Kimiko Hahn vs. Portals
Danez Smith: She's the vegan garlic aioli to my ginger fication Franny Choi.
Franny Choi: And they're the author of the Nobel Prize winning novel, The Color Purple Nurple, Danez Smith.
Danez Smith: And you're listening to Versus, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.
Franny Choi: Presented by the Poetry Foundation and Post Loudness.
Danez Smith: How are you doing, Franny?
Franny Choi: Hi! I'm good and how are you?
Danez Smith: I'm doing pretty good. I feel like I killed my husband in March and the life insurance check just cleared.
Franny Choi: Yes
Danez Smith: We're in the clear. They arrested my sister for it.
Franny Choi: You should have taken her first. Commandeered her fur closet.
Danez Smith: I'm living a new life. I'm a newly out the closet lesbian with a dead husband. Yes.
Franny Choi: That's a great response, in general to how are you doing. Girl, I feel like a newly out the closet Lesbian with a dead husband.
Danez Smith: A newly out the closet Lesbian with a dead husband.
Franny Choi: Thank God for you.
Danez Smith: My favorite kind of Auntie.
Franny Choi: Yes.
Danez Smith: The one that kills husbands and is always out of the closet.
Franny Choi: Do you feel like you have Auntie's in the world? Who's your top poetic Auntie?
Danez Smith: Oh wow, okay.
Franny Choi: Like poetry Auntie?
Danez Smith: Okay, so a poetry Auntie is then ... lets define it first right? It's different than like a poetry Mom.
Franny Choi: Truly.
Danez Smith: Right?
Franny Choi: Yep.
Danez Smith: Lately I've been feeling like I guess like Tracy K. Smith is like my like rich poetry Auntie.
Franny Choi: That's so nice.
Danez Smith: I know.
Franny Choi: What a nice thing to be, what the hell.
Danez Smith: It's true. I think she's always someone that I looked up in far as the work. It was last year, she's just done a couple of things like she mentioned my book in O Magazine, put me in an anthology that she put together, just like a couple of things where it's felt like she's been like my rich Auntie who doesn't show up to Thanksgiving but is sending a cheque in the mail sometimes and be like "I see you kid. Your mom told me you have good grades”. I've actually gotten the chance to really meet her. I met once before but I got to talk to her for a talk to her for an extended amount of time recently.
Franny Choi: That's so nice.
Danez Smith: I was like "Oh yeah, this is my auntie"
Franny Choi: Haven't you said before that your poetry mom would be Patricia Smith?
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Franny Choi: So it just like a smith family?
Danez Smith: Yeah. My dream is to have a Smith reunion concert. The Smith's reunion concert and its just the three of us.
Franny Choi: That's a dream that could be very possible.
Danez Smith: It's probably coming in 2020. For sure. How about you though, you got a poetry auntie out here in these streets?
Franny Choi: Well, I mean speaking of like literal last name sharing, Don Mee Choi I do feel like is kind of looking out for me sometimes. She it me up to pull me into like a translation project for this Korean, American PHD student I think. But I don't know if she's really like a poetic auntie or she's more like a really cool older cousin that's looking out for me and taking me shopping for skin care. Like my literal cool older cousin did this summer, it was great. I feel like Aimee Nezhukumatathil I also feel like its like someone who's out here kind of looking out for me and putting me on in certain ways and just a beacon of ... "That's how cool I can be" I could be that cool, someday.
Danez Smith: I think that always want to be your auntie but you never want to admit that you want to be your mom but you do want to be your auntie.
Franny Choi: You do want to be your auntie. It's true.
Danez Smith: It's true. I want to be my auntie.
Franny Choi: So shout out to Amy, Dalmy, Tracy and Patricia and all of our —
Danez Smith: Our guest today is a self-proclaimed poetry auntie so one of our former guest Emily Yoon. Kimiko Hahn is the author of nine books of poems including Brain Fever, Toxic Flora both collections prompted by science. The Narrow Road to the Interior which is a beast of a collection, The Unbearable Heart which received the American book award, Earshot which was awarded the Theodore Roethke memorial poetry prize and the association of Asian-American studies Literature award as part of her service to the Clooney Community. She has initiated a chat book festival that is; became an annual event Color sponsored by major literal organizations. Since then, she's added chat books to her publication list including most recently the chat book Brood. Her honor include a Guggenheim fellowship, a PEN/Voelcker award, a Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest writers Award as well as fellowships in the national dominance of the Arts and the New York foundation for the arts. She has taught in graduate programs at the University of Houston and New York University as a distinguish professor in the MFA program of creative writing and literally translation at Queen's College, City University of New York. She also has taught for various literally organizations including the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and Kundiman. In 2016 Hahn was elected president of the board of governors for the poetry society of America, nothing but respect for my President. Let's get into this interview with Kimiko Hahn.
Franny Choi: Yeah.
Danez Smith: This is me eating a carrot and then she'll eat a carrot very quietly.
Kimiko Hahn: Wow, that is really provocative if not sadistic. It could be sadistic.
Danez Smith: It's erotic.
Franny Choi: I think it's like-
Danez Smith: For me. I view it as ... I mean not that it turns me on but I think I view it as erotic.
Kimiko Hahn: Do you have a —
Danez Smith: I don't but I think it's such an intimate type of video that they are usually making. They're always very ... the whispering and they're always very close to the camera. I feel like it's always a woman, I've never seen a man doing it. I don't know, something about it feels like ... I think because I understand that they're trying to make tingly sensations happen to somebody. I'm like "This is sexual"
Kimiko Hahn: As a person who suffers or who experiences that it's not necessarily erotic for them.
Danez Smith: No but it is pleasurable I think.
Kimiko Hahn: Well if it's pleasurable then it's not sadistic. Got you.
Franny Choi: Yeah. Think more fetishistic.
Danez Smith: Oh, I wonder if people who experience pain from it though and kind of like the experience of it, which still makes it erotic but sadistic erotic.
Franny Choi: Interesting. Any way here we are in the studio.
Kimiko Hahn: Now I know. Okay.
Franny Choi: Sorry, now you all got me feeling like a sub. It's still really ... thinking about how I always want to be punished.
Kimiko Hahn: We could make that happen.
Franny Choi: Yes.
Kimiko Hahn: Hey I've been teaching for 20 years.
Franny Choi: We are going to have a good time.
Kimiko Hahn: I'm going to lose my job.
Franny Choi: Well, we are so happy Kimiko to have you here with us. Thank you so much for being here and you're reading last night you read with Emily Yoon at the Poetry Foundation who was the guest on our show like a few episodes back. Have you all met before?
Kimiko Hahn: She was a student in my grad class NYU where I occasionally moonlight should I say and I was the one who took all the pages of her many poems of her potential thesis and we laid it out. I can't remember whether it was on the floor or on a desk but we laid it all out and we looked at it. Which was really fun.
Franny Choi: That's so great. It must have been nice to do that reading together and have this book review.
Kimiko Hahn: I love doing that.
Danez Smith: What's that experience like seeing the students that you get to work with now being full fledged writers in the world? Is there a type of I don't know, parental pride that you feel?
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah. I mean with someone like Emily and also Monica Sok I had both of them at the same time.
Danez Smith: Shout out Monica Sok.
Kimiko Hahn: I felt like I was also their poetry auntie. So I won't say parental pride but auntie pride.
Danez Smith: That's our particular kind of pride we respect auntie pride. We respect aunties a lot. I think we have a lot of talks about sort of the particular necessity of aunties in the world.
Franny Choi: There are some people who I consider my poetic aunties who don't know necessarily that they are my aunties but I look from far away and just like that's my auntie.
Danez Smith: That's your rich poetic auntie doesn't always come for thanksgiving, shows up like every other Christmas. We got it.
Kimiko Hahn: I like that very much.
Franny Choi: We're there poets when you were an emerging poet that like played that role for you, who auntied you?
Kimiko Hahn: No. I didn't go through the MFA program. I went to the University Iowa as an undergraduate so I had Louise Glück and Charles Wright and Marvin Bell. I had some real heavies but undergrads didn't get the kind of mentoring and I was too timid to seek that by the time I might have applied for a MFA program. I just felt that I had kind of done what I needed to do and I was out of Iowa and back in New York City and I'll tell you at that point I was hanging out with Sekou Sundiata and I was hanging out with all these quote unquote street poets and they were looking at me like, really, you need to look at that page in order to perform or read your poem. Really. So I was coming from one tradition and moving to a whole other tradition. I didn't have aunties. I had older cousins and they looked out for me but not aunties or uncles.
Franny Choi: I know that for especially Asian American women, poets of my generation. We especially try to like find like the Asian American women models, there are more sort of like these days, but I think you occupy a place in the hearts of Asian American women, poets of my generation. You're a rare and precious figure I think for a lot of us.
Kimiko Hahn: Thank you for saying that. I really mean that. I'll say to some people at a poetry reading, I'm a little mixed Hapa Haole, Japanese American girl who was brought up in the suburbs born in 1955. I was raised at a time and coming from my background where to be a good girl meant to not be angry, not speak up, pretty much just be quiet and I came from a family of artists, but still was pretty much behave yourself because I was girl. So for me speaking up was and still is a radical act and I had to find permission where I could and ultimately you have to give yourself permission, but if I can do that, especially for Asian American women, that's such a pleasure. That's really important to me. If I can say something and it allows someone then to give themselves permission to write stuff that they didn't even know, they wanted to want it to write.
Danez Smith: Where did those first prohibitions to kind of speak up and act out a come from? Was it from writing and poetry or was that from other spaces? I know you've talked a lot about the Marxist circles that you moved in.
Kimiko Hahn: Well, the Marxist circles actually were the opposite because if you're in a political meeting, you'll have an obligation to have an opinion and to state your opinion and if you don't, then why not? You are there for a reason. And what do you think? Kimiko and, and what are you going to do about it so that was really a different experience. It wasn't sit down and be quiet. It was sit down and what do you think, were are you going to go to do your agitprop? People think agitprop is just stirring up trouble. But agitprop in its essence really is agitation just means should become involved where you are in a grass roots organization. It could be in a union, it could be in a classroom, it could be in a club. It's like get involved wherever you are. And then the propaganda is just raising people's consciousness to class consciousness and that is a process and that is not boggarting or bludgeoning, that's having conversations.
Kimiko Hahn: I had to learn how to speak up, how to think clearly, how to try and figure out where people were coming from, which means that I had to figure out where I was coming from as well.
Danez Smith: Were you already writing poetry at that time as well?
Kimiko Hahn: I'd been writing poetry since I was in third grade. So Well, yeah. But from high school on that's what I wanted to do.
Danez Smith: Did you see your poetry start to change at that moment then?
Kimiko Hahn: Well, I mean I really did grow up in the suburbs. I was very isolated I had Japanese language classes in New York City at the Buddhist temple and 105th street and riverside drive and because of the time it was some of my classmates in that language class we're also becoming involved in civil rights and-
Franny Choi: Those of the context of this language class.
Kimiko Hahn: It was in the context. Yeah. For example, I also took dance class and also in that dance class was Yuri Kochiyama's daughter, so we're just starting to think and do things well, Kochiyama's we're doing things forever and I wasn't necessarily doing anything, I wasn't doing anything. I was taking a dance class but becoming influenced by and having conversations that I wasn't having in the suburbs. Certainly I wasn't writing about those experiences, but you know, once you start writing honestly, authentically, then you have to start questioning and going deeper and deeper and allowing things to be complex. So that's where some of the Marxism comes in. If you start talking about the woman's body, then you need to start talking about the history of, you know, why are we where we are today with sex trafficking on the one hand and a woman 36 years after she was assaulted, speaking before the American public and senators. I mean anyway.
Danez Smith: So it kind of changes how you're approaching the object. It's no longer like stagnated now it has history, it has future. It has everything.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah. That's what I mean by allowing things to be complex.
Franny Choi: I love that idea of allowing things to be complex as like the political what work does that do in the context of your poem and in the context of poetry as agitprop, you know as like agitation. And I guess like propaganda sounds like a dirty word when it's put next to art, but in the least dirtiest sense of the word.
Danez Smith: I think the wrong people taught us the dirty[crosstalk 00:15:05]
Kimiko Hahn: Well I should say that I don't view my poetry as agitprop, but I view myself as a citizen because my poetry isn't outwardly political and some people would say it's not political at all and that's it is what it is. It's a whatever views they have. But for example, if I'm reading at a political rally a that has to do with say immigration and Housing and I read a love poem that love poem in that context is very different because it might be about parents being separated and having their child taken away and so there's very little room in their life for affection, for making love. So it's how I read my poems, it's how I decide what to read and the context. So, that's taking the poem as an object and utilizing it within the context of say agitprop or social justice or whatever phrase you wanna use.
Franny Choi: It seems to be in line with the idea that the poems that you write are existing in the context of the world and I guess I wonder like do you think of ... I don't know what the fuck am I trying to say. I guess on the one hand it seems like one wants to assume that every reader will enter the poem understanding that this poem is a love poem in the context of the world being what it is and denying certain people access to love. And so those are the stakes in which the poem is happening. I guess. Then there's also the danger that somebody will walk into that poem, maybe ignoring those stakes and see it in a vacuum and see it without that importance. And, and I guess I wonder how do you reconcile that? Like do you see that as a risk or how do you deal with that?
Kimiko Hahn: Well, I guess that's part of the complexity, although that's after the poem is already written. I think when I read a love poem, I don't think of it as necessarily when it was written or what was happening socially. First, I think I read it in isolation of what is happening in my life because I'm experiencing it and then all the other dimensions facets happen. If it's a good poem. Hopefully every time you read it, something else will happen.
Danez Smith: That's what I'm hearing. I think I'm hearing maybe more something about the choice of what poems we read short, especially in that act of a reading. Like that same love home is different at the rally as it is and the regular reading like what it means to read a love poem any day. We have to decide what am I going to offer to this audience today, regardless of the concepts. I think what change is maybe for me, I got to think about myself here is the choice to continue to do that love poem or to do any poem on that day. And I said, even that arrangement of poems and they think about like, what statement am I giving across these five homes that I'm going to do and what does it mean for me to be doing it in this city, in this bar or this University or whatever it is. That context is like how you choose to show up as a poet.
Franny Choi: And maybe it's also like that complexifying or like allowing to be-
Danez Smith: That's a nice word. Is that a word? No, I liked it. I like that fire into it. Academics also are like, just constantly making up words. I've been hanging out with some academics, but allowing the palm to be complex. Also, I think I'm sort of constructing poems with some openings in them that are both mysterious to me. A lot of times when I'm reading.
Franny Choi: ... that are both mysterious to me a lot of times when I'm reading them. In a way that I can bring something into the poem and see how what I'm bringing to the poem fits into the spaces there. You know what I mean?
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: I think the way I love to write and love to read is when a word or a phrase or a whole piece is like a portal. So if I start reading Yeats' Leda and the Swan, which is about Zeus raping Leda, all of a sudden, I'm seeing our recent senate hearings. So it becomes this portal. For me, for my own writing, sometimes it just starts off with one word. I like to ask my students, I put on the blackboard, "What do you find in common with these words? Pine, rose, leaves, hedges." The obvious answer is they're all from nature, but they're all nouns and verbs and so when you can make language work that hard then it becomes a portal to go somewhere else. If I can do that, then that creates spaces not just for me to move through, but hopefully for the reader to move through. So if I say pine and it's a pine tree but there's also something about longing, then I've done my work. If that is happening simultaneously and you smell it, I think that's where the openness or mystery can come in. So I've been thinking a lot about portals and I've been talking a lot in the past few years a lot about portals and about words being a single portal. So for example, when I give myself writing prompts, especially with the Science Times, or what have you, for me that's what happens. I start out with a fruit fly and I end up writing about feeding my daughter spaghetti or something like that, when she's in her highchair, which was many years ago.
Franny Choi: Can I ask-
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah.
Franny Choi: ... what is it about that quality of words working hard in that way that creates a portal?
Kimiko Hahn: It has to do with the word itself association. So if I am committing a word association, if I'm engendering that, then that provokes, it massages, it allows that part of the brain to-
Danez Smith: Triggers.
Kimiko Hahn: ... do a lot more word association and that's where all the fun is, right?
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: That's how we protect ourself walking down the street at night and you know someone's behind you, that's intuition. That's when you wake up in the middle of the night because you know it's about to rain and you have to close the window. Or you're flirting and you're, "Oh, is that really happening?" Right? That's all intuitive-
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: And we don't ... because intuition was so often decidedly female and therefore not important, it wasn't part of knowledge and thinking, we don't value that. I think I got my brains and discipline from my dad but from my mother I got my intuition and she did artwork, she was an artist, a visual artist as well and she was much more intuitive than my father and I really value that. So intuition is something that we all use as artists and I'll tell my students in writing workshops, I'll say, "You know, we're going to do something here that you might not do in other classes. I'm going to tell you to leave your brain outside the door sometimes. We're going to use our intuition. That's the same thing that keeps you safe walking down the streets of New York and we're going to use that part of the brain to experience poems." That's an important "muscle" to use, intuition.
Danez Smith: Yeah, and I think you're talking about triggering the reader's intuition too, right?
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, exactly.
Danez Smith: Because what you're always saying about Yeats, who I always want to call Yeats-
Kimiko Hahn: I know.
Franny Choi: Keats. Keats and Yeats.
Danez Smith: You know Yeats for all intents and purposes that I know, he's dead but when you can read that poem about Zeus that it triggers for you a portal into your current moment, right? That Yeats had no idea about. I think it's what we mean when we mean trusting the reader, we're trusting that we have set up these little triggers so they get there themselves and get wherever they're going to go because we're not all going to slip through that same portal-
Kimiko Hahn: Absolutely.
Danez Smith: We're all going to go through somewhere else but let me set up something enough that it does have an effect and all that I can trust is that it'll send you somewhere and where you go is up to you.
Franny Choi: Earlier you said if people don't see my poems as political, as overtly political, that's okay and it sounds like you're someone who is open to lots of different interpretations of your poems. Are there things that you want people to not miss? Is there some quality of the poems that you don't want to sacrifice to the infinite number of interpretations, what would that be?
Kimiko Hahn: First I'd say that it's not okay that people would find my work devoid of any kind of social consciousness-
Franny Choi: Sure, sure.
Kimiko Hahn: I mean, any given poem would not be obvious and maybe it isn't there but what I would love and probably is the least thing likely to happen when people read my work is to see that my work is really informed by Japanese poetics. Of course that means that you have to know something about it so why would I punish myself and hope that that might be experienced? I hope people would know that from me when I write the poems that became the collection Brain Fever, really is informed by my study of Japanese poetics. For example, in a haiku, you have a lot of word play because you have to use that incredibly tight economy and explode it open. The double meanings, the literary illusion, all of that, that's what I would like, I'll be disappointed but that's what I like to say to people.
Franny Choi: I think I've read the thing you wrote about associations from concept to concept in Japanese poetics, working somewhat differently from Western literature.
Kimiko Hahn: Japanese is called vocabulary poor because they don't have as many words, literally, as we have in the English language.
Franny Choi: Interesting.
Danez Smith: Oh, vocabulary poor, that's a rich phrase. I like that.
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, yes and part of what that means is also that there may be one sound that has several meanings. So the sound S-H-I, shi, is the word for poetry, death and the number four.
Danez Smith: Whoa.
Kimiko Hahn: So that's crazy.
Franny Choi: Yeah, that's ...
Kimiko Hahn: There are a lot of words like that so again, to write a haiku, there's all sorts of ways of exploding things open and that's what I like to expect from my work, to have that kind of explosion.
Danez Smith: That seems like the benefit of something to be "vocabulary poor" then, right?
Franny Choi: Sure, right.
Danez Smith: That it offers those meanings, because then in English it's like, "Damn it, I wish this didn't just mean one thing."
Franny Choi: Right, right.
Kimiko Hahn: Exactly, exactly, yeah, yeah. Vocabulary poor but rich in multiple meaning. You know, you asked me about closure-
Franny Choi: Yes.
Kimiko Hahn: And that's also another thing that I'm rabid about. I was in graduate school, kind of briefly, and I got out as quickly as possible because I am vocabulary poor myself. Personally I am vocabulary poor but in that time I read a book, Poetic Closure, A Study Of How Poems End, I think is the subtitle. By Barbara Herrnstein Smith. I guess I'd say the gist of it is repetition creates expectation and you expect it to keep going, like the heart, you expect to keep going until it doesn't but there can be signals, a way to signal closure and it could be thematic, it could be sonic, it could be all of that.
Danez Smith: We're still creatures of pattern at the end of the day.
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, exactly, pattern, repetition and the deviation from that. I like to look at closure that way and to see a poem not end but close. So I don't want it to just be sealed off with no resonance.
Danez Smith: The last couple of books you've written have been very dependent upon science and going to these articles, Science Today, The New York Times and finding these things and sort of making these props out of them. I'm curious because it seems to go so far against this notion of write what you know that so many of us get as a directive at some point in our career, what does it feel like to be playing so much and writing what you don't know? Writing this curiosity? Being an un-expert. How is it differently tickling your brain?
Kimiko Hahn: I think I have to write what I know but I don't start out with what I know. I start out with, again it's the portal, to write to what I want to know. To write to what is revealed so that I can know, maybe? I'm thinking out loud so I might change my mind after I close the door here. But I think that's just a different take on write what you know because for example, not that I haven't done this myself, but there are a lot of books that are one project, one theme, one subject matter especially, I think that has to do with marketing, I think it has to do with MFA programs and so forth and blah, blah, blah. If those projects, collections, succeed, it has to ultimately hit a nerve. You really have to end up asking yourself what do I have at stake in writing about this and bringing yourself to that directly or indirectly. Otherwise, you know what? Why should anybody care? You might as well read a really good essay on it.
Danez Smith: I was talking to a student, mentee, somewhere and they're working out a collection about Emmett Till and I think I kind of messed them up when I said, "Why?" You know?
Kimiko Hahn: Absolutely.
Danez Smith: Why, you know?
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah.
Danez Smith: Especially people can go read, Marilyn Nelson has the whole Wreath For Emmett Till, it's great. There are all these other collections and it's this ... being willing to admit, and also show up in your own obsessions, not letting it be divorced from yourself but saying like, "This is why I'm obsessed with this thing. This is what keeps me coming back." And that "me" being very important, whether explicitly talked through as an "I" or not, you know?
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah.
Danez Smith: But I think we have to allow ourselves to be seen salivating a little bit over these things that we like to salivate over.
Kimiko Hahn: I like that, yeah, yeah that's where I come, "What do you have at stake?" Steak, salivate. We're totally about-
Franny Choi: Hey.
Danez Smith: Hey.
Kimiko Hahn: See, word association.
Franny Choi: Yes. So Brain Fever is your ninth collection of poems, is that right?
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, yes it is.
Franny Choi: And you have a new collection, also on the way, is that true?
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah, I'm finishing up what I hope to be my next collection. The working title is Foreign Bodies and one of the long poems that I was working on that I think will still be in the book, I hope so, has to do with this doctor who invented an endoscopy for taking things out of children's esophagus that they had swallowed.
Danez Smith: Wow.
Kimiko Hahn: And that is called a foreign body. So if a child swallows a safety pin-
Danez Smith: Then they get a foreign body.
Kimiko Hahn: Then they have a foreign body and you can see them on x-rays and so forth.
Franny Choi: Amazing. So I am the safety pin in the esophagus of America.
Kimiko Hahn: That's right.
Franny Choi: Amazing, that's great, great news.
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, it is great news. Or the charm from the charm bracelet.
Franny Choi: Yes.
Kimiko Hahn: I realize though that if that's going to be the title of my book, and it does suggest the foreign body, I should write a poem called Foreign Body that's also about my own body and my mother's body. So I wrote that poem. The book will end up being seemingly more autobiographical so it has a lot about my father being a hoarder, what that means to exhume things from your father's home and being stuck with all this detritus. So I hope that's my next collection.
Franny Choi: Book 10, that's so incredible. Book 10.
Kimiko Hahn: Thank you, thank you.
Danez Smith: The double digit.
Franny Choi: Wow.
Kimiko Hahn: Double digits.
Franny Choi: Are there things that you are learning, writing book 10, that you wish you had known in book three or two or something?
Kimiko Hahn: I took a much longer time to put this book together than I have and I wish I had not been quite so reckless. I don't know if the word is impatient or eager, to move a book forward. But recklessness might be my middle name, in a good and bad way. So I think it's what's allowed me to be very free and open with my subject matter and my themes but I've held these poems back longer and I've worked on them more and I've shown them to more people, so that's what I've learned.
Danez Smith: Which book of the 10, God I hope to get there one day, do you feel like stretched you the most?
Kimiko Hahn: Well the book, The Unbearable Heart, came about after my mother died very suddenly in a car accident. These kids were in a car chase and a group of white boys were trying to beat up a car of, I think they were Pakistani kids, and they ended up plowing into my parent's car. So everything that I had been working on completely stopped and I began writing poems about loss. That very real loss, not just a figurative loss and I have a long poem in there that's very important to me. It's called The Hemisphere and it's actually "about" Flaubert's sex touring in Egypt. That's one of the threads, speaking of making things complex. I really had to ask myself, especially after my mother died, "Who are you to write about this? Who was Flaubert to write about it and who are you to write about it?" So that in particular really stretched me.
Danez Smith: What conclusions did you come to asking that question? Who were you to write about it?
Kimiko Hahn: It actually spirals back to an earlier part of our chat here and that is to allow things to be complex, because I originally wanted to write in the voice of the courtesan that he kept visiting in Egypt and I had to ask myself, "Who are you? A tenure track professor, and who are you to write in the voice of a sex worker? Who do you think you are?" So I had her ask me that. Then I had snippets of Flaubert describing her genitals and his writing is so incredible that I had to try and up the ante and write as gorgeously as his vulgar letters were beautifully written. So there were all sorts of ways that I stretched and also it's about the foreign body in many ways and about my mother's body and losing my mother and did I ever have my mother? And I have daughters, so there were a whole lot of girls' and women's bodies happening and also the male gaze in there. But I think, and Claudia Rankine has said this too, sometimes just changing the point of view helps make things complex.
Franny Choi: Is it different to write about your parents these many years later? These many years after their passing and after this book that you're talking about specifically?
Kimiko Hahn: Well my mother died over 24 years ago, but my father actually just died last year and my sister and I were left with a very difficult house and "estate." When you say the word estate, you think, "Oh it was a mansion," but in fact it was-
Danez Smith: 17 rooms.
Kimiko Hahn: A really awful situation that we're just now still getting settled and he was an artist so there was a lot of valuable things in there and a lot of things that might be valuable but are only valuable to people who really value esoteric things like tea ceremony spoons, literally dozens of those. So what was your question? How do I write about my parents?
Franny Choi: Which is such a huge question but I guess I was wondering if the way that you write about your mother in poems in recent years, how that relationship has changed.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah, part of that has to do with my being older. I'm in my 60s, I have a granddaughter now as of last year.
Franny Choi: Wow.
Kimiko Hahn: In this book, that I'm hoping will be my next book, I really write more directly about death. I don't believe in heaven, I don't believe in an afterlife, I do believe that, someday I will be wherever my mother is, even if she's nothing, and that drives my husband crazy. He's like, "Well, how can you be somewhere if you're nothing?" I mean, I'm like, "Well ..."
Danez Smith: You'd be nothing together.
Kimiko Hahn: Exactly, that's exactly my answer. So, I'm hoping that's part of this book is, I will be dust as my mother is dust, I will be ashes as my mother is ashes, and I will be there with her. And also, writing how my father lost her ashes, but then we found them exactly where we thought they were.
Franny Choi: Wait, what?
Kimiko Hahn: So, there's all sorts of weird stuff going on.
Danez Smith: This is the poem I was telling you about earlier, that was "The Ashes." It's a poem, it's a poem.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah, yeah.
Franny Choi: Wow.
Danez Smith: So you found them? Good.
Kimiko Hahn: Yes we found them.
Franny Choi: Oh my God.
Kimiko Hahn: So, yeah. I'm still writing about them, still writing about missing my mother, and still arguing with my father.
Franny Choi: Sure.
Kimiko Hahn: But they take different iterations, obviously.
Franny Choi: Sure, sure, yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: And if they don't, then shame on me. I have to work harder, then. So ...
Franny Choi: Yeah. Partly I'm asking that question, selfishly, to get advice because I recently realized this year would be year nine after somebody who's very important to me passed away, and I've been trying to think about how does that change the way I write about loss, nine years later as opposed to nine months later. And so, it was mostly just to be like, "Kimiko help, what do I do?"
Kimiko Hahn: You know what came to mind as you were speaking? And I was listening to you, was that poem by Emily Dickinson because it's, I felt a funeral in my brain where she goes through the different stages of grief, and I thought well, where am I in that. I'm at the dash, at the very end of the poem. I'm at the dash.
Franny Choi: What does that mean?
Kimiko Hahn: That means I've gone through all these stages of grief, over 25 years, with my mother, but I'm still in some stage of grief and, if I felt I've gone through all of them, then I must be at that dash.
Danez Smith: I guess you kind of never leave that dash, right?
Kimiko Hahn: Exactly.
Danez Smith: It just is like, yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah. Yeah. You're still somewhere in it, and maybe Emily Dickinson should have written more. I don't know, but she was only gonna write, what, three or four stanzas, whatever it is.
Franny Choi: Yeah, it was a very small paper.
Kimiko Hahn: Yes, yeah. She was writing on the back of an envelope, yeah.
Franny Choi: Sometimes I wonder if she had like ... if someone had just given her a roll of butcher paper, what she would have done. She just kept going.
Danez Smith: Wow, a scroll Dickinson.
Franny Choi: That's right, a scroll, oh gosh, that would've been magnificent.
Franny Choi: Kimiko, do you have a poem that you would like to read for our listeners and for us today?
Kimiko Hahn: I would love to read this poem, A Dusting, which I have hardly read anywhere so it'd be a real pleasure.
Franny Choi: Yes.
Danez Smith: Ooh, almost no shit.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah, yeah.
However Mother has reappeared—
Say, as motes on a feather duster—
Scientists say the galaxy
Was created thus. This daybreak
She seeds a cumulous cloud.
Wherever Mother is bound
She’s joined ashes ashes
Or dirt underfoot or bits off
Tower North and Tower South.
Repurpose does not arrive whole cloth.
From stardust, dust bunnies,
Dust Bowl, Dust unto Dust,
To Dunbar’s What of his love, what of his lust?
Dust is a thing astronomers collect
And where the sparrow bathes herself.
“Not a cloud in the sky,”
Mother says, as she hangs the laundry outside,
Father paints en plein air,
And we girls sweep crumbs under the rug.
This summer, Father sees
In the senseless rooms and corridors
The daughter cannot respire.
In the vulgar cosmic
The mother cannot be revived
In wet traffic.
I lie down in the sunlight
And see my mama moting around
As sympathetic ash.
Yes, one morning I’ll be soot with her—
Elegiac and original.
Danez Smith: So we like to ask our guests, this is kind of like a little recommendation corner. I don't know what a recommendation corner is, I don't know why I said that, but we like to ask our guests-
Franny Choi: Well, a little, I don't know, a little column, a little yeah ...
Danez Smith: At every episode, yeah a little column, for a knockout of something, a piece of art, a poem, a movie, a potato chip, a particular flavor of something that has knocked you out recently, and really impressed you. Is there anything you would like to recommend to the listeners?
Kimiko Hahn: Oh! Oh boy, whenever anybody asks me that, I always draw a blank. That's really ... Hmm. I'm gonna lie.
Danez Smith: Okay.
Franny Choi: Please.
Danez Smith: Lies are on the menu.
Kimiko Hahn: Whenever I come to Chicago, I go to the Art Institute and you know when you got that main big old-
Danez Smith: With the lines?
Kimiko Hahn: ... stairs and you see the Seurat? The Pointillism?
Franny Choi: Hmm.
Kimiko Hahn: Seurat, yes. You go up there but you turn right and in one of those small galleries, there is a panel of I think four, five, six paintings, it's a series of the life of John the Baptist. And it makes me crazy because ... Well, it's beautiful, but also, at that time, in each panel, they have John the Baptist walking around, so you see him two or three or four times. When they're bringing his head in, you see the guy bringing this head in, and then you see the same guy in the same picture giving the head on a platter to the king. It's phenomenal.
Franny Choi: I'm sore.
Kimiko Hahn: So they're creating on this flat surface, movement. It's like a cartoon but it's completely static, and I have to see that every time I'm here because it makes me crazy. It's so beautiful and horrific. I'm just fascinated by it. I'm a little fascinated by the idea of severed heads, I have to say, calling Dr. Freud. But I need to see that, so ...
Franny Choi: Is it the time, like flattened in this weird way that is so affecting for you or is it more the severed head? Is it all of it or?
Kimiko Hahn: I guess it's all of it. It's the story, but I think even more than the story, it's the portrayal and the background is very very abstract looking. It just makes me crazy, and I love that feeling. That kind of crazy, I love.
Franny Choi: Sure. It's like a painting that you come and look at every time here?
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah a little pilgrimage.
Franny Choi: Yeah.
Kimiko Hahn: I do.
Danez Smith: Just to make sure it still tedelates you and it's like, "Yep, still drives me crazy."
Kimiko Hahn: That's right. My scalp goes crazy.
Danez Smith: So now it has come to my personal favorite part of the show. This versus that in which we ask you to play God. So ...
Kimiko Hahn: Goddess.
Danez Smith: Okay, or goddess. Goddex.
Franny Choi: Gender —
Kimiko Hahn: Goddex. Oh yeah. I'm all about Goddex.
Danez Smith: That sounds like somebody ... yeah. Elizabeth Acevedo, if you're listening to this, write that book, Goddex.
Kimiko Hahn: Anything that rhymes with dominatrix, Goddex.
Danez Smith: Ooh, kinky God. Okay, that's a nice thought, put it into SpecBank. Alright, so we're gonna give you two things. We're gonna ask you which of them would win in a fight. So, in this corner today, we have undefeated champion portals and this other corner, we have other undefeated champion dust. Who wins at a fight? Portals or dust?
Franny Choi: This might be like our weirdest one so far.
Kimiko Hahn: Well first of all, I don't want them in corners. That bugs me.
Danez Smith: Okay.
Kimiko Hahn: I would want them to be more like sumo players standing in the middle of a square with like a circle of, I think it's salt or something.
Franny Choi: Yes.
Danez Smith: Yes. You got it. Think Himalayan salt. Like step it up.
Kimiko Hahn: Okay, and you're gonna step on it barefoot and it's gonna hurt. I would have to say portal because a portal is going to pull in or push out the dust.
Danez Smith: But is the dust ever then defeated? I'm just imagining if the dust like clogging the portal now, you know?
Kimiko Hahn: Well, yeah a vacuum.
Danez Smith: Oh, so maybe they more like, you got, so portal wins but really just becomes a vacuum. So that's awesome.
Kimiko Hahn: Yeah, well why does someone have to win anyway?
Danez Smith: Nobody has to win.
Kimiko Hahn: Oh, okay.
Danez Smith: Yeah. And that's how the first vacuum cleaner was made folks.
Franny Choi: Portal and some dust in a sumo ring. Decided to join forces.
Danez Smith: And that's how Hoover started long long ago.
Kimiko Hahn: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Danez Smith: Where can people find you if they wanna find you in the world? Do they just have to snail mail you or?
Kimiko Hahn: No, they can find me ... I use my Queens College email address.
Danez Smith: Oh don't give that out.
Kimiko Hahn: Okay. Well what do you mean then?
Danez Smith: I don't know. I'm so used to asking ... Like, people give their social media if they have it or website.
Kimiko Hahn: Oh okay, I don't have it.
Danez Smith: Okay, cool cool cool.
Kimiko Hahn: Well, I do have a website.
Danez Smith: Okay.
Kimiko Hahn: They can find me on that website.
Franny Choi: The chapbook Brood is out in the world.
Kimiko Hahn: It is out in the world.
Franny Choi: And the new book will be out some time ...
Kimiko Hahn: I hope so.
Franny Choi: Thank you so much Kimiko.
Kimiko Hahn: Thank you so much, I love you both.
Danez Smith: Yo ...
Franny Choi: Thank the Lord for Kimiko Hahn.
Danez Smith: Oh, all the lords.
Franny Choi: All of the lords.
Danez Smith: All of the lords.
Franny Choi: The old gods and the new.
Danez Smith: Oh my God, and the middle gods. The gods of wow!
Franny Choi: Not vintage, but just like outdated gods.
Danez Smith: Everything she was saying was so good. I was really vibed in with what she was saying about those portals.
Franny Choi: Yeah, you can open up space to be transported in the poem because of words doing lots of extra work. And that creates a resonance that you can move into, that's wild.
Danez Smith: Especially like that being about trusting the reader, right?
Franny Choi: Yeah totally.
Danez Smith: So for them to take themselves wherever they need to go.
Franny Choi: Right, right, which is sometimes kind of a risk.
Danez Smith: Yes it is 'cause sometimes people take themselves to some wild places.
Franny Choi: Right, just enter a portal into just outer space, like that's not where we were trying to go.
Danez Smith: A portal outside their right mind. Okay, Franny, what is the wrongest portal anybody has ever went through in one of your poems?
Franny Choi: Like the wrongest turn.
Danez Smith: Yeah you know like sometimes we get people that come up to you after reading it and like, "Oh I loved that poem because it was about blah blah blah," you're just like, "Bitch ...
Franny Choi: Right, like I don't even have a dog, what are you talking about? You know, there's a misinterpretation of a poem that's like weirdly common. I have a poem called Pussy Monster, where, I take the words of a Lil Wayne song and then reorder the words in order of the frequency the number of times that each word appears in the song. And I saw on YouTube that some people had commented. I don't know why I was in the comments, but ... This was a long time ago, but somebody had commented like, "This poem is about how hip hop is so meaningless," and, "So much hip hop these days is so stupid," or whatever and it was like well first of all, this song that I'm referencing isn't even hip hop these days. It's a old Lil Wayne song. I was kind of freaked out by that interpretation 'cause that's like so far from what I was trying to talk about ... I think the poem was really just like an experiment with what would happen if I looked at this piece of text that had the word pussy in it a lot, and I was just like, what would happen if we just rearranged it so that all the times that he said pussy were in one place? It was a critique that I wasn't even trying to make and so misdirected and I was like, I don't want my poem to become a weapon in someone else's hand for the thing that they're trying to attack that I'm not trying to attack and so I was sort of like, maybe I'll stop performing it for a while. What about you?
Danez Smith: Well, see I'm not even gonna answer this right away but I think sometimes people don't even listen to the poem for the portals. This was a situation where this woman came up to me and I think she was just looking at my black ass to be a portal. I do have a lot of poems about racial issues and dynamics in this country and stuff like that, but this particular night.
Franny Choi: I would say so, yeah.
Danez Smith: I did, I was like, you know what? I'm gonna suck a dick in every poem. And it was just like the sex set. And this white woman comes up to me crying after, and she's just like, "Oh my God, everything you had to say about black boys in this country tonight was so ... " And I was just like-
Franny Choi: What?
Danez Smith: And I said everything, I was like, "That wasn't me bitch." I was just like, was this heffer outside just watching YouTube? Then coming in to like ... Yeah and I had to go back and look at the set, I was like, did I accidentally have a racial critique tonight? So yeah, it wasn't even a portal. It was more of the situation where I think somebody uses poetry to feel whatever they need to feel-
Franny Choi: Whatever they need to feel.
Danez Smith: And just read whatever they want to into it.
Franny Choi: Also, that sounds like a hard case because it sounds like you were putting together a set that was a joyous set, like a joyous sex set.
Danez Smith: Was some sad in there.
Franny Choi: Sure, sure, sure, but for then somebody to walk away from that with like, "Wow, thanks for letting me cry about black death," when that wasn't your intention, is like, "That sounds so weird."
Danez Smith: Yeah, totes was weird. And in the moments like that, I also just wish that they were real portals that I could push people through, so they can get the hell away from me. Maybe lets look through some portals and portal through the end of the show?
Franny Choi: Yeah let's look at it.
Danez Smith: So who we're thinking this week?
Franny Choi: Well speaking of portals, I'm gonna thank my siblings Bridget and Paul, always, but especially for showing me the video game, Portal and Portal 2, but also just generally for allowing me to have a little tiny bit of my pinky into what the gaming world is like in general.
Danez Smith: Okay cool. I'm gonna also do a portal related thank you. I want to thank Rick and Morty for making marijuana the funnest adventure ever. I get high and I watch that show and my sweet Lord, those boys ... Those boys, they sit through some portals ...
Franny Choi: I think it's a little too scary for me to watch super high.
Danez Smith: Oh I love it. We must watch it together, I have some good weed at home.
Franny Choi: Okay great.
Danez Smith: Alright cool. We should also thank some normal folks who we ...
Franny Choi: Yes, we'd like to thank the Poetry Foundation, especially as always, Ydalmi Noriega,, we wanna thank Postloudness, thank you to our producer, Daniel Kisslinger.
Danez Smith: Listen to us wherever you get your podcast, you're already listening to it, but tell your friends to hop on SoundCloud, if you got OneApp on Apple podcast. Follow us on social media. We are @bstheodcast, wherever you may be. Comment and rate, we always would love to hear from y'all to see what y'all were thinking and give us some nice little 5-star situation. If you don't like what you're hearing, then just stop listening to us, maybe. Rachel Zucker's got some good stuff going on at a Commonplace, so if this isn't what you're looking for ... I'm serious right.
Franny Choi: True, shout out.
Danez Smith: Shout out to Rachel Zucker, she has a great podcast. And with that, I think we're done. We will see you'll next time. Not like see see, but you know like here see, here say?
Franny Choi: I think there should be a word for that. Like to see with your ears.
Danez Smith: We'll talk into your ear hole next time. Bye.
Franny Choi: Bye.
Kimiko Hahn joins Danez and Franny as they go down some rabbit holes, and maybe even through a few portals. They talk her tenth book, poetic auntie status, Japanese poetry as inspiration, and closure. Follow VS on twitter: http://twitter.com/vsthepodcast!