Photo: ©Arlene Kim; Art Direction: The Magazine of Yoga
The author of What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes? answers The Magazine of Yoga’s Five Questions for Poets
BY THE MAGAZINE OF YOGA STAFF
Website Milkweed Editions
Author’s website quietly bananas
Related post Arlene Kim: Sophie Calle and The Beautiful Practice
Doing and being
Do you have a writing ritual?
If by “ritual” you mean some formal, ceremonial act I do every time I sit down to write, or even if you have in mind something more casual, like a lucky charm I slide out of a desk drawer and set next to me while I type, then no. I don’t.
And that answer disappoints me as I write it; it makes me wonder why not? Why don’t I have a writing ritual? I should. Shouldn’t I? After all, I do revere the act of writing (and certainly it can be monkish). I’ve heard loads of amazing writers, real writers, talk about their rituals—including one who still writes longhand and uses a new fountain pen for each novel, and another who said she walks her neighborhood following the same route before she begins a poem.
Then as I write that, I realize that there is something I do regularly every time I start to write, something that feels very much like a rite (of passage): I panic.
I question myself and my right to be writing as though I were some real writer. Actually, it’s not unlike what I go through before every yoga class — I look around at the stronger, more lithe practitioners surrounding me; I think, “I’m not a yogini. I have no bird of paradise. I cannot fly into a side crow. My chair continues to be more like an inappropriately high bar stool. I’m a fraud, a hack. What am I doing here? I should leave.” Yet, somehow, I never leave.
Somehow, I stay on my mat, at my desk. The class starts; the scrawling and typing begins; I pass through the panic and doubt into the doing, and then into the being.
What says no when your work isn’t right? What says yes when it is?
I used to think of this kind of yes and no as the equivalent of discerning good work from bad. Yes was when something I’d written lingered in my head, my mouth, or bobbed up at some unexpected time, unbidden, the way a memorable movie or song does. No was when later, after any initial falling in love with what I’d just written had faded, I re-read a line or poem and felt differently about it each time, unable to come to any constant, loyal opinion except that it wasn’t yes.
But I’ve found that litmus test to be unreliable.
A piece that was yes one day would sneakily transform to no two days later. And vice versa. And back again. Even to great classics I couldn’t apply the test with consistent results. For example, many years ago I was dumbfoundedly bored by Bleak House, Madame Bovary, and a lot of Emily Dickinson (i.e., they were no), but I’ve since come to be in awe of Dickens and Dickinson (yes yes YES yes), and to better understand Flaubert’s skill (though he’s still not a favorite).
In my search for consistent results, I ended up just constantly testing (Is it yes now? How about now?) until I realized that the test was less a gauge of my work and more a gauge of myself and how I had changed and was still changing as a writer and a reader.
That led me to think that if all readers change this way, and if a written work can only be yes or no according to its readers—who may be changing their yeses to nos and nos to yeses at any moment—then maybe there is no inherent yes or no in the work itself.
In other words, I had been asking the wrong question (and too often). Instead of asking when my work is yes or no — which seemed unknowable after all — perhaps I should be asking when I am yes or no as someone whose work is writing. This question I can answer more clearly, more reliably: yes is when I am writing, whenever I am writing; no is when I am not writing out of an anxiety over the old yes/no, good/bad tests.
So these days, I try to write more and test less—an approach I’ve borrowed from yoga.
And those times I get an obstinate craving to measure what I’ve written (who doesn’t?), I adopt another useful yoga practice: assigning an intention. If I can’t shake the craving, I ask myself if I’ve given the work an intention — not a heavy message or moral, but something quieter, closer to a hope. Does the work convey that hope? Even if the intention comes through so subtly that only I can tell it’s there, it’s enough. It’s enough to guide the work, to keep me writing toward yes.
Choosing a way
Cartographers orient by North South East and West. As a poet, what compass points do you travel by?
I have a notoriously poor sense of direction. So in the physical world and in the writing one, I’ve become used to being disoriented, to getting lost. It’s frightening but it has also yielded the most incredible, unexpected moments I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Though I might not have compass points, I do have crossroads or way stations that I find myself coming to again and again in my writing: Origins (real, perceived, and particularly constructed), Home (the idea of it), Mythologies (personal ones and shared ones), Form (established and remade), and Time (that slippery trickster!).
Who is the public figure, infamous character or personal acquaintance to whom would you most like to give a book of poetry. What poet or book? Why?
My father. My first book. And why? Well, that involves a bit of time travel.
You see, it would be more accurate for me to say I will want to give my first book of poems to my father, because if you’d asked me this question just a couple weeks ago—before my father got a copy of my book, read it, and wrote me a letter about it — I would’ve given a less sentimental, more clever answer involving some surprisingly apropos figure and a little known but brilliant collection of poetry. I wouldn’t yet have known how much my father’s letter would mean to me.
I didn’t expect my father to read my book. English isn’t his first language, but even if it were, I wouldn’t have expected him to read it. My father is a biochemist. He can be gregarious but is in fact stoic at heart. He reads science journals for fun; he prefers movies with more shooting than talky bits. Poetry is not really his thing.
But not long after my book came out, I got a letter from him. I hope he won’t mind my sharing part of it with you. (By the way, “Jiyoung” is my Korean name, the name my family calls me.)
Jiyoung, finally what Mom have been waiting for, your Poem reached at the mail box yesterday. she ordered 10 of them. … i read it right away even though normally i did not enjoy reading books, but this time is quite different issue. but but but difficult to understand as you imagine. no matter what, some of the poem i can digest and read your mind and heart. also i can imagine your Poem World. you are our kid so i understand more easily than others with my imaginary path. … soooo much proud of you. … xoxox, mom and dad.
Again: “i can imagine your Poem World. you are our kid so i understand more easily than others with my imaginary path.”
There are so many ways that my father and I don’t and won’t ever understand one another, so many things to which we can’t both belong: language, culture, gender, generation. So to learn that in this one way, this way that was so important to me, my father could “understand more easily than others,” that his imaginary path and mine intersected because I was his kid — it meant there was a way we belonged to each other.
The reason I will want to give my father my first book of poems is that I will discover that the one reader I wanted to reach and thought I never could, will reach me.
Tomorrow, poems from “What have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes?”
Also, in “The Beautiful Practice,” another answer to 5 Questions for Poets: Who would Arlene Kim honor with a TMOY Cultural Currency Award? In the second part of our interview with Arlene she discusses the work of artist Sophie Calle and describes an unexpected, gorgeous insight into yoga.
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