Lo Kwa Mei-en speaks to Jasmine Dreame Wagner about writing words filled with blood and rhythm
Photo taken by Araminta Kellond
Audre Lorde writes: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Over the past few years, self-care has come into prominence, particularly among young women on the Internet. From body pride to filtered photographs of comfort foods, from DIY make-up tutorials to reblogged selfies on Tumblr, self-care has become a reclamation of agency and an assertion of ownership over one’s corporeal form.
The poems in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s
These poems inhabit the structures of formal verse, its tones, metrical patterns, and traditions, while steadfastly refusing the canon’s salvation narratives, mythic stock characters, and masculinist technocratic jargon. The figures that arise from Mei-en’s verses are hybrid beasts: Plath’s horse, Ariel, as a war machine; Pinnochia, a femme Pinnochio, with a long doll’s nose from lying and lying. In Mei-en’s poems, as in the Disney classic, it isn’t the doll who tells the first lie: In Pinnochio, it is Gepetto, the father, the creator, who fibs first. Pinnochio only bends the truth after he learns that telling the truth will get him into trouble. Like the voices in Mei-en’s poems, Pinnochio speaks as his creator speaks, only to be further and further ensnared by the body he inherited.
In her essay, “68 or Something,” Lauren Berlant reflects on Deleuze and Guattari’s “Toward a Minor Literature,” illuminating the way in which authors of minor literatures are entrapped by their bodies, burdened with place. Berlant’s minors are sentinels of the body, their creative works ripe with representations of physique and hearth, homelands and nations. This body- and place-bound awareness is a heavy suitcase they must burden, and not always by choice. As Berlant explains, authors of minor literatures are forcibly aware of the pseudoconsensual nature of place-bound national cultures. While nation purports to unite individuals, the minor artist is the keeper of the flame of difference: Even when singing in the tongue of the dominant culture, the minor’s dissonant timbre, the timbre of otherness, reminds the nation of the portion of its song that threatens to be lost.
The poems in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s Yearling are poems of difference. They are poems of late capitalism. They embody a cyborg poetics: Lo Kwa Mei-en’s poems don’t attempt to return to or resurrect the canon; they assimilate the canon’s forms, its weaponry, and soldier on into its horizon, not with a battle cry, but with a young girl’s call for self-care.
–Jasmine Dreame Wagner for Guernica
Guernica: In “The Body That Has Something to Say,” you write: “It was never a question of one side or another. / The body that has something to say / knows better than that. / Lights everything on fire with one hand / and tends coals with the other.” In these poems, the body stokes the mind to word and is also a language in itself. The body speaks verbally and nonverbally, sometimes in concert with logic, sometimes as though drifting through a dream. Sometimes the body whimpers out of turn, as though it’s disrupting the mind’s preoccupations. (“I’m my own interruption.”) I’m also thinking of lines like: “anger / stroking the soft pit of my knee” and the “echo in the summer / attic of the throat.”
I love the way the skin and the gut open experience in these poems. The body in Yearling is a bell—the world taps and the body rings. A professor in my graduate program once admonished me for writing poems about bodies. I was actually writing about buildings, but buildings are bodies, and she criticized a particular stanza by cringing, miming “ew,” and comparing the poem’s shape to a kidney. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever be done with writing about the body—especially the female body, the feminine body, the femme body. I think we’ve only just begun to really open the narrative of gendered experience.
Could you talk a little bit about the body in your poems? What were some conscious choices you made?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: I only included poems in this book that I responded to viscerally when writing and re-reading them. I can’t imagine making a book that way anymore, but I did this with the poems in Yearling. I was desperately working to write myself back into ownership of my body. I was living with choices that other people had made about my body, and having much difficulty making choices that my body could survive. I was living with the simultaneous drives to self-preserve and self-destruct and poetry was the only creative force I believed in at the time. So the first conscious choice I made about the body in my poems was allowing it to exist within them at all.
So I wrote all these poems that confront the body, and I couldn’t do so without conceptual constraints, within which the body could be a cup, a locked door, a proverb, a cross-cultural trope—anything but itself. I don’t find this idea to be divergent from how the marginalized body is treated in society, and I also found this idea meaningful in the context of my lived experience with disassociation. I love the conceit for illuminating such connections. I don’t know if it is a dissociative act to conceptualize the body, but I do know that disassociation is itself a (dis)embodied experience, in which case poetic conceit may be understood as a feedback loop: yet another bodily experience.
Hearing your story about the professor’s response to your poem, I’m struck by how cringing can function as criticism. The wordless language of cringing must be lent the grammar of criticism to justify rejecting art in a manner that is seemingly more objective than visceral. However, as the poet’s use of the kidney analogy demonstrates, even expressing one’s revulsion at writing about the body requires a re-writing of the body.
Narrative, like a building, is a body, too. What the hell will we find inside these things? I suspect we will come face to face with ourselves.
I respond deeply to your invocation of opening the lived, gendered narrative. I am thrilled by the terror of narrative, and terrified by narrative. It was through the narrative of Pinnochia’s body—constructed, destructed, invisible, and visible—that I really felt the presence of voice in my own work. I think that’s because narrative, like a building, is a body, too. What the hell will we find inside these things? I suspect we will come face to face with ourselves. And perhaps facing oneself in the breathing halls of history is an act that’s primal, crucial, and revulsive. Cringe-worthy.
Guernica: Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself chanting the last stanza of your opening poem, “Ariel”: “I dreamt like a war machine / and woke like a child.” I whispered it over and over again until I realized how metrically similar it is to Muhammad Ali’s mantra: “Float like a butterfly / sting like a bee.” I’m fascinated by rhetorical and prosodic patterns and I’m always wondering why and how certain rhythms stick—not just in my mind and in my body, but in our culture. For example, there are certain rhythmic patterns that we turn to again and again in public discourse. (“I have a dream.” “Yes we can.” “Read my lips / No more taxes.”)
I’m curious to hear some of your thoughts on meter. Do you approach the metrical patterns in your poems improvisationally or intuitively, or do you work with formal constraint? Are there metrical patterns in other people’s poems that have inspired you, patterns you’ve referenced in your own work?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: Ah! That is amazing! So, too, with “The king is dead / Long live the king.” I know that rhythm is a rhetoric, but I don’t know why or how. I work with metrical patterns intuitively, not formally. I have been working exclusively with formal constraint in the last few years, almost none of it centered on meter. I remember learning about the hypothesis of blank verse as a natural extension of a human biorhythm. It isn’t a natural extension of mine. Sustained iambic pentameter makes my hair itchy, as does 3/4 time in music. If there were a prosodic equivalent of 5/4 time, I would swoon to it. It’s the only form I can think of that feels similar to the elegiac couplet, for no reason that makes sense to me on paper. Who said that not all rhythmic verse has meter and not all metrical verse has rhythm?
The rhythm of ricocheting pool balls when a player breaks the rack at the onset of a game. Anything easily identified as “a disco beat.” Any rhythm easily identified as martial. The irreplicable rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ verse. The insistence of the word “exist” in Nied’s translation of Inger Christensen’s alphabet and the resultant narrative rhythm that echoes across the book.
When I experience music at such a proximity or volume that it can affect my biorhythm, my rhythmic experience is no longer one of hearing but of feeling.
When I was a teenager, my friend Nicole would let me crawl underneath the baby grand and lie there, transported, while she played Rachmaninoff, and the feeling was, eerily, like that of falling in love, every time. We always talk about listening to or hearing music, however, when I experience music at such a proximity or volume that it can affect my biorhythm, my rhythmic experience is no longer one of hearing but of feeling. I think that is an exciting question when it comes to rhythm in poetry. What rhythms are heard, and which are felt?
Guernica: When I was a child, cell phones and cellular towers were just beginning to become part of the suburban landscape. A cell tower went up on a tall hill covered in trees and the town was invited to vote on the color of the light that would crown it like an angel on a Christmas tree. We had two choices: a white beacon or a blinking red beep. I remember thinking that a steady, white light would be more popular—that the red, flicking on and off, would be more distracting, but the red beep was the more popular choice. The town’s residents reasoned that a white beacon would cast too much light on the hill. People who owned houses in the valley felt that a steady red beep would be easier to sleep through. The red beep was eventually matched by an identical red beep on the neighboring hill and the synchronized beeps functioned as guides for small aircraft channeling in and out of a private airport.
I thought of the red beeps as I read Yearling. The word “red” appears in almost every poem and the poems are full of hot, burning things. Here’s a short list of red cameos in Yearling: a red-throated rapture, a left on red, a loud blooming of reddish weeds, a red latitude, a scar by blaze, a bloody bell, the cherry notes of bones, the fox warden, the red swell of a barn, a skim of red, the dissonant, reddish sky, hot tides, the reddest room, a sip of blood, a Little Red bastard, the ruby neck, a rocket’s skirt, the sun bolted to a red wheel, mulish fire, coals, a martial claw of cardinals.
Tell me what you’re doing with color.
Lo Kwa Mei-en: Your narrative of the red beep incites a bodily response in me. During my biomedical anthropology coursework in college, I researched Tourette’s Syndrome, in part to process my own identity and experience of Tourette’s. I read the story of a man who had to leave his long-time job at an industrial plant because, as his symptoms intensified, he could not encounter a certain lever that had a WARNING: ELECTROCUTION sticker on it without having to fight the overwhelming compulsion to pull it.
Thank you for noticing my compulsion to red! I find it funny that poets talk about having tics. It tends to be used in the context of an unchallenged bad habit rather than an overwhelming compulsion. Maybe color is a useful starting point from which to explore difference, given how often synaesthesia is referenced among poets, too. This brings us back to the question of the body in writing, for tics, compulsions, and synaesthetic experiences are all transgressive bodily experiences.
In Yearling, color was one way I could go where I otherwise wouldn’t want to go, for reasons of comfort or ease or practicality. To write color is to name it—a poem is not a painting—the only way to flood my book with red is to reproduce the word “red” in black ink over and over until the reader sees red. One of the unspoken themes in Yearling is the struggle to name the experience of sexual and societal violence. The word “red” appears many times. The word “rape,” never. The word “rage,” never. I’m unsettled by my own implication: that I identify more with my compulsion to write about violence than my choice to write about violence. But the truth is more complex. I write from a place where I live with both the compulsion to reach for the lever that may kill me and the choice to continue living, instead, in a place where I must live with both the compulsion and the choice, et cetera. You can guess what color the sticker on that lever is, in this book.
Guernica: The grandfather of “Taxi, Singapore, Ohio,” the man who “turns left on red / forever” fascinates me. Who is this man in the “ghost taxi”? Maybe you could tell me about him, or your family, where you’re from. When did you start writing poems? Are there moments from your childhood that led to writing poetry?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: The man in the “ghost taxi” is my father’s father. He was a champion cyclist in Singapore and Malaysia, started his own bicycle tire business, and taught my father and his brothers how to find flora and fauna in the jungle—the songbirds in the trunk of the taxi—as well as how to raise improbable quantities of animals in a tenement flat. He used to drive to Malaysia, buy enough fresh market eggs to half-fill the trunk, and then go around Singapore distributing eggs to his sons’ households despite the usual protests. He was the only other family member besides myself who was not a Christian. He had a lot of love and pride and force in him, and I identify with him very much despite never having had a full conversation with him. There is a language barrier between myself and my grandparents’ generation, which has to do with my feelings of utter failure when it comes to making art about my family with language. Despite that, I always include “Taxi, Singapore, Ohio” on my set list when I read, if possible. I kind of feel like it’s the least I could do, a very Confucian feeling, one of many.
Most of my family is from Singapore and Malaysia, and most of them live there. My parents would describe me as utterly American, in part because of the way I pursue poetry. The current visibility of the Singapore poetry community is transforming that binary within our conversations, but when I first started writing poetry in 1999, neither my family nor myself had consciousness of poetry as a part of Singaporean identity, so poetry was a sign of my American adolescence. I bought into that idea, too, and am glad to have widened my perspective since then. I currently owe an email to one of my mother’s sisters about our views on art’s relationship to its audience, among other things. The Internet is amazing. Singapore and Australia, where some of my family live, are about as far from Ohio as you can get from a planetary perspective, so smartphones have really helped my parents be connected to their family. Being able to email with my aunt and learn her thoughts on art is kind of like a second childhood.
What brought me to the practice of writing verse was commercial boy-band pop music. I went to a religious all-girls’ school in Singapore and we lived and breathed American and Canadian boy-bands that shall go unnamed. I started writing sugary song lyrics about relationships I’d never had, and I did that for about a year before the lyrics turned into poems. When I was twelve, I joined an internet poetry board, which is where a friend, who I met in person for the first time at a poetry reading last month, introduced me to Frank O’Hara—at which point I became a different kind of fangirl.
Guernica: That reminds me of your image of the fish sailing through the air. We never realize the quality of our milieu until we break through its boundary—The fish swims, unaware of the existence of water, until he or she leaps into the air.
Lo Kwa Mei-en: —at which point she must return to the water, if she is to live with the experience of having broken from her milieu.
Yearling was a very intuitive book, and I don’t think I can ever write like that again.
Guernica: What are you working on right now? Where do you see your work heading now that Yearling has been released to the world?
Lo Kwa Mei-en: Yearling was a very intuitive book, and I don’t think I can ever write like that again. Right now I am driven by idea-based projects. This might be related to being out of school and having two day jobs—I find myself feeling like I should have a trajectory for my work because I have to be so strict with my time. I just finished revising my second manuscript, which is partly concerned with formal constraints of structure and genre, and also trauma and citizenship, and gold.
I saw something online about how poets should not put birds in poems because it guarantees triteness and will lead to disapproval, and there was a lot of internet agreement on this sentiment, so of course I decided to write a ton of poems about popular birds, a silly joke that is turning into a weird narrative about gender, racial identity, and the Campbellian hero’s journey. As a result, I recently wrote about white supremacy and model minority-honorary whiteness for the first time, a visceral experience that told me this might be one more subject I struggle to name but must name through poetry.
Lo Kwa Mei-en is the author of Yearling (Alice James Books, 2015), winner of the Kundiman Prize, The Romances, a chapbook forthcoming from The Lettered Streets Press, and the forthcoming The Bees Make Money in the Lion, winner of the CSU Poetry Center Open Book Poetry Competition. Her work can be found in The Margins, The Offing, The PEN Poetry Series, and VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She is from Singapore and Ohio, where she earned a BA in Cultural Anthropology and an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University. She now lives and works in Cincinnati.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner is an American poet, artist, and musician. She is the author of