Cathy Park Hong’s first book, Translating Mo’Um, made poetry out of a representation of Asian American life that skewers the exoticizing currents in American culture while, at the same time, ironizing and breathing life into the twisting singularities of dialect like few other living poets. “Translating,” in this sense, is what Hong’s work has always made its central labor, but not without a recognition that for a voice deemed “other,” that labor is just as likely to feel bitter, coerced, an act of precarious Scheherazade-like survivalism. Dance Dance Revolution, published in 2007 and chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women’s Prize, realizes Hong’s breathtaking powers on an ambitious scale: it proposes a “Desert” in which exiles, some of whom are survivors of the Kwangju massacre, a violence carried out by the murderous authorities of a US-backed Korean government in 1980—“comparable to Tiananmen Square, brutally repressed with the support of the US,” writes Rich in the citation. In the poems, an unnamed “Historian” (raised in Sierra Leone) along with a local “Guide” who speaks a creole made from hundreds of languages, leads us through the half-apocalyptic half-hopeful (often bitingly hilarious and sad) landscape, imagined in 2016, a year that must’ve seemed just far enough in the future, back in 2007, to be both imaginable and hazy. Set in some over-capitalized desert city something like Dubai or Las Vegas, the book begins:
… Opal o opus,
behole, neon hibiscus bloom beacons!
“Tan Lotion Tanya” billboard … she
your lucent Virgil, den I’s take ova
as talky Virgil … want some tea? Some pelehuu?
Mine vocation your vacation!
… I train mine talk box to talk yep-puh, as you
’Merikkens say “purdy,” no goods only phrases,
Betta de phrase, “purdier” de experience …
Hong’s project—continued in her third and most recent book of poems, Engine Empire—is partly to dramatize the power of a voice at the edge of any known form of communication, at the edge of language, but well before it has subsumed itself into postmodern noise. Her third book conjures fragments and imaginary translations, ballads and voices, ranging in their settings from industrial, boom-town China to some unknown future hellscape. Equal parts awe and fear, chutzpah and redemption. With titles like “The Engineer of Vertical Frontiers” and “Of the Mega C-City Supermarket.”
And so it’s perhaps not shocking that Hong’s most recent work is subtitled “An Asian American Reckoning,” and its title, belying its significance, is Minor Feelings. The work is prose, a kind of intellectual memoir tracing Hong’s development as a person and a poet, a book with one foot in the genre of the kunstlerroman, the artist’s novel. Except it’s not fiction. It’s an account of her childhood as the daughter of Korean immigrants, a childhood in which her feelings of shame and suspicion, she later would write, were early indicators that the American dream, in all its dewy-eyed optimism, clashed with her own racialized experience of life in this country. This is partly the tradition of James Baldwin, R. O. Kwon, and Claudia Rankine. In its historical scope, it has the depth of Viet Thanh Nguyen or William Vollmann. It is a harrowing, crucial book: “For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern-day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm. Often at night, I flinched awake and berated myself until dawn’s shiv of light pierced my eyes. My confidence was impoverished from a lifelong diet of conditional love and a society who thinks I’m as interchangeable as lint … ”
JESSE NATHAN: Your recent work has been prose—the stunning and immense and devastating essays of Minor Feeling, for instance—but I wonder if you might dwell a moment on the difference between prose and poetry. What do you turn to prose for, as a reader—or as a writer? What about poetry?
CATHY PARK HONG: I don’t try to distinguish between poetry and prose too much, because I see myself as a bricoleur rather than a practitioner of one genre. In the past, I’ve approached poetry like a fiction writer (invented worlds, writing in the voice of characters) and I approached prose like a poet (resisting closure, writing sentences with a lyric sensibility).
I do see a distinction between my approaches to essay and poetry. In essays, I am more intentional about mapping out the arc of my thinking. I start with a question, which then bears fruit to more questions. I’m also aware that my voice is more “authoritative” because I am making an argument—of sorts— either with myself or with an audience that I might have in mind. But still, the process between poetry and essay writing overlap. Saidiya Hartman called her book Wayward Lives “beautiful experiments.” I see the essay, much like the poem, as an experiment. I permit myself detours and I make associative leaps from paragraph to paragraph much like a poet would from stanza to stanza. What inspires an essay could be as elusive as an image, or a fragment of a memory—in my last essay, “The Indebted” in Minor Feelings, it began with a memory of swimming in the Red Hook pool, for instance, which—on its own—has nothing to do with notions of racial and generational indebtedness, which is what that essay explores. Drafting an essay is like talk therapy, but with a lot more agonizing over sentences.
I allow myself more play in poetry. I love to indulge in language and formal compositions, to follow the sonic friction between two words and see what narrative unfolds from it—strangely, I resist the personal in poetry. I prefer to throw my voice, to impersonate, and stretch language to its limits. I’ve always loved poets who’ve done that—Celan, Hopkins, Coleman, Kearney. Poetry allows me to “just be” on the page, to revel in the sensory, to camp up my phenomenological experience. I find poetry to be very freeing because the process can be so aleatory. But during the pandemic, I resisted writing the way I wrote before—which is to create these elaborate worlds—and to just write daily poems, because our sense of time and the daily was upended. Memories are carved when changes of space occur, but if you’re in the same space, on Zoom, how does that affect memory? So I wrote a suite of poems titled after Williams’ Spring and All—don’t know if I’ll ever publish it. The language is more lax than I allow my poems to be, and they’re more personal, and I’m also hesitant to publish anything pandemic-related, because pandemic literature was a cliché before anyone started writing it. But I will say that whereas before, I was really interested in integrating prose into my poetry, I’m now trying to stay in the lyric mode, see how far I can stretch it. Book-wise, I’m writing this new group of poems about a flood that takes place in a fictionalized village. I’m returning to persona in these poems. I’m also writing a novel—though I hesitate to call it a novel, I like the term “documentary fiction”—about a North Korean terrorist. As I said, I can’t stay in one genre.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.