Q & A: Cathy Park Hong

Are these poems part of a longer work? If so, could you tell us a little about it and how these poems fit in?

It’s the first part of my third collection of poems, which I’m currently working on. This book is about three imagined boom towns. The first section, called “Ballad of Our Jim,” draws inspiration from Westerns. It’s not a series in the strictest sense since there are quite a lot of individual poems. But there is a recurring character named Jim who travels with a band of brothers to a California mining town where he becomes an outlaw assassin. If the poems end up being a bust, I’ll probably turn it into a Hollywood script and make a million bucks.

In “Ballad in A” every single word has an “A” in it. What’s the point of writing under this kind of stricture? What effect are you aiming at in the poem?

I use all sorts of constraints with this series. One can argue that the Western genre is itself a narrative constraint since it’s not only familiar but formulaic: there should be a quest, it should be in the frontier, most likely there will be horses, a shoot out, and rugged taciturn men. It has a certain expected style. But because the Western is so well worn, I wanted to subvert and turn it on its head, so I incorporate unexpected Oulipo forms such as the lipogram. Also, the Western idiom is rather colorful, poetic and absurd, full of assonances and alliterations, and I wanted to exaggerate that by squeezing it through the lipogram form.

Do you think a poem is in some way “responsible” to reality, or does poetry create its own reality? We ask this because the idiom of these poems is not always as obvious to identify as it seems. We’re in the Old West, but then there’s “cantata,” “armada, “mansador,” none of which quite fit with the scene and characters. Is this intentional, and if so, why?

Actually, “armada” and “mansador” do fit Western parlance. What’s wonderful about Western idiom is that it’s not just stoic “When you have to shoot, shoot don’t talk” kind of language. The idiom was pretty heterogeneous, so there was a ton of Spanish in there. I will admit that “cantata” is a stretch. But if characters in Deadwood can go around Tourettically saying “cocksucker,” I figure I can take a few liberties.

But to answer your first question, it all depends on how you define reality. When one writes about the past, isn’t it always a creation of reality? I’m with Wallace Stevens in that “reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into.” It’s our imagination that shapes it. In writing about the past, I’m not interested in a kind of preservationist history but my perception of history and what it’s saying about our consciousness now. The Western genre itself is obviously one big myth, resurrected again and again to justify or critique America’s expansionist policies. I’m adding my two cents, building a myth out of a myth. But in general, as a modus operandi if you will, I have a special interest in creating speculative landscapes and it’s just something I’m drawn to as a poet. So while I draw inspiration from the histories and stories of nineteenth-century California, it’s also very much an internalized world that I’m imagining, where the setting is just as much a character as the people who inhabit it.

My interest in speculative landscapes is manifold. In one sense, I have political motivations. Fredric Jameson talks about speculative landscapes in science fiction and how it’s a way of apprehending the present as history. It’s almost impossible for us to perceive the present because it’s all around us. Speculative landscapes give us a binocular perception of the present moment—it’s a strategy of indirection. My interest in alternate realities is also personal—to want to find a world, you must have lost one. I’m from California and this is my way of finding it again.

A major appeal of these poems is the sheer strangeness of them, and how one learns new things amid the simple sonic pleasures—for instance, “buck nun,” which is a bachelor, or “gat,” which is a gun (but can you tell us what “kack” is and how one can “hang” it, because it can’t be what pops up when you Google the word!). Do your poems emerge out of research, or does some other impulse lead you to do research?

I was intending “kack” to be used in its traditional Western definition, which is “saddle,” and not its current iteration, which is “Moose dick, often used in someone’s mouth.”

Usually, I have some idea, or pull, that leads me to exploratory research. I love researching—it’s how I draw my raw materials for the worlds that I am creating. Like most poets, I’m probably a wildly random reader. So for these poems, I was reading Zane Grey, Larry McMurtry, miners’ diaries, as well as seeing Western movies, of course, but also—you could probably tell—old dictionaries. I love researching the history of words. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the ways in which rhymes could be kept fresh, which is to constantly enlarge stock “by the revival of obsolete words and inflections.” Like certain poets, I tend to be a lexical integrationist. I’m always interested in reviving extinct argot as a means of enlarging the stock of our current poetic vocabulary, as my own means of keeping language alive.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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