Kimiko Hahn: Luxuriant and Testing

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[Hahn continues]... for clarity but also the source of ambiguity. And finally, both those elements can offer layered meanings and rich poetry. I hope I am making sense here.... As for translation as theme, my computer dictionary gives one definition: "a change in form or state, or transference to a different place, office, or sphere." That would be a part of the theme.

LRS: Tell me about your interest in zuihitsu, and perhaps about your use of fragments (and possibly journals and diaries, which you often mention in your work) in general?

Hahn: My interest in zuihitsu was actualized when Ed Friedman (then-director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church) curated a millennium celebration of Sei Shonagon. Writing that first zuihitsu, "The Downpour," gave me so much pleasure, I began to write more. I realized then and even more now, how much I was influenced by the Modernists such as Williams and his book, Paterson. So my aesthetics are very much shaped by classical East and modern West. I did study Japanese literature as an undergraduate and then in graduate school—so I have an academic background in East Asian studies although it is embarrassing to admit because my Japanese is fairly nonexistent at this point. The fragment, similarly, is from my interest in Japanese forms and in Modernist work (Sappho, too, for that matter). 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—yes? In Mosquito & Ant I was interested in how little I could say without losing its narrative thread.

LRS: Many of your poems are written as conversations—with your mother, with L., with "immortal sisters." What draws you to this format?

Hahn: Some have to do with point of view and need, I guess. In Mosquito & Ant, I was inspired by letters women wrote to one another so the format is epistolary—though not formally. Perhaps one answer is that when a quiet daughter speaks, she speaks up to someone. I don't necessarily write with someone in mind however. Other times, the apostrophe is just right.

LRS: Will you speak a bit about your writing process? For instance, how did the poem "The Artist's Daughter," the title poem of your last book, come together?

Hahn: In general my process is to go to a coffee shop and write and read for an hour or so. To generate raw material. Lately I've gone off my routine, which is partly how my tanka came about—an interest coupled with a need to write very short pieces.

"The Artist's Daughter"? I think I realized that this was one of the monsters and should be the title; then I worked on a poem. So it was a title before a title poem. The same thing happened with Earshot, actually. "The Unbearable Heart" was more typical: first, a line in the poem, then the poem, then the title of the book.

LRS: What role does personal experience play in your own work?

Hahn: Well, I guess I have an odd notion of what personal experience encompasses. Reading the newspaper and reacting to current events is for me, personal. Reading The Tale of Genji and feeling moved is the same. So my range of what is available as material is very wide. And why not! So the answer is that most of my work arrives from personal experience. Personal or personalized. I mean a good persona poem (I'm thinking of Ai's "The Mortician's Son") somehow arrives from one's own self, otherwise it would be very dry. That is the problem with current poems and books based on "good ideas"—sometimes they just stay good ideas with little emotional value. I try to work against the poem being just a good idea. I look back and see flawed pieces.

LRS: In rereading your work for this interview, I stumbled on "The Details We Fall For," an early poem that involves a fabulous motorcycle ride. If my own students are any indication, you are generally regarded as an extremely hip writer. How cool can a young poet hope to be?

Hahn: What a sweet thought for a woman now in the "older woman" category in magazines! Well—your insightful questions point to some elements that can lead a writer into being constantly engaged with currents—inside and outside the self. Risk. Range. A lot of reading. And talking back to what one reads—which is talking to other writers. Which is both fresh and respectful. After all, how much cooler could anyone be than Basho: "Parting for Futami Bay, a clam ripped from its shell, autumn comes to its end."






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purchase selected works by Kimiko Hahn:

Mosquito & Ant

Toxic Flora

The Narrow Road to the Interior

The Artist's Daughter


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