I think I often feel alien to the world and its varied interfaces, while the linear reliability of the sentence means I know exactly where I am, where I stand. I’m reading myself more than I am myself, if that makes sense. I’m the type of person who shows up early for a lunch date with two or three books “just in case.” For a long time, when I lived in New York City, I even read while walking. What I then regarded as an answer to limitation (reading while walking was less overly stimulating and therefore less panic-inducing), I can say in retrospect a kind of ‘life hack’.
When did you start reading poetry? What books made you fall in love with poetry?
When I was in community college some of my friends were in punk rock bands and they introduced me to Arthur Rimbaud who of course was and is very influential to musicians including Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, etc. One day While they were practicing, I picked up a copy of his poems carried in my back pocket and read the poems “The Drunken Boat” and “Phrases” and I was simply impressed. I thought that if a 17-year-old farmer in the 19th century could make something like this, there’s a chance I’d make something so propulsive, so enlightening and courageous.
The next day I ran to the small university library to look up all his works. Of course, it was organized through the Dewey decimal system, which meant I was immediately in the aisle of French literature. From there I found Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Camus, Barthes, Césaire, Glissant and from there other parts of Europe to Lorca, Vallejo, Rilke, Benjamin, Arendt, Calvino. It was all very coincidental via this random organizing principle, but this started my training as a writer with European writers. I wouldn’t seriously read an American poet until a year or two later, when I found Yusef Komunyakaa in the pile.
Are there any poets that you have come to appreciate more over time?
It took me a while to allow myself to delve deeply into Dickinson’s work. I say “allow” because I had this naive and sophomore view that because it was taught so often and so broadly in primary schools, the work would already be exhausted. This turned out to be a grave misconception as soon as I read her. In fact, part of its ample power lies in its ability to use the universal capability of the natural world—and even abstracted objects such as a loaded gun, a funeral coach—to create powerful metaphorical interfaces from which syntax architects complicate philosophical and moral arguments. a fashion left over from the religious revival of her 19th-century milieu. Rereading Dickinson with this in mind helped me see the potential inexhaustibility of a work when rendered through more nuanced historicizations. It also eventually helped me become a better teacher, leading me to develop a deeper engagement with literary theory and hermeneutics.
You write both fiction and poetry. Are there other cross-genre writers you particularly admire?
Anne Carson, Quan Barry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Matsuo Basho, James Agee, Annie Dillard, Alejandro Zambra, James Baldwin, Fanny Howe, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, DH Lawrence, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker and Herman Melville – who by the end of this life, wrote more lines than Whitman and Dickinson combined†