Next up in the APIA series, we have Cathy Linh Che! I’m lucky to go on a book tour, Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour, with Cathy this summer – fearless Asian American poets going on a roadtrip adventure to read poems, adventure, eat noodles, enthrall, and explore (follow us on Twitter @BadgersOfHoney).
Cathy Linh Che’s work is borne out of necessity and survival. In the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of giving several readings with this indomitable poet, as we share not only a press but also multiple literary communities. When Cathy reads her work, it’s as if she saws herself open for her audience to behold. There is a tremor, a sob, a revelation. I am always astounded by her bravery and her sincerity, her honesty and her intelligence, and how powerfully the language of her poems embodies her lived experience.
Cathy Linh Che is the author of Split (Alice James, 2014), winner of the 2012 Kundiman Poetry Prize. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Poets & Writers, Kundiman, Hedgebrook, Poets House, The Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, The Asian American Literary Review, The Center for Book Arts, and The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Residency. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
In the following poem “My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death”, Che opens with a menagerie—a moose, a donkey, and an ox, all expelling from the speaker’s mother’s mouth. The strangeness of the opening image, its texture and surprise, only builds up as we approach each new stanza. The wildness of the animals in the first stanza undercuts the domestic imagery that pervades the next stanza—the kitchen knives, spoons, sinkhole, AC, wood paneling, market fish. However, the domestic is not static in this poem—rather, the domestic space here is torn apart as the “hoa mai cracks open” to invite the sky, the air, and the rain. In the last stanza, we travel with the speaker into a different kind of interiority—the interiority of her mother’s body, the interiority of grief—the “torrents like iron ropes you could climb up, only I couldn't, I was drowning, I was swirled in, I leapt into her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the remnants of my former life.” The moment disorients us, as the mother’s body becomes the new embodiment of domestic space, complete with “furnishing” and “swollen heart”. To live inside this space—to return to the space of mother’s body as an older person, the reader and speaker must reformulate what it means to be nourished, what gets sacrificed for survival, and this is ridden with the guilt of “crowding” the furnishings, inhabiting too much space to bear. We end with the speaker declaring “I became a woman wearing my mother’s skin”. It is a moment of finality, as chilling for the reader as it is unsettling for the speaker, as she realizes that what’s left is the skin she wears imparted by her mother. If you do not have a copy of Split, get one NOW!
My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother's Death
She opened her mouth and a moose came out, a donkey and an ox, out of her mouth, years of animal grief, I lead her to the bed, she held my hand and followed, she said, Chết rồi, and like that, the cord was cut, the thread snapped, and the cable that tied my mother to her mother broke, and now her eyes red as a market fish, and now, she dropped like laundry on the bed.
The furniture moved toward her, the kitchen knives and spoons, the vibrating spoons, her mouth a sinkhole, she wanted all of it, the house and the car too, with the AC and wood paneling, and the flowers she planted, narcissus and hoa mai which cracked open each spring—the sky, she brought it low, until the air was hot and wet and broke into a rain—
the torrents like iron ropes you could climb up, only I couldn't, I was drowning, I was swirled in, I leapt into her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the remnants of my former life. I ate the food she ate and drank the milk she drank. I crowded the furnishing, her swollen heart. I grew up and out so large until I became a woman wearing my mother's skin.
From Split, Alice James Books, 2014
To quote Angry Asian Man, who are you? What are you all about?
Let's begin with something that my friend Solmaz Sharif said to introduce a reading for Hyphenated Poets: Ethnic American Writing Against Type (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I see the self as porous.” And Walt Whitman: “I contain multitudes.” With this in mind, I'll make some statements about who I am and what I’m about:
My parents lived in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They clandestinely escaped on a boat soon after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In a recent interview my mom told me that she had no choice but to leave. When I asked, “Were you afraid,” she said, “Of course. I was afraid of dying.”
So, who am I? I am my family and my family's stories. I am my great uncle who was disappeared. I am my father who was drafted into the South Vietnamese Army and fought, an unwilling soldier, for over twelve years. I am my father's brother and aunt's children who were gunned down in one great massacre. I am my grandmother’s grief, and also her endurance.
I am also a girl who was sexually molested repeatedly over the course of eight years by multiple boys and men. This is a scary fact—and it upsets me to say it. I feel exposed putting it out there. But speaking about difficult things seems a necessary act. I hope that putting my writing out there can help others feel less alone.
Tell me about your current or most recent project.
My first book was recently published, and I’m still reeling from that. I doing readings and helping to plan the Honeybadgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour, which kicks off this summer, with three other Asian American women with debut poetry collections: Sally Wen Mao, Eugenia Leigh, and Michelle Chan Brown.
In the fall, I am returning home to Southern California to begin research on my parents' experiences as extras for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
From 1975-76, my parents lived in a refugee camp in the Philippines. During that time, Apocalypse Now was being filmed, not too far from their camp. My parents, along with the other refugees, were hired to play extras in the film, as South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians—which they were. But they also were asked to play the people they'd just escaped from, the Viet Cong.
I hope to interview my parents and watch the film with them, which I haven’t done in years. I want to hear about their impressions and listen to their commentary. In the film, they get no speaking parts, they follow someone else’s script, they are placed in the margins. I want to give them a space to speak freely. I want their voices in the center of a narrative.
Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work. What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s). What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?
I'm excited when people reach out to me and tell me that my work has moved them. It's helped me understand what publishing means—it is a way to communicate to others who can't be in the same room as you.
One thing that I’ve learned in creating a collection of poems: You don’t have to say it all in a single poem. Poems talk to one another. They echo. They grow. They share images and in the sharing, deepen and expand them. Certainly, Jack Spicer was an important figure for me in that regard. He felt that his early poems were ‘one night stands’ and his later poems were conversations.
Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?
High school touchstones: William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, H.D., William Carlos Williams
College heroes: James Baldwin, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Kim Addonizio, Li-Young Lee.
Grad school discoveries: Anne Carson, Srikanth Reddy, Jack Spicer, Sylvia Plath
After grad school wonderment: Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine. Martha Collins, Natalie Diaz
And my impossibly impressive peers: Matthew Olzmann, Bianca Stone, Amber Atiya, Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, Wo Chan, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.
I am, of course, forgetting and omitting important voices, but these are writers who today light my world aflame.
What is one thing that you desire to say as a poet, but haven’t said yet? What does the future hold for you, if you could hold it?
For me, poetry is not about ego and banging on some pots and pans and celebrating your own accomplishments, but rather, it is about celebrating all of us: our complexities, our mysteries, the ways that we experience the world around us, the ways that we can get knocked down and stand back up, be hopeful and not just endure, but love and thrive.