Their Own Words: “A Species of Magic”: An interview with Kimiko Hahn, Hiroshima Day

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2011 by David St.-Lascaux

Hiroshima Day, 6 August 2010; published 6 August 2011

Kimiko Hahn is a Brooklyn poet and educator. This interview is the first installment of “Their Own Words,” a series of interviews with New York poets and others in the poetry community.

On poetry

St.-L: Today the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, perhaps poetically intoned to the citizens of Hiroshima:

For many of you, that day endures as vivid as the white light that seared the sky, as dark as the black rain that followed.

Today is a day of remembrance and mourning, the anniversary – an inept, if apt word – of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at 8:15.

Is poetry a palliative, or is palliation inadequate to atone for humanity’s destructive forces?

KH: Well, I think poetry can do a lot of different things, I don’t think art does any one thing.

It can alleviate pain, but it cannot alleviate genocide or horrible catastrophe or horrible events. You have people responding as a community to art also. It’s a very large question. Art can inspire, soothe, it can irritate. What it really, hopefully does, is move people. Sometimes it will move people to take action, “or go to sleep.”

St.-L: Today’s theme will be about regeneration. You wrote “In Childhood”:

things don’t die or remain damaged
but return: stumps grow back hands,
a head reconnects to a neck,
a whole corpse rises blushing and newly elastic.
Later this vision is not True:
the grandmother remains dead
not hibernating in a wolf’s belly.
Or the blue parakeet does not return
from the little grave in the fern garden
though one may wake in the morning
thinking mother’s call is the bird.
Or maybe the bird is with grandmother
inside light. Or grandmother was the bird
and is now the dog
gnawing on the chair leg.

After Hiroshima, camphor, chinaberry, willow, black locust, palm trees, azalea, oleander and wildflowers – plants – were said to regenerate, to bloom first after the bomb. What does this mean?

KH: I think one of the themes of the poem is how a child looks at death, how a child discovers death. On the regeneration, I suppose that could be an element of that as well. I don’t think that artists are the best people to interpret their work. I think it’s about death.

St.-L: Apparently Wikipedia, which now has three million English-language entries, is expected to plateau at 4.5 million, implying that human knowledge, as documented so far, is finite. Yet there is said to be over 126 million blogs, and there were said to be about 750,000 vanity press published books in 2009. Are we in a renaissance of creativity? Or have we simply missed a lot because so much wasn’t documented in the past as now?

KH: I would say so much is not documented or that the distribution apparatus, if I may sound so commercial, has been modest or inadequate or subtle. We are seeing a rebirth or renaissance of the chapbook. And its many forms, whether it’s the art of in the form of an art book or hand letterpress or mimeographs or downloadable PDF chapbooks, so we’re seeing a renaissance of the chapbook. And it’s almost a kind of gift, currency, a gift culture, if you will, where people are giving them to one another or selling them themselves, not relying on bookstores, as the bookstores dwindle in our neighbors or become extinct. So I think on the one hand there is a renaissance and some of that renaissance we’ll see and some we won’t, just as in the past.

St.-L: From Genesis 11:

5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building. 6 And he said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. 7 Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city. 9 And therefore the name thereof was called Babel, because there the language of the whole earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.

If I’m not misreading this, apparently G*d intentionally subverted humanity’s attempt at communitarianism and collaboration. Why do you think He did that? Do diverse, heterogeneous voices create cultural chaos and fragmentation? How do we benefit from diverse voices?

KH: Well, I’m not going to try to speak for God. I’m an atheist. I think that for whatever reason, there is an incredible richness of diversity. I do believe in looking at things dialectally, so I look at this diversity in terms of both richness but also in terms of the conflicts it creates. Richness is not necessarily good and the conflict is not necessarily bad. But I think that it’s all important and its all that we have to work with and to accept what we have before us and create communities that have to do with survival of the planet and survival of people as opposed to the many kinds of mass destruction and destruction of culture that we see all around us all the time.

St.-L: I attended a dance conference recently where some of the dancers and choreographers were saying that critics who applied old thinking to new forms weren’t being open to the new things. Do the diverse voices of today demand new or different critical criteria than we’ve had in the past?

KH: I don’t know if it does. I think that it may make new demands on Americans because we are not multilingual as a nation. I think we need to learn more languages and understand translation literally and figuratively as something that’s important for our culture in terms of cultural growth and development. I see this with immigration and Diaspora and also with borders and I think our country is doing at least two things at once: becoming more conservative and becoming more progressive at the same time. I will just turn back to translation as a kind of metaphor. I think that is key and that is going to be an important way of moving ahead and looking at the various strands of languages and schools of poetry.

St.-L: Haibun, poetry, and prose poetry. You just spoke about different schools Are there hybrid forms or new forms of poetry that are emerging that are of interest to you?

KH: Well a form that I’ve been using a lot and that other poets and certainly students that I have are becoming interested in is called the Zuihitsu. And that is a hybrid form, obviously, from Japan. It’s not a new form, it’s fairly new to the west, or certainly to American readers, and we’ve had similar hybrid forms in the canon. I would point to Moby Dick as being a kind of Zuihitsu and the modernists, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Marianne Moore – she’s crazy; it’s gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.

St.-L: Sei Shonagon, the courtesan, said the following in her pillow book:

“Unsuitable things… Snow on the houses of the common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.”

Really, aren’t poetry and culture inherently elitist? Won’t society always be unfair, endowing a chosen few with time, means and talent?

KH: I wouldn’t call her a courtesan. I’d call her a court attendant. She was like a lady in waiting. The court during that era, like most courts are, I suppose, were enormously prejudiced. She was really a kind of a bitch, and that is reflected in her work, her class attitudes. I imagine most people would have thought pretty similarly. I don’t think all art is like that at all, though.

Women during that time were breaking through a kind of cultural barrier themselves. Up to then only men had been educated. They were educated in Chinese and the women were writing in the Japanese language, so they were breaking through and writing some of the most beautiful work that would become the classics of Japanese literature. Also, however, they had a horrible attitude toward the peasant class, certainly regrettable, to say the least, monstrous.

Words for me are tools; I could almost taste them in my mouth, I could almost most feel the texture of words in my mouth. So [for me, poetry is] both a delight in the medium and also in the need for song.

St.-L: You wrote, in “Things that make me cry instantly –”:

your gravity on mine—your sweaty pulsing inside me, your beard chafing, your
lips on mine telling me in an artificial respiration how dear I am—that

even as the youngest drops her fan, giggles till she shakes but con-
tinues, that—my body quakes because my mother is dead and she
watched me dance this dance in her peach-colored kimono in 1968.
Yes, it was that long ago.

You are said to focus on desire and death. Oh, boy, Eros and Thanatos! Why do these, said by Freud to be the twin, Universal Themes, attract and intrigue you?

KH: I should leave that up to Freud, actually. I think it does but not necessarily as such. I mean I am intrigued by loss, the ultimate loss is the death of someone or the loss of one’s own life. You can look at loss as a small death or you can look at it as the French word for climax.

St.-L: [la petite mort]

KH: It’s all combined. I would probably agree with Freud in that.

St.-L: Lady Murasaki wrote in the Genji Monogatari, in Part III, “The Floating Bridge of Dreams”:

The spring came back to the village in the mountains. Ukifune exchanged poems with the nun to wish her a long life, sending the first spring shoots. A rose plum was blooming near the eaves of her room. Its color and its perfume were the same as they had always been. It reawakened her memories of Niou in the past. She had a girl of lower rank break off a sprig and set down a poem. The writing of poems about her memories became a practice to ease her mind in those days.

What inspired you to write poetry, to set down poems?

KH: I come from a family of artists. So my sister and I were given a lot of diverse art forms to participate in. So the idea that feeling and the idea of expression in the arts and expression in general were always paramount in our family values. I discovered more and more that language for me was what paint is for my father or enamel jewelry making for my mother. So words for me are tools, I could almost taste them in my mouth, I could almost most feel the texture of words in my mouth. So it’s both a delight in the medium and also in the need for song.

On teaching and scholarship


furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

the old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

One of my favorite poems is by the Bananaman, Matsuo Basho, in which he summarizes the human condition in three lines. In today’s age of free verse, how can we learn from structural constraints? Has free verse run its course?

KH: No, free verse has not run its course. I think it will continue along in its various shapes. Some lineated, some will look like prose poems. It will take different shapes. I do think there is a longing for shape and design and repetition. There is more of that today, whether it comes from a renewed interest in conventional forms like the sonnet or from young peoples’ wonderful skill with language, for example, hip-hop and so forth. And that will all influence what’s ahead of us. For myself, I am increasingly interested in slant rhyme and in finding new kinds of repetition rather than scribbling and revising which is basically how I start out.

St.-L: The still-controversial Wikipedia, says that Basho “made a living as a teacher, but renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles and was inclined to wander throughout the country, heading west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing.” I met a young person recently who told me that she traveled randomly to slake her “wanderlust.” As a poet, does your mind – and do you – wander? Why wander?

KH: I think that curiosity and exploring are incredibly important. Probably the one writer who wandered the deepest is Emily Dickinson and she hardly ever left her father’s home. So wanderlust doesn’t have to be literal. It can take different forms.

St.-L: Speaking of Emily Dickinson, you wrote:

“a volume of Emily Dickinson, a hand weight, and a newspaper.”

The hand weight “to take care of their bodies.” I was astonished to hear a meditation consultant recently say that meditation is narcissistic – apparently a criticism. I recently learned about physical intelligence, a phenomenon common to dancers, musicians, athletes and actors. What is the connection between mind and body you make with the hand weights? Are poets mental dancers, musicians of the mind?

KH: That sounds pretty good to me. We still don’t know what goes on in the brain as far as what is consciousness. We don’t even know what that means. Neuroscientists are still trying to figure that out. But there’s something, in between our mind, synapses, electricity in our brain, the physical tissue. Something is going on there. We don’t know what that is. All things are formed there. And certainly art is. I don’t know why meditation would be bad. Anything can be self-indulgent, I suppose if it’s done too much or is done for some ill purpose. I don’t know why someone would make that pronouncement and be so absolute.

St.-L: You wrote:

If only I could know a plover—or warbler. But a suburban girl
learns little more than red and brown—or brown and brown.

Beech leaves, it turns out are marcescent, remaining on the branches throughout the winter. Before you became a professor, you were a student. You attended the University of Iowa, whose art school building proclaims “Ars Longa Vita Brevis.” Why Iowa?

KH: I was 18 years old at the time. This was in 1973. There weren’t that many writing workshops. I was very intrigued. I wanted to be in a community of writers. I didn’t even know what a writing workshop was. We had a creative writing class in high school but I was pretty new to the educational thing, I suppose. But I really wanted to write and I wanted to be around writers. Iowa was one of the few places that had an undergraduate program that did that. It was inexpensive and I got in. I didn’t get into every school I applied to. And I wanted to get out of New York. I thought I will probably come back here and live here for the rest of my life. I guess this goes back to your wanderlust question. Now’s the time to leave.

St.-L: Please tell me about nu shu, the Chinese script. What was/is its interest, and appeal to you?

KH: When I first heard about it I just thought it was interesting as a cultural phenomenon, the secret script between women. And then the more I thought about it, the more the idea of that secret script became important to me as a model for a sequence, and that became a manuscript for Mosquito and Ant.

St.-L: You are quoted as saying,

“I’ve taken years to imagine an Asian American aesthetic. I think it’s a combination of many elements—a reflection of Asian form, an engagement with content that may have roots in historical identity, together with a problematic, and even psychological, relationship to language.”

English is said to have a million words, Chinese 325,000. However, Chinese, as we know, is polysemic, which can have a multiplying effect on meaning, and thus be a possible advantage or else a creator of inevitably hopeless confusion. What did you mean by a “psychological relationship to language”?

KH: I think that your question is twofold. So I’ll try answering the first half. What I mean by a psychological relationship and don’t know what percentage this might be for a lot of Asian-American writers, but it’s true for me. Even though I was born in the United States and I was brought up speaking English, it was my first language, there’s something about my relationship with English. I always feel slightly at odds with it. I don’t know if it’s because my mother’s first language, her first language was Japanese. She grew up in Hawaii and her parents spoke Japanese. I don’t know if it has to do with being the daughter of a granddaughter of immigrants. It’s not like the Latino culture where there’s a lot of different ways to speak Spanish. There is one Spanish. Japanese, Vietnamese and Tagalog are completely different languages. As a quote-unquote community, we don’t even have that one element binding us. But I do think that for many that for many because of the various Diasporas, I think that many Asian American writers have a kind of anxiety about the English language and or another or other languages in their background, say their grandmother’s language. I feel at odds with English, but I’m not fluent in Japanese, so where does that place me? You will see this in Li-Young Lee’s work and Marilyn Chin’s work and probably a lot of other writers who are immigrants.

But what I think what might be second half of your question, is more of an aesthetic question. I don’t know about Chinese, but Japanese is vocabulary poor. There are fewer words in the Japanese language, from what I understand. Therefore one sound will mean many different things. Shi means the number four, poetry, and death. It means those 3 things. So if you just look at the Japanese, not the character, because then you could distinguish between those three. If you look the Japanese syllabary that represent “shi”, you’d have multiple meanings and that’s part of the Japanese aesthetic having the sound work very, very hard. And I love that about the Japanese language and aesthetic a I try to use it as much as possible my own. So my aesthetic is very informed by East Asian, and particularly Japanese aesthetic. That’s not true for a lot of Asian Americans, but it really is true for me.

In the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms, poetry is described as a species of magic, and I believe that. Isn’t that wild?

St.-L: Elizabeth Samet reported in the New York Times in 2007 (“In the Valley of the Shadow”) that she taught poetry to cadets at West Point:

“What does it mean for an undergraduate to pass the morning reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and the afternoon parachuting from a helicopter? To spend the summer learning to control vehicle checkpoints or call in air strikes, the winter writing a senior thesis on the poetry of William Butler Yeats or the novels of Virginia Woolf?”

One of your students is characterized in an article as a military man. I also read recently that a famous [communications] company once had a division that required managers to read literature. Two questions:

First, how does a poetry professor reconcile the contradictions of gunnery with the humanity that poetry is so often said to describe?

KH: I try to look at the world around me dialectically. We try and be civilized, humane human beings and artists, but we’re also savages. All of us have a kind of very savage impulse and that’s why we try and have structure, laws and institutions and certainly culture, hopefully, will help instruct us. But I also think it’s important to defend ourselves. If my children were being struck on the street, I would have no problem in defending them, as the saying goes, by any means necessary. So I’m not a complete pacifist in that regard. That deviates from your question a bit.

St.-L: No, not at all, I think it amplifies upon it.

KH: I have had students at Queens College, which is part of the city university system, who have been or are on their way studying and taking tests for that and so forth. We have in the MFA program, people who are veterans or are part of the first responders and I’m grateful that they protect the city. I think that police can do otherwise. I hope that reading literature will help them understand their own humanity as well as other peoples’ in a deeper way.

St.-L:  Second, in regard to the point I made earlier about the corporate program. The corporate program was abandoned because the employees were said to come to challenge authority with greater frequency. Is poetry inherently disruptive? What does poetry do to and for us?

KH: I think that goes back to my first answer. It doesn’t do any one particular thing, hopefully it does a lot of things. And different poems will… an elegy will do something different than a limerick, hopefully, or a haiku. So I don’t know if there is any one answer to that.

St.-L: If you were to be a student again, and could select a mentor, who would it be, and why? You can have dead people if you want.

KH: Well, there is Emily Dickinson. I really love Gerald Stern’s work. And I am amazed at the work that he continues to produce. And I would love to know the secret to that. I would love to know some of the magic he performs, how he performs the magic in his work.

[Why care about the future?] I don’t know what else there is to care about in some ways. In the larger sense it’s about survival….

St.-L: You prescribe reading as the route to writing. Why is it important to be able to read? What should students read in order to be able to write well?

KH: Both in my classroom and on my own laptop, which is to say for myself, I encourage students to do what I call stealing exercises. Which I learned as an undergraduate as kind of talking back to other poems and poets. You could think of it as literary allusion, in some respects. But I think that they’re having conversations with other writers all the time, knowingly and unknowingly and that’s important and I mentioned tricks, magic, and we need to apprentice ourselves to writers and even specific poems to find what a person loves to do.

Let me try to be clearer. I’ll ask my students to read a poem, and whether they like that poem or not, to find something that they would like to steal from that poem. Whether it’s the length of the line or the way the poet handles his cæsuras, or the tone or even a particular line that could use as a quote or as an epigraph. And I do that all the time, myself. I do that to learn about other poems to learn new tricks for myself, and it’s a way of apprenticing one’s self. In the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms, poetry is described as a species of magic, and I believe that. Isn’t that wild?

St.-L: [Yes.] In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Wade reports in “Two New Paths to the Dream: Regeneration” (online here), that:

“Two research reports published Friday offer novel approaches to the age-old dream of regenerating the body from its own cells. Animals like newts and zebra fish can regenerate limbs, fins, even part of the heart. If only people could do the same, amputees might grow new limbs and stricken hearts be coaxed to repair themselves.”

You are passionate about the Science Times, whose authors include the glorious Natalie Angier and Nicholas Wade. Have you met any of the Times’ science journalists? Why are you inspired by the metric, natural world – seemingly antipodal to that of poetry, a world of works of imagination?

KH: My earliest memories of learning how to speak and also learning how much I love to hear stories has to do with the sound of words, not even the meaning of words, but the sound of words. And the language of science is completely exotic. As I mentioned earlier, I come from a family of artists and I didn’t take that many science classes in high school or college. But I am completely intrigued by the various worlds of science. I love hearing the words, I love learning about it, and certainly the Science Times has some of the best science writers in the world and they explain things so that even I can understand. I was invited by an editor at the New York Times after he heard me read to come to a staff meeting, to attend a staff meeting. At first I though, yes, that sounds very cool. When the day came, on my way there, and I was just happily walking from the subway to the New York Times building I was suddenly panic stricken, because I realized that would be meeting all these writers whose work I had stolen, or recycled, let’s say. But they ended up being very nice to me and I was totally in awe of meeting them, just a constellation of stars, absolutely amazing.

St.-L: [D'accord.] In doing some work with lipogrammatic forms, you know, the limited vowel concept, I found this thing call the Oort Cloud, which the OED defines as “a comet reservoir well beyond the orbit of Pluto.” What more could a poet ask – you don’t even have to do any work!

On the future

St.-L: I’d like to close with a conversation about the future. The Mesoamerican poet Nezahualcoyotl, the Hungry, or Fasting Coyote wrote in “The Flower Tree”:

Not forever on earth, only a brief time here! Even jades fracture; even gold ruptures, even quetzal plumes tear: Not forever on earth: only a brief time here! Ohuaya, ohuaya.

Raymond Kurzweil, a futurist and inventor who predicts the Singularity by 2040, in which computers learn recursively (that is, are able to learn to learn) and make humans obsolete, wants to live forever. Basho, a contemporary of the immortal diarist Samuel Pepys, is with us over 300 years after his death. Two questions. Why do poetry and literature persist?

KH: I think it’s the same reason why there are paintings in caves. That there is something about us that needs to figure things out and express ourselves. And one way to do that is through art. It can be a particularly constructive way. We have a need for song. I don’t really believe in free verse. There’s something in the best art, whether it’s spontaneous or so called free, there’s something that’s holding it together. There is some kind of repetition and arrangement that’s holding a really good piece of art together, whether it’s song or dance or anything. So there’s something about our need for that repetition and design to express ourselves and to reflect and to make sense of the world around us. Again, whether it’s a cave painting or an opera.

St.-L: When you go back and look at ancient history you find that we don’t have too many clothing items and things that were constructed of anything other than stone. Will electronic literature evaporate, disintegrate like quetzal plumes, and be lost forever? Will all this electronic stuff, when the electricity goes off, be gone?

KH: Unless it’s saved on a flash drive or something, I guess it is. The way a dance performance is gone. I guess it becomes closer to performance in that regard.

St.-L: I had dancers, specifically, choreographers, make the same analogy that you did about their work. I think the paperbound denizens of the printed word tend to dream, assume permanence. Perhaps linen and papyrus have done okay when they’re kept in humidity-controlled circumstances.

You wrote:

The body would like to recall humidity even
or especially in February—
even as the dogwood too early reddens
then freezes the next week
but is still not ruined.
What of the nestled pupa, more
uncompromising than we imagine?

Metamorphosis, seasonality. Should a poet swing for the fences of futurity? Is a futuritive agenda futile, or is it altruistic? Why care about the future?

KH: I don’t know what else there is to care about in some ways. In the larger sense it’s about survival, not just one’s self or one’s person, or one’s children, of communities and cultures and the planet itself. It sounds corny, but increasingly so there are species that die every day, that go extinct. I don’t know what’s going to happen to our planet, whether it’s going to be blown up by some god-fearing person or whether we’ll just drown in our own mire. It do think we need to care about the future.

St.-L: In that regard, you wrote, in “The Fever” (online here):

I already own my share of vivid jewelry
from Mother’s childhood village on Maui.
Still, the living are losing color
in my ocean’s escalating fever.

Today, humanity’s legacy on this little sphere seems to be hanging in the balance. What would you like Kimiko Hahn’s legacy to be, in a poetic line or two?

KH: I guess that I wrote poetry that moved people. That I was able to teach my students some magic.

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