Today I’d like to focus on one of my favorite contemporary poets. Lo Kwa Mei-en is from Singapore and Ohio. She is the author of Yearling (Alice James Books, 2015), and her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, and other journals. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.
Your first book, Yearling, was recently selected as the winner of the Kundiman Prize, and will be published next year by Alice James Books. What can you tell us about this collection’s themes and goals?
Yearling is about adolescence and the transformative stuff that shapes it, so the book is obsessed with initiations, ordeals, and homecomings, or lacks thereof. The links between humanity and animality are a recurring theme, as is the question of how certain forces may grant or deny someone their personhood.
The greatest goal I have for Yearling is for it to sing, rather than to say.
Part of what I most admire about your work is what I see as a kind of maximalist sensibility when it comes to language--for example, the relentless texture and play in "Babel / Aubade". In a recent article for the Boston Review, Stephen Burt describes the "nearly Baroque" in contemporary poetry as “art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first.” Using this definition, do you see your own work as nearly Baroque (or dare I say, nearly nearly Baroque)?
Maximalism! I love it! Although the poems in Yearling owe a lot to those craft elements, I hesitate to just say “yes,” because unlike the poems explored in Burt’s essay, my poems are seriously untroubled by the question of whether poetry and/or beauty is useless for being devoid of utility (and therefore of societal worth.) Audre Lorde said that “poetry is not a luxury,” and I believe in that, for all of the reasons laid out in her essay of that same title.
That said, my most recent work (including the “Babel” series) might be flat out Baroque. Where the poets presented in “Nearly Baroque” make extravagant art “without adopting pre-modernist forms,” I am very much in love with inventions that are too old to have an author: heroic couplets, sestinas, abecedarians, and sonnet crowns have been on my mind. And while I also do not sound like Richard Wilbur, it is in part because I am still listening to Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Burt goes on to say that “these nearly Baroque poems bring to the surface questions about all elite or non-commercial or extravagant art.” How is this aesthetic related to the notion of accessibility in contemporary poetry? Do you think about accessibility in your own work?
“Nearly Baroque” raises the question of whether an extravagant poetics can be justified in a world ravaged by excess, and the idea of accessibility constantly asks if a poem’s beauty justifies its failure or refusal to result in a clear experience of the world for the reader. While “Nearly Baroque” takes ornamentation seriously as a craft element, both lines of inquiry suggest that beauty itself might be ornamental, extraneous to subject, substance, or even “truth.” This is a hugely important question for this era, and not just for poets.
I do think about accessibility—very much so—but not in terms of the binary of “Is it?/Is it not?” (The unspoken question that I think should come after that is “To whom is this supposedly accessible, and what assumptions am I making about their ability to access this poem?”) I am more interested in the huge range of experience that can be accessed or created with the craft and play of language, a range that I find to be greater than the perspective of any one poet or reader. I think this is because singing and saying offer up different thresholds and challenges and revelations to the reader.
In addition, issues of actual access, when held alongside how we talk about the aesthetics of (in)accessibility, change the conversation in difficult ways. I love Burt’s terms, because they suggest societal as well as poetic conflict. What is elite is by definition inaccessible, but what determines an elitist poetics? An anti-utilitarian aesthetic? What about a rhetoric that alienates people of color? How does VIDA’s work on gender and access to cultural capital change how we identify the root of literary elitism, or inaccessibility? If it’s a fondly-told joke that poets can’t make a living wage by publishing poetry, but we have developed a cultural economy in which we cite names of magazines and institutions in cover letters instead of our actual poems (can we imagine replacing the names of venues in which our poems have appeared or are forthcoming with the titles of our five strongest poems?), then by what definition of capital do we figure out whether a poet is commercial or not? I think it is because of the systemic concerns raised by Burt that we cannot determine accessibility on the basis of aesthetic sensibility alone.
Your poems also use persona and fairy tale & folklore motifs. What does your work gain from these added layers?
Received narratives and voices are, for me, as perversely, gorgeously full of potential as are received forms like the sonnet or sestina. They are ancient like a religious ritual is ancient. There are rules which the imagination must obey or break. We already know how the story ends (and why), so the myth of a poet’s originality is compromised from the get-go and the stakes are kind of insane, which is how I prefer to function if at all possible. Like a strong conceit, working in a fairy tale turns the creative work into a utopian act of commitment. I think that’s what any work gains from an acceptance of and attention to art that is so un-contemporary it does not even have an author. Go wild or go home.
Who are some of your literary influences, and what are you currently reading?
Some of my influences are Sylvia Plath, John Donne, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Terrance Hayes, and Emily Dickinson. As a pro-extravagancist, I could always give you more! I am reading Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, Inger Christensen’s it, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion. I’ve been drawn to a lot of utopian or post-utopian works lately, with the exception of Charlaine Harris’s Living Dead in Dallas—I haven’t gotten to it yet and am not sure if Sookie Stackhouse is more of a dystopian or utopian figurehead.
The miracle of 3D printing has allowed us to replicate Van Gogh’s severed ear using DNA from his great-great grandson. The ear is now on display at the Centre For Art And Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where patrons can ask it any question they like. What would you ask?
Where does it hurt?
Here's a poem from Lo Kwa Mei-en, first published in Crazyhorse.
Man O’ War
—November 1, 1947
Before a field locks its horizon in place. A martial
claw of cardinals freckles the sky half-red. Before
a sea change can bolt the chambers of your sixteen
-handed heart. The ghost of long grasses is hauling
behind it a blanket of perennial trophy. The meadow
ghost is so deep it turns itself out. Before the god
of the wild miles, of gorgeous and brutal unshod
grace can come for you, her flank as high as yours
and burning higher than the fires of photographic
light. Bulbs of velvet gold wink in the insect night
like meteors sailing, each mate a larval ocean
tossing beneath the constellation like your head
in a hold. The ghost of plateau says even the
chestnut blade of your face was, once, dirt of a star,
a bold specimen from a giant long gone. Before
the females feed knowing in the fields, unparallel
gods, early ghosts, slipping into dawn. You are old,
and slid into the stalls like a beloved bullet, and then
out. Out, out, a muddy track sparrow brightly
spat at you who will head stunning sons in what
nobody calls a circle. Nobody buys a singular loss
can saddle you to the knees. Before the god of war
you kneel in blown Kentucky blue, she a trigger, she
color of dove, of endless miles, her skull a moon
outstretched. Her nostrils at your neck bleed two hot
banners of breath. The grass sweats gold. Fences turn
to ghosts of mythic cost, padlocks for eyes. Before
your ghost can see right through them. A report of
wings leaps from the long sea of dawn and the god
-- Lo Kwa Mei-en