Caroline M. Mar Interview, with Davon Loeb
Caroline, I am thrilled to feature your poems in the March 2018 Issue of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. I have been incredibly busy the last few months, and coming back to reading poetry, by starting with your work, was and is so refreshing. Thank you for trusting us with your poems.
That being said, I think I still have holidays on my mind, and especially family. I find that being one of the writers in my family, somehow has given me pressure and power to tell my stories, but also, tell the stories of my family. This is a huge responsibility—to narrate someone else’s life.
So, how does this responsibility weigh on you? And how important is it to tell your family’s stories?
Thank you so much for providing a home for these poems, and for this opportunity to talk about them.
Telling my family’s stories is hugely important to me. I think in part that’s related to the power of representation, which of course is a big topic right now, from pop culture to education (I’m a high school teacher). Part of it is that I want to center my family’s identity as a Chinese American family, and that I want to “out” most of my speakers on the page racially so that they cannot be deracinated into some kind of imagined whiteness, which happens too often in literature. Another part of it is that I simply find my family fascinating and ripe for imaginative investigation. The poems published here are part of a collection I wrote that investigates the relationship between identity, family, and teaching. My new work is still investigating family, but now from a different lens. I had two ancestors who worked on building the railroad. The railroad camps were located less than twenty miles from where I spend my summers in Lake Tahoe, possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. This has opened up a whole new range of poetic opportunities for me, but yes, family stories are still central to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a history nerd and was, for a long time, a history teacher.
Responsibility feels like the right word, as do both pressure and power. On the one hand, there’s this sort of known thing about being a writer – if you tell me something weird that happened to you on your drive home, or a crazy story your childhood dog, it might end up in a poem of mine. Almost any story you tell me is fair game. That’s a tremendous power, especially with closer-to-home stories. But with “true” stories comes the pressure to tell it “right,” which I am learning to let go of. Whatever I write, someone else might think it happened very differently. Of course, it changes that dynamic a bit that in poems like “Ghost Language” and “Passing” I’m writing mostly about my grandparents, who are all dead. They can’t come yell at me for what I’ve said about them! In poems about people currently in my life, I get much more nervous – my students, say, or my wife, or my parents. Fortunately (and unfortunately), my family members are not, on the whole, readers of poetry. Just last month I shared some publications with my parents, and I was a little nervous because in one of the poems I depict a moment where I don’t think my father comes off very well, and I worried he might feel hurt by that. There was another poem that was about my teaching life that I thought would be much more legible and relatable to a non-reader of poetry that he might like. My father told me he didn’t get the legible poem at all but liked the other two, and didn’t mention the moment I was worried about at all. So if there’s pressure about this stuff from my inner critic, it’s probably not the pressure I should be listening to!
I love how these poems discuss race and culture. You aren’t heavy-handed with the discourse; rather, you allow your narrative writing to address the social context. Your poem, “Ghost Language” exemplifies your ability to both, story-tell and present rhetoric—as well as, captive readers with dynamic and engaging characters.
Thus, how do you create this duality in your writing—one that is poetic and one that is prosaic?
Thank you for saying this – I think I should probably send this to my MFA supervisors with a thank-you note! This is something I have worked really hard on, and perhaps the craft issue I still struggle with most. When I started writing poems – and I mean like when I was a child – I was always writing with a drive to address social context. Writing is a means of communication, and for me what I most often want to communicate about is some kind of discomfort, and that is often a social or political discomfort. Thus, my poems can get very prosaic, very rhetorical, and very lecturing. Sometimes I have to work to remember that I’m not writing an argumentative essay. The first poem I remember writing was for a school lesson on the Japanese internment. I was later invited to read it at a poetry reading – a real, grown-up reading, by a poet friend of my mother’s. It was an amazing opportunity, and let me know that poetry could be about really painful and political issues. I also definitely had yelling (in ALL CAPS) in the poem. I hadn’t quite hit that balance yet. I jokingly mentioned my MFA supervisors before, but it’s true that this was one of the main conversations I was having with them as a student – how to tell the stories I wanted to tell in ways that were still beautiful on page and that engaged a reader on multiple levels.
Honestly, the best way I do this is by giving myself space and time for a lot of revision. “Ghost Language” was a poem I wrote the beginnings of in 2011, and it was much more straightforward – my paternal Chinese grandfather with dementia, my maternal white grandmother with Alzheimer’s, my students who used the n-word constantly, and boom, at the end, my grandmother’s gonna say Chinaman right to my face. So I had some sense of the narrative threads, and the arc of the story, but I couldn’t figure out how to complicate it. I tried it in different line lengths, stanza sizes, writing more, writing less. I threw it out completely for a while. The ghost thing didn’t come up until 2016, when I was looking at my manuscript and thinking about which poems needed to get the ax. I loved the core of the poem, but not the poem itself, and I realized that my grandfather – who really did start talking to hallucinations he was having of dead people at the end of his life – had offered me the final thread I was missing. So that was… five years. It took me five years to figure out the balance on that one. Luckily, they don’t all take that long!
Back in 2013, I was lucky to meet one of my favorite writers, A. Van Jordan. I just finished reading M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and was still feeling sorta “high” off his poems. His work was structured unlike any poems I had read before, and his ability to navigate someone’s life, while presenting his own, still awes me.
In your poem, “Passing, after A. Van Jordan”, you utilize some of that similar structure, but you also navigate through the lives of others, as well as, your own experiences. In what ways has A. Van Jordan, and other writers, inspired this poem and any of your other works?
I loved M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. Yes, clearly, that was the body of Van’s work that influenced this particular poem, which I wrote soon after reading the book. I read it before I met him, but he is on the faculty at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson, and so I was lucky enough to get to attend his lectures and readings. I was able to take a class with him on Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen, which was a fantastic class, especially because Brooks’s later work was already a huge influence on me, but I had not yet read Annie Allen. Van clearly taught me a lot both from his own work and as a reader of others’ poems. Sometimes I read something that just blows my mind, and I want to experiment and play with what I see that writer doing, and try to adapt it to my own style – clearly that is what I did after reading M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do things the way Van had, but if I could find a way to take that spark into my own poem, I would be very lucky. When writing about my maternal grandfather in “Passing,” it helped that I think he personally would have loved the dictionary-definition form. He and my grandmother gave me a dictionary once as a birthday gift. The poem wouldn’t have worked, or at least would have functioned very differently, had I been writing about someone else. When I feel stuck about a poem, I’ll think about poets I love and go back and read them, and see if something they are doing formally feels like it might help me find new ways to say it.
Lastly, your culture and ancestry are presented in these poems in numerous and remarkable ways—sometimes using language and other times using social and personal history. In a way, your poems are coming of age stories about a narrator searching for her identity in the world and in her family—and also, in the places where family, culture, world, and the self intersect.
So, how do you think your identity is woven into these poems? Does the narrator find herself or is she still searching between opposing cultures? And what advice might you offer to readers who find themselves struggling with their racial or cultural identity?
I think identity will always be an obsession for me. Maybe it’s because I’m mixed, or because I work with teenagers, whose purpose in life is essentially to find themselves, that I focus on this so much. As a mixed-race person, particularly one who looks ethnically ambiguous, I’ve spent a lot of my life getting asked, “What are you?” Problematic framing aside, I think that question opened up in me a curiosity about what anyone is. In the yet-to-be-published collection of poems these four poems come from, Special Education, I don’t know that I’d say the speaker finds herself, exactly. I think she is eventually able to recognize the limits of the places she’s forced to align herself: Chinese, American, mixed, woman, queer, teacher, and so on. She finds a way to be comfortable with the discomforts of identity, which I think is important for all of us. Too much comfort with those constructs is what allows complicity in structures like white supremacy.
For those readers struggling to feel comfort, or seen at all, in their racial or cultural identity, I think I’d say don’t worry, everyone feels that way, because race is a stupid social construct designed to destabilize our relationships with other humans. And then my teenage students would roll their eyes at me! No, in truth, I think non-mixed folks aren’t confronted with the limits of racialization in the same way “monoracial” folks (especially white folks, of course) are. So for my mixed family out there, I’d say: find your people. In my case that was actually pretty easy growing up in the Bay Area, but when I went to college I had quite a culture shock, and finding a mixed and queer family was crucial to my continued development. Also, read! Read as many people as you can, and learn from them. In my last semester of grad school, my supervisor looked at my reading list and noted that I had done a lot to read non-white poets, especially Black poets. I was so proud of my anti-imperialist, building-my-own-canon self, and he acknowledged that. Then he asked why I had read not one single Asian or Asian-American poet in the past 18 months, and I was like, oh crap. And then I did a whole bunch more reading and learning. We can never read enough, know enough, learn enough – that humility keeps me curious about what I still have to learn about myself and about poetry.
My grandmother, the white one, my mother’s mother, she has Alzheimer’s.
It isn’t an easy thing for Grammie, or my mother, or me. My grandfather,
the Chinese one, my father’s father, it was the same: he lost his English, then his mind;
the ghosts all came to pace his hallways.
Things I know about ghosts: the haunting, of course.
We bring Grammie mini-candy bars, the tiny shiny squares of sweet she loves,
and honestly it might not be so terrible, a quick and painful heart attack since she’s forgotten
she wanted to end it before things got this bad.
That sometimes, ghosts have voices. I was . . . I was a smart woman—
a writer, as deliberate in her choice of words as in her choice of pearls.
Her language never failed her. My students speak a language I don’t always understand. It rings
of false bravado, a high-striker hammer dropping to prove some mewling manhood.
That ghosts spoke to you more clearly than I could, at the end.
I teach the code’s switch, the value of speaking both vernacular
and academic, the only way they’ll make it past entry-level at Foot Locker. But also,
the way those ghosts were welcome, and weren’t you happy to see them,
so happy to have back all the people you’d loved, together, like a reunion.
I am supposed to value their home language, the way my father,
ghetto-C-Town born, still says It’s mines. She does. Does. Not “do.”
Godammit, just speak right.
And you, somewhere in-between.
But worse than awful conjugation is hate of self, that word I cannot say—
Ghost voices flutter. They whisper, flash, flicker the lights, fuck with the volume
of the radio. They say when you have dementia, it’s like your brain goes backward.
You remember who’s important, but not why. Some days, my mother
is Grammie’s lovely niece, and I might just be the light brown help.
My friend Mika used to see ghosts as a child, until she learned to make offerings
many times a day. Or maybe she just grew up.
N----- . They tell me, It’s okay! We are allowed to use it. The semantic difference
between “er” and “ah” unleashed from all our history.
And also, that they float, according to Western tradition. I think in China,
ghosts walk and talk and hide themselves in the bodies we are used to.
I read an article about the n-word in Grammie’s New Yorker, back when I was a little
younger than my students are now. I’m no great student
of folklore, but know ghosts can’t step over, that every door should have a block.
The author had a point, but I tell them their argument fails in the face of my words,
Chinaman and chink, say nothing of the dear-loved queer and dyke.
White people ghosts would breeze right through those walls you built.
I forbid the n-word’s flutter in my room.
This works, for short periods of time.
In my West African dance classes, we talked a lot about the ancestors gathered
behind each dancer. I don’t know what else Black ghosts do. Haunt
the white imagination? Hang around my classroom, nudging
these boys forward, eyes rolling gently at every young mistake?
I take Grammie and her “friend” Fred out to coffee. The osteoporosis makes her small
as a child, feet dangling, her latte’s foam as patient as I am with her repetitions.
Fred talks because he can remember. You know, there’s a good Chinese restaurant near here.
Grammie’s eyes narrow in concentration; I can almost see her reaching
for the memory. Chinese food. Chinese people. This brown girl
in front of me. Family. That’s what I’ll do—come back and sigh, again, again,
speaking while no one hears, a gossamer of disappointment, a sheen
of sheer hard work: my best language for love.
Wasn’t I, she asks, looking first to me and then to Fred, forgetting
the daughter who became the mother that birthed me,
that daughter’s wedding, her whole life,
Was I married to a Chinaman?
When it happens, it’s like I leave my body.
Who am I to you?
When you hear it, old ghost, so many times a day, it starts to seem normal, really,
until finally, it just happens—
it just slides into your own mouth, as if you might speak it, as if it didn’t break your heart
while you clench your jaw.
Things I remember: my Mamah’s voice,
loud and clear, the language I spoke,
then forgot, then spoke again, and have now
almost forgotten. The way I would transliterate
the words for my mother, one hundred character
test prep. She would read my letter-words, all sound
with no meaning, and I would write them down.
I would check my own work. I always
check my work, and you should too.
It is the best test-taking strategy. This will be
on the test. Everything is on the test.
Yeyeh was asked, at Angel Island,
how many steps to his neighbor’s house. How many
chickens in the yard. At least, I think he was.
I have taught history, I know these were
the standard questions. What answer is correct?
I have no chickens in my yard. There are fourteen
stairs to my front door. No, thirteen. No, there were
fewer stairs if you went through the back door,
it was easier on Mamah’s bad knee. My father’s stories
about that staircase, childhood tumbles,
frightened me. It all bleeds
into one story. I don’t remember how it ends.
I don’t know yet. Make sure you follow along.
Fenway, Boston Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians: Kosuke Fukudome
at bat. Watch the little brown boys
admire their daddy’s freckled girlfriend
as she fakes a Japanese accent. Watch
daddy, laughing—tough name
to pronounce. Set aside, for now,
frustration with his team’s name
harder to bear than his, certainly—or your own
memories of you beloved grandpa Joe
telling WWII stories about Japs, after he helped you
fraction out your identity, pie-chart
of segregation. Wonder
what has happened
to their Asian mother.
Watch them, eyes full—
of what? It can’t be love.
after A. Van Jordan
[adj.] Going past; (of a period of time) Going by; Carried out quickly and lightly; Meeting or surpassing the requirements of a course of examination. [n.] The passage of something, esp. time; The action of throwing, kicking, or hitting a ball or puck to another team member during a sports match; Use euphemistically to refer to a person’s death; The end of something. Not included: (of a person of color) Deliberately or passively being (mis)perceived as white.
As in, the grades you gave all students
during the Vietnam years, to keep them
from the draft. My first experience, Wait,
you’re not white? Your blood in my veins.
Your glance over Grammie’s face, loving,
the passage of a marriage spent in lock-step,
intellectual partners, a bond of more
than mere affection.
[n.] A gentle feeling of fondness or liking; Physical expressions of these feelings; A condition of disease; A mental state, an emotion.
As in, the affection you wouldn’t show each other
in public, but I knew was there. She gave back
another man’s ring to be with you. You wouldn’t
show my mother, either – but to me, all.
The plaque that spread silently through your veins
squeezed in on you through angioplasties,
the quadruple bypass, finally the stroke
that killed you – would this be an affection of the heart,
then, the veins, or the blood, or the brain?
[n.] An organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity; The substance of such an organ, typically that of an animal, used as food; Intellectual capacity; A clever person who supplies the ideas and plans for a group of people; A person’s mind; An exceptionally intelligent person. [v.] Hit (someone) hard in the head with an object.
As in, my brain the most important part of my body
to you. Your crowning achievement, the flash cards,
the tape recordings, the IQ test at age three, all to prove
what you could make of me. Long car rides
exercising math facts, history. Showing me my first
human brain (was I six? eight?) at the college,
floating in formaldehyde, squiggly and strange,
beautiful to you. What brought you and Grammie
together, your smarts, your matching
PhDs. The steeliness of your intellect, logical
and hard. Hard to imagine you, moments
as a boy, gleefully cruel, the pain inflicted by a hard hit
at the expense of your younger brother; I only remember
you yelling once or twice. At the end,
unplugging you, the only soul you believed in
already dead. Your body finally yielding.
[adj.] (of a substance or object) Giving way under pressure; not hard or rigid; (of a person) Complying with the requests or desires of others; Giving a product or generating a financial return of a specified amount.
As in, what your heart never seemed to do
for sadness. The table always set for formal dinner,
my father calling you lace curtain. Only once,
interviewing for 9th grade history homework,
your voice opening to a crack
of briefest sorrow – the men in your memory
calling for their mothers as the ship went down.
My mother unyielding as you, facing off, fifteen,
belt in your hand, a man I cannot imagine,
even if it was only a threat. The gene I mutated,
your training creating only a rebellious streak
in an otherwise oversensitive child. What you left me,
multiplying, first college, then grad school, the apartment
I lived in, the house I own free and clear –
more privilege than your depression childhood
ever imagined. The way you weren’t,
when I picture you at Vietnam protests.
The yielding of the crowds
when you passed through.