Interview with Poet Kimiko Hahn, By Taylor Caron (2017)

Photo: Colleen McCay

Kimiko Hahn is a nationally recognized and accoladed poet with 10 diverse collections of poetry to her name. These include Volatile, The Artist’s Daughter, The Narrow Road to the Interior: Poems, and the recent Brain Fever. One can track the trajectory of her career by observing the variety of poses and forms her work has taken. Hahn was born in Mount Kisco, New York to a Japanese American mother and a German American father. The rich synthesis of traditions and languages of her background becomes apparent upon reading her work. One collection of poems is inspired by the Japanese form called the zuihitsu, while other poems rely on more Western mythologies and writers. I had the privilege to interview Hahn over email and ask questions about the liminal spaces in her writing, her process of inspiration, and the current political implications to being a poet. Hahn is also a distinguished professor in the MFA program of Queens College, a fact which I’m sure the reader can sense given the generous engagement with her answers.

Taylor Caron: Many of your poems, including the titular piece of Mosquito and Ant, seem interested in the sounds that words produce from a multilingual perspective. I know some writers, such as Junot Díaz, have expressed a feeling of isolation from having to oscillate among different languages. You seem to be endowed with a heightened sensitivity to the common sounds of different languages. How much of that do you credit to your background?

Kimiko Hahn: The playfulness has all to do with my odd background: Eurasian mix, the first two years of my life living in Rome and so I was around Italian, my material grandmother who spoke Japanese and pidgin, … then Romance languages in public school. I’ve always been aware that there were multiple ways to express oneself – and realized that at times a Japanese word didn’t exist in English. Or a word in Spanish such as enero sounds so Japanese that I’m inclined to use it for ‘January’. On the other hand — and I think this is true of many children growing up in households where more than one language is spoken — my relationship to English feels hindered as though I will never be fully articulate. Fortunately, I have a stubborn/confident/shameless streak that mitigates against self-censorship.

TC: I’ve noticed you mention letters or the art of letter writing a few times in your work. Some of your poems even feel like a letter written in verse, as if being addressed to just one person. Do you find this focalized or personalized approach allows you to write more freely? How aware are you of an audience when writing?

KH: The epistolary pieces in Mosquito and Ant, and some of the zuihitsu that contains, say, emails, were written with a real or fictionalized reader-listener. I’m not sure if I am customarily that focused. Perhaps psychologically or incidentally. I think I mostly talk to myself during the initial draft, then revise and consider others in revision. I had a family member stop speaking to me for five years and so I am acutely aware of the writer’s dilemma. However, as far as my personal life, the only people I worry about are my two daughters. A mother’s obligation is to protect. They are both quite indulgent of me and have told me in one way or other that they are proud of me but probably won’t read my poems (“TMI”).

TC: A somewhat related question: The poet Henri Cole once made a distinction between an autobiographical poet and a confessional one. I was wondering if that binary held any meaning for you, particularly in relation to your book The Narrow Road to the Interior. I’m really fascinated by your admiration of the zuihitsu form in relation to the confessional mode. You express this in your poem “The Orient”:
“I love the unabashed first person-it almost risks the confessional / quality that a diary exudes, or that diary-like information can con / tain in a conventional poetic form.”

KH: I suppose an autobiographical poet literally uses her/his life whereas a Confessional one (capital “C”) will write poems that hit an autobiographical tone, as if the material were real. Which it may or may not be. I am not sure if one of those binaries uses poetic license more than the other. I am interested in expressing the Truth of my experiences, not the truth of document. If a red jacket works better in an autobiographical poem than the real black one, then poetic license permits red. This craft device is crucial, changing what was “real” in the service of expression, of the Truth of feeling. It is also a Japanese value. Basho’s famous poetic diary, The Narrow Road to the Interior was actually a combination of two journals that he drafted together to create the more True pilgrimage. Real/unreal is a Buddhist tenet as well. (This altering is strikingly different from our President’s alt-facts!)

TC: Do you begin a poem with a specific source of inspiration or image, or is it more based on word play? A captivating poem like “Translating Ancient Lines into the Vernacular” requires a reader to suspend expectations the title might indicate, but the metaphor clarifies and communicates profoundly. Many of the poems in your more recent collection Toxic Flora operate in a similar way though I can imagine the process of inspiration being more concrete for that book.

KH: I am increasingly fascinated by severe juxtaposition. Titles are part of that sort of juxtaposition, how the title will set up then disrupt the reader’s expectations. I have been rereading post-war Japanese tanka translated by Makoto Ueda:

somehow this impulse
to ask about your birthplace
as I walk with you
through a dusky hallway
at the aquarium         Tawara Machi [1962-]

Back to your question! I like to start with a word or phrase and see where it leads me. Then in revision, to see how to break the poem open – for its emotional essence — by using juxtapositions. Erasures are good for this, too! In “Erasing Love” I composed a long piece on the subject of love; the original article was on oarfish, but because one of the marine-biologists was named Dr. Love, the original text presented incredible potential.

TC: Speaking of Toxic Flora, the way the speaker comes to identify with the natural event is very effective in that, in some cases, there seems to be no separation between the observed event and observer. It’s almost a kind of reverse-personification wherein the speaker’s inner life is animated by the non-human qualities of the animals, insect, or flora. How intuitive was the writing process for those poems? Was it an exercise in poetic discovery, or did you know what the science would metaphorically signify before writing?

KH: I’d say the latter. I began with a word or phrase from a Science Times article and, again, then I’d see where it led me. The difficulty was in trimming out fascinating information on, say, marine birds because it didn’t fit the poem. That book was ten years in the making partly because I clung to the unnecessary material that was actually holding back the lyric. I guess you could say it was one of my discoveries of the lyric.

TC: The poem “Space” is a favorite of mine. By beginning with, literally, a universal perspective in which the speaker cannot conceive of the vast nothingness of space, and relating that incomprehension to the loss of a loved one seems to inherently evade clichéd, comforting answers. Are you more concerned with being evocative over didactic in a poem like this?

KH: The hard work of play lends itself to discovery through association – through what I like to think of as “portals.” I/the reader begins with space and ends up thinking of the dead mother. Or begins with information on size vs. evolution and ends up with the speaker’s husband reaching for things in a high cabinet. … I’m not sure I can write a good poem that is didactic.

TC: A similar question: Do you think poetry is the primary vehicle by which difficult questions can be commented on without having to give definitive answers? I find at least one commonality between your earlier modern zuihitsus and the science inspired poems to be a sense of comfort with the unknown and contradictions.

KH: The word “contradiction” rings in several ways for me. One is the kind of ying/yang in Eastern thought. The second I trace back to my Left wing roots, in the Marxist use of dialectics. In both, contradiction is natural and useful. I encourage my students to consider themes in their or their classmates’ poems, then to see if the opposite is also in motion. I train my graduate students to think and critique in terms of contradictions. And not simplistic hot/cold; black/white. More, black/gray or black/bone. Contradictions create energy. Especially through repetition and reversals.

TC: Do you think much about the trajectory of your career, or how you’ve progressed as an artist? What made Brain Fever the logical follow-up from Toxic Flora?

KH: After Toxic Flora, I vowed no more science. But the writing life doesn’t always give way to “vows.” I wasn’t blocked. I just didn’t feel engaged — so I made up assignments taking one science article and “scribbling” a number of short pieces. I ended up with several sequences triggered from the field of cognitive science.

TC: Your poem “Porch Light” is very powerful in its simplicity and minimalism. Like in other poems, the speaker seems to simultaneously express admiration for a child’s appetite for wonder, while the language works to replicate how a child perceives and makes connections.

KH: In the back of the book, I’ve included triggering quotes that dropped away from the poem, even as an epigraph. For example, “Porch Light,” is a response to: “Theologians have likened this state of pre-awakening to sleep, to darkness, to life underground.” (“The Riddle of Consciousness,” Benedict Carey, NYT, 2/7/10.) The phrase “life underground” brought me back to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The title places the reader in the present and although there isn’t a set point of view until the sixth stanza, I hope there is a growing sense that it belongs to a mother. And of course “his underground vow” refers to Hades who kidnapped Persephone then permitted her to visit her mother during the spring and summer, hence our warm seasons. I wanted the sense of despair that a mother feels when her daughter leaves. It’s a favorite myth – so painful.

TC: I wanted to ask if you think a poet has a specific moral or political obligation. You have a beautiful poem on your reactions to 9/11 called “Trading Words” in which one of the concerns seems to be the distortion of language under conditions of social upheaval and political catastrophe. Many people felt a similar sense of doom and terror on Nov. 9, though of course the wound was more self-inflicted. Does Auden’s line “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie” still resonate with you?

KH: Yes, that line is incredibly moving. And Auden’s close:

May I, composed like [the Just]
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I have words and a personal vision, even a private vision, but do I have the guts to express? I believe my obligation is to be a citizen. And as a writer, I can offer what I am able — which includes words and platform.

TC: Apologies in advance for the generic question, but is there any advice you have for young poets? I know there are many at UConn, and I was curious if you had a moment similar to what Rilke describes in Letters to a Young Poet when you knew this would be your life.

KH: Toss out the map.

TC: Thank you very much for your time. And thank you for your work. Your poems strike a very difficult balance of being both experimental and humane. Formulating these questions has been a true pleasure.

Interview by Taylor Caron