Kimiko Hahn: Luxuriant and Testing

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 loggernaut Kimiko Hahn's latest collection of poetry, The Narrow Road to the Interior, comprises a collection of tanka and zuihitsu, two fragment-oriented Japanese forms (the second of which translates as "running brush"). The book is an experimental extension of her earlier writing, which, like a kaleidoscope, makes sharp, luminous use of disconnected images. In speaking about her work, Hahn's fascination with the jagged edges of sense and language becomes abundantly clear. As Hahn herself states: "There is a great deal of energy in a fragment—in suggestion. And the ambiguity that arises adds to that power. How pine is a noun and verb. So pine grove is a grove of longing." Nervy, evocative, and often rebellious, her poems reflect emotional complexity in novel ways, all the while glancing towards traditional Japanese forms.

A professor at Queens College, CUNY, Kimiko Hahn has won an American Book Award, a Theodore Roethke Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including The Artist's Daughter, Mosquito & Ant, and, most recently, The Narrow Road to the Interior, which takes its title from the renowned seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho's classic travelogue. -Emily Moore

Loggernaut Reading Series: What are you working on these days? Tell us about your new book.

Kimiko Hahn: My new book is a collection of zuihitsu that I've collected from the past dozen years, and tanka, from over the last several years. Both are classical Japanese forms that I've tried to make my own. The zuihitsu—for which there is no Western equivalent!—looks like prose and sounds like poetry. Tanka are, in Japanese, thirty-one syllables; my own are basically one-line nature poems that I hope contain a Japanese sensibility. I have intertwined these two chronologies.

What am I working on now? A number of little projects but mostly a series of poems based on articles from the science section of The New York Times—which for me presents peculiarly exotic diction.

LRS: What have you been reading these days, either as inspiration or as background?

Hahn: Well, I have been reviewing Japanese literature (unfortunately only in translation these days): Earl Miner's Japanese Court Poetry and Japanese Poetic Diaries. Also, Issa's A Year of My Life. For craft courses at both Queens College and New York University, I plan on introducing Japanese poetics because it is quite dissimilar. Feelings such as melancholy are codified; "fragrance" is a term Basho used to describe the synapse between poems or stanzas. These differences continue to inspire both the content and form of my own work. I am also looking at a couple old books by Lafcadio Hearn. This afternoon, in a quiet moment, I finally read a friend's book: Jacqueline Woodson's The House You Pass on the Way.

LRS: From the disorders catalogued by Wilhelm Stekel, to your sonnet series on insects, to the epigraph of Volatile ("What kind of beast would turn its life into words?"), many of your poems explore monstrosity. What draws you to monsters?

Hahn: Ah, monsters! At one point in my life I was thinking how I was—how I felt I was—the designated family monster. So, I began to consider what a monster means. Grimm's fairy tales. Historic monsters such as the half-bodied person, Johnny Eck (you can see him in the cult film, Freaks). Monsters in current events. I researched monsters and "wallowed" (to use a Stekel word) in them. If one fears something, eventually it is necessary to explore.

LRS: A poem in Volatile ends with the fragment "Luxuriant and testing," which to me feels like a pretty good encapsulation of much of your writing. Will you speak a bit about poetry and risk, and perhaps about risks you feel you've taken in your own writing?

Hahn: I think your last question has partly answered this question. Another risk (and I know it is an enormous issue for most young writers) is to write about loved ones. It never was for me until family members began to protest. Now I think of that potential conflict in terms of my daughters because, as a mother, my first task is to protect my children. As a writer, one task is to take risks. Reveal. But there are many ways to reveal. So this is my current challenge. An urgent one.... As for that particular quote—I actually had to look it up it's been so long—it is from a modest poem that rather ambitiously tries to find spirituality in art. Consolation in words and paint. Looking back at that last phrase, I think there is a suggestion of something sacred and profane; something pagan. I hope so. Perhaps it is a risk just to think we can express such essential things to one another.

LRS: Another theme in your poetry seems to be language and translation. Kanji, nu shu, and even the way language is transferred and lost between mother and daughter ("Your oldest daughter / asks what her name means") all surface in your work. Will you speak a bit about this theme?

Hahn: The theme of translation is both literal and figurative. Literal because Japanese is so insanely difficult and although there are words that have emotional meanings for me, strong connotations, it is not my first language. Although it is a kind of mother tongue because my mother and grandmother spoke this language, it is not, finally, my first language. And although the English/American language is at times, compromising, it is mine. So, for me, language itself, is a tricky thing, at once necessary







  {buy the by}

purchase selected works by Kimiko Hahn:

Mosquito & Ant

Toxic Flora

The Narrow Road to the Interior

The Artist's Daughter


{download printer-friendly version of this interview}

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