me but to my mother especially. Let’s set the record straight. Shit like that. My mother wanted me to write about it, and like the hard-headed son I am, it took me a long time to finally listen to her. So I started reconstructing a fraction of this history based off everyone else’s memories and stories, and in the process stumbling into this narrative about diaspora and disappointment and myriad ways we attempt to reconcile our version of the American dream with the America we live in. And it’s all wrapped in memory, myth, and what truths we choose to preserve—I think Mary Ruefle says something like that in her book Madness, Rack, and Honey. I’m going to butcher this paraphrase, but it’s something along the lines of: Which truths do you wish to perpetuate? Which truths do you wish to destroy?
You’ve had a very auspicious beginning as a writer. Your first collection, Missing You, Metropolis, was the winner of the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, judged by Yusef Komunyakaa. Tell us about the second book. When is it due? What are the concerns, beyond identity and memory, that inform it?
There’s not much more to say, unless I just explain the book. And, really, no one wants that. I can say the superheroes take a back seat in this collection. Though my sister’s death is something I explore again (I touched on it in a few poems in Missing You, Metropolis), though here it’s more of a springboard to explore my mother’s grief and how that event affected her. I can’t tell you much about when it comes out because I have no idea! Though it (finally) feels ready, so now I get to start sending it out into the world and hoping someone bites.
Finally, at the end of your interview with Emilia, she requests, “Now, Gary, provide me with a question to ask the next interviewee.” Your response is this: “When I read interviews I always want to know something that doesn’t directly deal with poetry in the poet’s life. So give us something else that contributes to your understanding/navigation of the world you live in, besides writing poetry, besides writing, period. What else do you do, do you share a passion for that may inform your work, but not directly tied into your work as a poet? Besides writing, what’s another act that keeps you sane (or insane, if that’s your pleasure) in the world?” Would you please answer your own question? Thank you, Gary.
Ah, you Jedi-mind tricked me into answering my own question! One thing I love that has little to with writing is playing video games. It demands a different part of my brain, and gives me the freedom to navigate these vast digital spaces, whether completely alone or with my old friends from back home. It can bring out the worst in people, for sure (I’m thinking of pretty much any competitive multiplayer game when you’re on the losing side with a group of strangers), but there’s beauty too, and compelling narratives you can find in a medium that often gets overlooked when it comes to story. And honestly, it’s just a very surreal space to engage. I think I could write an entire book just on playing Grand Theft Auto. Or Fallout, or the first time I ever played Street Fighter II at Aladdin’s Castle (an arcade joint in Topeka), or that old X-men Arcade Game where you could team-up with five other players. You could play Dazzler! Dazzler.
[Banana-less, my lover returns home]
Banana-less, my lover returns home.
Her story to tell, but I can tell – like Dorothy
and the phrase someone spouts every goddamn time
they learn where I'm from –
I'm no longer home. Kansas isn't here,
though the yellow dust feels like pollen
this time of year
if I close my mouth and will my pores
to ignore the burning. We blame
China and the North: our favorite scapegoats.
We blame the origin of things
instead of the things themselves.
Pronounce your mother's name. Tell me
again the town you're from. Remnants
of light fall on our skin. Get in trouble with me.
Have a drink outdoors, let neon
catch the rims of our glasses, hook and pull
us further from the places we’re from.
I’m turning lighter
with every cat-scratch-
– high yellow dashes
run down my arms
reminding me of family
reunions when aunties would say you used to be
such a lil’ yellow boy.
women smiled at how dark I could become.
When I say dark
I also mean young
with a mane of oiled black hair.
But I’d prefer to be
to drink / have time enough at last
with my books & broken glasses
my television & half-empty bottles
my thinning hair my growing beard
my gut my body keeps
compensating for itself –
my future’s going brighter.
Wait long enough
maybe they’ll let me back in
the club. When my mother turned one
she got her first gray hair,
when she turned thirty
she buried her eight-year-old.
Hereditary, she said. I’m still learning
what it means.
Visiting the Ansan Botanical Garden, everyone
is a little bit darker. That’s us, boy
my mother would laugh, if she were here.
Good soju is smooth like water, unlike
makgeolli, unfiltered, with more color –
feels stranger on my tongue, like communion,
like grandmother meeting her first (?) husband
at a makgeolli bar, their brief union
produced my blood: made in the motherland.
Makgeolli is fermented rice, leaves snow
in my mouth. Soju stings like cold metal.
During Hweshik I learn to toast and throw
shots on hardwood floors, leaving wet petals
of liquor to be wiped clean by waiters.
More tradition that makes me feel traitor –
Blackout drunk and wondering how it is
I’m standing in the park with two women –
vomiting among the bushes and trees.
Both drinks are cheap, but makgeolli is eight-
percent alcohol, soju is twenty:
similar to my ethnic real-estate.
What’s the going rate for Black blood / Korean?
Soju triggers memories I never
witnessed before: how the city smelled when
my mother was here. I want to capture
every neoned border of skyline,
take them home and compare her storied time
with mine, though I’ll always be foreign
in memories of the place she was born.
The bartender pours free shots for my friends.
She rounds up five random Americans.
Smiling women holding bottles of green:
Be White! blazons an ad, ignore the pang
of hate, sometimes it’s better to be seen,
like when the drunk woman ran her finger
down my arm, awed by her still-clean digits.
Untraceable, she tries to say, but slurs.
Makgeolli is a drink made for vignettes.
Meant for sipping, some prefer it ice cold
from a glass, or warm and ladled to hold
the sweetness with heat. It’s better homemade
some say, to ferment in an earthen jar,
buried like grandmother’s kimchi in clay
pots in the states – the uprooted backyard.
Godawful, my mother recalled the smell.
I joke how she should miss food from her home
I ain’t there now, she says. I feel compelled,
years later, to try the foods she disowned.
Remember to shake or stir makgeolli
before drinking, or the spirit divides.
Fellow expats take note and say to me
these are your people. My class then decides
to teach me pyongshin if I teach them ass-
hole. Someone jokes that I could always pass.