Osip Mandelstam was a Pistol-Twirling Silk-Popper Buck Nun!

By Harriet Staff

At least, in the newest collection by Cathy Park Hong. If you’ve been waiting to see the desperado side of Russia’s favorite Acmeist, Hong is your ace in the hole. Her forthcoming “Engine Empire” promises more gunslingin’ fun than a stagecoach stick-up. Here’s a sample from her interview with the Paris Review’s Robyn Creswell:

Your West has the familiar accoutrements—Winchesters, buffaloes, teetotalers, and Indians—yet it is eerily unromantic. What’s your reading of the myth of the frontier?

At first, I was nervous about exploring the Old West—it seems like a territory written by and for men. When I told people I was writing Western poems, they were like, Why are you interested? Why not? The Western has been done so many times that anyone can have a go at it. I think of Michael Ondaatje and his Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or the poet Joyelle McSweeney, who made a brilliant mash-up of Hannah Weiner and Annie Oakley. I just saw a terrible Korean film adaptation of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, set in the desert of 1930s Mongolia. The Western is now a global fantasy.

We promised you silk-popper buck nuns:

Your speaker uses a rather gorgeous colloquial, full of echoes and innovations. How did you arrive at it?

I was in Los Angeles one summer and watching a lot of Sergio Leone films, and then my poems began to have this bad accent. This is not unusual, since many of my poems have bad accents. Added to that, I read Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner’s Light in August. I had a couple of wonderful Old West dictionaries, and I also reread Osip Mandelstam’s poetry over and over. He is the odd writer out of that mélange I just mentioned, but there is a hauntedness to Mandelstam’s imagery that I wanted to capture. And I read Harryette Mullen, because she has such great fun with idioms, and I wanted that spirit. The Western vernacular is full of absurd puns, alliterations, scat rhymes, and so much of it incorporates Spanish and Native American languages. I wrote a few lipogram and abecedarian poems to accentuate that liveliness. A phrase I particularly love is “silk-popper,” which means stagecoach driver, or “buck nun,” which means bachelor. Of course, I’m not claiming any kind of authenticity. I was led more by my ear than anything else.

You seem to enjoy the clash of incommensurables—kitschy vernaculars and high lyricism, awkwardness and eloquence, or, in your first book, English and Korean.

I grew up speaking two languages, both of them mangled, so I am quite at home mashing disparate languages, idioms, and vernaculars together. This is probably most evident in my second book, Dance Dance Revolution, where I tried to invent a Creole. Engine Empire is more disciplined, in that I tried to keep it to one colloquial per section. I love finding the most awkward or unpoetic forms of expression and turning them into high lyricism. I’m a magpie for weird words. It’s a good way to help “enlarge the English stock,” as Hopkins once said.

And any double-crossing two-bit chiseler who says otherwise can meet Ms. Hong under the clocktower tomorrow at high noon.

To read the full interview, click here.

Originally Published: August 24th, 2011