Kimiko Hahn: Writing Poetry Between Science and Dreams
The Author of Brood in Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler interviewed poet Kimiko Hahn. Hahn is the author of nine books of poetry, including most recently, Brain Fever (Norton, 2014). She has received numerous honors, including the PSA’s Shelley Memorial Prize, the PEN/Voelcker Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation, and New York Foundation for the Arts. She is a distinguished professor in creative writing at Queens College (CUNY) and lives in Forest Hills, New York.
This interview was initially conducted live at KGB Bar on the occasion of the release of Hahn’s chapbook Brood published by Sarabande Books in their Quaternote Chapbook Series.
Peter Mishler: Could you identify an experience from childhood, from your upbringing, that you think presaged a life in poetry?
Kimiko Hahn: My mother read stories to me with a captivating expression (sometimes reading picture books in Japanese which I didn’t understand). I learned later that if I pleaded too often for the same story, she’d hide it to save her own sanity. One such book was Kipling’s Just So story “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.” Every time she read the last paragraph I would laugh and laugh and ask her to reread this closing sentence:
But the Parsee came down from his palm-tree, wearing his hat, from which the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour, packed up his cooking-stove, and went away in the direction of Orotavo, Amygdala, the Upland Meadows of Anantarivo, and the Marshes of Sonaput.
In fact, I recall anticipating the last sentence and feeling my laughter rise. Why? I guess the sound of the places were so delightful, so full and gorgeous. Kipling knew that. I sense in that laughter the love of language coincident with love for my mother.
PM: In your new chapbook Brood you mention your participation, earlier in your life, in Marxist-Socialist circles. Can you say more about how this became a fundamental part of your worldview and poetry?
KH: I grew up in a family of artists. My sister and I had a lot of different kinds of art classes, from painting to dance to music and so on, but I don’t feel that I was encouraged to think analytically. This inclination was further set in the suburbs, in those schools where you were taught to take tests and not to think in any deep way. But when I started hanging out with people in various movements, whether civil rights or feminist, and then became involved in Marxist circles, my opinion was not only respected, but required. I felt that I was being taught for the first time to think analytically. I was very drawn to the concept of dialectics, and from there, thinking about evolving binaries. I mean why shouldn’t white and gray be an opposite pair; or take one color and allow an infinite splitting off. Such opposites, such contradictions, create energy in a poem. So, in my own way, I take the way of thinking, the worldview of my early political years very seriously. No, I don’t hand out leaflets at factory gates anymore but I hope that drive is reflected elsewhere in my life.
PM: How do you think your most recent work is connected to your earliest work? Do you find that there are aspects of that early work that you still feel you are reaching toward?
KH: I believe that a person’s personal themes, if you will, are set early. I like the phrase “identity theme” that I discovered in Swallow by Mary Cappello; in my understanding, a kind of emotional aquifer. From childhood, mine have been jealousy, envy, and betrayal—facets of loss—but isn’t everything about loss? After my last two books, I realized how far from the discursive I’ve come from my earlier long poems like “Poetic Closure,” and I thought I should return to that kind of relaxed thread while holding on to the more formal play that I now cherish.
PM: You’ve been interested in poetic closure since your earliest work—could you talk about your interest in this formal aspect of writing poems?
KH: I read Poetic Closure in grad school (I have an MA in Japanese literature) and it has been the single most influential book of theory in terms of both reading and revising (and teaching grad students). For the writer, the idea is to look for repetition in a draft and see how to make the most of that repetition in the closure: moving with or against the reader’s expectations. One can see this played out formally in sonnets, for example.
PM: I’ve heard you mention the idea of low-stakes writing. When I read your books, it seems like you’re always giving yourself permission to try new things.
KM: I give myself writing prompts or assignments, as in the charms that are included in Brood, and if it ends up being a sequence, great, if I end up with one more poem, great, that’s more than I had before then. These assignments I give to myself often require a structural element. The older I get the more interested I am in structure: I suppose it’s a late reaction to coming of age in the 70s and that cultural insistence on free verse. Hippies didn’t do form, right? But now I’m sort of spiraling back around to it, and loving formal elements. I love haphazard rhymes, what I call constellations of sounds, but I wanted to have these little bits, and just have fun, and the ones in Brood were a part of a series of charms I wrote for fun, and then I thought, these sound okay, maybe they’ll fit in a book. In another poem from the chapbook, though, the long poem “Ashes,” at its ending where I take one line from each section, that ending didn’t exist at first. That came after I felt very taken by the crown of sonnets form—where you are taking a line from each of the sonnets to build the final sonnet—and though I may not be specifically writing a crown of sonnets, I take elements from forms and use them. These assignments related to structure help to tease out the raw material.
One of the students in my class was revising as she was writing, and so I gave her the assignment to write only on her cellphone for the rest of the class, and it really was a low-stakes to approach that way, as opposed to “I am writing a poem.” We have to give ourselves permission to trick ourselves. I am not trying to write a poem, I am trying to get to some raw material which will become a poem. And that’s what’s fun about form. It feels like an exercise, and then you can figure out where the poem is in that exercise, in that draft. Getting to my raw material is what I’m most interested in.
PM: I wonder what observations you could make about your intentional engagement with specific forms and modes, say, the zuihitsu, and what I imagine could be a residual or lasting effect on your writing when you’re not engaging with those ways of making specifically or intentionally.
KH: The zuihitsu is a form I had studied in college then tried to write when invited to participate in a millennial celebration of Sei Shonagon (Poetry Project). Even though I studied the form, albeit in translation, I couldn’t find any definition—really more descriptions. When asked what the form is, I describe what I’ve learned but advise the writer to read the classic texts of Sei Shonagon and Kenko. (The result by Americans has been a confident hodgepodge!) But that wasn’t your question! Also, not your question: at one point I wanted to try writing monostich but ended up using tanka as my model, as rendered in one line, not lineated, specifically those by Princess Shikishi, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
But as far as a lasting effect … I am a hybrid myself, literally, so mixing traditions has made sense for me. Embodied sense. After all, writers such as Eliot mixed traditions without blinking. The lasting effect has been to continue deepening the influence of Japanese poetics: I will recognize a facet such as the tanka version of a pivot, then pursue it. I haven’t quite gotten to the place I want.
PM: Surely the approaches you’ve described have allowed your work to be so wonderfully varied over the years. Are there particular anxieties that you work through to get to something new?
KH: I once thought it a weakness to have such variation, and now I guess it doesn’t matter so much as it is what I do. I mean, we can’t all be Emily Dickinson. In general, I try to avoid anxiety by writing all the time so I am not stymied by it. The rule, and perhaps a way to work against anxiety, is that the poems must be moving. If I don’t care, why should anyone else? On the other hand, though, at times it does bother me that I am not writing overtly political poems as I did in my earlier work such as Volatile and poems in my other Hanging Loose collections. But I know the being bothered will trick something out. Also, I do at least respond to current events with occasional poems.
PM: What do you feel is unknown to you now, that you find yourself reaching toward in your writing?
KH: I am still writing elegies for my mother after some 30 years. But now I am thinking of my part, my role in death: how I will join her one day, that is, if that is possible and in what form. This is a through-line in my forthcoming full-length collection, Foreign Bodies.
PM: In your new chapbook Brood you write, “The more one reminisces, the more one revises.” Could you say more about this here?
KH: I guess I mean that in the process of recollection, the subconscious steps in to inform and reshape a memory. How lovely to leave oneself open to that current. To that unstable realm from which dreams emerge.
PM: In your last full-length collection Brain Fever you introduce neuroscience as a lens through which to engage with your personal experience, and I wonder how this has altered your thinking about yourself, your world, your subject matter?
KH: I guess I should say it didn’t. I’m attracted to scientific language because it is exotic. Just like “the marshes of Sonaput.” I didn’t grow up around a lot of science. In fact, I kept taking the same science course again in high school and college to avoid it in a sense. But the language to me is a portal, so if I start with one word, that’s the permission—it will lead me somewhere else. So I knew nothing about, for example, cognitive science before I started, and I still know nothing about it, although I did read many gorgeous articles. It isn’t that I know nothing, but I wouldn’t say that I know anything. But I did want to play with dream theory. I wanted to play with the idea of where consciousness resides. And, I mean, all that is interesting, but I get through it by using phrases and words from those disciplines and fields to move into other areas. They are triggering factors for me, but I wouldn’t say I could speak on any of those sciences with any kind of authority at all. A poet friend has called me a magpie, and as such, one bright trinket is as good as the next. I suppose the point is—as point of departure or reference—that glittering object.