BY VI KHI NAO
VI KHI NAO: I am actually in Vegas right now, conversing with you in one of its libraries. During my exploration of your work, I learned that you had spent a deal of time here, in your youth. Do believe this kind of desiccated landscape helped shape your eco-poetic self? Or did it make it worst? Where you felt inclined to leave your childhood behind in order to make or perform great art? What was it like growing up here?
VALERIE HSIUNG: Ah! Yes. I have spent quite some time in Las Vegas… My brother was a professional gambler and poker player and my mother now lives there for part of the year. And absolutely, I think I would be lying if I said it, the “desiccated landscape” as you call it, hasn’t helped shape my interpretation of the world through language.
Actually, as I converse with you right this moment, even though I’m on the east coast, I’m listening to the wild wild west ballad, “Who’s Sorry Now” as exquisitely covered by Angel Olsen. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the desert means both innocence and wilderness to me, both home and hell, it is a muse.
VKN: Like your brother, are you a gambler as well? Do you ever feel that poetry is a kind of emotional and aesthetic roulette? Where words are being tossed onto the spinning wheel of the poet’s imagination and fate and things just land unconsciously without knowing where they have been tossed?
I see your work as a kind of eco-roulette due to its high level of sensual repetition, creating hypnotic patterns on the page, but also in one’s ears. Are you a gambler at heart? And, if I poet were to win big, what kind of winning is this on the gambling table of words?
VH: I see the attraction and understand the rush. I am terrible at gambling… with money. I love that idea of poetry as a kind of emotional roulette, because, depending on the circumstance, it can be a drug or a delicious high, a triumph, a naked run into the woods, jumping into a black cave without a parachute.
I am also drawn to the idea of poetry as thrown dice, poetry as a ritual effort (ie: climbing up a mile-long set of <stone> stairs only to encounter the Oracle--you know what I’m talking about, disembodied as It may be, who then takes over your body and voice and dictates to you yet ever so tenderly what to do. In this case, what poem to write).
So in that way, I see poetry and gambling, as both seeking to encounter the benevolent dictator of that soulful contact between speaker and listener. Winning, if there is such a thing in poetry, is when you create that mirror-door for the reader-listener to walk through. And that is brilliant, eco-roulette. Thank you.
VKN: Someone once told me that being a poet is the only profession in the world that is qualified to seek the highest truth. Do you agree with this statement? Your work, recent work, the trilogy one, the efg one, operates in both realms of narrative/storytelling and poetry. Do you think that half-fiction writer and half-poet are a kind of demi-god, not completely godlike yet because some parts of their soul have been infused in storytelling?
Though poets could be storytellers too, non-linearly. In other words, I wish to know the different hats you wear (poet, matchmaker, musician, performer, activist, etc), which one makes you feel most goddess-like?
VH: The story teller and the poet, I agree, at some point became split even though both of them in their origins were one and the same, that is, rooted in the oral tradition. In our time, we sometimes see them in separate spheres. I personally feel that all great forms of literature and art are poetry. And so it is poetry and poets that sends me into an abyss of ardor and makes me feel most in the presence of godliness, or what I think more so as gravity, the beauty of pain, complete evisceration.
VKN: I learned storytelling from my father and poetry from my mother. What is your relationship with your mother and father like? By the way, what are they like? Do your parents practice the oral tradition with you? Have you experience “an abyss of ardor” with your parents before? Either from their love, sacrifice, or certain beauty or pain emanating from them for you?
VH: Oh getting personal. This is a difficult one, I’ll be honest. I try to not be the confessional poet, and then when I realize that, I try not to be the poet trying not to be the confessional poet, and then when I realize that… you see how this goes. But I enjoy thinking about this deeply. So I appreciate this question! From the beginning, my relationship with my mother was casually difficult but on the general when I was little girl until I… “left home…,” my mother was practically my best friend. But she was a reticent woman in her own way so I had a lot of freedom.
Even though she had ideas of what was right and wrong for me, she let me set my own path. My father was colder when my siblings and I were young. And because I was very sensitive and soft as a child, I was wounded by my father’s distance, austerity, and moods. Some days when he had a good day, I would feel joy. But he was a man of order, tradition, and I wasn’t naturally inclined to be productive within the confines of either of those.
But all of that notwithstanding, my father was a student of history, and as such, for punishment, on good days, he would have us memorize ancient Chinese verses. On the other hand, my mother was a great singer. And she encouraged me to sing to others by nurturing this need for me to create compassion and be open to the world. Both of them taught me to be a badass because they taught me what it means to devote a life to something, what a certain hardship is.
VKN: Lol. Parents who teach their children to be badass are just so cool ! How do you define badass? Do you feel the disciplinary approaches of your mother and father were very Confucius and typical of Asian parents? Or, do you feel their being in the world an aberrant?
VH: Haha, I was lucky. My brother who’s the oldest had a lot of that. We, my sister and I, had a bit. But for the most part, by the time my brother grew up, my mother was able to shield us from our more ascetic father, and she, who, at heart, is sort of a lost soul, trusted her children to do what’s best for themselves. And because of that, I am so thankful. That she trusted us to figure out what to do on our own without (too much) interference. And in that way, I feel she passed onto each of us our own inner badass wild child.
VKN: If your efg were a tumbleweed as it gets blown across the freeway of readers, what kind of debris would you hope for it to collect as it runs wild amongst the wind?
VH: Bird poop, pieces of love letters (between old flames who only had sex with one person during each their entire lifetimes and that was with the other person, as well as those between a transient bank robbing duo), shed rabbit fur, photos from a stranger’s birthday party, magnetic tape featuring recording of background noise from a ritual sacrifice, cactus needles, a condom, a ripped off loop-hole from a rock-climbing safety harness, handwritten poems in Mandarin from my great grandmother’s drunken childhood that fell into the cooking pit, glass from a pharmacy bought perfume bottle.
VKN: You wrote and I love: ““She over-toasts the toast on purpose / to be able to scrape off the over-toasted bread. / That’s how she interacts with humans and objects alike." If you were to over toast a stranger or a lover, what kind of things are you hoping to scrape or want to scrape off them?
VH: I want to scrape off their jealousy, their sexual assessments, their sexual degradations, their moral judgments, their trivial judgments, their fear of mosquito bites, their fear of sweat, their fear of stings from saltwater, their fear of spicy food, their oversight for the importance of foxtrot on a summer evening plus masked words, their bad memory, the buried kerosene from those dog cemeteries.
VKN: Will you break down your favorite poem from efg, your third collection? Tell us what is the source of your inspiration for writing it. Where you wrote it? What did you do after you wrote it? And, why it’s your favorite.
VH: My favorite poem in efg, is “Rape Kit,” which was never published in a magazine or journal. I don’t know what editors are thinking when they choose certain poems but not others. The reason I’m partial to this one is because it honestly changed the way I wrote afterwards. It also changed the way I read poems, out loud and in silence, the poems of my heroes, the poems of my friends, my own poems, whether to myself or to others, strangers and close friends alike. I felt that with this poem I was finally gaining entry to an intimate and uninhibited place between poet and reader, poet and lister, poet and witness, poet and responder. It was also maybe the first time I felt completely naked with my words.
VKN: In terms of correspondence, to establish traction with your world, I tried to read as many of your poems as I can so I could thoroughly understand the diversity of your imagination: Here you wrote so hypnotically, “As tumor/across seafaults you done growing/ so many frescoes.” How do these words/images come to you? And, if you were to give readers the ugliest/worst prompt (the opposite of these lines), what would that prompt be?
VH: Thank you. This poem has meaning for me because CD Wright published it, she chose it to be published. We were writing back and forth about something else and out of nowhere she asked if I would send her some poems for consideration while she was guest editing for PEN and then I sent her several books worth to cull from because I didn’t know what she would like or if there was even enough there for her to find something publishable. But the behind-the-scenes story is (more) boring actually.
I was just inspired by mid-century female Polish writers at the moment, and I remember this only based on knowing what I was obsessively reading back then. I was hypnotized by the musical terseness of lines juxtaposed right beside lines that were languid and overly gentle. I still love that conflict.
VKN: Who are those mid-century female Polish writers?
VH: Ewa Lipska, Wislawa Szymborska to name a few off the top of my head.
VKN: Thank you, Valerie. And, Valerie, we shared the same mentor: CD Wright. In one of your previous interviews, you mentioned her courage and wisdom and depth of compassion. If you were to write her a micro-letter to her, how would you begin the missive? What would you like to say to her if she stood in between the two divergent thresholds of our existence like an ambushed ghost?
VH: (Animals are shrieking just outside my bedroom. I will have to leave this place soon too.) Thank you for opening that door for me, and for defending me as much as you challenged me in every single way. The rest I keep for myself.
VKN: Do you like red plums? Purple plums? They get bruised so easily. Which poet/poem you read recently or lately that bruise you easily? Would you eat that bruise right away?
VH: Adore them. The darker and softer the better. One must be careful and make sure to dig beneath the barrel to find the unbruised. One must risk embarrassment and also give oneself the pleasure of touching all the plentiful fruit. Oh my. It (the poem I read recently or lately that bruised me easily) would have to be the book-length poem literallydead by Sophia Le Fraga.
I had never read or heard of this poet or book before. It was my first time attending a large book conference, and I was attending the largest in North America, it was called AWP. At first I arrived at the book fair and because it was too overwhelming I walked out of the entire conference building, ran away and vowed never to return. After learning that one of my editors from Action Books was there, I got the guts to go back inside.
I found my editor at the Spork Press table, and even though I had read many Sporklet magazine poems, I had not yet picked up any of their gorgeous books. Well, little did I know what I was missing out on. This book broke my heart. Everything about this book is delicious and I want to hold it in my hands, in my bag, on top of my head like a parrot, or just in my lap, closed (because the cover is hand letter-pressed and so murderously rapturous) or open (because the poems are so achingly lonely).
VKN: What a beautiful tribute to her work ! Thank you for letting us know, Valerie, so we could know, read, and react to her work in a similar fashion. In the same vein, your efg was published by Action Books. What was it like to work with them? How would you describe your experience with their editorial/publication process?
VH: Action Books changed my life. They are my real life super heroes. I won’t ever stop saying it. They are legends and they don’t have to do all of the generous work they’ve committed themselves to in order to support other writers and artists. The entire experience has been inspiring, to find such a home for my poetry, my book, and I still don’t believe it’s happened even though it has been the case for a while now. They are diligent, nuanced, down-to-earth, genius, and they get shit done! I feel like I won the lottery with them.
VKN: They sound absolutely wonderful. By the way, who worked primarily with you on your book?
VH: Johannes, but they really are a collective effort.
VKN: If Lucille Clifton were to pack your lunch, based on your taste of her poetry and her own poetic taste, what would she include?
VH: Yum! Oh! I’d like to think she would include…fish curry with coconut rice. I don’t know, something just tells me Lucille Clifton had some good Thai seafood in her day. She would also include a small slice of key lime cheesecake for dessert for a little blood sugar boost! Coffee boba tea for a drink. I don’t know, again, something just tells me.
Poet and performer Valerie Hsiung is the author of three full-length poetry collections: e f g: a trilogy (Action Books, 2016), incantation inarticulate (O Balthazar Press, 2013), and under your face (O Balthazar Press, 2013). Her poetry and interviews can be found or is forthcoming in an array of places, including American Letters & Commentary, Apiary, Black Nerd Problems, Cloud Rodeo, Cosmonauts Avenue, Bone Bouquet, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Diode Poetry Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mad Hatters’ Review, Moonshot, New Delta Review, PEN Poetry Series, Prelude, RealPoetik, Tammy, and VOLT. She has performed at Casa Libre en la Solana, Common Area Maintenance, Leon Gallery, Poetic Research Bureau, Rhizome, Shapeshifter Lab, and Treefort Music Festival, among elsewhere. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hsiung studied literary translation at Brown University and is currently based out of Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a modern-day matchmaker. She serves as an editor for Poor Claudia.
Vi Khi Nao was born in Long Khanh, Vietnam. She is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming story collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University, where she received the John Hawkes and Feldman Prizes in fiction and the Kim Ann Arstark Memorial Award in poetry.