February 17, 2014KR Conversations

Kimiko Hahn

hahn-carouselKimiko Hahn is the author of nine collections of poetry, most recently Toxic Flora: Poems, and her honors include the 2008 PEN/Voelcker Award. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College–CUNY. Her poem “Circling a Nest” appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review. Her poem “Circles and Breasts” can be found on KROnline.

Is there a story behind your KR poem “Circling a Nest”?

The poem came from a return to science for triggering material—yet again, from The New York Times. For my previous collection, Toxic Flora, I moved from one article to a single draft poem. This time, I made up rules that included moving from an article working up a number of responses. “Circling a Nest” is from an article by Natalie Angier, “The Circular Logic of the Universe.” The word “egg” triggered the play.

What was the hardest part about writing it?

When using rich source material, the dilemma is always what to trim out. The details or diction might be captivating but that’d doesn’t mean it belongs in the poem.

Your poem in KR deals with the development of shapes in nature. Did this thematic concern influence how you decided to shape the poem on the page?

No. I am not fond of matching theme or subject to shape—though that could occur unconsciously.

What typically drives the visual organization of your poetry?

Since The Artist’s Daughter, I’ve been interested in one- and two-line stanzas. I favor an “aesthetic surface” (Jack Myers’ phrase) that is a fairly textured diction—say, like raw silk. Also, I like to give the language some space to be experienced. Almost as if one stanza could be a poem in itself.  I mean this couplet

which biologists attribute
“to both the arduous passage . . . “

obviously would not make a successful poem, but the short stanza does give the eye and ear the space to appreciate the assonance (lo, both; attri, arduous), alliteration (bio, bute, both), a slight slant (biologist, attribute), and, to my ear there is a lovely repetition of j in gist, du (ju), and sage. I can eye the texture before I even hear it.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

I enjoy teaching craft classes because I can sink into the course with the students. For this current semester, I prepared a course on appropriation: we are seeing how writers take captivating material and make it their own. I’m always disappointed when I read a poem where the poet is exploring, say, a historical figure, but then she or he never connects to that material in a personal way. I need to feel that the poet has an emotional stake in the subject—otherwise, the subject remains a good idea or, if a whole book, a smart marketing move.

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

I guess looking at bugs outdoors (only outdoors) and sea creatures in tidal pools. Last fall, Harold and I were walking our terrier Trudy in Prospect Park and while I was watching my step on the uneven ground—in all this acreage, I saw a brown and green praying mantis. It was crazy. I love to find praying mantises. And argiope spiders weaving a zig-zag across their web. Harold once found monarch caterpillars in milkweed patch across from the Frost House and we brought a few back, tended to them, and watched the whole chrysalis thing. And I could watch tiny hermit crabs squabbling over a new shell until my feet get wrinkled.

Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?

Honestly—I am not good at anything else.

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?

My credo? A bit anxious about this question, I googled my way to The Critical Impulse by Jeffrey Williams and Heather Steffen and found, “The credo is less a statement of method than of stance, personal background, or motivation. It gets at the why . . . ” Regarding background, I’d boil down my most abiding influences to Japanese aesthetics, Marxism, and the theory of poetic closure (Barbara Hernsteinn Smith, 1964). From the latter two comes an interest in dialectics and exploring how repetition creates dynamics that eventually play out in the closure. Japanese aesthetics, as broken down by Donald Keene: suggestion, simplicity, irregularity, and perishability. Or, for me: ambiguity, clarity, erraticism, loss. I appreciate ambiguity mostly in the form of word play—which is so essential to Japanese poetics that they have several terms for it.

My aim is for work that is both unsettling and moving. I am not interested in writing or reading work that is not, in some way, moving.

What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?

As someone who came of age in a politicized era, I know that there are many claims to art. For example, Nicaraguan poet Rosario Murillo has a book title, “A Duty to Sing.” I would see that duty from a personal point of view: it is my commitment, as a silenced girl child to express myself, all parts of myself. It is a commitment to myself, my daughters, and beyond. I believe the personal is still political.

Also, while I have my own personal tastes, I am glad the poetry world in the U.S. is a big tent.

Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?

I am planning a third collection that is triggered by science. I am envisioning this as the third book in a trilogy. Superstitious person that I am, I feel all right saying this because I have three long poems that feel of a piece. The main themes at this point are extinction and preservation. A chapbook with one of these poems is forthcoming from Epiphany Books: The Cryptic Chamber. I’m very psyched to be exploring how preservation can be positive or negative, depending on the context or circumstance.