Eight discourses between Myung Mi Kim and Divya Victor
Note: Recorded on March 5, 2011. An afternoon at the home of Myung Mi Kim in Buffalo, New York. Transcribed and edited by Divya Victor for Jacket2.
Presented in eight parts:
Beginning with language: Earliest memories of writing.
“Play the Mozart Sonata!”: Musical training and the practice of performance.
Traction and upside-down-ness: The composed and composing body of the writer.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
Intertextual study and co-elaborative composition.
To be “held on either side of this predicament”: Constructing the “poetics” of a poet.
The question of “hybridity”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
The question of “experimental”: Positioning critical terms in contemporary discourse.
In what place streets best known, earliest nickname known
Ah, her child face (as she remembers it)
Ah, her child face (as the photograph of it replaces the memory of it)
— Myung Mi Kim, “There Fishing Three,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Divya Victor: I have some classic hits questions for you. What is your first memory of writing?
Myung Mi Kim: Crazily enough, I can tell you. In retrospect it may become more and more important. For me, not for anybody else. It is not a direct memory. It is an artifact that I found — I have a journal that my sister handmade for me — hand sewn. Pale green on the outside with pale pink paper on the inside. My sister is an artist. She is one of those people that can make anything — textile, furniture, journals …
Victor: How old were you?
Kim: When I first got to the US (nine years old). It was like a gift to me when I arrived. Half my family came first — my dad, my sister, and my younger brother — and six months later, it was me, my oldest brother, and my mom. When we all got together there were all kinds of gifts. She gave it to me then. I don’t have a physical memory of writing in it. Although when I saw it many years later I did remember writing in it.
And Divya, this is the fascinating thing, for me, its all written in this third grader’s Korean! Nary an English word! I didn’t know English! It’s all in Korean. All of it. I didn’t get far into the journal — maybe ten pages. It’s all about how lonely I am, how devastatingly lonely, how I’ve left all my friends. That’s a kind of residual space that I don’t actually remember writing. But when I found the journal again, years later, I thought “Oh, absolutely.” I wish I could remember when everything starts to be in English.
The other primary association I have with writing — and I don’t know how this came to me: my father died, as you know, when I was fourteen. And I wrote a poem about his funeral. I don’t know why or how I wrote a poem. I don’t know if I was already writing poems. But this poem was actually published. My teacher sent it to some English teacher’s journal.
Victor: Do you remember where you wrote it, in your home?
Kim: Absolutely. Right after his funeral. Very much a response to the visual images of the funeral. The snow. He died on Valentine’s Day. The ground was so frozen. I remember thinking that they can’t dig into the snow to put the casket in. Much of the poem is about the colors. The red carnations. The white carnations. Something in that strange, violent juxtaposition of these living flowers, red and white, their colors next to the earth that can’t be broken into. And there is my father’s casket. And my mother who is just trying to heave herself into that hole that has been dug for the casket. The poem somehow notices all of that.
Those two are my distinct memories — of the little girl writing in a Korean journal given to her by her sister and then there is a kind of skip and everything is in English. I’m not sure how I got from the space of the journal to the poem. A four-year gap. This is all to say that I didn’t sit around reading poetry — I wrote it. And if that’s what we mean by someone is brought to writing — because you’re not thinking genre or how this poem bears a resemblance to other poems — you’re just brought to poetry.
Who even came this way, bellow or saw
Thirty and five books
Paper script document
Kinglists proverbs praise phrases
They say it is the ocean
Indistinguishable water horizon net of worth
False vocalization of the consonantal text
Rose thorn and reported ocean
The beginnings of things
— Myung Mi Kim, Dura (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Nightboat Books, 2008).
Victor: When did you start your involvement with music? How did that happen? Did everyone in your family practice?
Kim: That was a very important part of my life. I was maybe five. Everyone might have done it, yes — but I took to it. My parents would trot me out at dinner parties, “play the Mozart Sonata!” Being the youngest, maybe I learned how to enjoy being compliant. Sad as that might be.
But I loved doing that for my parents. I started when I was five and left Korea when I was nine. I was playing a pretty serious repertoire by the time I came here [to the US]. That was a big part of my childhood and adolescence. And as you know, when I went to college I was enrolled in the conservatory. All that to say, I would practice maybe two or three hours a day. It taught me a lot about a) concentration and b) just to get a run of passages right, you’d have to figure out the phrasing you were after, the pitches, the combination of rhythm, volume, what actually constituted a phrase. It had a lot to do with (not necessarily directly) how I think about rhythm, musicality, the line — some of that training is definitely imbedded in my idea of prosody, rhythm, and so forth.
It gave me the ability to reformulate things constantly — which is what practice means, when you practice on an instrument — which is not so different from what it means to practice as a writer.
Victor: It seems like you follow these principles in performances as well. Every time I’ve heard your readings, you ask the question of where the accent should be placed, which combination of pages should be read first, and which should be skipped. The logistics of poetry performances seem to have an analogy with musical practice here.
Kim: Yes. I can’t quite imagine a relationship with a poem, the fact of writing or reading a poem that would be permanently inscribed. More and more, even with texts that exist as “published,” every time I read them, the occasional context matters. I am reading the text in that present moment. There are certain things that are literally sayable, pronounceable, that you think you can get into your body and into your throat and through your breath. And some days you take the same text and you say, “You know, I just cannot say that word today.” Why should I pretend that? Why should I will that? Depending on the day, you can wake up and your mouth feels different, or your nose or throat, or you have some sort of congestion, or you feel more exhausted, or you have less lung capacity. Do you heed that? Yes, for me. Rather than reading the text as it is simply because it is. It’s a way of understanding that the text is absolutely in flux even after the fact of having produced it. Because there is an ongoing relationship with the text you produced, in the past tense, but that text is not inconsolably permanent.
Victor: Absolutely. My decision-making process in composing a setlist revolves around how much I’m ready to spit that day. Because I tend to work with longer, exhausting, fast, sequential list pieces, I feel more ready to expel a lot in front of friends. But, perhaps not everyone thinks of the reading scene this way. I think many think of the text as already accomplished: “I have had my say.” But then the poet is carrying around a cardboard cutout of herself, saying the poem.
Kim: Right, then anyone could, therefore, say that text. Rather than the performance also asserting that (during this particular reading) I am the person who has a relationship to the history of making that text, here are the things that are possible, here are the things that refer, here are the things that I rehear, here are the connections between passages and elements that I’ve not heard before. Can we think of this as part of textual practice? Can we think of continually producing a relationship to the process of producing a text? A continual reengagement? That is what I mean as process. To participate in the reading.
Victor: This is bringing together what you’ve been saying about concentration, discipline, and the practice of the musical instrument and what interests you about attention, inattention, and attunement.
Kim: Maybe a useful model here: there is the moment when you show up and do your piano recital — straight through, it is one time, and the decisions you make hold steady. For me, this is accompanied by the ten thousand ways you could play that one passage in that one piece which I can also hear at that particular moment. So that particular, objectively describable moment is never autonomous from all the other attempts, all the other forays, all the other articulations. Actually I hadn’t thought about this before. Maybe that’s true. One “publishes” and that’s the recital. But [that moment of performance] is never cut off from all the other permutations, all the other possibilities, all the other iterations, and all the ways in which I could hear, or could process, or could place this passage next to that passage. It is perpetual, even while there is the thing called the recital or the thing called the book.
Victor: Yes. That “even while” is crucial — not instead of, but even while and in spite of the book existing, or the poem existing as published object.
Kim: To actually be able to think of compositional space is precisely that predicament. There is the thing that might become palpable as the recital or the book. But for me, this is never distinct from all the attempts, all the possibilities, all the desire for differentiation.
— to represent 14 single and 5 double consonants,
Hangul starts with five basic symbols, which are
shaped to suggest the articulators pronouncing them.
For example, a small square depicts a closed mouth
This is the study book.
— Myung Mi Kim, “Primer,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996).
Victor: Myung, this morning I went to the neurosurgeon. Have you seen the movie The Savages?
Victor: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character has to do that thing where he hangs from a door — it’s called traction. I have to do that. For three months. Three times a day for twenty minutes.
Kim: Three times a day? Do they give you the whole apparatus?
Victor: You fill a giant bladder of water. Then you swing the bladder over a door. And hang it from a metal frame. You strap your face to it. And sort of … squat. There is a mechanical apparatus that stretches your neck so it can release the pressure that’s built up in it.
Kim: Do you know why this is happening? You didn’t have an injury, per se.
Victor: I didn’t have an injury, but I have multiple torn parts. There is a thing called an “annulus” that covers and cushions each spinal disc. It creates the right space between each disc. And if it’s torn, the disc puts too much pressure on the nerve.
Kim: But is it just from wear and tear? Like everyday life?
Victor: Yeah. The doctor said: “Either you’re eighty years old, or you used to play sports.” And, neither is true. It could have been a childhood injury. I used to throw discus.
Kim: Well there you go.
Victor: I was a very mediocre field athlete.
Kim: No, no, I am just trying to imagine you. And I can!
Victor: No, it’s probably a delayed reaction. Age, bad posture. Reading.
Kim: Well. Now I have a picture of you hanging upside down like a bat.
Victor: Actually that’s how all my dissertation writing is going to happen. With the blood rushing to my head.
Kim: You never know, it could kick something over. Right? Something that wouldn’t happen if you were sitting upright, pretending that you were writing. Now this way you just “write” rather than sitting down to write.
Victor: That’s a great idea. And just dictate as I’m hanging?
Kim: Absolutely. Though I don’t know what will happen to your breathing.
Victor: Well, I hold my breath when I write anyways.
Kim: No, this would be good. I want you to breathe when you’re writing rather than hold your breath when you’re writing. Yes, this could actually be quite useful as a process. Well literally to change your physiology — the breathing, the not breathing — I think it will have the potential to convert what you think of as “writing.”
All joking aside, the complete reorientation and readjustment of everything that you associate with the scene of writing. And to be actually given an opportunity to, in some sense, have no “will.” To be upside down. Your body is actually going to be breathing a different way. Your pulse is going to beat in a different way. The sense that might be produced or evoked might alter or shift what it is possible to think. And one might imagine writing as somehow tracking those cracks — it’s not what you know about writing, it’s what you can’t in fact begin to imagine about writing that somehow presents itself or you’re able to catch it in the moment that its appearance starts disappearing. The image of upside-down-ness — and I know it is a product of physical pain — might actually, if nothing else, give you a kind of reprieve or will alleviate the trends and habits that you might have established in relation to writing.
Victor: Yes. I think we do observe (in the sense of religious practice) a very passive pose of the writer. It’s like we’re in the position of supplicants: you walk to the desk, pull out the chair, and behold the tablet on which you etch — I find it to be a very archaic, passive pose to assume — as a scribe.
When you were speaking of bodily exertion or upside-down-ness, where the body has turned into this precarious object that you have no illusion of controlling, I was reminded of an artist I saw last July in L.A. He was running on a treadmill on a public street, right outside the LACE gallery that was hosting him, and right on Hollywood Blvd., wearing a business suit. He had a canvas and a palette. And, as he ran, he was painting portraits of the people who would stand in front of him. And he did this for hours. All evening. And he didn’t seem to stop. And he would line up the portraits. And each of these portraits seemed to get more desperate. I could sense a breakage of the body in the stroke, in his ability to control his hand.
Kim: Yes, I think the cusp between what holds and what breaks as one is writing or as one is perceiving is important. Because we have the idea that in order to compose or make [poetry] something [must already be] holding steady, i.e. there is a perceiving unit at work which then somehow notates and converts via language, rhythm, prosody, if you are a poet. The idea is that something is going to hold in perpetuity. But I guess, for me, the most sobering and humbling and empowering and humiliating and vulnerable response to that is yes and absolutely not. [The act of writing or perceiving] is what holds but can only hold as it is constantly and necessarily shifting and moving and mobilizing itself, rather than calling more steadiness to itself, or it wills a certain kind of stability. So it’s this kind of completely tenuous, incomprehensible, undecidable space between whatever it might mean to “make something” — which is one ear toward the steady, the “upright” — and absolutely understanding that making can only happen literally because one has to be able to be upside down or attentive in ways that you did not know you knew how to be.
Victor: Conquered by something else.
Victor: By your very “position” —
Kim: Yes. Or if not that, then one understands that to be “taken,” “conquered” is also a certain kind of response. It is the presentation again and again of something you don’t already have an experience of.
Un-patterning and un-expectation: Affect, sensory experience, and acts of composition.
|in measure and in collusion separate and bound
by nine entries in the figure of nine propertied
by nine entries in one acre shallow well and pump
hairy snouts arrows in wealth parade of gifts
rain soaked evergreen
note circles heat swelling
familiar dipthong again siege
wrench its nature alloy encumbering
quality of light mineral
— Myung Mi Kim, “III,” in The Bounty (Tucson: Chax Press, 1996), 91.
Victor: We were talking about Wyndham Lewis today and his position against “cultivated naïveté” in reference to Stein and her idea that one assumes a “childlike relationship” to a present. To recall what you were saying about being taken by surprise, or conquered — these things seem like they don’t quite translate into how we think about “play” or naïveté or childlike approaches to language.
Kim: My first instinct when I hear the phrase “naiveté” or “cultivated naïveté” — the reason I used the word “willed” earlier is because I think that in the space where one is doing whatever we’re calling this mode of attention — this willingness to be shaken — there is no will. So the notion of cultivating something, for me at least, prompts a relation to a certain kind of self-reflexive decision to create that kind of space. And I think I’m talking about something related but dissimilar.
Victor: I think what Lewis is calling “cultivated naïveté” is closer to what you meant with “converting” from a stable, perceiving position. There is a translation or conversion that is always “successful” for him.
Kim: But of course, someone could come along and argue — convincingly — that what I’m talking about is also cultivated. But I think I’m much more curious about cultivation that already congregates to itself or magnetizes to itself a reading that is already ready and in place — something is cuing space. And for me, there is nothing. There is nothing being called forward or there is no aggregate or there is nothing that you’re searching for or hoping happens. That is a very different idea of cultivation. You can stick radish seeds in the ground and you expect radishes. But for me, it’s like I put in a radish seed and I got I don’t know what! Something completely otherwise!
Victor: You know, when you talk about this tension, you often use words like “cue” or “trigger” but not in terms of affect. Of course, I’m reading Charles Reznikoff all the time now and whenever he talks about triggers he uses the verb “move”: “I’m always moved to approach.” Which is interesting because he was a walker — he walked all day, everyday, he walked his way through New York city — but he means “moved” in the affective, rather than physiological sense (of walking) — what chokes me up, sentiment, sorrow, joy — but you are talking about it in a sensory way quite distinct from being moved affectively.
Kim: I think that’s certainly part of it. I think that’s one of the layers or the stratas. There is no way to codify this. Let me put it this way: what you are describing is a certain kind of correspondence or equivalence: “I am moved by these kinds of elements … if I have an encounter that resembles a previous encounter I now see that there is a correspondence, or parallel, or equivalence, or constellation effect.” Of course for me that is true. That’s operative. But what I would imagine slightly differently is that its not about moving on those correspondences and equivalences. It’s a lot more unsteady. The notion of being moved by something, the notion of being brought to this sensation, what you are calling “affect,” is precisely that because you don’t know there is this linkage between this event and that event. There is un-patterning, there is un-expectation, I would say.
Victor: Because to say one “is moved” always suggests a successful navigation of that trigger … of what it has caused, and the direction in which it has moved.
Kim: Or being able to recognize it when it’s happening. Obviously, I think, most of us who are brought to language or brought to making art understand profoundly that sensation of recognizing something that is working on you as much as you are working on it. But for me, there can be no assumption about what that is time and again. Because there is always a presentness of that encounter with that thing moving through you. Rather than one being able to classify or recognizing that movement from one moment to another, from one contact to another.
The kind of things that one might be led to see or experience might have some contact with “I,” “myself,” a “perceiving unit” — but I am not making a point of reference — each time you see yourself or have an experience of “That’s what’s happening,” you are not relating it to some other previous moment in which you also had realized it was happening. It’s a lot more vulnerable than to know and to have a safety that says “I’ve had this experience before.”
Victor: The safety of reference?
Kim: The safety of knowing.
Book of Famine, Book of Attempt, Book of Money
Book of Labor, Book of Scribes
Book of Utterances, Book of Hollow Organs,
Book of Tending, Book of Wars, Book of Household,
Book of Protection, Book of Grief, Book as Inquiry
Swerves, oddities, facts, miscues, remnants — threnody and meditation —
the perpetually incomplete task of tracing what enters into the field of perception
(the writing act) — its variegated and grating musics, cadences, and temporalities.
Book as specimen
Book as instruction
The book emerges through cycles of erosion and accretion
— Myung Mi Kim, “Pollen Fossil Record,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 107.
Victor: When I read your work I register all these references to external texts — “Book of Grief,” “Book of Enquiry,” interests in encyclopedias, archives, and so on. How does all of this relate to your study? There is study on one hand that assumes the supplicant’s position — you say, “I’m here to know, to practice, to study” — that seems quite different from your notion of the vulnerable position that we started off talking about in reference to surprising positions for the body to find itself in. To find itself in, rather than to put itself in …
Kim: You see that as paradoxical?
Victor: Not paradoxical. But in a nice oppositional relationship.
Victor: Oh no. Oh, I’m not going to use that word. You said it, not me!
Kim: Clearly your question is a brilliant one: how can you have the impulse to apply study and in the same moment have no relation to that announcement?
Victor: Yes, right.
Kim: In the tension which is never resolvable. To some degree, it is what is produced in that tension that you become, I hope, inable to further and further fine-tune what you mean by either — “study” or “attention.”
Victor: Myung, that’s a trick answer.
Kim: Was I being evasive?
Victor: No, you were being yourself. It’s this great move that you make — you hear a question and then you ask a question of that question — which is another way of negotiating this “opposition” relationship or question and answer that we’re talking about.
Kim: So, wait, we treated that too quickly. How do we understand the productive or unproductive (either way) relationship between opposition and the “D” word that I said (dialectical)? This has come up because you asked that question. And I don’t know any better way than to say sometimes one of those features is more prominent and sometimes the other is more operative. Which is why I’m saying in the “co-elaboration,” in the unwieldy, uncomfortable, conversation that something happens.
What started then and ate through most of a decade
The affliction is very near — and there is no one to help
The dead dog placed around my shoulders — weeks higher than my head
Standing as standing might
[on verso page]
[on recto page]
“I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members
“and removing all the minutest particles of flesh which surround these veins, without causing
“any effusion of blood … and as one single body did not suffice for so long a time.
“it was necessary to proceed by stages with so many bodies as would render my
The Notebooks, Da Vinci
— Myung Mi Kim, “Lamenta,” in Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 40–41.
Victor: I’m trying to imagine your use of materials from other sources, especially in parts of your books that are explicit appropriations — Da Vinci’s notebooks, sixteenth-century texts and so on. I really like this word “co-elaboration” that you’ve used. This is not a decision just as turning yourself upside down in that bat-like position is not the decision you make.
Kim: Right. I’ll say this: when I tend to include material that is very clearly based on reading or something that can be identified as “another,” I do that not because I’m pulling it in. It has found me! I wasn’t looking for it. There wasn’t that study that we’ve been talking about. Or that quote-unquote “cultivated.” I was not looking for a radish seed to produce a radish.
But somehow, you find this text that suddenly multiplies the terms of something you were thinking about or it makes the conversation in your head become so much louder. For me, it is not a question of assemblage, insertion, citation. There is no decision here to include material or matter. It simply couldn’t be avoided. Once you read a text, in the context of other work you think you’re doing, whatever tracking you’re doing, you think, “My God, this one passage, just by its very presence, opens all these possible portals, opens ways of asking the question.” Its presence is one instantiation that opens up to multiple possibilities.
Like the Da Vinci reference you mentioned: to talk about the language of anatomy is to talk about the language of inquiry — to open up the body whether it is of a human or an animal — a scalpel in hand, a very crude scalpel, mind you — to open up the human body for my “scientific inquiry.” The insatiable, clearly over-the-top project — and yet somehow you notice what’s driving the impulse and you multiply that impulse towards what is oftentimes the female body, especially in the book you are bringing up now. In my mind I didn’t know, or maybe I already knew — see, this is the thing — when one writes anything at what point does one have a preexisting sense of where one is going and why and at what point is one led towards something and at what point do things find one? This is the triangulation that we’re talking about. I listened to the intensity of the language of scientific inquiry or experiment or compulsion, “Let me do this! Let me find out!” as a way to understand expansionist consciousness and imperialist impulses.
Victor: Absolutely. Whenever I read the sections titled “Vocalise” in this book, I feel like someone is responding to a Christmas present they just opened: “It’s just what I wanted! The body is just what I wanted!” That’s why I hover on the word “expansionist” in what you just said. Of course to present the body is to provide an autopsy — “to see with one’s eyes” — the body always reflects the enquirer’s expectations. And this is not what all the other sections do. [The sections that use citation or reference to canonical texts] appear the most stable sections and the most upsetting ones because of that. Because as we said earlier, the will to convert that perception, that seeing, is so successful, so fully executed with the scalpel’s inquiry into the body. What should and ought to “reassure” me in the book — the paragraph structure, the form and syntax of the sixteenth-century scientific treatise — is the most upsetting because I realize that its promise has been fulfilled to create the ideal, to create the rational and stable body.
Kim: There’s this strange phenomena … and you’re going to laugh at me and call me evasive … it’s never that one can ever be firmly and finally released from the predicament that this happens. Simply remarking on this phenomenon does not mean that it is going to change or alter or go away. It is being held on either side of this predicament. This is where I think poetry happens. It’s not unilateral. Just because I’ve been able to comment or notice or observe this does not mean we’ve broken through to the other side.
Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage cans?
We had a dalmation
We rode the train on weekends from Seoul to So-Sah where we grew grapes
We are on the patio surrounded by dahlias
Over there, ass is cheap — those girls live to make you happy
Over there, we had a slateblue house with a flat red roof where
I made many snowmen, over there
No, “th”, “th”, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
lean slightly against the back of the top teeth, then bring your
bottom teeth up to barely touch your tongue and breathe out, and
you should feel the tongue vibrating, “th”, “th”, look in the mirror,
And with the distance traveled, as part of it
How often when it rains here is rain there?
One gives over to a language and then
What was given, given over?
— Myung Mi Kim, from “Into Such Assembly,” in Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 1998), 30.
Victor: You’ve said that poetry happens when something is being held on either side of the predicament. You’ve also said that you’re skeptical of the perceiving subject that then converts something into “experience.” Let’s talk about this in terms of scholarship. There is definitely a genre of criticism that wants to believe that formal decisions are traceable, that they go back to a certain — we’re too fancy to say “psychology” now — but it essentially goes back to that: psychology. It imagines that formal strategies are analogies for life experience — speculations on strategies of citation, fragmentation, the use of foreign linguistic characters, white page space, move towards a reading of immigration, displacement, traumas of otherness. What is your sense of this type of critical move? This move premised on being able to “trace” from the page to the person?
Kim: But isn’t this just a brilliant extension and working metaphor for the question we were posing earlier! At what point between the cultivated and the vulnerable are we “making”? One way to begin to respond to your question would be to say I think those kinds of forays into mapping what has prompted the formal thinking onto an actual, lived life is to say: I get it. I don’t disavow it. I think it is valid. On the other hand, I also think how it is then possible, having said that and done that, how does [the critic] leave room for what is not equivalent, not correspondent between those two terms?
It is not sufficient to say, “Let’s look at the link between the information about biography, immigration, disjunction, cultural and linguistic rupture, and the poetry.” I think that is absolutely valid. But I wonder where it is too comfortable a position or comfortable line of thinking and comfortable line of critical activity, as opposed to things that are not settled and uncomfortable about that narrative. To make that narrative into a scrutable trajectory between the “givens” and the formal, compositional, and processual work — I’m curious about what this achieves and what this excludes.
Victor: What I’m hearing is a push for a reading of poetics of “Myung Mi Kim” that is more than the poetics of Myung Mi Kim. And one that doesn’t already operate on the premise that you already “have” a poetics.
Kim: Yes, there is a relentless way in which we want to make a composite of the poet at work, or of the poet’s imaginary, or of the poet’s particular historical context. And I think to some degree no one is ever that transparent or scrutable.
Victor: Right. There is something in the very critical vocabulary itself — “oeuvres,” “careers” — that betrays the premise of imagined transparency between the poet and the work. For instance, my father works as a design and consultation engineer for the city of San Francisco, but I don’t ever call a water-treatment plant a “life work.” Even if he “did” spend a “life” working on it. Whereas for the critic the transparency seems so available. It comes from a wish to totalize, I think.
Kim: I think, yes, there is room to leave a trace of that question — or problematic of what it means to totalize any writer, any poet. Because somehow, totalizing has become a way to estimate or enter a critical discourse about their body of work. The question we proposed earlier: “What does this [method] embrace and leave out?” I think that’s a valid question. It helps address what it means, very generally, to read and respond and write about someone’s work.
Victor: There is, isn’t there, a big difference between claiming “I am reading somebody’s work” and “I am reading the work of somebody.” In the latter construction, there is room for the possibility that that somebody’s body might have been upside down.
Kim: Yes, seriously. We started the entire conversation with the idea of what happens when the basic assumptions — of being “upright,” vertical, sitting down with the idea of sitting down to write — if that’s somehow released from the kind of hold that it has; you’re upside down, you’re more porous, you’re without the kind of access of all sorts (linguistic, formal, graphic, acoustic). If you are without a readily available connection or opening, then what do you have? I am curious about that space which, in some sense, there is no access, or not many things are available and therefore something begins to happen.
Victor: Myung, we have talked in the past about the term that has often been used to describe or corral your work, depending on how one sees it: ‘hybridity.’ You are, for instance, in the American Hybrid anthology from Norton. What do you think about the term ‘hybrid’ or the process of ‘hybridization’?
Kim: It is not unlike what we’ve been talking about a minute ago. Of course there is work to be done between, say, the correlation between the givens of a poet and how they might prompt, cue, prepare the way for formal and linguistic practices.
Of course, hybridization is a fact — like the fact of my immigration, like the fact of my cultural displacement. It has a givenness. But I am curious about the degree to which we let it be an easily nameable easily delegated, easily defined, convenient nomination for something that’s much more complex than a single word might imply.
Victor: That’s a really useful distinction between what is given and what refuses to give itself up for explanation, transfer, conversion, interpretation. I’ve certainly been in situations where my formal strategies have been given different names than other Americans who might have been using similar methods — the difference between, for instance, heteroglossic practices and hybridized vocabularies is too easily elided when my face comes into the picture. The latter is a fantasy attributed to an “immigrant impulse.”
Kim: Yes. Hybrid too easily melds difference. Just “stick” these components together and everything becomes scrutable. You take a little bit of cultural displacement, a little bit of immigration and you stick a little bit of first and second language and tah-dah you have a way to approximate those very deeply historical, cultural, economic, and political realities.
I worry about what is eclipsed, denuded at the mention of “hybridity.” It too easily makes seamless those things. One must see the difficulty. There is no way these elements can come together. Yet, they have to be cognizant of each other and be available to each other. Is there a way to keep problematizing these difficulties, rather than saying “See how they coalesce into a single identity!” or saying “Hybridity is now a calculable, experience-able entity.” The impulse to say that “hybridity” is a singular identity is deeply concerning. If “hybridity” is to be of any use, it has to be always reframing, reconfiguring, and jostling any assumption that anyone can make about identity. For this it will have to question the impulse to resolve the undiagnosable.
she, the weeping work
parade of earnings
| | weight of forelegs and hooves under water
a ripple | birched
— Myung Mi Kim, from River Antes (Oakland, CA: Atticus/Finch Press, 2006).
Victor: What you’ve been saying about the usage of the term “hybridity” goes back to what we were saying about totalizing perception, totalizing a poetics. I like linking this up with what you said about process, and the use of source materials: there is no decision to use, it just couldn’t be helped. As I often say to my students: line breaks aren’t heartbreaks. Similarly, when you immigrate, it can’t be helped. That does not translate into a formal strategy. A strategy is something that can be helped. That’s what a strategy is: something deliberate used to create something else. Basically, my question is coming from a concern about a general trend in criticism that makes life experience (if I dare say that) into metaphors for writing.
Kim: I think this is a profound issue for me. This brings up important satellite questions about naming someone an experimental writer, avant-garde poet, and so on. How is it possible to render one’s actual, lived experience, one’s historical condition? Rather than saying “let’s just make it somehow akin to” … it seems to me that any sort of departure from the given is relegated to the “experiment.”
When I went to Korea, for the first time I realized in a resounding way something that I couldn’t sense in a US context — when someone would ask me “What’s happening in your work” — the quote-unquote “inscrutable,” or “experimental” — I could finally say “It’s not about that.” How can I find a way to indicate the actual experience when that experience doesn’t exist? There are no models, no modes, no form, no linguistic registers that are available. In a sense, you have to rework the entire continuum of language, form, prosody, whatever you’re drawn to as a poet. Saying that in a non-US context and having people say “Oh this is not a methodology, not a strategy, but that this comes out of a particular way in which there is no prior shape, no prior moment, no prior poetry or poetics that you can simply draw from.” You have to literally make it. Hand by hand, finger by finger, foot by foot. You have to make something that allows you, however uncomfortably or comfortably, to work that space — mentally, emotionally, historically, and culturally. Because nothing exists for how you are coming to your own condition.
It’s not, for me, a decision to “experiment.” But it is an “experiment” simply because it does not coalesce or does not hearken to what already exists. If that is what one means by “experiment,” OK then that is what I do. However, I am not necessarily working in the experimental tradition, or building on a genealogy of an experimental convention as it exits. One isn’t always taking a departure from something that exists, one is making it for the first time.
Victor: I have an image of a guinea pig showing someone that part of its back with a patch of flesh charred and red with chemicals, saying “I am participating in this experiment. This is experimental.” The guinea pig is not in the position to ask the crafted questions or pose the hypothesis that the experiment then proves or disproves. My concern is that there is a distinct institutional privilege enacted in the ability to raise your hand and ask the right questions, to pose the likeable hypothesis that gets the funding. The access to this “ability” is problematic or compromised for some.
Kim: Which is why, in a non-US context, you can step out some of the very insular ways in which we talk about art. The desire to make a kind of typology or genealogy of all sorts.
Victor: Right, right. Well, this has been intense.
Kim: Want another drink?
Victor: Sure, yes. Thanks, Myung.
1. From LACE’s website: In a brave attempt to multitask outside HollywoodMerchmART! John Kilduff of Letspainttv.com will jog on his treadmill on the Walk of Fame, while performing various mundane and creative activities (from eating chicken and blending drinks to painting portraits) for a modest fee.