All Things Foreign: An Interview with Kimiko Hahn
Kimiko Hahn is a fearless writer. She tackles subject matter most tend to avoid, and she parses the particularities with brutal honesty. With Hahn, there is no deceiving, no deluding.
In late fall 2020, Hahn made a virtual visit to professor and poet Tina Chang’s classroom at Binghamton University. She had the book launch of her tenth poetry collection eclipsed by the lockdown, and so Hahn graciously read from Foreign Bodies (W.W.Norton, 2020). As a distinguished professor in the Department of English and the MFA Program at Queens College (CUNY), Hahn’s work exhibits a heightened sensitivity to boundaries and borders, and an awareness of how to be emotionally moved is a physical sensation of the body. I had the pleasure of speaking with her via email.
JF: How would you describe a poem’s life as it unfolds in the mind of the writer?
KH: First–thank you for your questions. I want to answer the question by viewing the mind as “the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel,” that is, as the whole being. So, the poem could begin as a memory or a sense memory (such as a scent or feeling the heartbeat faster) or something imagined. There are so many places where a poem might begin even before it starts to unfold. How to answer the question? Maybe that I think it’s important to start with raw material, emotionally and compositionally. Or if researching, say, to explore what is emotionally at stake. For instance, why do I want to write about the chambered nautilus? After the initial rough drafts, I think one can look and begin to see where the poem wants to go. This is the pivot where the poet becomes more of an editor and makes more conscious choices. Even so, there needs to be constant dynamic play between the intuitive impulse and the conscious decisions. I am still learning this. I am trying to learn about how to write more magically by reading Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries.
JF: Might you discuss your poetry writing practice? How has it evolved? When, where, and how do you write?
KH: When I had small children, I’d run off to a coffee shop with a yellow legal pad and work for a couple of hours. After they were in school full time, this practice stayed in effect because the home interferes with demands. Now, I tend to work at home on a computer. Mornings. The combination of my years and the lock-down has made for some difficulty in my usual writing practice–less access to raw material, perhaps–which is unusual for me. So, every day I’ve been reading from the Vendler book I just mentioned. She does amazing close readings of the Dickinson poems. I take notes on craft and then create a writing prompt by way of apprenticing myself to–Vendler? Dickinson? the poems? I can’t say the results are poems, but they are different pieces than what I’ve written in the past. Strictly lyric poems.
What is not unusual is for me to use outside source material whether articles from the Science Section of The New York Times, characters/themes from the Tale of Genji, current events having to do with immigration, or sex trafficking. Or, “talking back” to writers from the past. I have several odes written to lines of canonical poetry (the chapbook (Write it!) published by Wells College Book Arts Center).
JF: How do you organize the preliminary stages of your writing?
KH: I’m not sure I understand the question–I mean, sometimes I just literally sit and write whatever comes to mind. Or maybe you’re referring to my use of outside source material? If the latter, I’d say that I am usually captivated by the language of something (whether Black Lung disease or etymology) –as opposed to “just” the information. This goes back to your earlier question about how a poem unfolds. I’d say that a combination of captivating diction, subject matter, and theme is a pretty great perfect storm. How to organize? I used to keep an actual clipping morgue (fancy term for files) and now it’s just in my dropbox.
JF: Much of your work gives insight into the experience of pathology. In “Object Lessons,” the speaker of the poem observes the manifestation of the abnormal in the gathering of trash suggesting the action could be a source of comfort as well as an affliction. How has writing about the “archives” of the nineteenth-century laryngologist, Dr. Chevalier Jackson helped you to write about your own father’s hoarding?
KH: When I find myself captivated and working on a long piece, I try to see what the themes are and play around. “Object Lessons” took years to write because I couldn’t quite figure out where I was going–where the poem was going. I read a biography on Jackson that pointed me in the direction of “hoarding” and Jackson’s possible emotional need to hoard. And then I read Stuff, a book about hoarding while dealing with the very real issue that my father was going through. I began to think about objects. At the same time, I was thinking about how to write about my mother’s death–an abiding subject–and began to think about dust. All this came together and was expressed in different poems.
About “pathology”: I think many people are interested in extreme behavior and what prompts a gesture or action. My long piece “Exhume” came about when I read about necrophilia in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. Eventually, my drafts lead to “exhumation” as a metaphor for why one can’t break free from childhood entanglements. That poem and others are in The Artist’s Daughter, a collection of poems written about “monstrous” behavior. Why? Not to shock but because I wanted to get at the roots of fairy tales.
JF: In Nitro: More on Japanese Poetics, you state “I want arousal. I want to place the craft of poetry back where it belongs: that is, not just party to the mind, but a thing coursing throughout the body.” How is the body enlivened by the reading of poetry?
KH: Helen Vendler has also written about Shakespeare’s sonnets. I am inspired by her comments on how in this highly structured form, he put into motion so much thesis/antithesis, contradiction, varying diction and points of view, etc. All of this is in the service of making a beautiful object–if you will–that moves the reader. Being moved is, after all, a physical experience.
My fond hope is that a person will be moved when they read a poem of mine. Just as I am moved when I read, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia.” I can barely read the last line aloud I feel so overcome with the scene of a child who cannot understand what happens to the body after death, that none of us can although we might think we do. The poem is so complex. And a great part of the complexity is lodged in what is “invisible”: the tone, of course, but also the constellation of assonance, alliteration, slant rhyme. Just looking at the final stanza, you can experience the proliferation of syllables ending in “t”: invited, smallest, at, court, But, shut, tight. I think the effect is to feel the ‘shutness’ in the last stanza, the finality of the boy’s shuttered eyes. Notably, there are no such sounds in the last line even though this is off the top of my head, but it sounds right.
JF: How does teaching at Queens College influence your poetry?
KH: In the classroom, I have had to articulate my intuitive impulses. To clarify even when it comes to, say, the use of ambiguity. I am constantly figuring out what my students–especially undergrads–do not know and attempting to bring them to reservoirs of possibility.
JF: How do the students at Queens College influence your writing? This collection includes immigration stories told from multiple vantage points, and while you’ve spoken openly about drawing inspiration from outside texts it seems your students themselves. How does working with the student body at Queens College, keep the conversation of immigration fresh and present within your mind?
KH: I refer to students in the most general ways. I am not a big fan of professor-writers writing about writing students. Too ivory-tower-ish. Having written that, in Foreign Bodies, I have a long poem that does refer very directly to my immigrant undergraduates, “The Divine.”
JF: In “Divine,” it was your mention of students from Corona that resonated. My experience teaching in those Corona classrooms was an experience of immersion; it prompted me to imagine my 12-year-old grandmother’s arrival, the many ways she may have negotiated her arrival. And in revisiting “Divine,” I see the nod to intuition, as well as the “Grandmother Ghost and Mother Spirit.” So yes, that last part of the poem answers my question quite beautifully. I look forward to seeing more poems like this in the future.
KH: What an amazing image of your grandmother! My husband’s mother immigrated from Romania at 12.
JF: What is your perspective on publishing? Is there a timeline that poets should follow? Is it ever too late to publish a chapbook?
KH: It’s a pity there is so much pressure to publish for the sake of “career”–which is to say, an academic career. There shouldn’t be such false pressures. Perhaps those writers who choose not to be a part of or find themselves “outside” of the college landscape, perhaps their poetry and books will come more naturally. Less forced. I had no intention of being a college professor. I was just running around taking random jobs to pay rent (which was possible at the time) and trying to get published. I wasn’t trying to get published to get tenure. I kind of fell into teaching and discovered that I really love teaching. Second, to writing, I love teaching.
Chapbooks? It’s never too early or too late! I’ve become a huge advocate of the chapbook (I’ve initiated chapbook festivals and last year I donated my collection of 75+ to the Queens College Library for a Chapbook Archive). I have several chapbooks containing work that may not make it into books but that were important areas of play. I love this outlaw arena.
JF: Much of your work touches upon the fact that a parent’s premature passing as an irrevocable loss. How has writing about the death of your mother influenced you as a writer? How might it push the limits of the craft?
KH: My collection The Unbearable Heart contains poems directly about my mother’s death from vehicular homicide. When that book came out, a poet friend commented that in my earlier poems the speaker was constantly looking for her mother as if she’d already left; and now, in the elegies, the mother was actually gone. I know I will always be the little girl looking for her mother. How to keep writing that same poem–that’s where I need to explore self and craft.
JF: Yes, poets always are writing that same poem, and so it’s more about making sure the vein of inquiry continues. Thank you so much.