Why Apples Can Cause Riots: A Discussion of Linh Dinh's "Eating Fried Chicken"

March 26, 2012

Al Filreis: I'm Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at the Writer’s House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We'll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and we hope, gain for a poem that interests us and some new readers and listeners. And I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive Today I'm joined here in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers House in our third floor garret studio by Tom Devaney, poet, teacher, critic, super talented reviewer who teaches at Haverford College, who’s books of poems include The American Pragmatist Fell In Love — one of my favorit etitles Tom — and A Series of Small Boxes, and who for some years was our very own program coordinator at The Kelly Writer’s House. And by Susan Shultz who joins us today in all this week from Hawaii where she has taught since 1990, poet teacher critic and publisher through her remarkable Tinfish Press, which she founded in 1995, who’s books include as the Poem Talk listeners will know, the remarkable Dementia Blog. And by Leonard Schwartz who’s many works of poetry include A Message Back and Other Furors, The Library of Seven Readings, and Language as Responsibility, published by Susan’s Tinfish Press, who famously hosts the radio program Cross Cultural Poetics, who teaches at Evergreen State College in Tacoma Washington and who’s writings on poetics and the Mid-East Conflict can be found on the common ground news service. Hey Tom, welcome back to The Writer’s House, your old stopping grounds.

Thomas Devaney: Nice to see you Al.


Al Filreis: Hello to Leonard and Susan. Susan, your first time on Poem Talk and your visit here this week has been your first time at the Kelly Writer’s House?

Susan Shultz: Yes, very much.


Al Filreis: It’s been lots of fun having you around.


Susan Shultz: It’s been great. You’ve worked me hard.


Al Filreis: It’s true and you’re so comfortable here, you’re like a member of the family. Leonard, you’re second visit to The Writer’s House, or maybe third?


Leonard Schwartz: Second.


Al Filreis: Glad you could make it from Washington.


Leonard Schwartz: Great to be back.


Al Filreis: Today we’re going to be talking about a poem by Linh Dinh. It’s called “Eating Fried Chicken”. PennSound has two recordings of Linh Dinh performing this poem. The one we’ll hear now was recorded in 2007. The poem was published in a book called American Tatts — T-a-t-t-s, a book of 2005 published by Chax Press. So here now is Linh Dinh reading “Eating Fried Chicken”.


Linh Dinh:

I hate to admit this, brother, but there are times

When I’m eating fried chicken

When I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken,

When I utterly forget about my family, honor and country,

The various blood debts you owe me,

My past humiliations and my future crimes—

Everything, in short, but the crispy skin on my fried chicken.


But I’m not altogether evil, there are also times

When I will refuse to lick or swallow anything

That’s not generally available to mankind.


(Which is, when you think about it, absolutely nothing at all.)


And no doubt that’s why apples can cause riots,

And meat brings humiliation,

And each gasp of air

Will fill one’s lungs with gun powder and smoke.


Al Filreis: So who’s the brother being addressed in the first line? Leonard, any ideas on that?

Leonard Schwartz: Interesting, I thought of that as Philadelphia speak. Linh Dinh as a poet of Philadelphia, coming from a particular African American vernacular


Al Filreis: So it could be anyone or it could be an African American brother, it could be a presumptuous address. Susan, what are you thinking about that?

Susan Shultz: I was thinking the same thing, especially as it follows a poem called “Luker” about a man who hates African Americans. Especially as fried chicken is often stereotypically identified with African Americans.


Al Filreis: So this is a mark, he’s using the addressing as a way of situation us thematically or geographically. Tom, your thought on this.


Thomas Devaney: It could be this general someone speaking to someone else, or a larger audience. “I hate to admit this brother”, that’s kind of like this —


Al Filreis: Why does he hate to admit it? Is he willing to indulge in a racist stereotype by saying I’m eating fried chicken and speaking to you and doing so?

Susan Shultz: I think as he often is he’s playing between the symbolic and the literal, between something that identifies you as having a particular identity and something that undercuts that identity completely.


Leonard Schwartz: Also, already from the very first mention of brother is this appropriation, appropriation of someone else’s vernacular, some other way of speaking, some other way of eating. I think consistent in Linh’s work is a kind of tongue in cheek appropriation —


Susan Shultz: Appropriate with food involve, tongue and cheek.


Leonard Schwartz: That’s right. Everything is of course appropriated from everything else ultimately. Language is something you pick up out of the gutter some place and use anew. I don’t think it’s necessarily a critique of appropriation. I think it’s in some ways an embrace of it.


Al Filreis: Tom is there anything good about his thinking about nothing else but what he’s doing? Is it possible he’s saying I’m just eating fried chicken, I’m not participating in racial valuation of what I’m doing. I’m just eating fried chicken, so therefore thinking about nothing is a positive. Or am I reading that wrong?

Thomas Devaney: “When I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken” — There’s so many levels to read it. There’s a survival level. One of the things I like about Linh is that he is a poet of critique, and he turns the critique on himself. There’s no pieties here, there might be a kind of gluttony. We like in a mechanized food world of these great factories of chicken, so here we are and maybe he’s enjoying it.


Susan Shultz: Also I think there are problems with family, honor, country and blood debts.

Al Filreis: What do they have to do with eating fried chicken?


Susan Shultz: They have a lot. I live in Hawaii where food is highly symbolic. If you want to write a poem about your grandparents, you might talk about the food that’s put on their grave if you’re an Asian American person. I think Linh doesn’t want to be marked as an Asian American writer, but he’s very willing to play with that relation between food and identity, precisely in order to call it into question.


Al Filreis: So he’s saying don’t make me mean, I’m just eating fried chicken. I dare you to make me mean something by that.


Leonard Schwartz: After all, the poem is very funny, and it’s very playful in terms of it’s tone, in terms of the directness of it’s speech. I think of Linh Dinh as a poet who’s stepping from the street into a curb, looks down at this formless junk of stuff in the gutter, and then picks it up and starts to play with it. That would be true of Walter Benjamin and the rag pickers, the artist as the rag picker in society. What’s striking in Linh Dinh is once he picks the stuff up, you realize it’s been manufactured to look like that. It’s been manufactured to appear formless. It is junk by it’s very origins. Junk food obviously is part of the aesthetic of this poem.

Al Filreis: Tom, I think we’re getting toward an idea that he’s comically protesting what he’s saying. He’s saying no to these meanings, yet he keeps conjuring them, by saying “I don’t think about honor and country”. As a matter of fact, I don’t think about what you owe me. But you must owe me something. Now who would “you” be? And what the heck would be owed? Could you be the same brother that’s addressed in the first line? In that case, we’ve got a Vietnamese American talking I’m thinking to an African American veteran, because war is mentioned a lot. I’m thinking Vietnam vet is what I’m thinking, and I’m not sure why. A conversation between Vietnamese American eating fried chicken, relating to this American vet and saying I’m not thinking about everything that’s got going on between us.


Thomas Devaney: Certainly the poem facing it, “Luker”, does speak about the narrator, their first person eye, presumably Linh Dinh’s indebtedness to his house painter boss who’s a Vietnam vet.


Susan Shultz: And who’s a racist.


Thomas Devaney: And who’s a racist exactly. I just would say reading it on a page and listening to Linh, where there’s a tone and some sense that there’s humor there, there’s also just more emphatic … You can read it as this person who has taken all the trouble inside of him and he’s internalized, externalized. I’m really thinking “the various debts you owe me”, early Baraka, and this poet that’s important to Linh, Etheridge Knight. Going on the offensive, but like early Baraka implicating himself fully in everything.

Al Filreis: Which is why it’s my past humiliations and my future crimes. There’s going to be trouble later, but right now there isn’t any because the skin I’m talking about is the crispy skin on the chicken. This is a complicated thing about race. Do you want to untangle it a little, Susan?


Susan Shultz: No (LAUGHING). I mean you’re right to point at the word skin, because crispy skin on my fried chicken is just itself, potentially. But skin in the other terms that we’re invoking are racial demarkations, and religious ones; apples being the Christian problem and the Jewish problem, and meat being the Hindi problem that have caused wars.


Thomas Devaney: I also wanted to say maybe somewhat against a racially determined reading of the poem that I feel Linh Dinh’s sublimated dialectical materialism very strongly in this poem, in the sense that food matters is profoundly what we’re in competition for in a global sense. Scarcity of resources in a global sense.


Al Filreis: Is this why apples can cause riots?

Thomas Devaney: This is why apples can cause riots, if there’s only one apple in the city, or 17 apples in the city and 70 of us, all of whom want apples. Of course that’s going to lead — there may be this one un-conflicted moment in which I’m blissing out on the skin of my chicken, but the rest of the time I’m going to be committing crimes against others in order to get my share of scarce resources.


Linh Dinh:

But I’m not altogether evil, there are also times

When I will refuse to lick or swallow anything

That’s not generally available to mankind.


(Which is, when you think about it, absolutely nothing at all.)


And no doubt that’s why apples can cause riots,

And meat brings humiliation,

And each gasp of air

Will fill one’s lungs with gun powder and smoke.


Al Filreis: Tom, I sense in you a — particularly playing off the performance, which I love listening to Linh read because even when he’s angry it’s funny. I sense in you, you’re trying to reconcile the deadly serious conversation we’re having about these issues and that it’s essentially a funny poem.

Thomas Devaney: I just think you can’t get away from the intensity of the poem. “My past humiliations, my future crimes”, and then, chicken can be all these things but crispy skin is flavor. This could be I’m in this indulgence, I’m in this escapist moment, I don’t care that it’s conflicted I’m just doing it. I’m being ridiculous but this is how I feel.


Susan Shultz: Well and you know I’m thinking of a poem from his first book, Mud Men at Earth Cafeteria I think, where food is every bit as disgusting as excrement. I think this actually is an interesting moment in Linh where food is actually pleasurable. I think often times it’s not to be distinguished from scatalogical stuff.


Al Filreis: Do you think it’s pleasurable? I’m feeling a disagreement coming.


Susan Shultz: Well —


Leonard Schwartz: Pleasurable in an animal way, where one empties out of subjectivity all together and is just crunching and munching on pleasure in the sense of absence.


Al Filreis: That pleasure is rebuked I think. I think there’s not a lot of irony in the downside to utterly forgetting about family honor and country. Because it’s not clear who’s country we’re talking about. I keep thinking, and I have no real evidence for this in this poem but I’m just thinking about reading Linh Dinh all throughout, I keep thinking about the relationship between that crispy skin and the racial tension and war. And breathing gun powder and smoke, I’m thinking defoliation. I’m thinking genocide, I’m thinking about skin burning, I’m thinking about how angry we are about each other. The end for me is devastating, because it’s almost deep memory. “Meat brings humiliation and each grasp of air”, which is what one needs to do to perform the poem, “will fill one’s lungs with gun powder and smoke”. It’s almost a memory of the heat, the fog of war. It ends with that kind of going back to the scene of the crime, which the brother seems to have experienced on one side and this Vietnamese American on the other.


Leonard Schwartz: Celan has a famous line about breathing in the incinerated cells of holocaust victims when he comes back to Germany. Linh Dinh’s line goes back —


Al Filreis: How can you be eating fried chicken? I think Tom was referring to this about the way we get our food now. How can you be unconscious? I’m not doing an animal rights thing here, but how could you be unconscious of the mass preparation of food which is a kind of mass murder, and just munch along and not think about the way we’ve constructed ourselves.


Thomas Devaney: There’s one part of this poem that’s a bodily consciousness, and then there’s this thinking part. You think about it. That’s what I was thinking the Barak Etheridge Knight wisdom tradition that’s inside of Linh, then his body and consuming something he needs to eat to live or whatever. It seems like he’s just like I don’t know, everything’s falling off, here I am.


Susan Shultz: Maybe pleasure is the wrong term, but I think there’s —


Al Filreis: We seem to have thought it was the wrong term but it might be the right term.


Susan Shultz: Well maybe that moment of forgetting, of all these awful all consuming global issues. That moment of forgetting while consuming the chicken, is that to be dismissed?

Leonard Schwartz: I don’t think so in the poem. Maybe in some metaphysical way it is, but not in the poem. There’s that —


Al Filreis: But if you’re right, why would he say in the next stanza “But I’m not altogether evil”. What’s he recuperating at that point? That implies that’s an evil thing he’s dong at first.

Leonard Schwartz: Any good Jewish comedian knows you have to make fun of yourself before you start making fun of everyone else. I think he’s setting up that dynamic. Look how slovenly I am, look how completely lost I am in the act of consumption. Only then, after the loss of oneself is evil in that way, or oneself is part of the machine, can you then go on to partake.

Al Filreis: What is it he’s refusing to lick or swallow, what is that in that next line? “I’m not altogether evil”, but I must tell you there are times when — When what? How would you translate that in political terms? I”m going to go on a hunger strike? There are times when I’m going to refuse to participate in the eating of anything that’s not natural?


Susan Shultz: He’s again playing the game of literal and symbolic. Lick and swallow are clearly not just to do with food, so that’s why my reading of the apples and meat is a little less dialectically materialist than Leonards, it’s more symbolic. I think the poem wavers back and forth between those, but also a little bit between the forgetting and the intensity of the oh no, I’m in this. Tom?

Thomas Devaney: I like how Linh continually is implying a lot of causation in the stanzas. Coming from the first stanza, “But I’m not altogether evil” and implying that it’s just following along when it’s actually a leap. He keeps leaping and leaping and simultaneously positing causation. It’s part of the formal tension of the poem that’s all over the place.


Linh Dinh:

I hate to admit this, brother, but there are times

When I’m eating fried chicken

When I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken,

When I utterly forget about my family, honor and country,

The various blood debts you owe me,

My past humiliations and my future crimes—

Everything, in short, but the crispy skin on my fried chicken.


Al Filreis: I want to think about the Linh Dinh who has to some degree, at least at the time of this recording, repudiated poetry is inefficacious. Who's come to the point, I think, after writing this book which is some years old, that the work he wants to do politically and ethically isn’t well done in poetry, and expecting more out of the poetry community. I want us to go wide on Linh Dinh for a second and grapple with the fact that this could be read, at least retrospectively, as the need to distance from this kind of work that’s done in this poetry. I want to read it as a metapoem if possible. Does anyone want to take me up on that? Does this anticipate Linh’s current position? I think I need to do other things, so now he does a blog called “State of the Union” which is full of photographs full of juxtapositions about crime and poverty and urban life and so forth.


Thomas Devaney: I refer to a sublimated dialectic materialism in the poem, but ultimately I think this poem bails on that, and is more about a tragic inevitability of being corrupted and part of the corruption, so a politics that arises out of this poem would not tend towards activism.


Al Filreis: What would it tend towards?


Thomas Devaney: It would tend towards a kind of tragic resignation and despair about —

Al Filreis: Or memory, if I’m right about the ending.


Thomas Devaney: But when he’s eating chicken he doesn’t remember anything.


Susan Shultz: If you’re so complicit in all this evil and your eating a piece of chicken is complicit in it, then what can you do?


Thomas Devaney: I think the things that are similar is there’s a humor here, it’s there. But there’s a vehemence in this poem that he won’t let go and he’s translated into the next chapter of Linh Dinh. I hope he continues to write because I think he does thing in a poem like this. It’s other work he’s doing. I really feel these are more powerful political poems in a critique where you’re pointing out where it’s so bodily and cerebrally cognitively … It’s vexed, and there’s no untangling it. I think that’s why it’s a powerful poem on many levels. Humor, blood —


Al Filreis: This is why I appreciate the specific address of the first line. This is not a poem for us necessarily. This is a poem at least that proposes it’s being addressed specifically to someone who while being on the other side of the war or the war’s experience has in common that kind of extremity, that life in extremes. It’s not necessarily a poem for us, it’s certainly not a poem for the poetic community because he’s not being flashy poetically. It’s a very demotic terrain here. He’s keeping at bay the kind of poetic analysis that we’re engaging in the moment, and wanting to be addressing himself to the brother in the first line. We could do this for a long time, so why don’t we go around and offer one more thing or thought or observation about this and see where we get? Leonard, you look like you have five things you want to say.


Leonard Schwartz: One thing I’m thinking of Brecht’s distinction in Mother Courage where he distinguishes the little anger and the big anger. The little anger that never leads to revolutionary activity or politically efficacious activity because it burns itself out. That’s what little anger does. Whereas big anger doesn’t look like anger at all on the surface. And lasts. This is frustration at little anger, and I think almost I hope for Linh Dinh’s work a movement into big anger in the work, that’s not going to look like anger on the surface but is going to have the political authority that Tom was just speaking about. I sense that there in some of Linh Dinh’s other work.


Susan Shultz: If I could follow on that I’d say perhaps one of the problems is this is still a lyric poem. This is still an “I” talking to a “you”. A politically efficacious poem arguably is not a lyric poem, it’s something different. That might be part of what the frustration and the internalized anger is here. It’s me and it’s not us.


Thomas Devaney: When I was reading the last stanza I was thinking, “no doubt that’s why apples can cause riots, / And meat brings humiliation,” I was thinking about the Arab spring and this vendor in Egypt is talking about not being able to sell his food, and having to pay so many people off. This aggregate thing that happened in so many countries this past spring. The distinction, little anger big anger, maybe there’s tipping points. I think this poem has that available inside of it. I feel this is a serious poem for Linh. He definitely comes out of a lyric poem, and then so many things cross over him on top of him and inside of him in terms of poetics and experimental poetry and all kinds of things. That’s why I really want him to keep writing. At least he has these books.


Al Filreis: I’ll just add a final thought. I always struggle in this poem, and I was there in the room when he read it the first time I remember being struck by it, the connection between the blood debts that are owed and the refusal or anger to be eating something that’s not generally available to other people. He’s focusing on a kind of plentitude that he’s engaging in, the ultimate big bucket of fried chicken is too much, even just one piece feels like too much. Engaging that mindlessly is a way of forgetting and repressing or denying that there is general privation, that origins are blurred; either the origin of himself if he’s in fact engaging the historical memory of the Vietnam conflict, and the place where that brother might be if he were very conscious. That the refusal, the hunger strike on plain ethical grounds that not everyone has access to this and therefore I need to get pissed off. But I need to get pissed off at myself, because the pleasure of the poetry, the humor and the fun of writing a poem that’s just about eating fried chicken and doing that kind of thing, overwhelms him and he has to back off of it constantly. That dance that he does; he goes from pleasure of poetry to being pissed off at himself for engaging in such a thing, that’s the dynamic. The reason I like this poem is because I think it ends with a memory, a deep memory of some devastation where the scene of the blood dead gets breathed in. Instead of then exhaling into a poem it’s the end of it. I really grapple with that, I find it difficult. We like to end poem talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, or gathering inferno I guess after this poem. It’s a chance for several of us, or maybe if you’re quick all of us, to spread wide our narrow Dickinsonian hands to gather something really good to hail or commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Tom Devaney, I think you have some paradise with you.


Thomas Devaney: In the mail today, a book called What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems by Charles North from Turtle Point Press and Hanging Loose Press, Charles North. I haven’t read it. It has a cover by Trevor Wingfield. This is in my bag. I really like Charles North and I love Trevor Wingfield so —


Al Filreis: Terrific. Great recommendation, thank you. Leonard Schwartz.


Leonard Schwartz: The most extraordinary encounter I’ve had in poetry in quote a long time is the work of the Chilean poet, Raúl Zurita. Freshly translated a new book of his titled INRI by Marick Press. There’s also a couple published by University of California Press, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”. Zurita’s a poet who survived the Nauticomar Desert and the concentration camp in the Nauticomer Desert during the Pinochet regime, and who writes poetry of that period that isn’t explicitly political but simply reimagines the ocean in such a way as to make one hear the voices of the disappeared. It’s extraordinary work.


Al Filreis: Spell the poet’s name.


Leonard Schwartz: Zurita.


Al Filreis: Terrific, thank you. Susan Schultz, gather some paradise. It’s been paradise having you here with us, really.


Susan Shultz: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it so much. If I could toot the Tinfish Press horn just slightly, a new book by a poet named Jai Arun Ravine who began her life as a Thai American in West Virginia, and now is trangender, transnational, transgenre, pretty much trans everything. It’s a wonderful book and it was gorgeously designed by a designer in Hawaii.


Al Filreis: And I would like to gather some paradise which for me involves visiting the page of Cross Cultural Poetics which is an ongoing series of interviews conducted by our own Leonard Schwartz here. It is now up to how many episodes?

Leonard Schwartz: 230 something, I’ve lost track myself.


Al Filreis: I believe all of them are on the PennSound Cross Cultural Poetics page which is totally remarkable. What we’re trying to do now is we’re going back through all of them, and we’re segmenting them and connecting them to the author page when we have one. If you go back to Cross Cultural Poetics, you’re going to see an amazing resource, much more capacious than Poem Talk which is this little carefully edited curriculum. I think what you’re doing Leonard is deep and wide at the same time. Really fabulous.


Leonard Schwartz: Thank you very much Al.


Al Filreis: My pleasure. That’s all the KFC we have time for at Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, Thanks so much to my guest, Tom Devaney, Susan Schultz and Leonard Schwartz, and to Poem Talk’s engineer Chris Martin and to our editor as always Steve McLaughlin. Next time on Poem Talk, Gregory Djanikian, Michelle taransky and Ann Seaton gather with me to talk about one of Cole Swenson’s garden poems. This is Al Filries and I hope you’ll join us for that or another episode of Poem Talk.

Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Susan Schultz, Leonard Schwartz,and Thomas Devaney.

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