Christine Robbins writes about her poem “Wake.” You can read “Wake” in Issue 42.1 of Cream City Review and by clicking here.
A few years ago, the poem was two stanzas and less than a page long, with a uniform left margin. It was titled “If we’re saved by what we can’t leave.” We keep a flock of pigeons in a loft behind our house, and if they are released too early in the spring, they become meals for the hawk and peregrine falcon. The poem was about these birds and the tension between being responsible for others’ safety, but also for their freedom, and possibly even their joy.
I have a fair amount of angst around “keeping,” but my concerns were more submerged in this earlier version. The poem expanded to over four pages with more white space, shorter lines, and a back and forth swing to the stanzas. I had been playing with a form that would allow room for two voices, or the braiding together of two or more poems that felt somewhat flat to me, as this original did. But the right justification of alternating short stanzas evolved into a much-needed space for my own voice to contradict itself.
This form became so compelling to me that I haven’t used another since. I think the stanza movement provides room for something unwieldy to drop into the poem and maybe alter the meaning of a word as it’s approached from a different angle. Also, the original version felt more like an artifact – the lines were the result of a creative process that happened elsewhere, and this poem documents the process on the page. It’s messier, and I hope it has more of a pulse. It’s also more vulnerable – I’m leaving more of myself on the page. I think the poem gains urgency in the process, and I want this, but it also engages more of what I’m only on the edge of understanding myself, and the diminished control feels riskier to me.
I find the idea of decomposition compelling, and the poem circles this concept – as organic matter, but also as the concept of un-writing. A being can never un-be, and words can never be taken back – not really. I am aware of my ambivalence for declarative sentences, but I’ve also been thinking about how urgent they can be in a political climate that continues to threaten the existence of so many people. I tend to claim questioning as a stance, or even an essential part of who I am, but that can be taken too far. I also need to know what I can definitively say, and it is important to me to stand behind those whose lives are at risk. When we are not safe, we need to know who is with us. I am also watching for the “I,” and aware that everything I see in others comes through my filter and I am accountable to this lens.
For the last eight years, I have had progressive trouble with my mobility and speech. It is probably not surprising that my lines have grown shorter as my capacity to physically and verbally move across space has diminished and become more halting. I am aware that the poems I’ve written recently are almost all long. If I have the floor, I have a lot to say. But it is also relevant that I don’t know why I have this trouble – I don’t have a diagnosis, and this contributes to my desire to look at language from different angles. My own language is altered from a speech disorder, but language itself might alter my perspective, if I ever learn the word I do not yet know. And since I do not have certainty (and really, do we ever?), could I wake up tomorrow and run? Will this unnamed thing kill me? Is it all in my mind?
One thing is certain: I do not want to waste time. Which means, I want to be accountable to the people I love, and in a smaller way, to this world of people. I want to write what I’m compelled to write. I want to be free to name my own mistakes. I want to be awake.
In addition to Cream City Review, Christine Robbins has been published in journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Poetry Northwest. She was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and she lives and works in Olympia, Washington.
This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Poetry will be judged by the poet and memoirist E.J. Koh. In this micro-interview conducted by Editor-in-Chief, Su Cho, E.J. discusses moments of surprise during her writing process, what makes a poem memorable, and what she’s working on now. Read on for the full interview.
E.J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize for Poetry and the memoir The Magical Language of Others (Tin House Books, 2020). You can learn more at www.thisisejkoh.com.
1. I’m so glad I got to see you read from your memoir, The Magical Language of Others, at Boswell Books in Milwaukee this year! I couldn’t help but notice that you opened your talk with a very generous explanation of 잘 부탁합니다 (jal butak hapnida) and how your poetry collection A Lesser Love opens with “Showtime,” which also summons this phrase of goodwill and trust. You say, “This translates into, Please be kind to me / but it suggests: // Even if I shame myself, / please be kind to me. This might be a selfish question, but what made you choose the formal phrasing instead of the informal?
My spoken Korean tends to be formal. Korean was the language for home, church, and times with my grandmother, who brought me along on visits with her friends in Milpitas, California. My mother would laugh because I sometimes use phrases that are now out-of-style or might date me to the time when my parents immigrated to the States. My Korean is, in some ways, trapped in time.
2. I’m always taken by the voices in your poems—as though their footsteps walk with me through the book. There’s such an alluring inhabitance of the places we explore. I feel like everything is watching, alive, and demands urgency. Could you talk more about voice, and how you cultivate it in your poetry and/or prose? Is there a difference for you? I’m particularly struck by the last poem “Alki the Town of Dreams” and the couplet “As casual as a bird sailing into its fullest wingspan / towards me, as if he’d been there since the beginning.” Can you talk about this presence in the book? Was it something consciously woven into the book or did it come naturally?
I read the poem aloud as I’m writing it. If you sit by me, you can hear me say each word. The practice of reading out loud has been with me since the beginning. The voice a reader hears is the voice I’m speaking through. If you asked me to write quietly, poetry or prose, it would be difficult. I imagined my work to be read the same way—to be spoken into a room, connecting acts of writing and reading intimately.
3. It was really nice to see how the themes from A Lesser Love resonated through your memoir, The Magical Language of Others. The complexities of belonging, maintaining relationships, and grappling with the tethers of life were comforting and eye-opening for me. So much of it is navigated through language, translation, and interpretation. You so generously outline it for the reader in the memoir—were there moments you felt protective of your knowledge and/or experiences?
I feel open. There are things left unsaid or stretches of quiet. My hope was not to keep the reader out but to allow for possibilities. Fluidity rather than stiffness; where things could’ve gone right, not only where they’ve all gone wrong.
4. Were there moments of surprise and delight while you wrote A Lesser Love and The Magical Language of Others?
The poetry book and memoir were published close together. In that time, I reunited with my family in Seattle. I fell in love with somebody. I started a family. I focused on my mental and physical health. I began rock climbing. I started going into the water. I was writing and reading, gently. What surprised me was how I learned to take care of myself. How I learned the books could take care of themselves without me.
5. What are you working on now?
A novel is coming. I’m curiously walking along the path of fiction. I’m reading, writing, and researching. Listening, watching, asking questions. I love the making of a book.
6. And lastly, what makes a poem memorable to you? In your own writing process, how do you determine if a piece of work is ready for the world?
To see if a poem is ready, I look at how I am in the world. The poem itself can be written without end. But I ask if I can let it go. Sometimes, I’m not able to. It’s not done with me. The poem has to change me, and I have to accept that change, then show it through the evidence of my life to say that I can move on.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!
This year’s Cream City Review Summer Prize in Fiction will be judged by award-winning novelist and short-story writer Lucy Tan. In this micro-interview conducted by Fiction Editor Jessie Roy, Lucy weighs in on class and power in fiction, how “things” shape our relationship to place, and what she loves to see in a short story—and makes some excellent reading recommendations. Read on for the full interview.
Lucy Tan is author of the novel What We Were Promised, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Refinery 29, and Amazon. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Asia Literary Review, and McSweeney’s. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Lucy is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Seattle.
Jessie Roy holds an MFA in Fiction from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she serves as Fiction Editor for Cream City Review. Her short fiction has recently appeared in American Literary Review.
1. In your novel What We Were Promised, you write with insightful attention to the politics of class, the lasting effects of former precarity, and the intimate power dynamics that shape the relationship between domestic workers and their clients. I’d love to hear how you developed the character of Sunny, who works as a housekeeper for the Zhen family; her voice opens the first chapter and introduces us to the Zhen’s home from a backstage perspective, which keeps the reader’s eye on domestic labor for the rest of the novel. Why do you think it’s so important to focus our creative vision on class and power?
I think any kind of art that looks critically at social issues is valuable because it expands and deepens our conversations about our world. But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I set out to write my novel with the intention of focusing on dynamics of class and power. It might simply be impossible to write a novel set in modern China—especially in a city—without also writing about changing social classes.
What We Were Promised is largely inspired by my time as an ex-pat living in Shanghai from 2009-2011. As someone who is ethnically Chinese but born and raised in America, and as someone who speaks less-than-fluent Mandarin, I immediately felt like an outsider. I wonder if this made me extra-attuned to other types of outsiders—people who were from other parts of China, but who had moved to Shanghai for work; foreigners and expats; and even some locals, who were overwhelmed by the swift economic development that displaced them from their homes. I became interested in the ways these different groups interacted with or avoided one another. One of the most startling dynamics was relationships between wealthy expats (some of whom were ethnically Chinese) and their Chinese household staff. There was such a wealth and cultural gap between these groups, though they often spoke the same language, and though just a generation ago, their family members might have worked in the same fields.
I found it curious that people of different backgrounds could share the same space for hours and days and weeks on end without truly getting to know one another. I wanted to explore this, and so the character of Sunny was born. Although she’s the character furthest from me in terms of class and life experiences, she’s also the one I felt closest to when writing the book. The American in me identified with Sunny’s outsider-ness. The writer in me identified with her loneliness. Through her eyes, I was able to push back on perspectives my other main characters take for granted.
2. As we conduct this interview in May of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic is forcing us all to think about distance differently. There are suddenly many places we can no longer go, and no certainty about when we will be able to reach them again or what they’ll be like when we get there. At the reading you gave at UWM last year, I remember being struck by how you talked about the Zhen family returning to China after decades away, and having to build a relationship on new footing with a place that used to be familiar. I’d love to hear how you approach place and distance in your fiction, which so often centers diasporic and transnational experiences.
I am a person who writes a lot about things. I don’t know why this is! My fiction is filled with material objects, which, along with natural sights and sounds, seem to make up a sense of place. I think that in each material object we handle, there is also an implied history of a place. An object is also a record of commerce, of art, of its owner. But place can also be formed by a set of cultural norms and expectations—the coffee you pour yourself in the morning, the conversation with your neighborhood fruit vendor. When our routines are suddenly changed, whether we’re confined to our homes during a pandemic or immigrating to a new country, there’s an acute sense of loss because place is rooted in our identities. When our experience of place changes, we need to discover ourselves all over again.
The concept of distance, for me, has always been about relationships. Distance can live in the space between what characters feel and what they say, what they know and what they tell themselves, what they’ve experienced in the past and what they’re experiencing right now. I’ve always thought of distance as out of sync-ness, and I think that’s what we’re all feeling right now: out of sync-ness from the world as we once knew it.
3. Your essay On Falling in Love with the Language I’ve Spoken My Entire Life for Lit Hub introduced me to the Qiaomei Tang translation of Eileen Chang’s story “Love,” which beautifully spans a whole life in just over 200 words. It’s fascinating to see Chang working in miniature, and somehow still achieving the grand scale of her novellas and long stories. Can you talk a little bit about scope in fiction? Can a short story be ‘big’? Can a novel be ‘small’?
If we’re defining scope in terms of time and place, writers like Eileen Chang (and Alice Munro, and Annie Proulx, and others) are able to accomplish “bigness” by managing jumps in time and shifts in narrative distance. These give the reader a sense of large-scale movement—even, maybe, the sense of totality we associate with novels—in spite of limited word count. It’s this movement that contributes to the feeling of grandness, I think. And it’s so hard to master! A writer has to know which details to include and which to leave out, where to employ changes in tone and point of view. For instance, “Love” begins like a folk tale in the way it sets up a non-specific village and a “beautiful girl” who could really be any girl. It then moves into realistic, emotional detail when it describes her meeting with her would-be lover. Finally, it pulls back into that same folk-tale-ish tone again. In doing so, it leaves out the factual details of the tragedies that have happened in the intervening years. It’s like Chang is playing with the lens on a camera, zooming in and out at just the right moments on just the right details, and leaving the rest to the imagination. What we are left with is a sense of both wonder and knowing.
Given this definition of scope as ground covered in time and space, a “small” novel I love is Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. It takes place over a short amount of time in a single place, with minimal time jumps and changes in perspective and tone. There is an intimacy offered by the narration, a careful, constant feeling of closeness that allows you to live alongside the main character as if you were her. Strange Weather in Tokyo is told from the first person perspective of a woman who meets her old teacher at a bar one night and continues through a series of introspective thoughts and meetings with him. We listen to their conversations, we go home with our narrator, we are with her when she cuts fruit, hunts for mushrooms, arranges her next meeting with her lover. In this series of mini-events, we come to feel a deep knowledge of her life, of who she is as a person. I don’t think you can achieve this same type intimacy in a short story, purely because of the constraints of length. The effect requires hours of time spent reading, a steadiness of gaze, and an accumulation of details.
Of course, “scope” can be defined in numerous other ways, the most mysterious of which might pertain to topical or thematic concerns—the way a novel or short story circles questions about politics and people, the way we think, what we hope for, and the way we live our lives. But fiction that contains clear answers is usually dead on arrival. Rather, good fiction is fluid, just a journey provided to the reader. What one person will see in a story, another will not. So maybe the question of scope begins with a writer’s craft and ends with a reader’s individual experience.
4. Which books or authors do you turn to for comfort? And who do you read when you want to be challenged, or to learn?
Because I’m an American author, I read mostly American fiction, but I try to challenge myself to read outside my country of origin and genre. Elena Ferrante is a big comfort author for me. I love her Neapolitan novels. In general, I am comforted by books that evoke a strong atmosphere and take me to a specific place. Sometimes that place is not defined by a fictional world, but by an author’s voice, as in the case of Helen Oyeyemi or Lorrie Moore. Recently, I’ve been trying to alternate between reading a classic book and a contemporary one because it helps to hear many different voices as I’m writing. Together, they present a wider range of possibilities.
5. What do you love to see in short fiction? What draws you into a story, or makes you sit up and pay closer attention?
I respond strongly to a sense of honesty and authenticity in fiction—which doesn’t mean that a story must be true in any sense, but rather that it must come from a place of unguardedness within a person. A place that is private, that resists the temptation to perform for an audience, that is often searching rather than knowing.
Submissions to the 2020 Summer Prizes in Fiction & Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for the full guidelines!
2020 Cream City Live! Reading by Marlin M. Jenkins
Even though we had to cancel our annual Cream City Live! Reading, we wish to continue this tradition by bringing the event to you in the form of online blog posts and videos featuring our brilliant cast of writers.
Our first reader is the talented Marlin M. Jenkins! Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and is the author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020). A graduate of University of Michigan’s MFA in poetry, his work has found homes through Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Waxwing, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.com.
You can support him by ordering the chapbook here.
“a black poet quotes zora neale hurston’s ‘i feel most [black] when i’m thrown against a sharp white background’ at the beginning of a reading and the white people in the crowd applaud so loud i can’t hear myself” from Cream City Review, 43.1.
“Pokédex Entry #150: Mewtwo” from Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020).
“Pokédex Entry #35: Clefairy” from Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020).
An Excess of Grossness
by Emmy Newman
At a reading last year in Moscow, Idaho, the poet Robert Wrigley said, “Where there is mucus, there is intimacy.” He then read a gorgeous poem that got the room alternately laughing and then being still, and such an odd-sounding statement had become beautiful once again. Weeks later, I was still thinking about that idea, not just the mucus and the phlegm and the saliva, but how diseased livers or healthy triceps look when you pull away skin. What is it about these “gross” ideas that keep fascinating me and keep appearing in my writing?
In her article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” the film critic Linda Williams analyzes what she calls “body genres,” categories of film that are denoted as achieving success by allowing the audience to bodily identify with what the actors seem to experience on screen. I really can’t recommend the article enough to any writer concerned with the body. Williams offers an academic perspective into horror, melodrama, and porn, in a way that makes you reimagine the capabilities of excess, the goals and means to that end. As a feminist film critic, Williams writes around and through how the “spectacle of a body caught in intense sensation or emotion” can also be used to subjugate female viewers, how excess becomes indecent in women and used by men. Her perspective is razor-edged for any pop-culture consuming person.
As one of those people, I often take inspiration from strange articles or videos I come across online, sometimes by clicking incessantly through Wikipedia hyperlinks or browsing through my favorite anatomy coloring book. My excess begins with a wide range of concerns but thin on the ground, some small idea culled out of that wandering research that I try to make into a whole poem. More often than not, those poems don’t make it very far. There was a page long poem about the fleshiness of grapefruit I ended up cutting down to three lines I wanted to save. There was an extended metaphor about snails and sex that only made sense as an introductory image. In the poem CCR printed last year, there is the image of a menstrual cup filling with blood that I originally thought would push the whole poem forward, but it turned out to be just one of several pivot points around softness, sliminess, and the color red. The idea of grossness as a mindset, should be considered a place from which to go forth, instead of an oddity to be laughed at in a poem.
In the end, it always (okay, usually) makes sense. In the wider lens, I see these images as small moments, not the whole poem. I think the excess of grossness in poetry can come to make more sense as a contained moment because it presents a moment of vulnerability that can burst through the reader. Williams casts a critical eye at how these “body genres” are used as straight forward tools that manipulate the audience, often a female audience slyly quelled by the images and language on the screen. Poetry has the chance to manipulate, as anything written does, but in my case, I hope that my work does not trade in manipulation. Instead of asking the reader to bodily identify with the work, I ask the reader to re-identify with their own body and the environment it resides in. What happens to the worms on the sidewalk after a few hours of rain? How does it feel when you kiss someone; did you think it would feel differently when you were younger? What’s inside that rotting hole of green mold on the apple that’s been sitting out on your counter for too long? What does it feel like?
The modern dance phenom Rudolf Laban was interested in the moving body and the space that surrounds it. I’m interested in the moving body and the space in between, itself and everything else. That’s too many things to be interested in, you say? I never want to stop being interested in imagining what my phalanges look like under all this skin, how mushrooms grow in cow shit, what led sea cucumbers to vomit their intestines in self-defense, what brains look like under microscopes. I ask the reader to bodily identify with themselves in the end, with our own human grossness, and I ask them to recognize how amazing that is.
There’s an extensive history of so-called high-brow art being pitted against the low-brow, oil paintings against comic strips and on and on. Maybe it is something about bodily identifying with so-called “low art,” i.e. melodramatic movies, and mentally identifying with “high art,” i.e. poetry, that inclines me towards an excess of grossness in poetry. If mentally identifying with an art form includes the ability to parse subtext, allusion, metaphor, perhaps bodily identifying can do the same. How else do we learn empathy? How else do we learn to feel new, impossible feelings?
I remember my grandma rating movies as a “three-tissue movie,” as Williams says women often did in the genre known as “weepies.” Or perhaps this is not true, and it just sounds so much like something she would say in an offhand sort of way. I remember her pulling loose tissues out of her purse when I had a runny nose or tripped on the sidewalk, how she would wipe the snot and tears off my face before I got old enough to do it myself. When we cleaned the old coats out of her closet we found tissues neatly folded in most every pocket. Perhaps I am only thinking of this because today at WinCo there was a gray-haired woman buying a bulk bag of wrapped butterscotch candies and I imagined her going home, turning on a yellow-shaded lamp, and pouring the candies into a lead crystal bowl on her coffee table. The bowl hadn’t been empty—only slightly less than full. Where do we find something sweet without excess? Where is something horrible neatly contained? What is bodily writing without the grossness that asks the reader to step out of time and feel their own viscosity?
Emmy Newman is a current MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, New Ohio Review, CALYX: A Journal, Inverted Syntax, and elsewhere. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and currently serves as the poetry editor for Fugue.
*Newman’s poem “The Jellyfish and the Menstrual Cup” appears in Issue 43.1 of Cream City Review.