Poet and comedian STINE AN: Part I
In this series, I’ve been exploring poetry through intersections with visual art, cinema, and new media. Through taking up the question of the politics of play, I’m interested in exploring how playing across genres, mediums, forms, disciplines, and departments, etc. makes for new kinds of innovative art, thinking, community, and specifically poetry. In doing so, the hybridity of practices better intervenes and gestures toward transformative futures. The current conspiracy-us versus them- culture perhaps exemplifies the problem of singular thinking and the need for creative, eclectic, and innovative practices more than ever. I’ve long been moved by poets with practices that cross over boundaries and intervene in dichotomous logics. With attention to justice, the series also explores how multiple forms of art practice prompt us to reimagine a different kind of world, as strategy and survival and playfully ask how play lends itself to more libratory ways of creation and practice.
Poet-comedians like Stine An embodies this expansive and playful practice. Her poetry explores Korean diaspora, and questions of longing, food politics, and home. Through playful, poignant, and experimentation with form, Stine’s poems such as “KFC, or the taste of success is — wait for it — tender on the outside, tough on the inside,” and “Real Imitation Crab Meat” offer how playfulness in poetry and food politics creates new avenues of the poetics of the diaspora. You can read both poems at a recent issue of Electric Literature.
In addition to being a poet and MFA candidate, Stine is a stand-up comedian. Her innovative comedy plays with contemporary musings of dating, dress, aesthetics, and relationships. In a performance at the Comedy Club in Cambridge, Stine is dressed in a vintage tourquiose and blue flowered printed button up shirt, baggy lavender pants, and funky pale pink glasses. Her jokes, “I like my men like my public restrooms,” “Everyone remembers the class clown, but who remembers the class juggler?” are delivered with care, deadpan, and measured seriousness and with gestures that demonstrate a performative control that seems comfortable, as if we were talking at a party we met, near the corner, where the drinks are in the bathtub. In yearbooks, she says to the adage don’t ever change, “I think we should be writing, please change. A lot.” References to John Cage’s 4’33, Stine’s comedy speaks to an educated and artistic audience, and dismantles racial and gendered stereotypes through measured, humorous, intelligent comedy, and embodied performance of the everyday: www.jokestine.com.
In the spirit of the interview as a feminist consciousness-raising practice, and of knowledge production and exchange, I’m pleased to interview Stine on her poetry and comedy. Please see below for the first part of an interview on her experience of becoming a poet and comedian and her poem “B-Dragon Acquires Kafka’s Axe and Wonders …”
Biography: Stine An (안수연) is a Korean American poet and comedian based in Providence, RI. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature, the minnesota review, Ohio Edit, Nat. Brut, and the Best American Experimental Writing series. Stine is an MFA candidate in Literary Arts at Brown University and a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship recipient. Website: gregorspamsa.com.
B-Dragon Acquires Kafka’s Axe and Wonders …
What is Kafka’s axe doing here?
What will I do with Kafka’s axe?
Do I contain a frozen sea?
Why is the sea frozen?
B-Dragon considers falling on Kafka’s axe.
And then doesn’t.
Decides to wait for a real emergency.
Tip: When your heart is frozen like a block of ice, break open the glass case containing Kafka’s axe. You can use Kafka’s axe to hack your heart into a shaved ice dessert for easier consumption.
1) How did your interests as a comic, and poet begin, and did these journeys intersect?
Growing up, I never thought I would be doing comedy or poetry. I was neither the class clown nor the class poet. I think I’ve stuck with comedy and poetry because I’m surprised to be doing both, and I like the idea of living a life that is surprising to me.
I loved reading and sharing jokes as a child in both Korean and English. I don’t think I understood a lot of the jokes I was reading at the time, but I was curious about what jokes were and how they worked. I remember carrying around a thick joke book in the third grade (the title of the book was JOKES or something like that). I didn’t quite understand why the jokes were supposed to be funny, but I wanted to understand them and how they worked. There was a mysterious magic to making people laugh and being funny, so a part of me wanted to study how that worked. I remember learning the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke in the second grade, and I don’t think I really understood that it was an anti-joke until college. I actually loved the social and performative aspects of joke-telling: “Here’s a joke I like. Let me share it with you. Please like me.” It was a kind of cultural currency you could carry around with you. I remember exchanging both Korean and English language jokes in elementary school because I grew up in a diverse community and there were always other students who spoke Korean. A lot of those jokes were pun-based. I remember sometimes sharing those jokes with my parents or grandparents when I would get home from school.
I’ve long admired funny people and performers. Growing up, it was clear to me that I was one of the least funny people in my extended family, so I’ve always paid attention to funny people because I wanted to be funny too. I loved watching Demetri Martin’s stand-up comedy and multimedia work in high school. I also really enjoyed watching British sketch comedy, and I would watch Korean sketch comedy programs (like Gag Concert) and variety shows with my parents. In hindsight, I think I really enjoyed the combination of wordplay, concept, performance, and irreverence (whether it’s toward social norms, expected language and gesture, or conventional logic) in comedy performances. I still have a soft spot for physical comedy, gags, and jokes that are fun (or silly even).
2) When did you start writing jokes? Can you tell us more about your process?
I started writing jokes in college when I was trying out for a campus humor magazine. I was apprehensive about trying out as a writer. Most of the staff writers were white men who, as far as I could tell, came from a lot of privilege. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I was on full financial aid at an elite institution that at the time was recruiting first-gen and low-income students for diversity without fully supporting us. At the same time, I had noticed that a lot of the Korean American writers who were writing for major sitcoms at the time (e.g. The Office and 30 Rock) had came through this magazine, and I appreciated that there had been other Asian American writers on the writing staff. While I had zero experience writing jokes when I started out, I liked the opportunity to experience comedy more deeply, explore my own sense of humor, and make an attempt at being funny. I remember the moments when I was able to make myself or another person laugh through a joke I had written and how amazing that felt.
I never made it onto the magazine, but by the end of my junior year I had lots of jokes I had written (stacks of printouts and handwritten notebooks). Looking back, I don’t think the magazine would have been a good fit for me because I didn’t feel comfortable with its culture at the time. I didn’t want my writing to be for nought, so I attended a meeting for the campus stand-up comedy club. They welcomed everyone, and it was one of the few spaces where I felt people saw promise in my sense of humor and encouraged me to develop that sensibility rather than have me write toward an existing comedy aesthetic.
3) Can you tell us more about your stand-up performance?
Starting out, I wasn’t a particularly strong performer (and I’m still learning how to be a better performer), but I had some strong jokes from all the joke-writing practice that I could just memorize and perform as one-liners using a deadpan delivery style. I loved making people laugh while on stage and also wanted to perform as a way of learning how to be less afraid of speaking in front of a crowd. I ended up serving as the copresident of the stand-up comedy club, and doing stand-up comedy in college became a transformative experience. It broadened my sense of who I was and what I could do, and I even ended up performing stand-up comedy in front of my entire graduating class for the senior talent show.
4) When did your journey in poetry, and comedy converge?
I was planning on retiring from stand-up comedy after I graduated from college. I didn’t think I was particularly funny (probably on account of imposter syndrome among other things), and I was also very concerned about other things in life at the time. I was planning on retiring from comedy, but then I was invited to do a month-long stand-up comedy residency at a comedy club in Cambridge, Massachusetts called The Comedy Studio by the club owner who had seen me perform a few times. I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time working as an unpaid intern at an art museum and living off of what little savings I did have. I couldn’t find a more permanent job in Santa Fe at the time, so the invitation for the residency became a sign to move back to Boston. I was planning on declining it, but my friends encouraged me to go for it because it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” At the time, I had performed in only a handful of shows outside of lecture halls or school venues. It seemed like a terrifying thing to do, so I did it. And I’ve kept with comedy, because stand-up has been an amazing way to meet interesting people, grow as a performer and person, participate in an artistic community, and gain confidence in taking risks and developing a healthier relationship to failure and rejection.
5) And for poetry?
As for my journey in poetry, I mostly wrote prose and fiction in college. I didn’t write poetry and didn’t see myself as a poet. My exposure to poetry was pretty limited in college, and I didn’t see myself as the audience or the creator of that poetry. Interestingly, my path to poetry was probably drawing. In college, I drew a comic strip for the school paper and also drew a comics column on aesthetics for the arts section. I don’t draw anymore, but I was happy to have time to just draw for hours. I took a drawing class in my senior year with the artist and professor Katarina Burin. Taking her class helped me think about the connections between thinking, drawing, and writing. People don’t draw what they see, they draw what they think they see. Drawing, like writing, is closely inflected by thought. I became interested in that conceptual dimension of drawing — learning to “see” or “look” at something and then putting it onto paper. I was creating drawings that incorporated found language and text. I was really inspired by her class and pedagogy. After I graduated, she invited me to work as a studio assistant for her, and even when I was later working in communications and academic research jobs she encouraged me to continue developing my arts practice, whether it was through performing comedy, organizing salons, curating art shows, or drawing comics.
6) When did you pursue seriously the practice of poetry and comedy?
When I was in my late twenties I asked myself what I would regret, and the answer was not giving myself dedicated time and space to develop as an artist, whatever that meant. I grew up with a lot of financial instability and even to this day feel the need to not only be able to support myself but to be able to support my family in the long run, whether it’s providing financial support or having the emotional and mental reserves to be a caretaker in a way that I hope will be sustainable for me. I had been working as a writer in tech. I had saved and set down some foundations for financial independence, so I thought I could start asking myself what I wanted to do. When I asked my mentor about MFA programs to apply to, she recommended applying to a low-residency arts MFA program with a reputation for supporting experimental, interdisciplinary work. The pedagogy is based on community crits and one-on-one conversations with faculty members across disciplines: Film/Video, Music/Sound, Sculpture, Painting, Photography, and Writing. I liked the idea of being in conversation with artists, and I was hoping to find a way to combine all of my different interests into a more coherent arts practice. I applied to the Writing discipline because writing was a throughline in my work, and I was so excited by the faculty and visiting faculty. I resonated with their work as well as their poetics (although I didn’t know what poetics were at the time).
While the program wasn’t fully funded, I hoped to be able to work between the sessions to pay for the tuition. I was so excited and happy when I found out I had been accepted to the Bard MFA program. I quit my full-time job in order to attend. It was financially risky. I remember one of my friends sitting me down and helping me go through the numbers to help reassure me that I could make it work with the student loans and more. It did seem doable.
I started writing poetry at Bard because that summer session most of the writing faculty happened to be poets, and I was excited to try something new. I didn’t really know what poetry was, but I was inspired by the conversations on writing with faculty members, so I wrote what I thought was poetry. In writing what I thought was poetry, something clicked for me, and I realized that the possibility of poetry offered me more space to explore my relationship to language.
7) Did you change paths to your current MFA program in poetry?
Long story short, I ended up taking a leave of absence and then withdrew from the program due to the financial difficulties of a low-residency program. While it was a really tough decision to make, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with taking out student loans when I didn’t have a plan for paying them back. I was also anxious about building a financial safety net for myself and my parents and brother down the line. I was working two additional jobs outside of my full-time job at one point because I was so determined to pay off my student loans as soon as possible. I reached a breaking point and quit my side jobs.
Around this time, I had also found out that one of my poems had been accepted from the slush pile for the Best American Experimental Writing series. It felt like a sign to continue exploring poetry. The timing seemed auspicious. With support and recommendations from the faculty members at Bard, I ended up preparing an application to the Brown MFA program with the poems I had started writing at Bard. It’s not something I would have done even two years before because I didn’t see myself as a poet.
Brown was the only program I applied to because it was my only option at the time in terms of application requirements, location, funding, experimental aesthetics, interdisciplinary pedagogy, and faculty diversity. I applied because the timing made sense to try again with an MFA program. I was so happy and grateful to receive an offer to attend because I could continue building on the momentum. I ended up quitting my full-time job in Boston to move to Providence to start the MFA program. I remember crying in my room during my first few weeks on campus because I was so grateful to be able to focus on my writing practice without worrying too much about my finances. It took a lot of work and personal growth to convince myself to not work at all outside of my studies.