News & Notes from At Length
March 2010

Prose, Music & Poetry in March

Our features this month...

In Prose:
 Forty years ago this month, Neil Young and Miles Davis shared a bill at a theater in New York City. Nate Chinen looks at two stars who passed tantalizingly close. 
In Music: At Length talks to musician and composer Matthew Shipp about his new record 4D, his influential work as curator of the groundbreaking Blue Series, and his often difficult relationship with the jazz establishment.
In Poetry: In two new poems, Kimiko Hahn talks to one of Elizabeth Bishop’s best-known works and traces a history of beauty, investigation, authority and error reaching to the present.  In David Hawkins' "Dark Adaptation: Milan, 1510-11," Da Vinci’s sketches of his stillborn child, still in utero, frame an expectant father’s thoughts.  

Kimiko Hahn & David Hawkins Reflect on Poetic Subjects

This month, we were thrilled to feature new poems from both Kimiko Hahn and David Hawkins.  We invited Hawkins to reflect on the resonances among the poems, and share his thoughts and questions with Hahn.  Their correspondence follows:

David Hawkins: First, Kimiko, I would like to express how deeply I’ve enjoyed and admired your poetry. I was a grad student in Ohio in the 90s when a friend first handed me The Unbearable Heart, and along with Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise and Donald Hall’s Without, it taught me a great deal about how the contemporary poet handles loss. The collections that followed (Mosquito & Ant and Narrow Road to the Interior) are so rich, evince such variety of style and interest, and treat their subjects with such respect that I could go on for hours asking questions and not feel that I’d scratched the surface.  I hope the questions that follow reflect my genuine appreciation for your writing and the guidance of your example.  

One quality that the reader finds consistently in your poems is an insistent and restless intelligence. I don’t mean this as glib praise—but rather as a descriptive for their logos, for the way they pick up an object, investigate it, put it down—then return to it again. In this way many of the poems feel recursive, slowly circling in on their subject—and I tend to think of this as a reflection of their lyric intensity. At other times it feels like parallax, seeing items from different angles, in different contexts, and often in different times in order to fashion a fuller representation.

Perhaps this description would fit a number of your poems—but I’m thinking specifically of those from The Narrow Road to the Interior or The Unbearable Heart (say, “Sparrow” with its aim on flight—or “Orient” and its investigation of the baggage that that word carries). Of course, your poems in At Length (especially “The Residue of God”) also demonstrate this quality. Do you mind discussing this element in your poetry, how you go about selecting your subjects, and how you seek to engage a subject once you’ve settled on it? I’m under the impression that research plays a significant role in your process—is this accurate?   

Kimiko Hahn: David, thank you for your interest as well as your intriguing questions.  I think this kind of circling, as you put it, first came from my sense that this is how my favorite texts worked.  Whether Stein's Tender Buttons or Eliot's The Waste Land.  Or Williams' Paterson.  It was my sense, too, that this is how the Japanese zuihitsu behaves; specifically in the work by Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book) and Kenko (Essays in Idleness).  First my sense of those two texts, then my formal study of them in graduate school.  At some point, I was introduced to the term "organizing principle" which proved a more useful way of thinking about composition (as in music, not rhetoric) as well as composing my own poetry and offbeat zuihitsu. For example, it is a more satisfying way to explore the various meanings of "revolution" or  "possession"—not just double, but multiple meanings.  This kind of "circling" can simultaneously engage the narrative impulse and go against it; it's a more "spatial" way of working.  More fun, actually. Linda Chance uses this term in Formless in Form to explore Kenko's classic (in Japanese, Tsurezuregusa). ... And how do I "settle on" a subject?  I might be attracted to a word first; or I scribble my way in.  And, yes, at times I pursue the subject through research. 

DH: In many of your poems—interspersed in between lines or threaded into the poem with the skill of a weaver—there is evidence of other texts. Sometimes these are poetic (Bishop’s lines in “After the Waiting Room” or Auden’s lines in a poem about 9-11); at other times they reflect a more plainly historical, or scientific, or critical value (as in “Cruising Barthes”); and on occasion they carry an implicitly cultural significance, too (for example, The Tale of Genji). Can you discuss a bit your interest in the artifact—the historical fragment, the found scrap, the quote or piece? Are these fragments generative (do they inspire or foment the poem in your mind)? Do they serve another purpose—and do you feel the poet has some responsibility to acknowledge her sources in some way?

KH: Ah—why wouldn't a writer acknowledge her love affairs with, say, Elizabeth Bishop!  I see it more as a declaration than a responsibility (though I know a writer recently omitted all his references--also a declaration I suppose.) ... And, yes, sometimes the lines are generative, are triggering lines.  An instructor I had as an undergraduate (Michael Burkhard), encouraged us to talk back to poems.  I liked the serious and playfulness of this exercise and it has served my process well.  Furthermore, I don't limit my influences, my thievery.  My new book, Toxic Flora, uses quotes from the science section of the New York Times.  Whatever is around me is up for swiping.  I supposed one purpose is not to limit myself to myself—or perhaps more accurately, to find myself connected to, say current events or an entomology text.  Aesthetically, they push the framework of the poem to make it potentially more spatial. Again—multiple or layers of meaning.

DH: A good many contemporary poets make a practice of avoiding overtly political concerns in their verse. Of course, all poems are political on at least one level—the act of writing poetry being a political one itself; but I’m more interested in those poems that target issues of communal, regional, cultural, national (&c.) nature. 

Your poems never shy away from these global issues—in fact, many openly engage them—and even your most intensely personal poems often include some acknowledgement of the larger shared issues at play. “Residue of God” turns to the Sudan and the institutional forces (political, educational, and religious) that allow its people to continue to suffer from unclean drinking water. You’ve spoken elsewhere about your commitment to social justice and active involvement in organized struggle (for example, in the American Writers’ Congress)—and I’d like to hear you speak about how this engagement has informed, directly or indirectly, the political awareness of your poetry. 

KH:  I am not just a poet, I am a citizen.  As such I should be involved in what is going on around me.  As I commented earlier, I aim to write about whatever moves me—whether it's clean drinking water or being a mother or relating to other women who are mothers.  It's all of a piece.  I don't see any aspect of my life as more important, "thematically."  I don't know why we separate out political poetry; essentially, it's just another theme, like love.  I want to the subject matter to be complex—not in the sense of erudition but in inter-connectedness.  How am I connected—and absolutely not connected!—to Flaubert's Egyptian courtesan, say.  Frankly, I am irritated by people who don't keep up with current events.  How difficult is it to watch some news or just read The New York Times' 'Week in Review'! 

: In Mosquito & Ant you take up the epistolary Chinese form of nü shu. “Compass” begins Narrow Road to the Interior by invoking the zuihitsu—and other poems take up the thirty-one syllable tanka form. Could you discuss the importance of these forms to your own work? Is there an interest in preserving for yourself (or others) these models—or do these poems emerge from a desire to communicate these esoteric forms to your readers (or, alternatively, to communicate through them)?

KH: in Mosquito and Ant, I don't write in nü shu (I don't read Chinese, let alone this form); rather, I use it as a metaphor.  The idea of a secret script between women is intriguing—it's a subversive act that has do with emotional survival.  I am inspired by their how and what people do in order to express themselves.  In another example, the Golden Age of literature in Japan was dominated by women writers (like Sei Shonagon) for various historical reasons.  ... But you were also asking about the use of zuihitsu and tanka.  I am conducting a workshop for Cave Canem on Japanese forms and I realize more and more the extent to which we are locked into particular mindsets. When I asked students to write a list, "Things that make me panic," several tried to turn the list into a poem (lineated and all) or to have a list that suggested narrative.  It was really difficult to just let it be a modest list.  Similarly, it's difficult to write a tanka or haiku that goes for the spirit of the form rather than the syllabic perimeters—which is easier of course but completely upsetting.  Ultimately, for myself and my students, I am interested in utilizing forms as a means to question what a form even is.  Furthermore, something like the haibun is a hybrid form.  We think of this as being modern but really it's quite ancient.  I wish to investigate and subvert. 

DH: Finally, I’d be especially interested to hear you speak about how your role as a parent has become intertwined with your writing. So many of your poems touch on this, and as I reflect on your poetry from The Unbearable Heart to Mosquito & Ant through The Narrow Road I also get a sense of progression.

I must admit that my interest in this is somewhat selfish. As a parent and writer myself (full disclosure: I’ve been helping my two boys make paper bag puppets as I write out these questions), I’m curious about how other writers manage these demanding vocations, particularly when they so often demand our full attention. But I’m also interested in the way the way these roles cross pollinate in your work—growing up alongside each other.  Of course, I’m thinking of your poem in At Length here (“After the Waiting Room”) but also others, including “Pulse and Impulse.” What is for you the nature of the relationship between motherhood and a poetics? How does this evolve? 

KH: “Pulse and Impulse" was actually written for a collection of essays on motherhood and poetics.  Because I find my subject matter in whatever is happening around me, naturally that includes parenting—the intense love as well as the intense need to find solitude for oneself and one's writing. Compartmentalizing and having a supportive partner were paramount.  While my daughters were in their infancies, a supportive network was key—from playgroups to family members.  There was also the need to be creative with how one writes.  During those early years, I heard about a poet (Ignatow?) who wrote his early poems while on coffee breaks. (I wrote all my early books in coffee shops—my version of "a room of one's own.")  More recently, I heard Marie Ponsot tell a group of students: "Surely you have ten minutes!" ... I guess a question you don't know to ask yet: "How do my children feel about their parent's poetry?"  Miya and Rei are proud but not inclined to read my poetry—and that's just the way I like our relationship.  I value their acknowledgement and pride.  In fact, I am overwhelmed. 

About the Poets

Kimiko Hahn is the author eight books of poems, including: Earshot (Hanging Loose Press, 1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award; The Unbearable Heart (Kaya, 1996), which received an American Book Award; The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006); and Toxic Flora (W.W. Norton, 2010).  She also has a forthcoming chapbook, Ragged Evidence, that will be pdf-downloadable (Coconut Chapbooks).  Hahn is a recipient of a number of fellowships and awards, including PEN/Voelcker Award, The Shelley Memorial Prize and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers’ Award.  She is a distinguished professor in the English Dept. and the MFA Program at Queens College, The City University of New York. 

David Hawkins’ poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Barrow Street, Bat City Review, Chelsea, DIAGRAM, Poems & Plays, The Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella, among others. His collection, Dark Adaptations was a finalist in the ’09 Dorset Prize competition (Tupelo Press), was selected by Allen Grossman as the first runner-up in the 2008 Bellday Books poetry prize, and is the recipient of the ’08 Utah Arts Council prize for a collection of poems. He teaches at the University of Utah, is the former Editor-in-Chief of Quarterly West (‘01-’05), and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and their two boys.

Until next month,
At Length

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