Kelly McNerney is an American poet and translator. A regular at Spittoon Poetry, reading both her own work and translations, she has also served as the editor in chief of Fourteen Hills, the acclaimed literary magazine out of San Francisco State University, and is currently at work on a book-length collection, translated works by Minerva Margarita Villareal. We're excited to present here four new poems by McNerney. A brief interview follows the work.
I dreamt a couple lost their squid in a gutter canal.
When they found him, they asked me to let it swim in my mouth.
They asked me to lie down and put my feet in the
dirty puddle, and I did.
Misery loves company, so they want me there all time.
Something is swimming in my mouth, so I can’t say what’s wrong.
I can’t even say goodbye, so I slip out the back door.
By the time they notice I’m gone
it’s the eighth of June, your birthday,
impaled on the split fence
at the San Andreas Fault—
next to the memorial of
minor purple bruises
to keep me
What I have been meaning to start to finish
I was hydroplaning in your sunlight reflected in the puddles. The showers have nowhere to seep in April. Something in me went to the window. Small creatures circling in the air. Mennonite children running barefoot in the grass. In a memory I perform for you as a girl who has spent a lot of time in the ocean. You were babytooth. A mute corrects my grammar with a large red pen of silence. Think of anything you’ve done start to finish. Reckless captain, in his cups, now look at the mess. Oil-soaked pelicans. Someone turn off the footage. So many days with no word. I want to take off the day, the years that led up to it. I want to take off my bra and take my hair down. Sleep a deep sleep without dreams about teeth, or oil or the sea.
the more we dive into the pile and rake it
the more autumn will arrive with carving knives
the sooner we dredge up snow banks with plastic disks
throwing stones to dislodge icicles
from the height of the factory walls
and when the daggers fly down
we catch them between our teeth and
suck on them for water
when we peel off wet gloves
our pruned fingertips
form blue black
crystals that fall off
in the night water will freeze on
the branches of pines and send them
through phone lines
through roof and beam and cars parked along the street
we’ve limped through the house
past the snowdrifts in the hall
into bed, tracking blood, drowsy
knowing that with a light concussion
we mustn’t close our eyes
This is the first day of Spring
And somewhere people are calling it the New Year
All but fouled-up already
too early the sounds of sunrise
It’s ok to be affected
Normal really she says
I leave a number for spring
but it just gets the dah dah dah of the voice that says I can’t be reached.
A memory of her has come at dawn, consoling me
with her anxiety and her xanax
her unborn children’s names she’s got all picked out
one for her boy and one for her girl
the pressure that makes her ears pop
the vodka in the water bottle
and so on
If you get jaundiced it’s probably too late
so I prefer to think of her far away
engrossed in a book I didn’t write
yet somehow contains much of me
I could throw away the computer,
the miserly nature of an hour, a warm day
slow time down all the way until I press stop
And there we’d remain
pricked by the spinning needle, un-aging
except for our nails and hair
which continue to grow
while we sleep.
MB: How was your trip back to the states?
KN: Awesome. Overflowing with good things.
MB: What was your time at Fourteen Hills like?
KM: Working at Fourteen Hills was a wonderful experience. I began just working on the journal’s general staff before moving on to become the Poetry Editor and then the Editor in the following years, so I had a really wide range of learning experiences with the Fourteen Hills.
A really important lesson in the beginning was just learning the foundations for how to discuss people’s work in useful and thoughtful ways. That year was really solid training in moving beyond my own objective tastes, my own particular likes and dislikes, when it came to reading and talking about others’ poetry, and trying to get deeper into what a poem was trying to achieve on its own terms. My last couple years with the journal, I got to learn a ton about the actual nitty-gritty process of putting together a journal: working with the printers and writers, page counts, deadlines, proofreading, event organizing and so much more.
MB: Did your time at Fourteen Hills (heading up a literary journal in general) change the way (or the kind of work) you submit to other journals?
KN: Definitely! I think in a general way it made me appreciate literary journals (and all the work people put into them) a lot more, which resulted in me reading literary journals much more than I previously had. The more familiar I became with different journals, the more I cognizant I became of what kind of work was being published in general, and what kind of aesthetics certain journals seemed to lean towards. I think now I really only submit to journals that I both enjoy and also think my work aligns with.
MB: Can you talk about the process of writing these poems?
KM: Yes! Big question! Most of these poems were part of my “Thesis,” which is really just a collection of poems. In terms of process, I think I might be a little all over the place. In general, I think I overwrite and free write without thinking about line breaks, or what sucks and is boring, and try not to censor or judge myself too harshly. Then, usually, in all honesty, I wait until I have some sort of deadline (self imposed or otherwise), and try to pluck interesting lines from this big mess of thoughts and memories and images I have written over many days or weeks, and try to find patterns and connections between them. I tend to write about a lot of the same things all of the time, so finding a way to braid or superimpose or mix disparate images and reflections about the same feeling or idea is the fun/challenging part. Sometimes it happens sort of naturally, like magnets, the pieces come together; most of the time it requires more writing.
I am definitely a fan of pen on paper though—notebooks, scraps, scissors, crossing stuff out, etc.— typing something is always the last (but also really useful) step.
MB: Especially in Ink, there's a willingness to shift gears, to change the parameters of the poem halfway through, then change them again. I can hear it in What I have been meaning… as well. What's guiding this? (Is it heavily constructed or are we watching you follow a thought?)
KM: Good question! I think the best response to that might be that “cleanliness” in poetry is not really anything I really strive for. For me, a pile up of images that perhaps don’t add up in a logical way, but that evoke a really tangible feeling, can be more interesting to write and to read than something that makes more obvious “rational” sense. Even if it’s messy, if it has heat, I am more focused on that.
That’s to say: I think coherence in terms of emotional resonance is much more important than being able to safely say exactly or literally what is happening at all times. Tension is what makes a piece of writing compelling, so in that way, I like for a poem to move around, and change, and get confused—“shift gears,” as you said. I suppose I think that “changing half way through” more closely mirrors what we experience in reality, than any sort of linear progression.
MB: What's your approach to rewriting poetry?
KM: “The Never Ending Story.” Ha! It’s usually something I resist, but is definitely, for me, the most important part of making a poem. I get attached to the way I think a poem is supposed to be—to crappy lines or images—and I depend on readers/friends to tell me when and how I am missing the mark: what’s boring, what’s pap, where I’ve said too much, or too little, and then have to be willing to throw away 50% of a poem or whatever it may be. The re-writing, which I would characterize mostly as cutting things out, not adding new things, doesn’t feel as exciting as writing something new, so I usually avoid it. Sometimes will even revise a poem 10 times and still feel like I hate it or its not right; but eventually I’ll do it, and eventually I get to a point where I say it’s done and stop messing with it (kind of).
MB: What do you look for in poetry? (Who are some of your favorite working poets and why?)
KM: I like reading poetry that surprises and disarms. I enjoy when you can hear the poet’s voice loud and clear, and the voice is funny, playful, grave, gloomy, and pissed off; reverent and irreverent from poem to poem. I have a lot of favorite living and working poets, but a few I have been reading and admiring a lot lately are Brenda Shaughnessy, Ish Klien, and Matthew Zapruder. When I read their books I feel like I am having a really candid and hilarious conversation, while simultaneously in awe of their craft. I like what Phillip Larkin said in an interview one time, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”
MB: You do translation work, right? Has that craft affected your own writing?
KM: I do! I think translating has made me acutely aware of word choice. I think Ezra Pound said something like: in poetry, each word weighs a ton. This makes even more sense when you’re translating. Translating has also made me much more aware of the way that sound and rhythm overlap with the semantics of a poem.
MB: In terms of my own craft, I think it has made me slow down a bit, too. Translating is slow moving, and I think it has made me more patient with my own poems. In a lot of ways, writing poems in your native language is a type of translation (of experience)— something’s always falling a little short, or not quite right, and it’s always a struggle, so it’s easy to become disheartened or lose your patience. Translation helps remind me how difficult (impossible?) but also how worthwhile it is to keep trying (and failing) to fit experience to language.
MB: Working on anything right now?
KM: Yes! I am just putting finishing touches on a chapbook of new poems, and also revising a longer Non-fiction piece called “Way Out.” I am also working on finishing my first complete collection of translated poems, a book called Herida Luminosa, by a poet name Minerva Margarita Villareal.
Possibly best known around town as the shadowy queen ant behind the Anthill, Alec Ash's work also crops up regularly at the Los Angeles Review of Books– breathing lucid literary China reporting across the Pacific. Then there are the pieces in The Economist, Foreign Policy, Dissent. It goes on and on. But it is in his role as the founder and continuing facilitator of the Anthill that Ash graces us with an ever expanding vault: the foreigner experience in China, scribbled not on Costa napkins but shouted into the great digital void. For a hypothetical future archaeologist, it's a treasure trove, but for Beijing writers it's a community.
Loreli sat down to talk with Ash to talk about not that book, but a new one. Wish Lanterns follows six Chinese millennials, all destined for Beijing, from birth to something like the "end of youth." The prose is breezy, calm, and moving, and we are mercifully spared all preaching. I'm still not sure if it's fair to call nonfic novelistic, but Wish Lanterns is definitely not interested in lectures. It's about (young) people.
MB: Your book gave me that crinkly feeling, behind your eyes? Like before you cry.
AA: But you didn't cry?
MB: No, I made a decision not to cry.
AA: If you didn't cry then I've failed. I want to make you cry by the end of this interview.
MB: Okay. You can try.
AA: I saw a dead dog yesterday.
AA: It was a metaphor for China.
MB: That's beautiful. I want to know more about the relationship between the blog, Six, and this book. In so many ways it seems like a dry run, in form, for the book. Did it inform what you were or weren't going to do in Wish Lanterns?
AA: I think I used what I learned in doing the blog when I wrote the book. On the surface of things it looks very simple: on the blog I was following six people over the course of two years, in a narrative style. Checking in on them with each new blog post. And that's similar to what I do in the book. Follow six people over the course of two to four years. But in the book I started in their childhoods. So I was back reporting most of it. And while I did use what I learned doing the blog in writing the book, in reality I think they're completely separate. It does speak to the fact that six is a great number of people to follow. I don't think it's a coincidence that in Friends we follow six characters. In the original proposal to the publisher I suggested following twelve people. And they said great. Do twelve. Then a couple months later I wrote them and said, hey, what if I follow ten people? A year after that I said, okay, I have these six people. I'm going to write about them. I originally started writing about one of the six people I wrote about in the blog. His name is William. He's an environmentalist. But I found it very difficult to write his story because I've known him for such a long time and he's my friend.
MB: Too close.
AA: Yeah, I was too close to him. So I found six new people.
MB: Which means the medium must be very special, because it sounds like you were hanging out with these people for years, trying to figure out what was going on, their stories…
AA: Yeah, I mean I don't think I took my notebook out with any of them until a couple of months after our meeting. Just getting to know them and letting them get to know me, before I did sit down interviews where I was talking to them about their childhoods. Or traveling with them back to their hometowns.
MB: And with all the back reporting and covering from early childhood, from birth, really, in some cases all the way to 29– they end in different years but in some cases you go all the way to the end of the 20s.
AA: Pretty much.
MB: And since "youth, youth, youth” is clearly part of the mission statement and part of the project. Looking at youth and China's youth. This reminded me of this ongoing discussion in the west, the idea of extended childhood. The idea of the man-child as a trope. Millennial unemployment. People sort of… getting out of college and then floating and not being sensible careerists.
AA: Man-child is a Western concept and I think it's applied to… this American trope of a man in his early thirties still living in his mum's basement. I think that in China you both have that and you don't have it. I think it's impossible in a culture this competitive to remain a man-child in your early thirties. I think the pressures here, especially if you're an only child, make it impossible to be a "man-child" in your early thirties. At the same time, this generation has the ability to take it easy in a way that their parents' generation did not have. So you'll find a lot of people in the square kilometer around where we're having this interview in Gulou, in Beijing, who have opened their cafe or opened their guitar bar. And they just want to be free and have fun and do their thing. And that's something totally new, which reminds me a little bit of American man-children. But at the same time they're getting phone calls everyday from their parents asking them when are you going to get a job at the bank and get married?
MB: I think it has to do with society moving so quickly. You're not going to grow up and do exactly what your parents did. Which, for a long, long time, you might have done. And now you have people graduating and it may not be possible to jump straight into a normal, perfect career path with a lucrative salary.
AA: I think it still is possible. That's just no longer what everyone hopes to do. I think there's a new cohort, especially of people in cities, who actively don't want to do that.
MB: You mentioned not taking out your notebook until a certain point. I'm wondering about the intended process verses the actual process. You already said that you walked down the number of interviewees. But was there any, "I'm going to do the book in this way," then realizing you were going to have to take a different approach?
AA: Totally. So I had the deal to write the book back in 2012. I was twenty-six. And I didn't really have any idea how to write a book. That's all stuff that I found out while I was doing it. So the process was very much a learning experience for me, both in terms of the research and in terms of the writing. Which I think ultimately is the only way to learn how to write a book. I was schooled in many different ways, in that I discovered how my approach was wrong to begin with. For existence I started by looking for character types – a fuerdai, a fenqing – that would somehow represent different types of Chinese youth. And what I found out, when I started meeting people, is that obviously people are individuals. And they might fill several roles at the same time, and above all they have their own individual identities and contradictions. That's when I moved away from what the initial proposal, which was chapter profiles of these different character types, towards what the book is now: six lives interwoven throughout the book. And ultimately representing nothing except themselves, although I hope they do shed light on different aspects of being young in China at the same time.
MB: Yeah, which connects to another question. Maybe you already answered it. To what extent was homogeneity a problem? Like, "I want to profile these two people, but actually I want two people who are more different for the sake of balancing the book?"
AA: I think it's impossible to find homogeneity in China. Contrary to the expectation of many people when they first come here. I think that’s especially true with the generation that I'm talking about. There will never be a group of people so diverse. Because in the 80s and 90s and 00s, when these people were being born, that was the first time in Chinese history where you were suddenly able to try to be anything that you would like to try to be.
MB: Can you talk more about the process of getting this book off the ground? You said you were talking to people as early as 2012?
AA: Yeah, I found an agent. Which totally surprised me. I interviewed her for an article I was writing at the time about the London Book Fair. She at the time was the publisher of Ma Jian, who I was writing about. I ended up pitching her the idea for my book in a pub in Oxford, while slightly tipsy.
MB: Which pub?
AA: The White Horse. Totally off the cuff. And for some reason, which still evades me, she decided to sign me on.
MB: That's a magical story.
AA: Pretty much.
MB: I’m wondering to what extent this book wrote itself in the notes, after the research was done.
AA: To no extent did this book write itself. If only.
MB: So you still had to write everything from scratch after the research was done.
AA: It happened after a fair portion of the research was done, and I decided it was time to write the book. What I discovered about book writing is that you only discover what type of book you're writing about half way through. So about half way through writing the book, I discovered what kind of book I was trying to write, and I had to go back and rewrite the first bits. So in my mind the research and the writing were two pretty distinct periods. You can write up certain set scenes that you've witnessed and I did but, in my mind, a book is one thing with one voice and one style and one set of themes, and it needs to be written in one frame of mind. For me the process of writing was very much distinct from all of these pages of notes that I had, where I had to incorporate the material that I had within a voice and a set of themes that I was striving for. And the bitch of writing a book is that you only know what that voice is when you're well into the whole thing.
MB: Then it's a matter of conforming other portions?
AA: Yeah. I spent about two years researching these people, and then another year of very intensive writing, while still spending time with them and finding out what was new with them, completing their stories. But that intensive year of writing was very painful, very solitary, very lonely. I spent most of my time, just my dog and I, in my garret.
MB: It's a garret novel.
AA: In that sense. I think it's easier with nonfiction than fiction, because you have all your material already. You don't have the pain that I imagine a novelist has, of being able to invent anything. You already have the material and you know what it is you're trying to write. But it's still a very crushing experience to write so many words. And I think there's no way around that.
MB: What's the dog's name?
AA: Ginger. Ginger is acknowledged in the book. She was the most stable female presence in my life while I was writing.
MB: I think one trick you pulled off is staying– you're a journalist– respectful and gentle, while describing these people and their foibles, flaws, warts– and yeah, successes. I feel like you managed the trick of never casting even implicit judgment on any lifestyle decision, anywhere on the spectrum.
AA: I appreciate that. I don't know if I pulled that off. But definitely while I was writing about people's mistakes and compromises, I couldn't help but identify with them while I was fucking things up in my own life, so it's difficult to cast judgment when you are making the same mistakes yourself.
MB: I think sometimes the keyboard encourages it.
AA: I talk a lot with my good friend Tom Pellman about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. I think both of us find they're very different universes but with a lot of similarities in terms of process.
MB: And you can't hide from me. I know you've written fiction.
AA: Not really, no.
MB: Red Bean.
AA: Oh, that was just imitating Anthony Tao's story Mayonnaise.
MB: You don't count it.
AA: I don't write fiction. I've tried it and I'm shit. I'd like to write fiction like any writer but I just don't think I can do it. I don't think I have the skill set for it.
MB: Now I want differences. What are things that you bring to nonfiction that are antithetical to fiction? Or vice versa.
AA: Okay. I think part of my approach to Wish Lanterns was deliberately trying to use the techniques of fiction within nonfiction. I wanted to write a nonfiction book that read like a novel. Although I took pains that everything in it was accurate and true. But I wanted there to be a feeling of a story arc and an emotional arc within each character. So I think the only difference in terms of literary engineering is that you're shackled by the truth. I wasn't able to have these plot twists which, if I were writing a novel, would help the book stand up. Because real human lives aren't like that, and I think even more interesting for it.
MB: Except that they are in these amazing ways. I already talked to you briefly about the narrativizing of normal life– your pizza is here.
AA: Have a slice.
MB: Dahai spends years of his life literally underground, going through internet forums wondering where his true love is, and then, like, comes above ground, and true love appears.
AA: That's a crazy part of the book.
MB: That part was like fiction for me.
AA: What did you think of his snap marriage? Did you feel it was the real thing or did you feel like he was rushing...
MB: The first thing that came to my mind, which surprises me even now, was his courage. When I put myself there, I was just shocked by the courage. He is single, or looking or whatever. And they have this brief exchange on WeChat. Then you can tell something has fixed in his brain: this is it. Like, I'm going to make this work.
AA: He decides.
MB: "I'm pretty sure this is going to go really well." To me, that leap of optimism is courageous.
AA: I think we all do that.
MB: Yeah, he just did it virtually.
AA: Who is the character you identified with most?
MB: Uh, moments in all of them. I really had this image in my mind, and will for a long time, of a guy taking a contract and being like, "Okay, my life is underground now." There's something great about the image of this man tunneling across Beijing, literally digging a hole underground. Ready-made metaphor. Everyone packed into this city and he's digging a hole under it all.
AA: I did like that metaphor.
MB: So I identified with someone whose work just, as a matter of course, takes over everything. Thinking, "What is the way that I'm going to escape from this? I know I will get out of this somehow, and something better will happen to me, but I don't know exactly how that is going to happen." I relate to that feeling. Also Mia going home is an amazing chapter. I think so many millennials identify with that. "I know these people [her relatives]. I love these people. But I cannot tell them the truth about anything."
AA: Yeah. Her granddad is a real character. Mia's one of my favorites in the book, because she's one of the ones who never gives up on her dream. Real go-getter attitude, which I find so impressive.
MB: She really is. There's a big twist that’s never mentioned, or given one line or something. She has this great gig at a magazine. Suddenly everyone recognizes her and she's the envy of all the interns or whatever, and then the beginning of the next chapter is like, "They offered her a position, so she left." A moment of realization that this person is way more ballsy than you anticipated.
AA: She really is.
MB: But it works out. There's also something really sad about the slow burn of… it works out, but Xiaoxiao finishes school and pursues a dream, then the dream crumbles. She has college, and those appear to be the golden years. Then she starts a new dream with the shop, and that vanishes, and those years become the golden years. I feel like she must be wondering, "When is this going to stop?"
AA: I remember feeling that way when I left college.
MB: Another ready-made metaphor is Snail's internet addiction. I know internet addiction or gaming addiction as something that's drifting around in the culture and that sometimes Fox News talks about. But then Snail goes in hard.
AA: That really struck me. I deliberately went into the book trying to find an internet addict to write about. I was thinking, "This is so funny and interesting and quirky, in China the kids are getting addicted to World of Warcraft." So I actually posted in some of these Chinese World of Warcraft forums. The post literally was something like, "Hi. I'm an author. I'm writing about young Chinese. Have you been addicted to World of Warcraft?" Snail’s cousin got in touch with me and wrote, "Oh, my cousin is like this." But I soon realized that this isn't some joke. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it had a real impact on his life. And I started to understand why he was playing World of Warcraft, and the inequalities in society that led him to believe he couldn't succeed in real life but could succeed in virtual life. So that really drove home for me the realities of this broader phenomenon, which is all too often painted in this sort of comic light.
MB: Then his karaoke adventures. It's a carefully painted picture.
AA: That town was interesting. I didn't go with Snail to that one, he was too busy.
MB: You went alone?
AA: I turned up at that karaoke parlor alone and pretended to be a customer. But I couldn't afford to pay for any of the rooms. So luckily when I turned up they were all full. I waited in the back with all of the karaoke girls. Just chatting with them and chatting with Mrs. Money.
AA: That was the only part of the book that felt that way. Like subterfuge.
MB: Okay. Chinese translation?
AA: I hope so. I think it's important that you're accountable to the people that you write about, and that the generation you're writing about can read it. I think there are sensitivities in the book which may make that difficult, but we'll see.
MB: What's next?
AA: I'd love to keep writing. I'm doing magazine articles right now and I'd love to do another book.
Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing, author of Wish Lanterns, nonfiction about the lives of six young Chinese published by Picador.
He studied English literature at Oxford University, and first moved to Beijing in 2008. His articles have appeared in The Economist, Dissent, Foreign Policy and elsewhere. He is a regular blogger for the Los Angeles Review of Books, contributing author to the book of reportage Chinese Characters and co-editor of the anthology While We’re Here.
He founded and edits the Anthill, a ‘writers’ colony’ of stories from China.
We’re excited to present, below, two new poems by Beijing poet Anthony Tao. His poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Cha, Blue Fifth, Eunoia Review, and more. An interview follows the work.
Amazing the Ways We Hurt
I’m amazed the ways we hurt,
blade across the wrist, rocks at the noggin,
a message ignored, a well-placed silence.
Sometimes it is intended, and sometimes
how can we not say what we don’t mean?
We hurt each other so that we have company.
We hurt with grace, with ferocity, and something like – oh what the hell,
which is like fear, fear of abandonment, of numbness;
we dig into ourselves until we are filled with hurt
and then grasp at anchors in the sky.
We gave ourselves no choice but to turn toward the sun
where the rays, strong as threat, seared our nerves.
And even then we looked, because it was the sun.
After the Dust
We told jokes when the dust cloud swept in,
nodding at the punch lines. Little was left
to do: the silverware was cleaned, the furniture arranged,
our appetites excised from our bodies.
Ladies continued to dance in the slackened lampglow,
their silhouettes plaiting a scene from a lost libretto,
and the older amongst us, who had stories,
told them like parables.
The next morning, after a night of wind,
the lid was lifted off Beijing.
Emerging unwrapped we noticed the blue
as if the gods of heaven and earth exchanged places.
We looked at our feet and wished upon them.
We walked forward with our reward, a bundle
of glory, for our faith. Our part is done.
Shall our children be as bountiful?
MB: There's an evenness to the weight of a Tao stanza and even a Tao line, but content wise your published work stretches from Chinese mythology to quiet yearning to tongue-firmly-in-cheek. I don't really catch you doing the same thing twice, or even writing in the same voice twice. Comments? Do you think you have a clear style and can you say what it is or is not?
AT: Thank you, that's nice to hear. I don't always succeed, but I aim to say something with my writing, or make an impression, upset a cliche, or challenge a convention. The slight mischievousness or slyness that occasionally creeps in comes from... I don't know, my personality? And there are two ways to interpret not doing the same thing twice: one doesn't want to bore readers / listeners, or one hasn't found the voice that most resonates. You decide.
MB: As a form, poetry is clearly inferior to fiction, and your fiction is great. Can we convert you to the fiction side of the force full-time?
AT: I put aside poetry every 18 months or so, inevitably turning to fiction. But I get pulled back because a flash of inspiration, maybe just a line or image, will strike me at odd times -- often when I'm standing on an escalator -- and it'll bother me until I craft a poem around it.
Let me just say this as a defense of poetry: it's open to everyone, from the perfectly boring to the bipolar, and encourages you to bring all your scars or none at all. You can share your personal life a la Sharon Olds or create some mellow daydreaming alter ego like Billy Collins, it's all okay. Forget how a critic or teacher would define poetry, just understand that it's a personal art form, it's great, it actually is ubiquitous, and it's completely accepting.
MB: What do you think of punctuation?
AT: I'm a fan, and I think one's decision to not punctuate or deliberately mis-punctuate poetry should be a calculated decision that serves a purpose.
MB: Have you heard about Ben Lerner's new book about the disdain for poetry being in some way intrinsic to the medium, and maybe about our high expectations for the work that poetry should be doing? Thoughts?
AT: I admit a fascination with poets writing about poetry. I also recommend Tony Hoagland's essay in Harper's, "Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America".
I generally agree with Lerner's main point that poetry, for the very fact of its existence as poetry, will fail our expectations. But if we go too deep into this subject -- what is poetry, who is poetry for, doesn't hip-hop's popularity testify to the power of poetry, who gets to determine what is poetic, etc. -- we'll end up asking, "What's the upshot of all these questions?" and the answer will be a shrug. Just let it be, and if you like something, seek out more of it.
MB: Is Writers in Beijing a broadside? Why you h8n?
AT: It's a poem that, far from firing from all sides at a target, speaks from all sides, with multiple intents, voices, and tones to get at what it means to write in a minority language in China. It also tries to examine what it means to be an expat -- don't many of us justify renewing our visas specifically because this is a place worth writing home about?
MB: How's writing in Beijing right now?
AT: There's never been a bad time to write in Beijing.
MB: To what extent is English-language writing in Beijing (or China at large) a cohesive thing/scene/animal/vibe/style in your mind? Do you see expatriate writing as a thing? Is it sick and perverted right now or a healthy, living corpus?
AT: I'd be careful not to over-classify ... "expat writing" is fin de siècle Paris Bohemia or Hemingway in Spain, and I don't think anyone thinks the community here is quite that. Yet we are an interesting bunch, I must say. Not sure how cohesive exactly, but it's absolutely incredible that there are so many regular poetry (and related arts) events in Beijing. For that we have to thank the likes of Matthew Byrne, Shannon Lethbridge, Liz Richards, organizers of Scratching Beijing, and more. They do such a service to the community here, and they're bolstered by websites such as Loreli and any number of WeChat groups.
MB: Do your approaches to fiction and poetry differ or are they fundamentally similar? What's picking up the thread like on a poem verses a short story?
AT: I think it's harder putting aside a short story and coming back to it. With both, there's constant rewriting. I consider a piece done when it's been accepted for publication, but until then it'll be in flux.
MB: What's your approach to rewriting a poem? Is that different than the way you approach cleaning up prose?
AT: I do it unflinchingly and often. Unfinished prose is harder to return to because it takes longer to recapture the narrative voice.
MB: Reading anything good?
AT: I'm on a major Stephen Dunn binge -- just finished The Insistence of Beauty, which was so good, and halfway through one of his earlier collections, Local Visitations (start with his latest stuff, or New and Selected Poems). For prose, I can't recommend Jim Shepard highly enough -- start with Love and Hydrogen.Steven Millhauser is another of my favorites -- try the short story collection Dangerous Laughter and the novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright (yes, that is the full title, and it'll absolutely make sense why it's that long when you read it). And if you haven't read TC Boyle, do it now.
MB: Actually while we're on reading, you read your work (out loud) a lot around Beijing. How's that? Is reading to an audience its own reward, or part of the process? (Allows you to look at your work differently, etc.)
AT: I think anyone serious about writing poetry should be equally serious about reading it out loud, since poetry is traditionally an oral art form. Reading is a skill that can be honed, and very helpful for editing and rewriting.
MB: I know this is semi-ancient but huge fan of Mayonnaise right here. How did the Mayo/Red Bean thing come about?
AT: Alec Ash and I joint-hosted a flash fiction reading event, so we both wrote flash fiction and posted it on each other's sites (Beijing Cream and the Anthill).
MB: One interpretation of those stories, taken together, is an assertion of equivalence. I think if we make that explicit, we actually wind up with a pretty controversial statement: the Chinese experience of encountering foreign-ness is in some way identical to the experience of a foreigner encountering Chinese-ness, so much so that describing it can read as a kind of joke. What are your thoughts on writing across nationalities? (White people in China writing Chinese characters, vice versa (although it would be interesting to talk about the extent to which the opposite is actually a bonafide "thing").)
AT: In an ideal world, the ethnicity of the author would never be questioned, and writers would be judged on the merit of their work -- are the characters believable? do their actions make sense? are their motivations relatable? etc. These are the much more important questions when it comes to fiction, and they deserve serious attention no matter where you're from. I think there's a threshold between good and bad writing: a lot of work needs to be put in to get over that threshold, and then doubly more work to go from good to great.
MB: Shout out to Beijing Cream. What are your hopes/dreams for that?
AT: None at the moment, but it was a big project that gained a fairly significant following, so it's not going anywhere at the moment.
MB: Fiction that imitates reality: overrated or underrated?
AT: Rated just right, wouldn't you agree?