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Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jee Leong Koh

by Chloé Yelena Miller


Koh is a vigorous, physical poet very much captured by the expressive power of rhythm, rhetoric, and the lexicon. He is also, paradoxically, a poet in pursuit of the most elusive and delicate of human emotions. The contradiction is wonderful and compelling, and so are his poems. —Vijay Seshadri, author of The Long Meadow (Graywolf Press)

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Payday Loans (2007) and Equal to the Earth (2009). His poems have appeared in University of Virginia Press's Best New Poets and A Midsummer's Night Press's Best Gay Poetry and in PN Review and Drunken Boat, among other journals. Born in Singapore, he lives in New York City.

 

Brother

In mother's womb, we started as a pair of lungs,
sea slugs hanging on to a reef. We grew toe rays,
brain sponges and gonads relaxed by the liquid song.

The Doppler ultrasound echoed our submarine
and found us one. The truth was monozygotic—
we sucked each other's nub of thumb inside the brine.

When, headfirst, we were unceremoniously expelled,
we were halved like an egg sliced with a line of hair.
A beak plucked at the cord and knotted my navel.

Mother never speaks of you although I know
you were with me at sea. How else to understand
my panic playing hide-and-seek, the cracked canoe,

wet dreams of touching a man, waking up, a curse
crying, not knowing why, like a turtle washed ashore,
a lacquered carapace—these shimmering absences?

 

CYM     It seems you've developed a community of readers through your publications, readings and faithful blog postings (you've posted on your blog for five years) . How do does this audience influence your writing and what you decide to publish?

JLK     I don't have a community of readers yet. A community of readers suggests to my mind a group of people who discuss my poetry in depth and over time. My writing has not achieved such recognition. About five people read my blog regularly. What is true, however, is that I read frequently around New York City, blog almost every day, participate in an online poetry workshop, and alert friends on social networking websites of my publications.

Writing for me has become coterminous with finding an audience for my work. A part of me still wishes I could just write at my desk, but I have come to terms with having to go out into the world. What is lost in time and thought is somewhat compensated by not only the immediate pats on the back, but also the loyal friendships made. Writing is necessarily a lonely activity. Live readings and virtual interactions alleviate the loneliness.

Reading my poetry in public has not affected what and how I write. There is a danger of writing what pleases the crowd because the immediate response is so gratifying. One may stick to a particular style or theme that has proven to be popular, and so limit one's poetic development. Or one may accentuate the well-received aspects of one's writing, and so distort the form of the original inspiration. When I read in public, I choose poems that the audience will grasp readily. When I write, I try to make sense slowly to myself.

Like poetry writing, blogging helps me make sense of the world. I blog to annotate my experiences in culture and society. My blog is my writer's diary. Sometimes I type up interesting passages from books the way a past writer would copy quotations into his commonplace book. I don't have a good memory, and so my blog is also an indexed repository. Unlike a writer's diary, however, a blog is a kind of publication. Knowing this, I try to write as clearly and gracefully as time allows. This is a good discipline for a writer, I think, especially in between poems. I also post first drafts of poems, and, sometimes, revisions, if the latter is radically different from the draft. I am a very deliberate writer, and so most of my first drafts are close to finish. "Publishing" a draft on my blog has strengthened my predilection for bringing a poem to a sort of completion; otherwise the writing session feels unsatisfying.

CYM     I've heard you discuss your feeling of missing a twin in your poem "Brother" and the poem "Blowjob," which was written for a friend who felt like the missing twin. In these poems and others you've written, there is a sense of searching. Through your writing, what have you found?

JLK     In his review of my first full length book, Andrew Howdle wrote "Equal to the Earth is characterized by enquiry, technical curiosity and emotional questioning." I add that my poems search for erotic passion, social relevance and aesthetic perfection. But recently, I am coming to sense that searching, for me, describes not a mission but an existential condition. To be is to seek. Seeking is motivated by a sense of lack—which may paradoxically be a good thing—and by a desired goal—which may, however, be a nothing. Seeking goes forth with an open heart and mind, sometimes grinning, sometimes grave. It finds a poem, but knows it is looking for poetry. In one of my ghazals, I put it this way: "Definitions are a small halt at a brief station."

CYM     I know your current work is deeply influenced by visual art. On one of your blog posts, you respond to a sculpture by Gabriel Orozco with a prose poem. Does the use of art from painting instead of live models pull you closer to the real world or distance you?

JLK     I was not writing a prose poem about Orozco, but now I think you may be right! How fortuitous! I come like a child to art, not knowing very much about it, but loving to look at it. Orozco appeals to me immensely because he seems to see the world in the same way, unhindered by his knowledge and expertise.

All art is an abstraction from reality. Reality to my eyes appears chaotic, monotonous, empty. Art gives it form, color and meaning. Both figurative and abstract art do this, and so are more profoundly closer in their work than apart. I am especially drawn to art that works at the boundary of figuration and abstraction. That is why Henri Matisse is my favorite artist. He does not escape into naturalism or minimalism but holds them in tension, loving the world and changing the art.

The title sequence of my next book is "Seven Studies for a Self-Portrait." Seven artists—Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Yasumasa Morimura—inspire me in their different ways to look at and depict myself. In looking at their self-portraits, I see things in myself I did not see before. Kahlo, for instance, lenses my desire to be broken and restored. But I also see new ways of seeing, which are the abstracting eyes of art. Morimura, outrageously cross-dressed as Marilyn Monroe, shows me how to take on an American icon with playful irony.

CYM     You were born in Singapore, studied in the UK and currently reside in New York City. You are quite open about your linguistic, cultural and sexual orientation. Your work is strongly influenced by your cultural background, physical relationships to people and places, as well as other poets. What influences you that is perhaps less obviously uncovered in your poetry? (For example, you are and have been a teacher most of your professional life.)

JLK     A teacher, to my mind, is the opposite of a poet. In class the most democratic teacher must impose his authority on his students. Ideally, he should do so with the lightest touch but his job, the cultivation of learning, requires him to lead and manage. As a poet, however, I don't wish to impose my authority on the reader. I wish, instead, to make love to him. The Classical Greek tradition says one can be a teacher and a lover, but that has not been my experience. It is one reason why I suspect the Greek idea of being idealistic, and not a realistic depiction of lived life. What can dissipate the spell of love more quickly than someone correcting your recitation of Sappho? If pedagogy influences my poetry in any way, it warns me against trying to teach the reader any thing.

Not unobvious in my poetry, but less discussed than my cultural background and sexual orientation is my Christian past. I grew up in an Evangelical and charismatic Baptist church in Singapore. I believed in the inerrancy of the Bible and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues. I left the church in order to come out as gay. The church's strictures against homosexuality gave me a strong distaste for dogma, and this has left a mark on my poetry. Having been seared by certainty, I prefer to stay with the provisional, the preliminary and the problematic. Christian symbols appear in my poetry but with revised meaning:

Supper at le Monde

My body breathes, a glass of wine
tasted once or twice,
and teaches spirit to define
mineral, fruit and spice.

My body rises, leavened bread
of water, salt and yeast,
and sets before the soul the spread,
the sacrificial feast.

Uneaten bread will change to mold
and wine, by chance, may spill.
No maitre d' on call to scold,
nor waiter, for refill.

Before the closing, drink and eat,
soul, learn to breathe and rise
singing of wine, on wings of wheat,
before the body dies.

CYM     Your two books, Equal to the Earth and Payday Loans , show a close attention to poetic form. You play with the sonnet and rhyme. What is your relationship to poetic form?

JLK     I don't have a theory of poetic form. The form each poem takes usually grows from the first few lines. After writing the opening lines, I realize the poem is going to be a rondeau or villanelle, in tercets or ottava rima, in meter or not. The exception to this happens when I decide to take a form on a workout. I wrote most of the thirty sonnets in Payday Loans during National Poetry Writing Month in 2005. The form offered a shape for organizing the flux of my life then. In working with the form, however, I experimented. My most radical change, I think, was beginning a sonnet with its final couplet, to present the rhyming verse from a Chinese red packet my parents sent me. More recently, I wrote a series of 49 ghazals. The Arabic form consists of self-contained couplets that free a poem from narrative or rhetoric. Again, I adapted the form for my own purposes.

Innovation can only be perceived against tradition. The changes I made to sonnet and ghazal are imperceptible or meaningless to a reader not versed in those forms. In the same way, free verse acquires its meaning against the received tradition of metrical poetry. The fainter the sound of meter, the tighter the prison of free verse.

CYM     The line is important to your work s it is to all poets. What pushes you to make these certain distinctions and mix them in one poem?

JLK     To my mind, the verse line distinguishes poetry from prose. Someone would counter this by pointing to prose poems. I think prose poems cede too much to prose. Why give up what makes poetry special? The line decides not just the music of a poem, but the look as well. Robert Frost compares writing without meter to playing tennis without a net. I would compare writing without the line to skipping without a skip rope.

I have written lines based on metrical feet, number of syllables, and natural phrasing, but the "rule" usually stays the same in a poem. "Fire Island," as you point out, is different. I was reading Frank Bidart during a stay on the island. His idiosyncratic line placement and punctuation were fascinating. He explained somewhere he wanted to stick or pin the voice to the page. In imitation and homage, I broke and placed my lines according to how I heard them, in the poem's central section, which describes a drag performance. Enveloping it, the two sections "Ocean I" and "Ocean II" are written in couplets of similar length, to echo faintly the eternal sound of the ocean. Enveloping them, the next two sections "Beach I" and "Beach II" have lines that dribble like sand down the page because they are about our mortality. The outermost sections "Sayville Ferry" and "Fire Island," the lines of which are determined by strict syllable count and capped by rhyme, open and close the poem on a ceremonial note. By ending the book with this poetic sequence, I hope to demonstrate the meaningful interplay between constancy and change. The old Poundian idea about a fixed element and a variable.

CYM     As a poet, you challenge yourself by writing in forms that you don't always enjoy. On your blog, you note that you wrote a list poem and wrote, "I hate list-poems and so I had to write one. Why do it, then?

JLK     For the heck of it! I don't enjoy other people's list-poems, and so I tried to write a list-poem I would like to read. List-poems are hard to write because they eschew all rhetorical strategies except for the basic one of a list. I was reading Octavio Paz at that time, and saw how he drove his long poems forward through the engine of a list. He might have got the idea from Whitman, on whom he wrote an essay. Paz's example encouraged me to try my hand at it.

I also don't like most English ghazals I have read. They sound like bad translations. The rhyme that appears in every couplet tries too hard to be unobtrusive or ingenious. Then I realize that if I drop the rhyme and keep the repeating end-word, I could make the form more natural and flexible in English, without sacrificing its artfulness.

I also don't like prose poems, but you tell me I have written one. I don't have a list of hateful forms which I plan to write and then check off. Sometimes things come together, and I think, hey, I can do this.

CYM     Non-writers often find the process of writing mysterious. I asked some people who are mystified by writing what they would like to ask a contemporary poet. One asked, "What does your writing do for you? What are you currently exploring in your writing?" You noted on your blog that you recently joined the writing organization PEN American Center. I wonder if your writing life and your hopes for your writing relates to this group's motto ("A global literary community protecting free expression and celebrating literature.")

JLK     Free expression is close to my heart. For a very long time I was closeted, even to myself. I already wrote poems back then, but they were bloodless things. When I came out, I was free, finally, to write what I want, and how I want, and that means a tremendous lot to me.

When I returned to Singapore to read at a gay pride event, the government banned the reading of one of my sonnets on the grounds that it promotes the homosexual lifestyle. Other poems dealing with homosexual love were allowed, but not a poem that begins "Come on, straight boy, and make gay love with me." Censorship is arbitrary, despite its mask of logic, and therein lies its power. But censorship also shows up, unintentionally, the power of art to provoke more than an aesthetic response.

PEN's global membership is also very appealing. Although I grew up in Singapore and now live in the United States, I would like to see myself as part of a much bigger community. The pitfall here is parochialism, and it is as much present in superficially cosmopolitan Singapore as it is in the mistakenly self-sufficient States.

CYM     My composition writing students are always asking how much the poet intends for the reader to add in his or her own interpretation. What would you say to them? How closely linked do you expect your reading and intentions for the poem to be to the words on the page or do they spin in a number of directions depending on something like spokes on a wheel? For example, you make fairly dense historical references to the American reader in the opening poem to Equal to the Earth . Are you writing for a reader who has the appropriate knowledge, one who will look up what is necessary and/or one who can make assumptions about the meaning based on the context?

JLK     The latitude for interpretation can be visualized as a circle, outside of which fall obvious misinterpretations. Some poems are big circles and allow for many different points of view. Other poems are small circles and allow for few. I teach my students to think of a poem as a point, with one interpretation, which they must formulate for themselves based on close analysis of the poem. This approach encourages rigorous reading. They should be aware, however, that their interpretation is a point among many other points. In fact, my students do not need to be told about the relativity of points of view; the wider culture already does a good job of indoctrinating them. What they need to learn is to evaluate different interpretations for their persuasiveness.

As a poet, I write to make my own intentions for a poem fully visible to myself. I spend time and thought to make the poem the embodiment of my meaning. So I appreciate readers who try to understand what I mean. The process of reading is complex and subjective, but it should be undertaken with the good faith that the writer wishes to be understood. As for dense historical references, I don't use them a lot in my poetry. When I do, I write the poems in such a way that a reader not familiar with the references will still get much out of the poem. A reader who knows the references will obviously get more. But I do see it as my job to entice the reader to do the research.

CYM     You've mentioned how you've been influenced by the British authors and you've been learning Spanish and translating Spanish poets. Who are you reading now?

JLK     I am reading Shahnameh , or The Persian Book of Kings , composed by Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries C.E.. Translated by Dick Davies, this national epic celebrates the chivalry of war and laments the transience of life. It is a part of my dream to read all the seminal texts of our world. In poetry, I am reading The Essential Rumi , translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi's friendship with Shams inspired so much of his poetry.

CYM     With your background of growing up speaking English and Cantonese, learning Mandarin in school and learning some Spanish now, what word is missing in English? If you could create a word to stand in for something that we cannot name in our language, what would you add to our lexicon?

JLK     I actually think in English, and so it's hard to think of a word missing in English, though such a thought must have occurred to me before. I am preoccupied with the relationship between soul and body. The English language pits them against each other, a dichotomy that mirrors Western thought. I wish there is a word in English that means soul-body. I think my poetry is searching for that word.

Equal to the Earth
ISBN 978-0-9817678-9-5
Bench Press, 2009

 

Check out Jee Leong Koh'sblog

 

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