July 9, 2018KR Conversations

Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko HahnKimiko Hahn’s latest book, Brain Fever, is prompted by rarified fields of science. She is working on a new collection of zuihitsu, of which this fictionalized journal is a part. Hahn teaches in the Queens College/CUNY MFA program and is president of the board of the Poetry Society of America. An excerpt from her essay “The Journal of My Psychidae” can be found here. It appears in the July/Aug 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “The Journal of My Psychidae”?

I wrote the original draft quite some time ago, the impetus being the bagworms in our little yard. My husband Harold and I are kind of amateur (at best) naturalists to the extent that I have collected antique and used entomology texts. I have been captivated by the odd details of insect life and have written about bugs in a number of poems. Some of their “stories” remind me of fairy tales, with all the attendant cannibalism, fratricide, courting rituals, etc. Discovering the Latin name for bagworms, Psychidae, dropped me into a creative frenzy! The health scare, if memory serves, came later. I intertwined the journals—I guess you could say imitating Basho (he combined two pilgrimages to make his renown The Narrow Road to Oku).

At the end of your first entry in this series, you write “I forgot about the pinecone-thing until turning to this journal.” Later, it’s mentioned that the notebook being written in has become a kind of shelter. With moments like these (the discovery of something lost in trying to recall a story and the taking comfort in recording the difficult) there seems to be a suggestion that this writing has affected the reality. Do you think this is fair to say, both in regards to your piece and your experience of it?

My undergraduate teacher Marvin Bell said, “You can’t fool the unconscious.” (I think it was in response to a student defending his intention.) I do believe that if one strikes raw material, one can get close to this richly complex and unstable stuff. Working via associations allows themes to surface. Then of course the brain returns for revision, honoring that stuff as much as possible. In this, my writing process has remained unchanged, just, perhaps, the “furniture.” As for shelter, yes, the notebook is a private room.

Ruminations on bagworms, and particularly female bagworms, cut through the narrative recording of these days. There is a sense of connection between the bagworm’s death and or transformation into a moth and the possible terminal condition of H, but like the coexistence of the skin spot and the pinecone, there is never quite a direct or intrusive metaphor demanding that these things are synonymous. How do you feel these partial connections impact your piece as a work of nonfiction? Do you feel they work more powerfully and realistically than a more overt comparison?

I guess I’m relying mostly on juxtaposition, hoping the reader will make connections. Also, in a journal, I think overt symbolism would be too artful, that is, less true to the genre. In writing a journal, most often one lets a symbol volunteer itself. Again, this would be the trick of the unconscious, of writing freely. As an artist, it’s part of my craft to make the journal feel spontaneously written.

Research works to reassure the narratorial voice about their investigations on caterpillars and moths, but, when it comes to the researching of his own possible illness, H’s internet-based self-diagnosis is doubted and eventually proven false. How do you feel research is able to coexist in this piece as both a possible escapism from death as well as a search to confirm and confront it, (i.e. looking up information on the lives of insects versus searching for answers to ones own personal medical questions)?

I’ve thought of death as a general theme in this piece, and escape, but not research—but of course it is—thank you. Several re/searches. In the previous sequence “Restless Sonnets,” I used erroneous facts on the cicada (from a 1910 text) that I didn’t realize until years after publication and certainly internet searches are swarming with error, untruth, and bunk but the ease of access and the limitless quality is alluring. I think one can be easily lulled into false trust. As in my husband’s case.

Outside resource material (as opposed to personal) is a means to escape one’s immediate events, hopefully to strike that raw material I mentioned from various angles. What feels like investigation or study is also a distraction. We know this tendency from falling down that rabbit hole of hyperlinks.

Back to your question: I think that research functions for the journal-writer/me and for H as obsessions. One uses it to figure out the bagworm and thus escape from the issue of the husband’s possible decline; the husband who cannot wait for the results (understandably), spirals into his worse nightmare—in a sense actually seeking to prove the nightmare.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

I have had the great fortunate to benefit from psychotherapy over the course of my adult life. Each of these several women is, in effect, a shamaness, divining the hidden and instructing me to do the same.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I have sent a few friends copies of my next collection (working title Foreign Bodies) to benefit from their feedback. The poems circulate around death and decline of body, mind, nature. After feeling aesthetically drained, I retired to a little form that I made up for an exercise that turned into the poem “Charming Lines.” I recalled that my editor liked this poem when she read The Artist’s Daughter so it made sense to see what might happen if I tried to write more. I also have older projects, shall we say, that I look at now and again: a memoir of sorts, a collection of zuihitsu similar but not the same as my The Narrow Road to the Interior, and batches of poems using literary allusions. (Bits of all of these can be found in my chapbook, Brood.) After Foreign Bodies, I don’t know what will take place in my poems.