First Book Poets In Conversation:
Ivy Alvarez & Lee Herrick (Summer 2007) Part 2
is the author of Mortal
(Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). A MacDowell and Hawthornden
Fellow, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Welsh Academi both
awarded her a grant to write poems for her second manuscript.
Lee Herrick is the author of This Many Miles from
Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). He was born in Seoul,
Korea and adopted at eleven months. His poems have been published
in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Berkeley Poetry Review,
Hawaii Pacific Review, The Bloomsbury Review, Many Mountains Moving
and MiPOesias, among others, and in anthologies such as
Seeds from a Silent Tree: An Anthology of Korean Adoptees,
Hurricane Blues: Poems About Katrina and Rita, and
Highway 99: A Literary Journey through Californiaís Great Central
Valley, 2nd edition. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine
In the Grove and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
He is a Professor of English at Fresno City College and lives in Fresno, California.
LH: Youíd asked about my use of rhyme, which is rare in my poems. For example, the line ďhow leaves reappear in the trees with such ease,Ē perfect rhyme is employed, and to be honest it was not planned and is certainly never at the forefront of anything I am trying to do when I write. I would say that two rather divergent forces found their way into that line. First, an image of a leaf reappearing easily in a tree presumes that it was gone or nearly gone in the first place. I imagine that normally it would take time and some work of nature for such a thing to occur, although it happens every day on millions of trees, no doubt. So with the poem being about adoption, I was thinking about meditation and reformation and adoption, the idea of an international or transracial adoptee acclimating to an entirely new country and how for some it is a rather simple transition and for others (or most, I would venture to say) it is a rigorous process that I couldnít even begin to explain here. I suppose that was the image that just came out (the leaves in the trees). Second, quite frankly I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock and rap music, and sometimes that background emerges. Itís been relegated to the back burner amidst a lot of other music and reading influences, but my first concerts were groups like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. I would guess that there are fewer than five lines of actual rhyme in my entire book, but when they do appear, I donít fight them. I thought about changing the lines, but I kind of liked them in the end. I often enjoy the disorienting structure or sound of some poems, but I am most often rooted to a certain sense of rhythm in a poem. It occasionally adheres to some loose sense of meter, but most often I am quite off the grid when it comes to syllabic counts or something like that.
What are your thoughts on rhyme and rhythm? What are your thoughts on capitalization?
Your other question was about the ďbehind-the-scenes process for preparing the book for publication, things such as negotiating the contract, editing the book, reading proofs.Ē Regarding contract negotiations, to be honest I was so new to this and was so happy in the first place just to have my book accepted for publication, I wasnít too pushy or demanding. This was not a contest that I entered but an open reading period. I did not know anyone at WordTech, but I knew of some of their authorsí books and respected them highly, so I submitted it there for that reason. A few of their authors whose work I knew include Nick Carbů, Allison Joseph, Liza Weiland, Kelli Russell Agodon, and Ravi Shankar, so I knew that they published good work and I also knew that my poetry would or could potentially be a good fit with them.
When I got (Editor) Kevin Walzerís e-mail saying they wanted to publish it, I was ecstatic. I had only sent it out for about a year, and so it was accepted sooner than I thought it would be. I sat on the contract for a short time, a few weeks maybe, while I consulted a few friends about it. The terms of the contract were good (I have a standard royalty contract) and they have national distribution, which I was happy about. Anyway, I signed the contract and sent it back after a few weeks and was thrilled. Sometimes itís still amazing for me to think about. In the time between signing the contract and receiving the actual book, there was a lot of proof work, where they showed me galleys and whatnot. They have a graphics design person, but they were completely willing to allow me to design or suggest a design for the cover. The cover photograph is one that my wife took while were in Hoi An, Viet Nam, about five years ago.
I also feel good that my editors are so helpful (and quick) with e-mail.†Iíve never felt like they werenít responsive to my concerns, and while I try not to bother them with too many things, Iím glad I can contact them. They also send out press releases and have some other promotional things that Iím grateful for. All in all, my experience with WordTech has been as good as I could ask for.
I remember reading a little about how you came to publish with your press. If I remember right, they are a new press, right? How has your experience been? Do you have advice for writers who are trying to get a first book published?
As for any ďstrange reactionsĒ to my book or readings, I havenít had too many of those, except for perhaps the slightly personalized interpretations of a poem that are to be expected. I sometimes have people respond that my†poems can be ďheavyĒ or ďhaunting,Ē and while I used to be unsure of those comments, I suppose I can now understand where they come from. Much of my first book deals with ideas that are not linear in terms of family or history, so there is room for those kinds of responses. My book is also rather new (just came out a few weeks ago as I write this) and reviews and most of my readings are forthcoming, so perhaps I should brace myself for more unusual or unexpected responses...
Have you had some strange responses to your book?
IA: Your punk/rock/rap music influences were an interesting revelation. Music and lyrics certainly has its influences on poets and poetry, I think. When you say that you donít go against or fight rhyme when it appears in your poems, it sounds like you form your work organically, if that is the right term. Depending on the poem, how often would you say you draft or rewrite a poem?
Now your questions on rhyme, rhythm and capitalisation [Iím going to stick with the Australian/British spelling here] are very exciting to me. Okay, rhyme is something I like to use for its sonic effects. I am very honed in to hearing how a poem sounds and Iím lucky enough that I can actually hear a poem inside my head without needing to speak it aloud. I know this is not unique. Iím sure a lot of people have this ability, too! But it helps me, anyway, when I write a poem. With some poems, I know Iíve chosen words more for how they sound and less for what they mean. Of course it has to make sense, but I think my theory is that the sound conveys meaning.
Rhythm is also important. I love to play around with rhyme and rhythm, love to try my hand at various forms. I think itís all about experimenting, pushing myself, not wanting to get staid. Iím not so confident about my ability to read stresses in a line, for instance, but there seems to be some internal metronome at work, anyway.
Form is important in Mortal. I had mentioned earlier on that I envisioned the Demeter and Persephone sequence as being a tapestry painting. The poems in this sequence reflect this formal conceit: two are sonnets and oneís a villanelle. Having said that, I donít believe forms should be all about bringing attention to themselves. In fact, I try to make the structure be as invisible as possible.
With regards to capitalisation, well, this is one of the most interesting questions of all. As you know, I grew up in Australia and so a lot of the poetry I read are other Australiansí work. While a number of Australian poets, particularly those with a British background, write in a more traditional and formal style -- by which I mean, capitalisation of first words of lines, titles and so on -- the Australian poetry that I enjoyed goes against and rebels against this traditional and British formality. Weíre all about shaking our fists at authority, I think.
There are also other, more aesthetic concerns behind choosing to capitalise or not. A line is easier to read when itís not held up by a capital at the start -- itís smoother and less abrupt. Capitalising a word emphasises its importance, so choosing not to do so places a word on the same level as the others on a line. Sometimes the choice is instinctive, though, and the reasons ineffable.
Red Morning Press has been very supportive about some of my more idiosyncratic decisions. Like your editors, mine have also been quick to respond to concerns. When I joined, RMP had published Sean Nortonís Bad With Faces. Jen Tynes and I were signed up around the same time. My experience with RMP continues to be very positive. I really like the care they take with explaining what goes on with publishing a book and that theyíre committed to working with their authors over the long term.
You asked if I have advice for writers who are trying to get a first book published. Well, this bit is addressed to those writers: for what itís worth, one piece of advice would be to research a press as much as you can. Buy the books, or read sample poems, find out if the people in the press are your kind of people. If your aesthetics and your poetry are simpatico with what they have published before and you think your poems are what they might like, then I think your chances of starting a dialogue with a press is more likely. And if you believe in your book, donít give up. You only need one Ďyesí and youíre away.
I havenít had any very strange responses to my book so far. However, there have been one or two unexpected responses from readers who are, not exactly averse, but resistant to the theme of mother-daughter relationships. Itís not anything that these readers have articulated but more something Iíve sensed in relation to my book. I guess it just probably does not interest them. One canít be interested in everything. I probably should have expected that reaction but for some reason, I hadnít.
Thinking about what you said about peopleís personalised interpretations, Iím guessing this is when people assume the ĎIí speaker is you. What do you think of your readers sharing their reactions and interpretations of your work with you? Is it something that interests you?
LH: I found your discussion of your work (situated in the rebellious Australian spirit against the British formality) very interesting. It provides a new way to read the poems in Mortal, which I appreciate. And now, having read your ideas on capitalisation (I like your spelling), I am thinking of the democratization of the words and the reliance on sound as opposed to truth in a poem, and I see we share this view of poetry and sound. I always remember Richard Hugoís mantra that one owes the truth nothing in a poem. Like you, I often prefer a word for its Ďsonic effectsí (your term, which I liked very much) rather than its truth. So, since the poem for me often becomes a series of artistic or semantic arrangements rather than some account of truth or history (I am thinking about some of my ďIĒ poems), I am not overly concerned with a readerís questions of cultural or autobiographical authenticity, since the poem never had the goal in mind in the first place.
This relates to your question about my interest in readers sharing their ideas or interpretations of their work with me. Itís interesting to me, I suppose. I would have to think more about the extent to which it is interesting, however, and the ways that other opinions or interpretations concern me. This almost gets back to one of our early discussions about reviews. They matter and they donít, I suppose. They surely do not matter in the early stages of writing---those are very important moments to me, the early seeds of a poem, say a line or an image of a storeowner waving away a persistent fly or an ownerless dog in the plaza eating someoneís leftover croissant---when these images come to me, the last thing in the world I am thinking about is a critic. Of course, critical discussion is interesting and important, but it is very far removed from what I am enjoying about the work of a poem. Now if a reader wants to share what he or she liked or was confused about in one of my poems, then yes, that can be interesting to hear (although I donít know how effective I am at explaining what something in my poem means). If anything, maybe it is a letdown. I donít really know.
What do you think?
On revision(s), yes, nearly all of my poems are revised quite a bit. Reading and being influenced by the West Coast Beat writers, I am drawn to the romance of less revision, but I canít write that way. Of all the poems in my book, I would say that only one of them, ďBelief,Ē was written in a flurry of some zone-like state where the entire poem wrote itself and later underwent hardly any revision. Most of them I write over the course of months or years. Things need space. Or maybe itís just a different way of working. Do your poems gestate? The initial drafts of mine often come in waves. For example, once the line came to me, ďnot quite the rose but not quite the roots,Ē and I knew I would use it in a poem some time. It just took a few months for the rest of that poem to arrive, you know? I donít force the rest of the poem. Eventually, that line became the middle portion of a short poem early in the book called ďAdoption Music,Ē after the line ďsomewhere between mothers,Ē which is a state (literal and figurative) that I think adoptees often experience. Anyway, my point is that yes, I suppose my poems form organically. But I wish I could hammer them out more quickly sometimes.
How have your discussions with Suzanne Frischkorn impacted your current thinking about poetry? Is there a book or writer (poet or otherwise) who was always in the back of your mind as you wrote?). Who did you think of, mostly (and occasionally), when you wrote Mortal. Who do you think of now?
IA: I mentioned to another poet about our conversation on capitalisation and she pointed out to me the significant American influence of poets such as e.e. cummings. I thought that was a very good observation. Most likely, a number of Australian poets would have followed various poetry movements as published in US journals and so on, and would have been much influenced by that. They in turn would have spread it in the Australian literary scene, through journals and their own books. I think thatís quite an interesting theory.
As for readers sharing their interpretations, I think my interest stems from a need to learn something new about how poetry is read. Not only do I get fresh insights into a particular poem but also, more importantly for me, I learn anew how people engage with a poem. While a poet knows several of the possible interpretations for their poem, I think there will always be more that are unknown to the poet and not completely realised until the reader comes to the poem, too. As I may have mentioned, I donít like prescribing any one true interpretation for a poem. The tapestry conceit for the Persephone/Demeter poems, for instance -- I donít think itís necessary for a reader to know that about the sequence. It was mainly constructed as a way for me to get a handle on the material. I like poetryís open-endedness, its ambiguities and I believe in preserving that. I see no point in giving my interpretation, if even I have one. All that I mean to write is in the poem.
Related to that, whenever Iím asked what a poem of mine means, I usually try to steer it back to the questioner. And Iím always curious to know about whether readers get anything out of the experience of reading poetry. What do they get at first reading? How likely are they to go back for a second reading? Those are the kinds of questions Iíd like answered. So often though, when I ask people what they think of a poem, they preface their statements by saying Ďtheyíre not an expertí or Ďthey do not know much about poetryí, which I find a little saddening. I donít think poetry belongs to the experts but to everybody, anybody whoís open to it and with eyes to see and ears to listen. Perhaps not even that. Sometimes I think poetry has a resonance your body comes to know.
When you say that the poem becomes Ďa series of artistic or semantic arrangements rather than some account of truth or historyí, I agree with your statement to a large extent. However, I also believe that a poem has its own truth, no matter how strange or unfactual it might be, and that one writes in the same manner that a marble sculptor or archaeologist works to reveal or excavate what is hidden and true.
Reading about your process on revision and your idea that things need space makes me feel that I must be a very impulsive writer compared to you and other poets I know. When Iím in the right space and things are really clicking along, I can write a poem and finish it quickly, because I know itís done and there is nothing more I can do to it. I enjoy that feeling of gratification and I donít question this knowledge of Ďdonenessí. But it differs from poem to poem. Sometimes I leave a poem for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes. Recently, I wrote a poem that I started in January and have now just united it with its latter half this week, mid-August. Itís different every time and I enjoy learning something new, as dictated by the poem. I am led by the poemís impulse every time. I think every poet must be, right?
Your question on which book or writer I thought of when I wrote Mortal is a good one. There are two writers who hover around the periphery of this book and the next one. As you may have guessed, Sylvia Plath is a strong influence on my work. I admire her use of language, its immediacy and urgency, and the directness of her gaze on her subject matter. It seems like she just brings everything to bear and I would like to be similarly unflinching. Iíve actually studied her work for my Masters thesis, so itís not just calf love for an amazing poet. She sometimes gets disparaging comments from other writers which, frankly, I donít understand, but there you go. People ought to know that neither her life nor her death are the most interesting things about her, but her poetry. Always the poetry.
An influential book of poems that continues to inform my work is Dorothy Porterís The Monkeyís Mask, a detective novel-in-verse, which was a breakout book in Australia and was, astonishingly, made into a movie a few years ago. I just adore the idea of a book of poems pulling off such a cultural coup. Because the next manuscript Iím working on is a great deal more ambitious than my first, Porterís book will be a touchstone, I feel. And I hear another book of hers, What a Piece of Work, is even better, so Iíll have to read that one, too.
You ask about how my discussions with the poet Suzanne Frischkorn, whom I met recently in Madrid, has impacted my current thinking on poetry. To me, Suzanne is very well read and up-to-date on emerging and contemporary American poets. I also know how she is such a close reader of peopleís work. From this, I have become very aware that slotting poets in particular boxes -- and Iím sure we can think of any number of labels being bandied about on various blogs and listservs -- might actually be more detrimental for a poetry reader than not because, in fact, those labels might not be true or accurate. Iím uncomfortable with labels, anyway. I guess what Iíve learnt is, ĎGo direct to the sourceí. Just read the poems.
Back to the question on behind-the-scenes preparations for publication, Iím interested in your experience of gathering blurbs for the back cover. How did you find it? What are your thoughts on their necessity?
With your poems, you mention God in ĎKorean Adoptee Returns to Seoulí, ĎHandsí and ĎGravityí, and Buddhism in ĎArs Poeticaí: do these religious images appear throughout your book? How significant are these allusions to God and Buddha in your work? I always feel a certain peacefulness arising from your work, Lee. Do you think this has something to do with religion?
Iíve also noticed that two of the poems Iíve read from your book, ĎArs Poeticaí and ĎAdoption Musicí are sonnets. What I find really intriguing, the more I think about it, is how you have used a Western (originally European) form such as the sonnet, so as to contain Asian themes. Thatís quite exciting! Were you conscious of gesturing towards an inner and outer conflict, of the Korean adoptee in a Western world?
A few of the other poems use couplets, which, I find, contributes to this sense of peacefulness, I mentioned earlier. What is the coupletís attraction for you as a poet?
I would also like to know what you think about the labels being bandied about to slot poets in certain boxes, whether this be nature poet or urban poet, avant-garde or lyric poet. I just wonder who does it comfort [for I think it must be for reasons of comfort and convenience that this need for labels arise] and who does it serve to have these labels. What do you think?
LH: You asked about my experience gathering blurbs. I asked five writers for a blurb. I know three of them fairly well---Corrinne Clegg Hales, a wonderful poet who directs the MFA Program at Fresno State. I did not attend that school nor study with her, but I know her through other poets and admire her immensely; Ishle Yi Park, a huge influence although sheís younger than me---she is a huge talent, Korean American like me, and she has a beautiful singing voice too. I carried her first book around with me for months. Last year I got to know her a bit when she read in Fresno. Amy Uyematsu was probably the first APA poet I got to know. She read in Fresno about ten years ago and I approached her after her reading and we talked. Weíve been in touch ever since. Her books are wonderful, and what many people do not know is how much of an activist she was/is. She was a co-editor of one of the first APA readers published at UCLA in the early 1970s. Anyway, I say these things because they were poet-acquaintances of mine. The other two I have never met---Lorna Dee Cervantes and Li-Young Lee. I wonít go into details about the letters I wrote to them or when they responded, but suffice it to say that I was floored by their comments about my poems. I hold both of them in such high regard, it was almost intimidating even writing letters to them, and I certainly had my doubts that they would even write me back, much less that they would take the time to write me a blurb, and I definitely was deeply grateful and humbled that they wrote such affirming things about my work.
You asked about the necessity of blurbs. I donít think they are necessary, actually. But theyíre helpful for a number of reasons. For example, a good blurb can, of course, give a potential reader some context for the poems, but it can also reveal what other writers admire the work. Therefore, when I read blurbs by Duhamel and Carbů (on the back of your book, for example) this may encourage me to buy the book because I admire their work, so I think that they either a) really liked the poems, or b) are a friend of the writer, or c) both a and b. I, for one, am not so much of a New Critic that I will dismiss the ethos of the praise-givers, so who says what matters to me. Yes, I will always rely on and read the poems for their sake and the art always should have the last word, but I am interested in blurbs for what they can do for my initial entry-points into a book or writer.
What was your experience like with blurbs?
Your questions about the God references in my poems are so good and would take me so long to answer, Iíve struggled with it for a few days now, Ivy. I will combine some thoughts on that question with your other question about my attraction to the sonnet form and the couplet as a way to begin, since I think that my answer to your question might change if I were to write it next week. I hope this doesnít get edited out---the importance of a changing or evolving view of (my) poems and their relationship to God.
I can say this, though, as a relative constant---God appears often throughout the book, and he appeared often to me throughout the seven to ten years I was writing this book. So, yes, many poems include some line or reference to God, prayer, doubt or affirmation---because over the years my belief has become more resolute and the poems may reveal that at times. In one sense, I think the title of my book (This Many Miles from Desire) can mean, on one level, a slow movement toward God. Iíll stop here because I donít want to exhaust readersí patience with anecdotes of my troubled past (nor do I want to reveal it for public consumption), but itís true what some people say that poetry can save. So can God. So can many things. So it goes with me and some difficult years I faced in my late twenties and early thirties.
Youíre very perceptive with regard to the sonnet and the couplet in my poems. There was not a conscious nod to the Western form, but I have always been drawn to that particular form. I like history and love. So I was drawn to its origins---the early 14th century poet Franceso Petracha and his over 300 poems to Laura, as the story goes. I also like the tightness of it and the restrictions, the demands of such a short poem. Itís like your poems. Many of them are relatively short, but they somehow contain everything they must. Itís very difficult to do this, but the sonnet allows me the chance to try. How do you do it? Can you talk about form and length in your poems? I find them some of the hardest to write.
Of stanza types, I like the couplet, yes. I also love the fullness of the quatrain, but the couplet†is so perfect. Itís also rather†daring, in my opinion (not in†any new way, of course), in that the two lines are†made more visible and thus draw more attention to themselves as an important part of the poem. Each word is important in a poem, of course, but visually, the couplet extracts itself for a moment†and highlights itself. It also provides a bit of that caesura, which we talked about before. But I love talking about form. I usually teach the villanelle, the ghazal, and the sestina, in addition to a few others. I donít particularly write in these forms, but theyíre vital and beautiful. What is your view of form? Youíve mentioned your next book will have a different feel (although I donít think that was the word you used). I have a friend who is writing a novel in sonnet form. In your opinion, how†much does the rebellious part of a writer dictate the forms she uses? What other factors come into play for you?
Lastly, I want to say that I agree with your comment that ďevery poem has its own truth.Ē I liked that a lot. It takes my view of ďtruthĒ in a poem and stretches it beyond itself. I too like Sylvia Plathís poems. Her work is, as you say, much more important than her death.
Thinking of Plath could launch hours of writing about labels given to poets, another interesting topic you raise, but Iíll stop here for now and let you respond to that first, if you donít mind.
IA: I enjoyed reading about the background behind your blurbs and your experience with blurb gathering. Now that Iíve done it myself, I think itís such a courageous act, that getting the nerve up to ask for very public feedback on oneís work, the possible disappointment, the sheer pleasure that any small praise can give (did they really mean me? my poems?). Well, thatís how it was for me, anyway!
I also liked what you said about blurbs being Ďinitial entry-points into a book or writerí. I forget that yes, they do that for a reader, so itís nice to be reminded. I mean, thatís certainly why I read them. As the one being blurbed, I found that my blurbs gave me three different snapshot-perspectives into my work, so that was very illuminating.
Frankly, my experience with requesting blurbs was a little nerve-wracking. It felt much more than just merely sending oneís poems to a journal: Iím a bit more inured to that process. Blurb-requesting was something new, a bit more urgent because of the emotional investment, a book being something one works on for more than a few years, becoming something wept over in frustration when things werenít going right or cheered over when things finally worked outÖ
I asked five poets to write me blurbs: two had other commitments and three said yes. Iím happy to have received such favourable responses. My body did a whole body-blush when I first read those blurbs. Quite a wonderful feeling, to know that such accomplished poets will take the time and trouble to read oneís work and say things about it.
I really enjoyed reading about how the theme of God and spirituality relates to both your book and your life. Iím sure your readers will also gain a similar enjoyment from your poemsí ability to slow down time so as to consider whatís important.
You asked me to talk about form and length in my poems. With Mortal, I was conscious about wanting to vary style and form, as a way of pushing myself [or do I mean punishing myself?], to go as far as possible with it, and not become staid or complacent. I think also, with the shorter poems, often they are the ones with the greatest emotional charge for me. I write and then I pare it down, so that thereís as little trace of sentimentality as possible, as a way of honouring the subject matter. How thick is that line between merely showing emotion and becoming overindulgent, anyway? Thatís what I tried to learn in writing the book.
I think the poemís form also relates to that idea of truth we talked about earlier. Just as every poem has its own truth, the structure is determined and shaped by the poem. Pretty circular, huh? Itís just that I know Iíve written poems for the pure infuriating fun of working within the strictures of a form. Sometimes surprising things happen within these limits. But I know that, at other times, the poem will not be forced into a particular shape. Itís like water: it finds its own level. Anyway, these are somewhat tentative ruminations on this topic. Maybe ask me again in ten yearsí time.
The first half of this conversation appeared in the previous issue of Boxcar Poetry Review