The following discussion took place in San Francisco
in December of 1997.
Yedda Morrison: You mentioned in a recent lecture that "real
change" cannot happen in opposition. I'm very curious as to
what you mean by this. The popular notion of social/political/personal
transformation seems to be that the friction and tension that opposition
creates is fundamentally generative and change cannot occur without
it. Do you have a model for social change which is not based in
Myung Mi Kim: To radicalize anything starts at a point of rupture;
naturally, change can't just happen along a continuum that has already
established itself, or it wouldn't be change. Likewise, you wouldn't
have the kind of alertness about it being change, because it would
be somehow naturalized or even perhaps neutralized in its potency-as
if it's just part of something that has already occurred. Something
I'm trying to work out in my own writing is this idea that change
is neither strictly "oppositional" nor does it occur as
a natural, linear progression. Even in the way we talk about how
radicalization or change happens, we begin by bifurcating: does
change happen this way or that way-even the in our desire to participate
in that radicalizing process we can't begin to actually figure out
the complexity of it; immediately we come to this either-or proposition.
I'm interested in augmenting or complicating that model of change
by opposition, by friction, by overthrowing the law of the father,
in order to embrace a model of radicalization that doesn't solely
rely on that kind of direct opposition.
Like any good conversation, you have to acknowledge where in that
continuum the person you're talking to is located. Often I don't
think it's a matter of disagreeing with someone's poetics, or someone's
thinking about poetics/politics, but rather that we all come to
this conversation about radicalization at different paces, and if
we as writers, workers, readers, could agree to work really, really
hard on recognizing where each person is in that trajectory, in
that motion towards change or radicalization, then there is a kind
of inclusiveness that is necessary for real change.
In a concrete way, partly what we're talking about is a historical
rupture. Someone wants to insert and say that because there's been
this elaborate system in history of oppression and erasure, the
only way you can address that is to make sure that erasure doesn't
happen, and this necessitates being very, very vocal, very, very
loud, and very, very steadfast, which becomes this oppositional
mode; for example, all those anthologies of, you know, "Forgotten
Voices," or "Immigrant Women Voices," or whatever
it is, and you can actually make an investment of a whole lifetime
in that kind of oppositional, very loud, very focused, almost very
separatist kind of activity, and it can be very, very meaningful.
For me, the problem presents itself when someone, who for whatever
personal or political reasons is invested in that mode and that
mode only, can't honor something that doesn't resemble that oppositional
model. It becomes very limiting when anything outside of this mode
gets relegated to-"you're not part of the potential to radicalize."
I would like to propose that if we could simply acknowledge that
any move towards radicalization doesn't always look like just one
thing, that then we can begin to talk to each other. And then one
doesn't have to make a decision about which way is the way. But
there's this possibility for modulation and conversation around
what oppositional looks like anyway. Because for me, I need to deliberate
about how I am oppositional so that it doesn't re-enact and replicate
those very things that we are saying we want to "oppose"
or shed light on. To be vigilant, even hypervigilant to that tendency
to replicate power structures, we need to recognize that we're all
part of a machinery that moves towards some sort of balance. This
balance demands that you strive for change in the way that this
work has always been conducted, rather than some meaning of opposition
that is an invention of how opposition happens.
To thematize opposition for me is a direct replication of the whole
machinery of the narrative of empire making, the narrative of sense
making, the narrative of power-making. I think of the last decade
as a time of trying to develop some way of acknowledging that there's
an arc along which people are at different points of understanding
their own meaning of opposition. If we can respect this in each
other, especially around issues of ethnicity and those things which
are more thematically recognizable, they don't simply become part
of a whole language of opposition.
Y: What you're saying makes me think about Raymond Williams' notion
of oppositional vs. alternative stances. The whole idea of cultural
inclusion and exclusion-what becomes appropriated by dominant culture,
what becomes in a sense, co-opted by the system and therefore deflated
in terms of efficacy.
M: Yes; so in a sense change can't act out its potential to be
radicalizing or oppositional. In a way it's almost immediately used
up as fodder for the machinery that maintains those limits and perimeters
of what's inside and outside, what's different and what's not. So
in a way, it hasn't played out its full course before it gets preempted
and folded into something else. I think this has such huge implications
for poetics, which is probably why you brought it up along with
the whole question of what's recognizable and unrecognizable. Can
you really effect change if the culture in which you're operating
can't even begin to recognize the fact that your unrecognizability
is making a contribution?
Can you follow through with some measure of conviction that by providing
an example, however small, of your particular rendering, one makes
a difference. I've come to a point where I have to believe that's
true. I have to believe that any time authenticating work is taken
on, even by one person-one poet at a time-it does become completely
saturated with some kind of possibility. We are all indoctrinated
into making choices about our work where we don't allow this to
happen. There could be legions of us saying, I don't want to be
unrecognizable, I don't want to be relegated immediately to this
region of unrecognizability which seems to equal no potential for
"social efficacy," to use Lyn Hejinian's phrase. Who wants
that mantle of nontranslatability between their work and the world?
I'd put a lot of pressure on looking at that equals sign-
Y: That brings up a lot of questions about audience, the insular
nature of the poetry community, "preaching to the converted,"
etc., which are valid concerns. We don't want to fall into some
sort of social realist model of writing in order to ensure translatability,
we want to be true to our creative impulses, yet we want to be as
broad reaching as we can, don't we? Nor can we make assumptions
about audience because that's probably the most limiting thing one
could do, make assumptions about someone else's ability to understand.
Maybe it's enough that "authenticating" work exists, but
translatability aside, who reads it? I think this ties in with the
line of yours from Under Flag, "the widest angle of vision
before vision fails to mean." How broad can something be, how
much can a form hold before the form is compromised, how inclusive
can a poem, a movement, a poetics be before its "aim"
is completely diffused?
M: I think there is always some kind of invisible, constant, millisecond-by-millisecond
negotiation between the form and its divestment, between the poem
and the world, that you're engaging every time you decide to write
anything. However, any poem having any kind of cultural translation
in the Twenty-first century-frankly, it just isn't going to happen.
I was in a bookstore doing Christmas shopping for my son, Malcolm,
and I was noticing the way in which books are cast. That someone
would buy Best American Short Stories 1997 and Best American Essays
1997, but not Best American Poetry 1997-when they're all sitting
there right next to each other-you begin to understand on some real
visceral levels this whole question of where/how poetry meets the
It's so problematic for writers in our historical moment. Again,
I think that I would answer that concern by saying that there's
some awareness on my part, different from even five years ago, that
we need to do two actions simultaneously. The first task is undertaking
the kind of devotion and conviction towards authenticating the work
you must do, the work we each must undertake, and that forms the
basis for a much larger vision for a mobilizing potential for poetry.
If in this way we each meet our own liberatory potential in the
way that we pursue our work, that has to make a difference. Because
finally, it will no longer be a case of writer X or Y or Z in isolation,
but that if enough of us take on the task of personal liberation,
the task itself becomes meaning-making or meaningful. As a community
of writers and readers and poets and thinkers, we're afraid we're
in some kind of isolation, but maybe we can use this timidity and
tenuousness and make it into something. Not that everything will
be the same then, but that we have as a basic link the idea that
we honor each other in the service of meeting our own liberatory
potential. That's one arena. The second thing is to work out as
many different models of where poetry can exist, where poetry can
be inserted, can be read, experienced, performed; what are the various
different ways that we can make poetry have contexts. We talk about
community as if we knew what that meant, but really, we have such
a limited idea. What if there were worker brigades and we all decided
on five different ways that we could bring poetry to some place,
or to go into a situation and see what poetry is already there.
Poetry is simply how you participate in language, and we all do
that. We go the grocery store and say hello to the clerk, and we've
done something with language. I think that we can actually make
a kind of intervention by proposing that poetry be experienced in
the world, in the masses, culturally, even given the culture that
we do have-it's something about really sharpening and honing what
we mean by how we do our work, and of course that's going to feel
like it's happening in isolation. But by finding some ways to keep
translating your work, tapping into what you already know how to
do and using it-because we each have places where we function best-so
that if every writer could identify that place, maybe this would
get other people to read, write, and think more about poetry. This
sounds like an agenda (laughs), but I've been thinking about it
a lot lately...
Y: So if we could just wave a magic wand and realize all this...
poets pursuing their own liberatory potential through authenticating
work and in turn, creating more venues around the city for reading
and sharing their work-what would be your hope? What do you see
this generating in terms of social change?
M: I think it would take a lot of the pressure off the demand that
poetry be this efficacious thing. Because the social terms are so
brittle, we poets put a lot of pressure on poetry to do something
or be something, or enact something. I think the more that poetry
can become part of a larger structure that supports it, the more
it will take some of the edginess off of all these decisions we
think we have to make-like, what is poetry for, or who's going to
read it anyway. We'll just have evidence that it exists and it's
real, and applicable to life, not not applicable, which I think
is how we often experience it today.
Mostly I want to fight the overwhelming sense of isolation that
accompanies the making of poems, and find ways to create community
that aren't just "oh, we're such a happy-happy, joy-joy collective
aren't we," but something that's real, not just a band-aid.
Y: One certainly sees this kind of pressure you're speaking of
inherent within, and exacerbated by, the publishing world. There's
so little going on in some ways, so few opportunities, that it creates
this intense pressure, and consequently engenders this very closed
way of dealing with each other and with the way that poetry intersects
with community. You've talked about this, a group of women poets
for instance, submitting a collaborative project to a book contest,
that kind of practical subversion of the agreed upon procedure,
which in terms of the publishing world is largely unheard of I would
M: Well, that's partially what's behind my allegory of going into
the bookstore. Making poems so easily gets jettisoned into authorship,
or the commercial potential of authorship-and I don't mean commercial
as financial necessarily-but even in the way that we each think
of legitimation-and that there's only such a poorly and singularly
defined idea of the meaning of publishing-that somehow publishing
equals legitimation equals a certain kind of authorship or privileging
of the single author. There's some weird way in which privilege
enters, and in some cases it should enter. I'm not suggesting that
we all create only collective books-there's the oppositional thing
again! My proposition, then, isn't to counteract or demolish this
notion of privilege, but to have multiple notions of privilege so
that publishing isn't the only way you have a sense of work being
greeted by the world. What other kind of constructs could support
the idea of honoring someone's work? How else can we say, "your
work is important, we want to read your work, we want to be in conversation
with your work" ? How many multiple locations can we make that
support our creativity and hunger for meaning?
Y: This seems to necessitate a certain kind of generosity, because
it's an acceptance based on "I appreciate your work,"
not an acceptance based on the model of competition and external
legitimation, i.e., commercial potential as you say. If we're all
scrambling for a few spots, how can generosity exist?
M: That's right. Generosity doesn't exist, period. For me, where
I can say politicize, I have to say that word generosity. Part of
being political for me in this climate that we live in is trying
to remember to have a human face. That's also where oppositional
politics smack of a certain kind of patriarchy, because it's very
unsubtle-as long as you oppose and you make it really clear that
you're oppositional, then you can proceed. Of course you can be
loud and convincing and forceful and forthright, you can persuade
me, I wouldn't necessarily disagree with this sort of stance towards
change, but it still has to be done with the human face, with attention
to the implications of one's actions. We must track the meanings
and residences of our actions.
So to be political or politicized, with that human face on, with
the ability to read subtleties and nuances as to how you affect
the systems around you, whether they are intimate relationships
or professional environments, or whatever, how can we attend to
that whole circuitry,, not just one corner of it, the corner you
want to hit right now. My sense is that the work is so perplexing
that it is never that kind of direct missile hit or direct translation.
There's always the mistranslation, or the thing that didn't connect,
or the people you forgot to say thank you to. How can we keep making
wider the terms by which we politicize or radicalize? I think generosity
is a possible mode by which we can tend to the business of listening
and, ultimately, of change.
Y: I was thinking as you were speaking, that in this time of sensory
overload and rampant consumerism, we're really trained out of listening
or looking attentively and that this is part of the practice of
poetry- to reinvigorate in ourselves the ability to listen beyond
assumption, to retrain ourselves to listen to multiplicities and
nuances-which seems political in and of itself.
M: Yes, absolutely. That's why when we were talking about whether
it does in fact make a difference if each writer enacts their own
liberatory process, I said yes, I think it does. If I can begin
to occupy that space of tending and attending, of attention and
of tracking subtleties, and to project out of that space with a
kind of perseverance that's not just like determination but a perseverance
that's in the service of tracking complexity, then I'm getting somewhere.
I mean, if I manage this vis a vis my work, if this becomes a poetics,
it has to alter the way that I take in the world and the others
around me. In this sense, there's no separation between the kind
of poetics one might try to occupy and the way that process develops
Of course, this can all feel a little too slow. I mean how long
can I sit and be attentive when the world is blowing up? These are
all questions we answer as they come up, you can't have an a priori
answer because then it wouldn't be an answer, but a summary. Those
uncertain and undecidable spaces of- am I making a difference?-
will this contribute?- how can I know? Those undecidable locations
are actually part of the work. It doesn't feel great, it's not that
kind of exhilarated state, or at least not for very extended periods
of time, but it is a lived state, and it's a true one.
But certainly these things are hard to reconcile because you feel
with this kind of bearing in on your poetics that it has to, is
bound to, translate into some kind of politics or activist stance
in the world. You can know that, but it can still subjectively feel
like you're doing nothing and that kind of disjunction or mismatch
is hard, really hard. Sometimes I say, today, with this line, with
this image, all I can feel is the mismatch? and I have to allow
that to be true- which can be really depressing.
But again, I'm reminded that there's something really strange about
oppositional anything-oppositional poetics, oppositional politics-it's
like saying we're all just going to go for that high, we know we're
making a difference, we see the evidence-here we go. To me that
would be a really suspicious place to live for very long. I mean,
I want that, who wouldn't, but over time, over the course of a lived
life, or a long poem, that would be a really hard place to maintain-what
are you cutting off in order to sustain that high? I can see in
the ways in which we've been talking about it today as well as in
my Long Poem seminar at San Francisco State, that it can feel and
look like inaction. You have to take that anxiety and restlessness
into account, into the formulation and sometimes you'll be able
to convert that into action and actually do something tangible-but
mostly, it will just be "a part of."
I was thinking too that sometimes it's easier to accommodate that
restlessness inside a poem than it is to live it- there's some really
different expectations about results. In a poem you can teach yourself
to have a much more fluid idea of action and energy and how they
have to be part of each other for something to actually happen,
for real change to happen. But in "real life," whatever
that is, I'm much more impatient. I don't think its a matter of
reconciling it, but of being aware.
Y: So you think then that the practice of poetry over the course
of a lifetime will train one to apply what is worked out in a poem
to the lived life? That there's that kind of transference?
M: I certainly hope so! And that's one way to answer that sense
of inaction which is to say that there's evidence in the work to
support the notion that there is action-and that the writing process,
however slowly, does convert to real action in real time.
Y: I'm interested in the relationship to narrative in your work.
It's been such a debated issue for some time now in terms of History
as metanarrative, "postmodern" deconstruction as practiced
by the language poets, etc. You said once that Mei Mei Brussenbrugge
attended one of your readings and said, "Oh, you do tell stories."
You certainly include histories, erased histories, in your work;
how does narrative factor into this?
M: I think my take on this has been the same for a very long time;
none of us would be brought to language, none of us would desire
to write, unless there was a deep urgency to say , and this deep
urgency to say, is to tell, and to tell, is to narrate. Now, whether
that looks like a narrative or not is something else entirely, but
for me it's always the question of how can you get the closest proximity
to how you must tell something. I think what I see being exercised
now is that we have more and more variegated ways of telling something
so this question of whether something is narrative or not is almost
defunct. I think you almost have to say, there is a narrative, there
is an urgency to speak, but the means by which we narrate are very,
very different and must be different. Part of the meaning of being
a historical subject now is that you really have to engage in how
you're going to tell something. Maybe the tendency or the trend
around narrative for me is constituted around how can you recognize
what the narrative conventions and strategies are that you have
a relationship to. What do you simply utter, and then what are the
conventional notations of narrative that you actually can't digest,
ingest, include. With this you have to refigure and reinvent and
reoccupy the manner of telling. What's happening around narrative
for me isn't simply the story, but the means by which the story
Y: Under Flag is such a "story," an epic narrative, a
telling. Perhaps that comes through for me because I've been trained
to read in this way; but what about someone without the privilege
of such an education-how does a text begin to translate if one doesn't
have the skills to read in this way?
M: It's so disturbing for me that when the surface of the poem
behaves in a way that signals no single, clear, traceable narrative
strategy, the text suddenly becomes alarming. It immediately becomes
an issue of "what are we being told?" or "I don't
understand." Meanwhile, if the reader would simply remove that
initial response and ask what is there to be understood, then there
would be no impediment to receiving the story, because the story
is larger than the issue of not understanding the strategies by
which the story is being told. The story is there, it has a kind
of enduring quality, a permanence and scale, a specific weight of
history and experience which will be communicated. We need to get
beyond the anxiety around not being told in the way were accustomed
to and discover new ways of listening.
Y: Do you think this is in part due to the relationship we're trained
to have with printed material? We've been taught to read as an almost
passive activity, for a very narrow kind of meaning, while also
desiring a cohesive story, which is then further compounded by the
authority that anything in print tends to claim. Perhaps the reader
doesn't necessarily want to participate in the ways your work, for
instance, demands. This type of reading takes a kind of openness,
for lack of a better word, and it involves work-the reader must
participate in the creation of meaning, which isn't usually what
we want or expect when we settle down to read a book.
M: Yes, I think because a lot of times one reads for that kind
of epiphany, that kind of "aha" of recognition. None of
these ideas or demands for the poem are suspicious in and of themselves-I
mean, of course we want to see ourselves translated, we want someone
to literally articulate our experience for us-to have the relief
of seeing ourselves-that is the gift between reader and writer.
Now, my worry is that due to the kind of histories and literary
histories and commercial histories we've inherited, the place where
that epiphany can happen, where connection and recognition can happen,
has become so reduced. Unless your text follows a certain contour,
we're resourceless to experience it, we say it has no meaning which
is a very strange idea.
When we were talking about broadening and generosity before, here
would be a good instance of translating what exactly I mean by that-how
would it be possible to read meaning if you put a human face on
every text regardless of what school, what poetics, what kind of
aesthetic ideals it had. If you really listen for the encounter,
how could you not know what made that book, how could you say it's
inexplicable or devoid of meaning? You could say, "it's not
made of meanings that I would make," or "it's not constituted
of meanings I already understand," but beyond that you have
to understand it because writing is simply that act of encounter
We can't keep playing out our personal investment in how meaning
must be made-I mean, most of the time it's completely unexamined.
It's not like someone even knows that they're participating in that
way, it's just that they haven't necessarily unpacked the way that
they're operating when they come to the site of reading. A lot of
times it is sort of an unwitting, unexamined, stance.
Y: Also, if we're reading to find something of ourselves in the
text, I might pick up one of your books and say, "oh, this
is the experience of a Korean-American woman, there's little here
for me-yeah, we're both women, but..." But when texts are process
or experience-based like yours seem to be, there is a distilling
down of the personal to reveal what's potentially universal in even
the most specific of events. Do you think that that is true?
M- Absolutely, and that fits beautifully with this idea of the
human face. If "I recognize you" can be one of the meanings
of literature, then we've done a great deal of work. So yes, the
particulars may differ, you may not be a one-point-five Korean American
immigrant woman, but if there's something in the way I've been able
to render my experience, that releases in the reader a way of speaking
to her experience, then it doesn't matter that I'm Korean American
and she's Chicano or whatever. It's the manner in which you're led
into the experience, that either releases you or doesn't. But it
has that possibility of connecting you to yourself, and hopefully
to the writer's experience too, in some way. Ultimately it's the
return to your own condition by something that you see another text
take up that is so profound.
This was brought up in my Work of Silence Class-which is alot of
what we were talking about-in fact the word "encounter"
came into usage from the Celan essay "The Meridian." So
what we're talking about is that moment of encounter between how
the text makes itself and how the reader receives those actions.
There's some sort of translatability that becomes part of the narrative
if you will-the meaning of being able to read anything seems really
important right now in our present moment where we've become inattentive
to almost everything. To look at examples of texts that have come
out of the near impossibility of speaking, texts that in a sense
allow for the impossibility of speaking. To me this seems so unbearable
Y: Like Mallarme's "A Tomb For Anatole," which is really
notations for a text he was never able to write.
M: And Paul Celan, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. With these writers we
are in the company of language that has been met with potential
erasure; what happens in that kind of collaboration between the
impossibility of utterance and finding the means by which to utter?
That space is never a decided, resolved, fixed point, and part of
the exquisiteness is that it is constantly in motion, constantly
reshaping itself. I suppose any poem is that, and really is always
on the cusp of coming into legibility-formally, psychically, politically.
For me those works that keep re-invigorating that space of silence
and erasure, the space of the seemingly untranslatable, are the
ones in which you really feel some sort of endurance and power.
Y: That's interesting in terms of what you were saying earlier
about translatability and effectiveness vis-a-vis the practical
application of poetry and the incongruency of that. These writers,
Celan, Cha, et al, have posited their "untranslatability"
onto the page, and however many years later people in your classes
are reading these texts and recognizing something in their own historical
moment. Perhaps you might talk a bit about teaching, and if that
feels like a way for you to ease some of the anxiety we were talking
about earlier in terms of poetry's political efficacy.
M: I probably have to answer that question from lots of different
directions. On the one hand, by teaching, I have intimate and intensive
conversations with practicing writers which absolutely renew me.
Conversations around how to keep further and further pushing into
your art as a means of being a citizen, with awareness, with political
conviction and insight, absolutely make me feel like I'm in a place
where I keep seeing potential played out. Also, the more I teach
the more I'm finding language to articulate my concerns.
But you're also immediately aware that you're part of an institution
that perpetuates certain kinds of models and not others. Part of
how I have to make sense of it is by saying-in producing and maintaining
certain kinds of conversation in my courses, I am making an intervention.
My teaching strives to address the very institutional character
I have to play these things out. So that's completely problematic
and a sure formula for exhaustion, not only for people who teach,
but for anybody associated with any kind of institution. Academia
is a machine built around a certain kind of depletion; everyone
gets tired very quickly. It is hard to take on the work of maintaining
this intensive dialogue of poetics and translating poetics to the
world, from inside the institution, but all the more reason why
I feel I do and will take it on. This struggle, this contradiction,
becomes part of the radicalizing potential which I've been talking
about. The way that you maintain and foster conversation, even given
the institutional character under which we're all captive, becomes
part-perhaps tiny, perhaps not at all, but hopefully-of the radicalizing
potential for how we think about art, poetry, poetics, and how we
think about those things being applied.
So teaching is on the one hand a way to maintain certain kinds of
contacts, but it's certainly not the fantasy of how to do that.
There is also a kind of institutional amnesia-you're in a great
class, and then in twelve weeks it's over and you have to worry
about registration and fight for spots in classes and it's this
horrible cheapening that happens. Everything is built on this model
of consumption-you use it up and then it's gone-rather than there
being something you build on. It's sad to teach in an institutional
context where all the work you do is basically set up to be eroded
by this "forward motion." This is why its very very important
that if the person who teaches is a private conduit to the people
around her, at a certain point that group has to maintain its own
electricity without that person or that institution. I ask my students,
or I prompt them to ask themselves, how does one become part of
an enterprise which fights that sort of institutional amnesia, how
can you take on and perpetuate connections between people that you
had a genuine conversation going with. Finally, its very important
that we teach each other-writers who are at work can educate each
other and that's what I'd like to think teaching is about for me.
Perhaps for me the meaning of negotiating all of these issues is
just so like the meaning of writing a poem that I can actually do
it. It is so exquisitely in that cusp between possibility and impossibility,
of working with the knowledge that it's going to fall apart and
yet you must do it anyways.
Y: So in teaching, writing and reading poetry you see the potential
for community making?
M: Yes; you can no longer so easily participate in this kind of
perimeter making that is perpetuated by the Institution. For instance,
any act of reading releases you from a separate divisive place which
we all occupy the more and more privatized economical conditions
under which we live become. We have so few collective models left.
Reading is almost the closest thing I can think of that alerts you
to how to take into account a whole other ecosystem of someone else's
being-everything that they are. What is the meaning of being so
privatized? This a function of our economy certainly, but also more
than that. At this point, psychically, you can't be returned to
your own experience, let alone any one else's.
Y: Looking at reading then as an act of community building, the
kind of attention that it takes to read someone else's work well
is the kind of attention it takes to understand someone else well
enough to embrace them.
M: Right. Now apply that to what we were saying in the very beginning
about oppositional politics. This is precisely why I think for all
the loudness of oppositional politics, which might make one feel
as if something is being accomplished, ultimately, because it hasn't
tended to everything around the opposition, it's going to have a
short lived circuitry. In other words, there hasn't been a comprehensive
gesture towards what made the opposition necessary in the first
place. It's like reading a whole book and only choosing to pay attention
to one aspect or trajectory.
Again, in real life you may only be able to do that, maybe you have
to say that limitation can be empowering-you make a choice and you
act and that's empowering. I understand that. I even would accept
it probably; in certain situations you have to act, not deliberate.
I mean you don't always get a choice historically to go home and
read the book again. Action can and must be real but not if it's
the only thing we do...
Y: As if action were necessary only because there's a specific
crisis-as if ambiguity didn't necessitate action also?
M: Absolutely. The undecidability of whether I am making a difference
or not-that ambiguity is part of the answer. Part of the work of
answering the question of social efficacy has to include the ambiguity.
If you actually had an answer, you wouldn't be taking in the whole
full weight of the questions.
Y: Particularly if we're using the models of production that we've
inherited to evidence something like social change. We have such
a limited vocabulary in terms of what it means to be productive
and to produce-what does productivity mean to us as "products"
of consumerism-where change isn't an object or 10,000 bright and
shiny objects on the shelf.
M: Right. We have such a poverty-stricken idea of the meaning of
making, whether it's making poems or intimacies-there's this assumption
that it has to look like something recognizable. There's a focus
on the fixed, commodified exterior, rather than an internal, on-going
experience which keeps renewing itself regardless of the external
object. Once you start working on the notion of the poem emerging,
the poem that's being pushed through to the surface, not a poem
which you compose-once you make an allegiance to pay attention to
that kind of process, there is some tremendous release. It's not
immediate, but an ongoing process which you have to give to yourself.
Y: Which again takes the kind of generosity you spoke of earlier...
M: Yeah, and it's hard to have that kind of reading of it when
no one else in a sense confirms it for you. There's so little externally
that would confirm this type of "progress."
Y: And then compound that with being a woman or a woman of color
or a low income woman or whatever and you have to prove somehow
that you could be a productive white male if you just looked differently.
M: Right, if you could just adopt those ways of being and working
you'd be validated.
Y: If you're one step or six steps behind anyways the need to be
validated is further pressurized and compounded.
M: It becomes harder and harder to map some sort of internal experience
of your relationship to making.
Y: Given this, can you talk about your work in relation to various
established avant-garde traditions or other traditions you might
feel connected to or not?
M: Clearly what has informed my work, and what I find myself responding
to, is the work that signals with its very way of composing itself
that it has no assumptions about what the poem is-that the poem
is what is in fact emerging at that very moment of encounter, with
your ear, with your psyche, with your body, with your historical
conditions. When you feel like you're in the company of someone
who is occupying undecidability, where things are in fact not known,
you come into a kind of knowing or negotiation through the writing
act itself. Those are the kinds of practices that have always made
me sit up and pay attention.
A lot of work is being done by contemporary women writers that have
as their basic allegiance the question of putting into some sort
of motion everything that is one's subjective experience, everything
that is one's historical condition. There's this amazing interplay
between subjectivity, the world, your intellect, your cultural bearings,
all the things you do and don't know-and then the practical question-how
possible is it to maintain all those spheres as they come into the
field of writing with no prior decisions about what the poem will
be-letting that in fact completely alter and inform how the poem
gets made every time you sit down to write.
I associate a lot of Objectivist writing with these kinds of concerns.
George Oppen is very very important to my writing. A lot of the
propositional character of both the Objectivists, and later Projective
Verse, address what we've been talking about today.
Y: In terms of your own writing practice, if you're trying to have
that kind of breadth of content inclusion without having some kind
of preconceived notion of what is going into the poem prosodically,
how does form function?
M: Form for me is absolutely the thing that carries my poetic speculation.
Form is the body for speculation or form is where speculation about
all those fears meld and merge even if they are contestitory. So
form is not necessarily a shapely, elegant thing-it is the live
kicking wire in anything for me-it's about balance, music, and about
presencing contestitory forces. I'm always very curious when forms
Y: So you don't have any preconceived notion of form when you go
into a poem?
M: Actually it happens both ways for me. Often I see a visual sentence,
something scrolling. For example, it could be the relationship of
larger parts to smaller parts and I'll just have a diagram of something
that I can get from my head onto the paper. Sometimes I'll know
the architecture for something before I begin, but usually it breaks
down, so in a way it doesn't matter what happens first. I have a
visual sense of the form which I decide to act on or I start with
an open chunk of writing and then find some kind of architecture
emerging out of it. Either way, form is fascinating because you
don't know until you've really negotiated with all parts of it what
it is going to be. Even when you have a kind of foreknowledge it's
probably, at least for me, going to fall apart. The more you live
with a poem, there more it will ask different things. Form is probably
the most invigorating force in trying to promote a conversation
between different spheres of experience.
Y: Are you working on anything right now?
M: Yes, and speaking about architecture, this new book is going
to be in two large movements or motions. I know a lot about the
first half; the second half is just not there yet. When I started
what I think will be this book, I ran across this word "metonic,"
which means cycles of nineteen years. I started writing it at the
age of thirty-eight which is two cycles of nineteen. I already knew
the work involved this notion of days and thinking about the lived
life-something about a different way of organizing time in my life
and how if you approach your life in cycles of nineteen, you don't
get to do that many-five? maybe four? That acute awareness of having
lived a lot of my life, but also not. And something about bounds
and seeing different ways to organize the meaning of your life over
time and how to see it with some other skeleton.
It's very hard to work with so little time allotted for my own writing.
Of course if I just sit around and can't finish the second half
I don't want to go into the third cycle of nineteen (laughs). There's
all kinds of breaking down of this notion of nineteen years throughout
the first half. The second half I think will completely dissolve
that and mutate into something else. It's so serendipitous, I was
literally looking up another word and my eye fell on "metonic."
I felt like it was a sign (laughs).
Korean is coming into my writing more and more. It's an always evolving
relationship I have to it as a language and as a system of thought,
as linguistics, the grammar, the syntax, the sounds, everything
about it is always being recirculated. I never know exactly where
it's going to factor in or what kind of preoccupation it will provide.
But in DURA for example, one of the procedures I was using was taking
"western" texts and putting them up against Korean texts
that were written at the same time. If I were to take something
like Virgil and try to find something as ancient written in Korean,
I couldn't, because written Korean as old as Virgil would have been
With written Korean I'd have to start in 1440 something which is
really interesting to me because that's at the moment of the notion
of discovering the new world, taking it over, and what are we going
to do with it? I was trying to get these texts into some kind of
completion when sometimes there would be literally two languages
or I'd do a translation, a mock translation or a reverse translation;
who knows. That's one of the procedures among many but it still
interests me in terms of this current work as well-setting into
some kind of concurrent motion two texts that are linked by time
but separated, say by systems of language.
Y: As are you...
M: Yeah, right-I wonder where that came from! I feel like part
of DURA for me was my rereading of western civilization in a very
coded way. I'm very enamored with medieval grammar texts-how they
developed, how they became codified and how they engender each other.
The whole language of knowledge is fascinating I think. This notion
of what you're supposed to know. I feel wildly out of touch with
what I'm supposed to know; this also fuels my writing.