Celina Su on Blending Academic Inquiry with Poetry
The Author of Landia in Conversation with Vi Khi Nao
The best introduction to any work I have ever read opened its greeting by slightly insulting the readers, but as I try to search for a threshold or doorsill to invite you into the esoteric, magnetic work of the esteemed Celina Su, I realize her proper and honorable ways make it impossible for me to cast aspersions on anyone, let alone the wonderful audience of this interview. Celina Su’s Landia, recently out of Belladonna*, is citified, metropolitan, downtown, or rural if you like. More than that, her complex poetic force takes you into a city with inverted skyscrapers and her linguistic, political, and cultural juxtaposition is so deftly experimental and astute that in reading her work, you realize it’s closer to entering an upside-down swimming pool, a swimming pool that swims towards you instead of the other way around.
I met Celina Su for the very first time at her triptych reading with two other poets at McNally Jackson when I was in New York last fall. Her responses to the audience’s questions grew from a place with the utmost respect for her peers and people in general and I found her incredibly refreshing. She enthralled me with her intelligence, wit, and humility and when the great opportunity to interview her on her debut poetry collection: Landia and the environ surrounding her compelling, compassionate, and remarkable perception of our world and her work, I grabbed for it urgently. Like a sponge, I wanted to learn as much from her and quickly I was captivated by her wisdom and erudition, shaped not just by her academic, worldly life, but by her experiences within it and outside of it. Celina Su has that magnetic impact on the people she meets and I have no doubt this interview will do the same to you.
–Vi Khi Nao
Vi Khi Nao: You are predominantly known for your scholarly work in urban politics and socioeconomic mobility and participation. What inspires you to branch out to an “esoteric” discipline such as poetry? And, what are you hoping to achieve with this new vehicle of expression?
Celina Su: There’s so much to this first question. I don’t think of poetry as more “esoteric” than critical academic social science. After all, PhDs train us to write to very specialized, narrow audiences—I hear that the average number of readers for a typical dissertation or journal article can be in the single digits, in the dozens if we’re lucky.
My scholarly training has helped me, hopefully, to delve deeply and apply different theoretical lenses to slices of our everyday social conditions, built environments, and public policies. But then I’m supposed to make very specific arguments in my papers, and poetry allows me to experiment with non-linear observations, experiences, and arguments—especially those that don’t neatly fit into theoretical frameworks—in different ways.
There is something about the play with form, too—use of visual space on the page, line breaks, hesitations—that makes poetry feel like not just another mode of dissemination, but a wholly different mode of inquiry for me. Also, poetry has long served as a vehicle of expression for me, albeit in fits and starts.
VKN: Do you feel that poetry is a more effective vehicle to paint and express these contradictions and discursive battles?
CS: At least sometimes. Each mode of inquiry aligns with a different audience, a different purpose for me. But there’s something to poetry that allows a writer to, say, explore the affective, reason-giving, performative, and sonic aspects of some new popular slogan or bodily experience all at once. I’m not trained in psychology, for example, and I would never write from that disciplinary perspective in my scholarly work; but I would not hesitate to include a psychological detail in my poems, to explore something thorny there. There’s also the fact that words can refract prismatically on the page in poems, I think, in ways that are a bit more difficult for me to imagine in scholarly writing. (Though perhaps this can, should be done.)
VKN: That is beautifully stated and said: “words can refract prismatically” . . . Ironically, when I think of prism, I don’t think immediately of light or geometric figures, but of the overwhelming super-potency or authority of sound. Your poetry reflects the coeval polychromatic, polysonic world of our time, where we receive conflicting soundbites on the diversity of our collective, personal experience. What is one soundbite you would like to preserve if a literary apocalypse arrives and everything has to go or be completely omitted from existence?
CS: There’s an interview in Fred Moten’s B Jenkins, in which he’s talking about how bossa nova artists drew from samba, and how, without romanticizing how this happened, there’s something to “the international of beautiful and necessary obscurity.” I sure hope that a literary apocalypse doesn’t happen! But this phrase, “soundbite,” that I love so much was the first thing that came to mind—that which cannot be reduced, easily gleaned, stolen, destroyed. Elements, lines of melody, uses of instruments might be borrowed, but they create this other “international.”
VKN: Will you talk a little about your new poetry collection, Landia, just published by Belladonna*—what is the source behind the chosen title? How long did you work on it? And, what was the process like? The same as your scholarly work?
CS: Landia is clearly a made-up word, but one that I hope feels easily discernible to readers—an in-between place. It’s one personal manifestation of the sort of literal and figurative borderlands that I’m so obsessed with. I don’t explicitly forefront my immigrant experience in the work, but that certainly informs my thinking here. In addition to living between languages, or between cultures, I’m also thinking about subway trains between here and there, airports, redrawn boundaries, and simply moments when we feel a bit (or a lot) on the margins, when we are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. Partly because I ended up thinking of maps as an organizing frame for the book, Landia came to me as part of this imaginary that pervades not just where I am or came from, but also how I now know to move through the world.
I worked on individual pieces in it over the past decade or so; I worked on it as a book for the past two years. The process has been amazing—totally unlike my scholarly work! I think this is partly because it was a solicited work by Belladonna*. It has been such an honor to work with the Belladonna* team. (And I loved your Belladonna* chaplet so much!)
Some parts felt familiar, and wonderful—having multiple editors give me line-by-line edits, for instance, felt like peer review in my scholarly work. It’s always a gift to have thoughtful, generous readers who compel you to either rethink or be (at least a bit more) sure about your lines, I think. So I’ve especially loved the collaborative aspect of this process.
“In addition to living between languages, or between cultures, I’m also thinking about subway trains between here and there, airports, redrawn boundaries, and simply moments when we feel a bit (or a lot) on the margins.”
VKN: I am so glad you had such a profound and wonderful experience with Belladonna*! Speaking of profoundness, you manage deftly the intersection between personal anecdotal poetry and your theoretical, scholarly thoughts. The music of your work has a compelling, repetitive, insistent shape. What do you hope to insist? (To borrow Gertrude Stein, whom you once cited in your scholarly work, “Repetition in human expression” is “not repetition, but insistence.”) To achieve these “autobiographical secretions”?
CS: This is such a delicious question, one that I’d like to savor little morsels of in my mouth for a while. It’s striking for me to hear that the music of my work has an insistent shape—I am well aware of my preoccupations and my habits, but I am too close to these words to see their overall shape sometimes. In part, the intersections between the personal and the larger scale—theoretical, political, structural—in Landia reflect my attempts to keep multiple scales in mind at once—that we are more than say, gender, racial/ethnic background, our socially constructed identities—but that these larger forces pervade nevertheless, always.
My friend and colleague Michelle Fine talks about the importance of “critical bifocalities” in critical examining the micro, the individual before us, and simultaneously paying attention to larger forces at all times. These intersections are, for me, like the lines where these different lenses might meet on bifocals. These intersections and “autobiographical secretions” also reflect my ambivalence towards all this! The phrase “autobiographical secretions,” for example, comes from situations in which we feel forced to divulge intimate or personal or autobiographical details to prove our case, so that others can judge us as representatives of what “our people” are like—in ways that feel both tawdry and flattening. I have found myself in these situations in the past, but with that line, I was also thinking of activists and community members I’ve worked with in the past, who were tired of serving as the “poster child” for some political campaign, of fitting some popular narrative in order to win basic rights.
VKN: Addendum to your manuscript’s political aesthetics and your already spectacular architecture of words and images, a quiet strand of shrewdly interrupted (by the page) and complicated thoughts and expressions run across the paper screen of your manuscript like stock market prices or marketing schemes or ploys running like a table runner across television screens.
What inspires the subliminality of this injecting, unseemingly epic discourse? What kind of experience do you wish the readers to walk away with or from this innovative, smart form? (Anna Moschovakis also uses this device in her poetic book as well.)
CS: That’s fascinating that you read it as a ticker at the bottom of the screen. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it exactly that way, though I did think of it as a sort of captioning sometimes, or as subtitles. I definitely hoped to convey a sense of informational overload, of multiple narratives or voices speaking at once.
It also mattered to me that the running footnote and the main texts did not correspond perfectly—it’s not as if we can rely on a decoder to tell us what’s really happening at the bottom of the TV screen, or page. The main text and running footnote engage in askance conversation; there is something to text and subtext. As an academic, this running text also feels like a gesture to footnoting to me—to protocols of citation/documentation, to compulsions to explain myself. I like how the footnote destabilizes the main text a bit when I run across this form in other works, like in Rebecca Solnit’s or Anna Moschovakis’s work. It heightens my awareness of these specific voices as interlocutors, and of polyvocality/different points in time in shaping these voices.
VKN: I did experience informational overload. I wanted to read everything on the page at once and this conflicting preference forces me to bifurcate your manuscript into two reading modes. I would read the main text first and then read the ticker as if it were another book. It gave me a surreal experience as if I had been ejected out of the atmosphere of earth into a realm where I orbited without a home base. I read your poetry like a postmodern person with traditional appetites and I was so glad you gave me this beautiful experience.
Speaking of rhetorical devices and innovative approaches to disseminate the content of our coeval soul (in the era of Trump, bigotry, etc.), you have a particular inclination for the phrase “as if.” Will you tell us about your relationship to this phrase? The repetition is particularly effective, politically speaking, and allows poetry a space within itself to breathe or step aside (step outside of the margins, to step outside of itself). Will you tell us more about your intention for this innovative formatting/urban planning of your text? Why “as if” instead of “where as” or some other highly sonic word combo that stays long inside the historical text of our sociopolitical existence after it exits our collective consciousness?
CS: I do not mean to write “as if” in the deeply sarcastic way that some others use it, as an exasperated sigh: “Urh, please. As if!” Nevertheless, maybe there’s something about that tone that creeps into the book anyway. At the very least, “as if” betrays a lack of confidence, the need for a qualifier, an insistence on the conditional alongside the declarative. But then, in other ways, “as if” is the opposite of cynical. It can also be operative phrase for dogged optimism, compelling us to articulate the futures or dreams we wouldn’t dare announce out loud otherwise, for fear of seeming hopelessly naive.
“Whereas” reminds me a bit of legalese, and it more likely connotes that the following statements can be taken as fact. (Layli Long Soldier’s book WHEREAS takes that word and crafts a masterful contemplation, indictment, and act of resistance with it.) I want readers to sense some hesitation there. I like the “as if” on the side because it feels like a personal whisper there, a breath, a repeated instance of marginalia, almost a conversation between the reader or a speaker on the margins and the speaker in the main text.
VKN: Will you break down your poem “Aubade: At the Bus Shelter” (one of my favorite poems of yours from Landia) for us? What went through your mind when you wrote it? How did you give birth to it? Where were you? Were you in line at a bus stop or a grocery store?
CS: I’m so happy to hear that you liked this poem. For whatever reason, I collect phrases for “meh”-ness, for phrases connoting mediocrity. I am also tickled by the different metaphors used in idioms or phrases in different languages, and how ridiculous (or apt) they sound if we interpreted them literally.
I noticed that different phrases for something being “so-so” all—or almost all—seemed to have a compound structure, like más o menos or comme ci, comme ça. In Mandarin, we say something is mamahuhu, “horse horse tiger tiger,” when something is so-so. I’m not quite sure of the etymology or meaning, but I’m guessing that something that’s horse-horse-tiger-tiger defies categorization—something I personally value and identify with, as I mentioned earlier. And when I worked in Thailand, I discovered that there’s a similar phrase in Thai, but using a different set of animals. (My favorite phrase is not a compound one: In Thai, it means “It’s not pineapple,” because pineapples are fucking awesome.) This prompted me to continue to riff off popular phrases, taking them seriously by taking delight in them, but also playing with them with irreverence, tugging at the assumptions that scaffold them.
I’m also wondering whether there are phrases like this, on something being so-so, in Vietnamese?
“I am also tickled by the different metaphors used in idioms or phrases in different languages, and how ridiculous (or apt) they sound if we interpreted them literally.”
VKN: I think the Vietnamese phrase for this is: “cũng được thôi”
CS: I looked it up via Google translate. Does it literally mean “well okay”?
VKN: It literally translates, “Okay enough.”
CS: Ha. I like that a lot. It certainly sounds a lot less wishy-washy. ¡Basta!
And you? What language(s) do you dream in, think in? Are there different registers that resonate most in different languages for you?
VKN: In English, but Vietnamese resonates with my heart more. Vietnamese is so much more poetic and tender. Do you dream in English?
CS: I dream in English, almost all of the time. I do remember one or two instances in which I woke up in Thailand, realizing that I had just dreamed (what must have been a very silly, rudimentary conversation) in Thai, and I was happy that at least a little bit of the language was seeping in. Occasionally, specific childhood vocabulary words in Portuguese or Mandarin pop into my dreams, but I often suffer from aphasia in those languages.
Can you say more about how Vietnamese is more poetic and tender?
VKN: I think its tenderness or poetic-ness isn’t born entirely from sound, but from the formality and Confucius nature of it too. There are social and hierarchical systems that encourage respect for tradition and elders and this system, frowned upon by the West, elevates my love for its lexical formality. For instance, the word “fruit” is uttered first like someone’s last name when naming a fruit x, y, or x. I think giving fruit a recognizable (some view it overtly redundant—“of course an apple is a fruit” mentality) first and last name makes the language poetic and tender for me. Trái táo (“fruit apple”—literal translation; last name and first name of the fruit) gives the fruit the linguistic genealogy it deserves and makes the language heartfelt for me.
A lot of Vietnamese people have the last name Nguyen and some wonder why even bother to have Nguyen as a last name when half of the Vietnamese population seems to possess it. But having Nguyen as a last name is still very important to the person in possession of it and it continues to shape the lexical and historical and genealogical dimension of that person’s and my existence.
CS: I appreciate how you read Vietnamese as “heartfelt.” May I ask what Vi Khi Nao means? Did your parents choose it from a list of established names, or did it create it? (I ask because my parents named me 康宜, which means something like “healthy” and “proper, honorable.” It is so heartfelt! I don’t think my Chinese is strong enough to understand all of the connotations, but it means a lot to me that my parents were so aspirational with my name.)
VKN: Vi is my first name. Khi Nao means “when” in Vietnamese. A lot of foreigners do not know how to pronounce “Nguyen”—it’s monosyllabic (every Vietnamese word is monosyllabic) and because it’s monosyllabic, it’s difficult on their tongue so they often short-handedly called Nguyen “when” and because I wanted a Vietnamese word(s) for my pen name, I translated their mispronunciation of my last name from the English “when” into Vietnamese. Thus, Vi Khi Nao.
You are healthy and proper! How beautiful. Your parents were very inspirational as well! Are you healthy? I know you are very “proper or honorable”—it sounds kind of funny taken out of context. . .
CS: Aw, thank you so much—I try to not think about it too much, lest I fail to live up to it.
I love, love the story of Vi Khi Nao—it really speaks to how our worlds create us, even as we exist regardless. And how you own this transliteration of a mispronunciation. My dad’s Gmail address is his first name plus “Sioux.” I’ve never asked him about it, and I have some questions about invoking proper names from other cultures like this. But it’s striking to me that my dad and Siouxie Sioux share this affinity for deliberately misspelling—respelling?—their names.
VKN: How fascinating, right? These names born from sonic or phonic mistranslations. (Now I can write your Dad anytime! Ask him interesting things about your childhood!)
CS: I also love how many names we all have. And these “created” names are, in some ways, no less “true” than our “real” ones. One can also feel unmoored like this, I suppose, and I don’t wish to romanticize it, but it renders literal a feeling of being someone who cannot easily be pinned down.