Poet John Yau on Seeing What Cannot Be Seen
A Conversation with Anselm Berrigan About Poetry, Art, Film, and More
In awarding John Yau the 2018 Jackson Prize, which is given annually “to an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition,” the three judges—poets Laura Kasischke, Robin Coste Lewis, and Arthur Sze—issued a citation that reads, in part:
“John Yau composes expansive variations, in series, that simultaneously widen, deepen, and complicate the scope of a poem. Visual art, film, and Surrealism are rivers in his work, yet it is Yau’s dazzling imagination and singular command of language that create unforgettable poems.”
First published in 1975, Yau is the author of eighteen books and chapbooks of poetry, his most recent being Bijoux in the Dark (2018) from Letter Machine Editions. A fiction writer and art critic, he has also published four books of fiction, including Hawaiian Cowboys (1995) and My Heart is That Eternal Rose Tattoo (2001), along with numerous monographs and books of criticism.
He has previously received awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is Professor of Critical Studies at Maason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University) and lives in New York.
This interview took place at John’s apartment on March 16, 2018.
Anselm Berrigan: Bijoux in the Dark is your first book of poems in six years. When I don’t see the title, I think Bijoux at Night. Then I remember it’s Bijoux in the Dark, and this might be a funny place to start, but I actually had to look up the word “bijoux,” which I automatically associate with cinema, due to coming across various bijoux theaters. I looked it up and realized it’s a word for small jewel. So here’s a small jewel in the dark, a thing that’s hard to see, or that might shine a casting light. But in the book there’s a section called “Bijoux in the Dark,” which is a bunch of pieces related to film. So I’m wondering where the title came from, and if the title helped with the organization of the book?
John Yau: I was collaborating with Thomas Nozkowski on an artist’s book of poems about movies. I kept working on it, even though the publisher never got around to actually doing anything. At some point Tom wrote me and said, I can’t stand that title, which had “marquee” in it. I knew he was right. Since the publisher wasn’t in a hurry to publish it, I kept adding poems and taking others out, but didn’t fret about the title. Then, as I was putting this book together, I did think about it. I had decided in advance that whatever I titled the sequence would also be the one I gave the entire book. Yes, bijoux is the name of movie theaters and it also means small jewel.
AB: I’m curious about that, since the writing you do on visual art has to be involved, plainly, with the way you see the works, and the ways that you can imagine others might see them. In poems you can’t just transpose that, and I know you wouldn’t want to anyway. But then your relationship with film comes in also, and that’s another very particular kind of seeing. All these ways of seeing, or possible ways of seeing, seem to swirl around in the poems. Is there a way to talk about how that happens?
JY: There was an anthology I read when I was 18—The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature, edited by William Pratt—and I used that to teach myself how to write a poem. So image became fairly important to me, and the whole question became what is an image? There’s a line in T. E. Hulme’s poem “Autumn” that uses personification that I puzzled over: “I walked abroad,/And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge/Like a red-faced farmer.” For me, fifty years ago, that line was straightforward and completely puzzling. It is an image that you cannot really see. Did he have to walk “abroad” to see what he saw? And there’s the question of how you look at a painting. Can you see what’s in front of you? Which seems to be a simple question, but often proves to be a nearly impossible one.
JY: Another thing would be that as a child my parents, instead of getting a babysitter, would take me to the movies and leave me there, starting when I was six and seven. I think they paid the usher 25 cents to make sure dirty old men didn’t come and bother me. I didn’t have friends I saw outside of school. So I spent many Saturday afternoons at the movie theater looking at adult movies. They never brought me to a children’s movie, most likely because they didn’t want me around that many other kids. They thought some kind of scene would develop with a bunch of children screaming at the movie. I think they were also worried about having me around packs of white kids because this was shortly after the Korean War ended, and there was a lot of animosity against the Chinese, which, of course, was there all along.
AB: Better to put you in the dark with adults.
JY: Than with packs of white boys, you bet.
AB: In “Written in the Shadows Cast by The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) by J.M.W Turner,” you take the space to identify with the crowd watching the House of Lords and Commons burning. It’s a prose poem, and it moves across three sections to this point where a more intimate kind of speaking is taking place, though the “we” introduced early on is always there. Were you inside the Turner painting, writing out of it?
JY: Yes. I was thinking about the crowd—you see a crowd of little ghostly figures in the foreground and you see the fire going on in the background, across the Thames River—I was thinking, who are these people? I began imagining two people in that crowd. For some reason, I also started to think about the movie The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) by Peter Greenaway, where a man makes drawings of an estate, and weird things slowly begin to happen and views inexplicably change. These different wires crossed in my head. The thing about the relationship between the two figures in the poem is that they can’t ever really be together. They can only look at their shadows on the wall, and imagine some possibility. One of my earliest memories of looking at art was seeing Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin by Rogier van der Weyden in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was around six, same age as when I saw [John Huston’s film] Moby Dick. There are two people in the middle ground of the painting, looking into the distance, guided there by a narrow, winding river receding toward the horizon. We see their backs. The Virgin Mary and the artist are in the foreground. We don’t see what he has drawn. The river eventually meets the horizon, suggesting that paradise is on the other side, which we can’t see. I am interested in the state of seeing what cannot be seen. Those two never stop gazing at the horizon.
AB: Was this a case where you got involved with the painting, or was this case where someone asked you to write about the painting?
JY: That was a case where I got involved with the painting. I was talking about Turner with my undergrads, and I was saying that I didn’t like his work at some point, that parts struck me as contrived. I was ranting against him. Immediately after I did this I thought, why are you so worked up? He’s not the enemy. What is it about his work that is interesting to you? I had talked about the way some of his figures didn’t seem integrated into the atmospheric scenes he could create, and that they were ghostly, and I started thinking about that as a way into a poem at some point.
AB: I wanted to talk too about the poems that originally appeared in the book with Justine Kurland’s photographs. “Black Threads for Meng Chiao.” In that case it seemed like there was some kind of conversation between you and Justine, where the images were informing the poems and vice-versa, determining some of the arrangement of the book.
JY: Yes, she sent me photographs—a lot of which I responded to—but I wanted the poem to stand without the images.
AB: Was Meng Chiao on your mind already at that point?
JY: I was reading him. There was this funny place where I say I’m looking for the bad translation, because at that point I was housebound. I had had three operations, one to fix a nerve pressing against my spine and to have both knees replaced. So I remember spending an afternoon looking for the copy of the book I had, translated by David Hinton. In fact I knew I had two copies in the house and couldn’t find them, and out of frustration I started writing about not being able to find them, saying it was a “bad translation.” I was just annoyed, stuck in the house. I thought I could just go order another copy, and then I thought, this is crazy, how many copies do I have to have in my possession before I get to read this thing?
AB: So the bad translation is your inability to find the book?
JY: Yes and no. (laughing)“I was talking about Turner with my undergrads, and I was saying that I didn’t like his work at some point, that parts struck me as contrived. I was ranting against him. Immediately after I did this I thought, why are you so worked up?”
AB: There is this kind of tonality to your Meng Chiao poems, it does feel—bucolic is not quite the right word—but there’s a space around them that has a kind of spareness to it that I might be transferring over from my own reading of Meng Chiao. But it’s notable for me, reading the book in succession, because those poems come in the section after the section that has the “O Pinyin Sonnets,” for instance, which are dealing with stereotypes of Chinese people through web language. Getting the Meng Chiao poems after getting those sonnets 20 pages earlier is a big tonal shift.
JY: We live in different registers of sound. Being Chinese-American in America doesn’t mean you can only write poems about being the child of immigrants. How many different ways do you exist in the world and in your imagination? How many different voices, intonations and expressions do you hear? Can you listen to them all? In poetry, there’s this thing called voice: it’s about being sincere or transparency. I’m not interested in that. Whitman embraces multitudes. Shouldn’t it include their voices, not just his superimposed over them all? Can we listen to what they are saying? The “O Pinyin Sonnets” came from people who see Chinese people as different from themselves and they are uncomfortable with that.
AB: When we were talking about doing this interview at one point, you mentioned that some of your friends who had read the manuscript felt it was more personal than prior books.
AB: I was reading it with that in mind, and there were some places where I could see things up on the surface that were clearly drawn from different stages of your life, your direct experience: the “Music from Childhood” pantoum. The pantoum gets interesting as a musical structure that handles some of these feeling spaces, there’s the elegy for Paul Violi also. But then I would read, say, “Firefly Promises,” which felt, in another way, like a very personal work, deep inside the space between you and the unnamed “you” that’s being addressed. So the texture of what’s personal really shifts across the book, if you’re looking for that. But then I think, well, the “O Pinyin Sonnets” are not personal in this conventional way, but they’re totally personal in this other way, because you were compelled to go down the rabbit hole of dealing with of all this horrifying racist language on the internet, and make sonnets out of it, bending that language into this classical vessel and seeing what could happen. I don’t know if that’s exactly how you thought of it . . .
JY: It was.
AB: . . . so this is a funny question—what does “personal” mean inside of putting words together and making poems?
JY: It has to do, I suppose, with one’s feelings. The first “O Pinyin Sonnet” was based on reading a “news” article on the computer, a story of a woman in Hong Kong bringing her boyfriend to a shopping mall and refusing to stop shopping. It drives him crazy, and he jumps into the mall’s courtyard and kills himself. For various reasons lots of people were amused. I got interested in what people found so funny about this event. I looked for comments about it on the Internet. It is where you can find voices—vox populi. Then I began to think—and this is really about the existence of computers:—computers enable people to use language separate from their physical body. The machine says it, not them.
JY: A student sent me an email the other day that began, “Dude.” The computer has helped bring us into a space where we feel free to use really ugly language. I took a taxicab today, and the driver was talking and talking. In the middle of his monologue he says, God is punishing me. I said, what do you mean? He says, I have to drive a taxi for the rest of my life, because I was bad to my mother. It turns out he’s Pakistani. He says: God is punishing me because I was bad to my mother. Then he says, you’re not fighting with me now that you know I’m Muslim. I said, why would I fight with you? He said, oh, you would not believe how many people fight with me, once they learn I’m Muslim. And I am thinking naïvely, this is New York.
AB: Well, we want to think, living here a long time, that it’s a more open space than that, even though these things keep happening.
AB: Was it a fast decision to begin to take that racist language and put it particularly into sonnet form?
JY: I knew I had to shape the material and settled on the sonnet. It seemed the perfect form. After all, racist language and sonnets don’t go together, but I suspect that the form could help me do something with the language I was reading or remembered reading, things stuck in my memory. Rex Reed, the film critic, reviewing a Chan-wook Park movie, said any culture that buries its eggs for a thousand years can only make bad movies. So the racist language came from various sources.
AB: Did he really say that?
JY: Yeah. He thought he was being entertaining. I have all these voices in my head. I suppose the one thing I figured out was you couldn’t take these things personally. You had to have a thick skin about it and look at it rather dispassionately. Otherwise you’re doomed. So that’s what I think I’m trying to deal with in the poems. Can you use the language that is out there, and do something to it, or with it, or about it?
AB: Well another thing about those poems that’s interesting, is that they’re a form of personification, because you adopt the voices of the speakers. It’s not just a matter of taking the language from over here, putting it on the page, and saying, look at this. It actually gets inside a mixture of vocalities, which makes the poems much more intense than a work that’s designed to make you notice something, but then lets you walk away.
JY: I think of vocalities as music, the sound of what is being said. I try to turn what I read and hear into music. I wanted to inhabit that language as well as shape it. I wanted to get to the creepy intimacy they evoke because the speakers of these poems know someone is in agreement with them. They have an audience.
AB: There’s a performance taking place, and we’re glued to performances.
JY: We’re always asking people to step outside of the roles they inhabit and then act surprised when they can’t do it. Situations are fluid, but people often aren’t. So in these poems, these people have a role that’s too easily categorized, and I want to see what else they can do in this role, what else they can say. One of my favorite books is Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s written in the voice of a murderer. The easy conclusion is that he’s inhuman. McCarthy is saying no, he’s really human, and let’s deal with that, which we seldom do. Easier to apply a label.
AB: I had this kind of experience reading Dennis Cooper’s novel Marbled Swarm last year. Where that protagonist is not anybody I’d ever want to come near, but I couldn’t stop listening to him talk, at the same time.
JY: Well, take this kid Nicholas Cruz. He’s 17. There’s a report in the news that he’s giggling and laughing in jail. The report finds this behavior offensive. That’s too easy and self-righteous. He’s a kid, barely old enough to be in the army but old enough to buy an automatic rifle.
AB: I’m curious about what it was like to organize all of the work to make this particular book. There are six different sections, and each section does something really different, and there’s a range of different forms, and there are 11 pantoums clustered in different places through the book. What was it like to organize the material and make the arc from beginning to end?
JY: Right, the book begins “They are dying and I want to reach them before they are gone . . .” Then the last poem begins, “I did not write a hauntingly beautiful book . . .” (laughing)
AB: A preamble and a coda.
JY: It was hard to put together. I thought I had multi-personality disorder. At one point I put all the pantoums in one section with nothing else. I read it and thought, this is horrifying, you’ve got to have space between these poems! I put poems in. I took them out. There were certain sections that resolved fairly quickly, because I had sequences – the “Egyptian Sonnets,” the film poems, many of which are in prose. But the sections didn’t add up. And then I thought, yeah, but half the artists you like don’t add up; they resist having a style, and I let my reservations go and it got a little easier. There were poems, right up to the last minute, that I was going back and forth on. Even in the sequencing I did change things around, so that literally at one point Josh (Joshua Marie Wilkinson) sends me a proof, and thank god for the digital age, as I added stuff and took things out, I was changing lines . . .
AB: When you have a lot of different works going into a book, you end up with a lot of decisions to make, and a lot of rearrangement and sequencing to look at. And how things go next to each other is really fascinating, but it drives you crazy too.
JY: One of the ways I write is—say with the “O Pinyin Sonnets”—I’d write in pursuit of something until I couldn’t stand it any more. So once it’s done I don’t want to go back to it. This means I end up with lots of different kinds of poems and uses of language. I always think it’s interesting to reach the end of something where you don’t know what the next thing will be. I like making up a language that you can imagine is being used. That’s really something I think poems can do. It’s like reading Shakespeare or detective novels: they have a kind of slang in them. I’m interested in street language/vernacular that people use. Jean-Michel Basquiat was interested in this. There’s an imagined vernacular—the langue de tribe—that helps show how things are. The horrible person that claims to be president, for instance, speaks a vernacular that groups of disgruntled people think is a real language.
AB: Do you make a specific decision between line or sentence when you bring various vernaculars into play?
JY: It has to become music. I think of line as something that should stand on its own, a passage of music. Just as a painter can put any color next to another, I am interested I placing one note/word next to another: anything should be able to happen in that movement. Narrative is about the story, but line is about the line—that you can put a word next to another, and a line next to another and something will happen . . .
AB: The fact that you write for Hyperallergic.com on a weekly basis, and you write longer essays on different artists, means that you’re writing all the time doing that work. I know poetry happens on a pretty regular basis too. I wonder sometimes if you have to do anything to shift from one space to the other, or if it’s all part of the swirl of the mind at this point. Are there are places where things blur?
JY: There are places where things blur. I tend to have a schedule: I tend to write my reviews starting on a Monday, after seeing shows Friday through Sunday. Often I’ll be writing a review and a line will float through my head; I’ll write it down on another separate sheet on my computer. If I get stuck in my review, and I don’t know what I’m going to say next, I might just see, well, what is this line going to do? So I can go back and forth. Then there’s a lot of what I think people call free-writing, where I just write lines without thinking about them, reading out of any pile of books that I have, parodying a line, riffing off of it, flipping it around. Maybe I end up with a page of it, and put it in a file in my computer and maybe a month, two months later I’ll look at it, and think, this looks good in this pile. So there’s two things, one’s very focused—writing the review—and one is drifting around: I might be looking stuff up while I’m writing the review. I also tend to get lost in research. I‘m quite willing to wander off down any number of paths, just to see where they take me, and what piece of writing I might end up with. I recently got interested in reading in Joan Mitchell’s mother’s detective novels. Who knows where that will lead?
AB: One thing about The Wild Children of William Blake that interests me, is you selected those essays, and they’re all short essays that appeared in Hyperallergic.com, The Brooklyn Rail and other places, out of this much larger body of reviews. I remember you telling me also that you often choose what you’re going to write about that week. They’re not set up way in advance. There’s a kind of nowness to how they happen. But the organization of this book is based on figures who are cultural outsiders, or outliers, who are not trying to scale the heights of power in some kind of art world or literary context. So it’s writers, it’s poets, it’s Jay DeFeo, it’s Alfred Starr Hamilton, it’s a number of other figures, some of whom repeat—Jess, Bruce Conner. I’m interested in what attracts you to these artists, and whether you might identify with them.
JY: I’m interested in the people that can’t really fit in, or can’t quite be assimilated. That’s why I begin the book with Hilma af Klimt, because she clearly preceded all the other abstract artists, but she was never part of history, and you can’t put her into history but you can’t not put her into history.
AB: No. Her paintings are just so unbelievably unique. When I got to see them at the New Museum a couple years ago, I just thought, wow, they’re vibrating, they look like nothing else.“I’m interested in street language/vernacular that people use. Jean-Michel Basquiat was interested in this. There’s an imagined vernacular—the langue de tribe—that helps show how things are.”
JY: There are times that I think that the reason I’m interested in these people is that I’m a bi-racial Asian-American and I’m never going to fit in. America, as far as I can tell, on a good day recognizes that it’s black and white. On a bad day it recognizes that it’s white. It seldom recognizes that it’s more than two colors. How do I gain agency in that situation? I am interested in the power structure of what gets known, why someone becomes famous. I’m fascinated by it. I also don’t know what to make of it, because I see something one way, and then clearly the majority of the art world sees it another way (laughing). I’m intrigued, because I don’t think I’m being a reactionary. I’m not saying, oh, we have to go back to this kind of painting or art making. That’s irrelevant to me. There’s something else going on.
AB: That reminds me of the interview with you that Ed Foster did in the 90s for Talisman, before I met you. One thing that struck me in the interview was a point where you said you were really interested in the works of Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler, and some of the other writers associated with the first wave of the New York School. You liked a lot of that work, but you didn’t want to write about your life that way, because to do so would mean giving into the terms of the oppressors. That had a big impact on me, & I had to really consider what it meant, as your answer wasn’t followed up on. The terms must change from situation to situation, life to life, to some extent . . .
JY: There were a couple of ways I meant it. I didn’t want to write in the way it was expected of me to write: As an Asian-American, it is expected that you write about your experience this way—son of immigrants. Otherwise, mainstream critics will ignore you. That’s oppression. There was also, in a more complicated sense, the feeling I’m Asian-American and I’m not, because my father was half-English. He was the product of miscegenation. In a way I thought, what happens to you is by accident. God didn’t make this happen. Two people met, fucked, and had a kid. I don’t think there’s any divine plan in this (laughing). At the same time, I do not know what O’Hara or Ashbery knew—the opera, for example. I can’t pretend to be like that: it would be putting myself in an oppressive situation.
JY: I had to learn how to take permission for myself for things that I really liked. Anna May Wong, Asian cinema, detective novels. For a long time I have been interested in yellow-face—white actors playing Asians. It is about voice/speaking/language.
AB: It sounds like a way of taking permission to follow your own compulsions and weirdnesses down their paths, which is a different kind of permission, and a really great one actually.
JY: John Ashbery—who was my teacher in grad school—and I talked about the most oddball things. When he found out I that I really liked Anna May Wong and had watched lots of movies where white actors played yellow-face, if he got a VHS movie he’d send it to me. We often talked about these ridiculously bad movies. That’s something we definitely shared. Otherwise, we had completely different tastes most of the time.
AB: Did he like things like The Wailing?
JY: If anything, he was puzzled by some of the stuff I liked—like films from Asia. He liked comedies—he really liked Carole Lombard and screwball comedies. I’m trying to write a book about every movie he and I ever saw, talked about, or exchanged an email about.
AB: Saw together and talked about?
JY: Yeah. From seeing Joseph Cornell movies in a little gallery in Tribeca in the 70s, to going to a movie theater, to watching them on TV, to talking about Guy Maddin, Ed Wood, Jacques Tourneur, Jacques Tati, and Robert Bresson. At one point John told me that he and Maddin were going to do a film based on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. Sadly, it never came to pass. . .
JY: I love the idea that they were going to make a movie about a novel that is nearly impossible to read.