interview w/ scaachi koul

Rumpus: There are more events to be had, in Canada and abroad, but what are some lessons that you’ve learned while touring for this book?

Koul:

1) Teach people how to say your first and last names before they go up to a microphone.
2) Sit up straight at live events.
3) One glass of wine is not enough, three is too many, but weirdly enough, five is perfect.

the one & only! full Q&A over at the rumpus

review: AN ARRANGEMENT OF SKIN by anna journey

Sometimes being a poet means something inside you snaps, but not like a balloon too close to the ceiling. It bends and begs and burrows, and you, flailing like a sad firefly, break all the things you’re not supposed to break, trying to find it. You start with the things that keep you sane, and move outward, until the most feral version of yourself is alone on the phone with a stranger.

You call a stranger because of the shame, or because other lines have been cut. You’ve cut them, with the breaking. Except the phone call isn’t really about the things you’ve done—it’s not about the recitation. It’s asking someone, anyone, if you can still exist apart from your mistakes. Can you see me? Can you hear me?

For Anna Journey, it starts at the University of Houston, during the last year of her PhD program.

full review here

interview w/ lily hoang

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 8.15.16

Say you get to do an interview for the first time in four months and it is with the woman that wrote your favorite book this year. What you don’t know is that she is in Europe during the weeks you have to reach her. In fact, she’s been in Europe for eleven weeks: fourteen countries, one book tour, one week-long writing workshop in Barcelona. The last time you used Skype, you were a junior in college, and it was to talk to your best friend while she was in Scotland, and your crappy ex-boyfriend during his year in Japan. Seeing the interface and hearing the sound of the dial tone conjures more feelings than anticipated.

When I meet Lily Hoang, author of the essay collection A BESTIARY—and four other books I have not read—I am wearing a hoodie I bought in 2009 for a band I no longer pay to see and pulling a personal pizza out of the oven because it is 9pm and dinner isn’t going to eat itself. Hoang also is in her pajamas, wearing a black t-shirt with a reference to something unknown to me and smoking an e-cigarette in her Boston hotel room. She ordered Indian food for delivery—they don’t have Indian food in New Mexico, see—and this is what it means to be professional writers: to eat on live stream with strangers because it is all the time you have before the deadline.


For two months, I backed A BESTIARY every way I knew how: reviews for Ploughshares and Heavy Feather Review, staff picks for the store and our website, and now this. In so many ways, I had already said what I needed to say, that A BESTIARY is the thing that finally gave me permission to stop worrying about everybody else’s opinions regarding my Asian-ness. It is enough to be myself and Asian and American, all. There is no quota. There are no rules.

In A BESTIARY, Hoang discusses her disguises through the years, and how few of them fit. During her marriage to a white man she calls Chris, she let her husband “correct” her opinions because that’s what “a good wife” would do. She made pies from scratch, with cold butter. “This used to be me,” she writes. Bitter toward the ex-husband, sure, but much more disappointed in herself for contorting that way. She uses Professor Hoang as comparison: “In the classroom, I project confidence and strength. People tell me I intimidate them.” Though dubbed her “favorite Lily to wear,” it is still a performance. It is all a performance.

When I call Hoang, she knows that I have read her book, which means I know what kind of sex she likes (rough), the name of her best best friend (Dorothy), all of her hate (and love) for her Vietnamese parents. I know about her abusive ex-husband and her abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend, the fling she had in Albuquerque; I know that she masturbates every day. In other words, I already know everything I want to know, more than I deserve to know.

So, what do I ask? I ask where she went in Europe. I ask if any of the recurring characters in her essays have read the book. I am thinking of her parents, but she thinks I mean the men and without any hesitation pulls me into the gossip surrounding the awful boyfriend. She tells me where he lives, what he’s doing. She says that when she posted a status that she was coming back to America, he sent her a message asking if he could buy her a plane ticket to come see him. Her response to me—in real time, side-bar—is to make a face and imitate her asking him if he had read the book. Then, since he has: “What makes you think I have any intention of seeing you ever again?”

She takes another puff on her e-cig, and I think, I want to be this woman.


Scratching her head, she says, “Do you want to know how I wrote the book? That’s something that hasn’t been written up yet.” I say, “Okay,” but what I wonder is whether or not she would have said the same thing if we were talking without video, if she couldn’t see my face. She tells me about studying with Rikki Ducornet and how she is responsible for the book that is on my bookshelf. During their summer together, Hoang read Ducornet the manuscript out loud. (Ducornet is in her seventies and can’t see well.) She loved the first piece, but was less enthusiastic about the second. An old woman without pretense, Ducornet asked Hoang if she had anything better, because everything except the first section was too self-serving, too purple. “I want to see what your brain can do,” Ducornet said.

Despite all, Hoang’s manuscript, the same one she read Ducornet, wins two contests. The first would not let her do revisions—it was the manuscript as is or bust. The second was the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. CSU gave her twenty days. Her deadline was September 10, in the midst of her deadline for her tenure portfolio, which was due September 1. Over curry and okra—so much Indian food the delivery person gave her three sets of silverware—Hoang tells me about those marathon weeks, how she juggled starting classes, being associate department head, finishing the portfolio, rewriting the book. She did not sleep.

What became the essay titled “on the WAY TO THE TEMPLE OF TEN THOUSAND SKULLS” was thirty-five pages in its original form. In my version of A BESTIARY, it is four sentences. Total, there are, Hoang says, “maybe ten” pages that got saved. The rest went to the trash, and for the better. In her acknowledgments, Hoang thanks Ducornet for their “fairy tale summer together,” and I want to know how these things happen. Because the book I read? Hoang cares so little for her own pain that many times I want to intervene on her behalf. It is a difficult, almost impossible, balance—to say, “Yes, this was me,” without romanticizing it at all.

Attempting an approach at the diagonal, I ask her about the title, and she says there’s “no special meaning behind it.” Instead, she tells me her definition of a bestiary—“a collection of animals, real and imagined”—and that she is a “literal human being” who says “exactly what [she] means.” In fact, she tells me she often gets chided for not being able to detect sarcasm. “I believe everything,” she says, and at this point, when she has not slept in days, has already been on two planes today and has another one in the morning, before dawn, I cannot argue.

Last question: what next? Right off, she says, “Tindering My Way Through Europe” and describes her vision of this book of steamy essays about her trips across the continent with all these handsome men with doctorates—EVERY SINGLE ONE. Hoang’s PhD? On “geography of the imagination.”

review: A BESTIARY by lily hoang

This review was originally published at Heavy Feather Review on 5.25.16

When it comes to writing, Asian women in America are given two choices. The first, of course, is the one where her exoticism oozes from her skin like bark slathered in sap, where she is delicate like dishes that only see food during holidays. She is an Asian woman with Asian parents who adore her and they have made a life possible only through this bootstrap-raising that the Puritans wrote about in their diaries. The second—also damning—is the one where she is angry, wild. In this narrative, her lack of decency begets what she deserves: no marriage, no children, no medals.

Lily Hoang knows these expectations when she pens the essays that comprise A Bestiary. To introduce the collection, she writes, “Once upon a time—shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” In the first essay, “On the Rat Race,” the princess appears, and it is not her. It is Hoang’s dead sister, who is never named, not once—in this essay, or any of the others. Instead, Hoang writes:

My sister died nearly three years ago.

I have stopped asking why before once upon a time began.

I have renamed her my dead sister.

If there is love beneath this pragmatism, confusion, and frustration, it is affection Hoang keeps close. For us, she displays her dead sister’s troubles—ones, it seems, her parents have difficulty recognizing. Later in the essay, the mother praises Hoang’s dead sister for using the meat carver on Christmas and Thanksgiving. “She’s the only one who’s ever used it,” Hoang reports her mother saying, “She was so talented!”

However, it is a mere meat cleaver, and Hoang’s sister was only in San Antonio for a few years, had only borrowed said cleaver a few times, before she died. Hoang also adds no adornment to her sister’s addiction: “Towards the end, my dead sister stopped discriminating: any opiate would do, anything to subside her pain.” Here, Hoang recognizes that her sister’s hurt could not be contained—not by drugs, not by her, nor the lover and two sons she left behind. The night before she finds “my dead sister seizing on her bedroom floor, before she went and died,” Hoang describes how she “heard her crawling along the carpet,” opening bags and zippers. This whole time, “I didn’t open my eyes.”

Pretend, make-believe, fantasy—shh, shh—is a theme throughout. “On Scale,” the final essay in the collection, is especially brutal, a litany of cruelties inflicted by Hoang’s ex-husband Chris, her lover Harold, and how she always stayed. “The weight of my love measured against the weight of my life without him measured against his betrayal and the terrible things he’s told me over the years,” Hoang writes. “In the end, no matter my options, I know I will choose Harold.” In other words, it’s not that she doesn’t know. She knows. She just can’t escape it. “My selflessness is a flaw I inherited from my mother,” she writes. “I suffer very well; my altruism can leave bruises.”

Some essays read as vignettes or parables while others dare even the most free-form lyric essays. “On the Geography of Friendship” with its movements (i.e., “Fugue” and “Allegro Non Troppo”) unfolds like a suite; “On Measurement” is an ode to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Main characters—her dead sister, ex-husband Chris, lover Harold, and close friend Dorothy—appear often, in the way the same actors play all of Wes Anderson’s characters in his films.

With A Bestiary, Hoang takes the illusion of the Asian woman we all recognize—meticulous, string player, passive—and skewers her, without pity. In this fairy tale, Hoang is a “bad feminist” and her sister is the Sleeping Beauty. Vibrating with energy but never maudlin, Hoang repels, and dazzles—an amazing debut.

interview w/ wendy s walters

This interview was originally published on BrazosBookstore.com in August 2015

“Lonely in America,” the first essay in Wendy S. Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE, begins like this: “I have never been particularly interested in slavery, perhaps because it is such an obvious fact of my family’s history.” Whatever the reason, the idea of a woman with slavery in her bloodline having little interest in her history intrigues me—especially when compared to someone like my friend Rachel, whose distant relative’s involvement in the Nazi movement caused her to question her own identity. Who chooses what we care about, or how we assess our personal histories against larger world histories? In “Lonely in America,” variations of this question eventually lead Walters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. Walters reports that “at least four of the remains in questions were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s.”

“[Portsmouth] is a really lovely town,” Walters tells me over the phone, “but beneath the city streets, there’s this history that’s really not part of the public identity of the city,” meaning that New England’s history with segregation often gets buried—literally, in this case. She was fascinated by the idea of “people [living] their daily lives on top of this cemetery,” not knowing what lay just below the surface. In this essay, and throughout the book, Walters searches for ways to keep herself awake, alert, and present. “There’s…a lot of pain in history and present context of America,” she tells me. “[MULTIPLY/DIVIDE], for me, is an attempt to figure out where the pain is located in these historical moments and historical records that we are familiar with.”

The story you remember from history class is not, should not, cannot, be the only story.

The overarching question Walters spent years contemplating was: “How functional is our democracy?” And beneath that was yet another question: “What makes someone visible or un-visible?” By “un-visible,” Walters doesn’t mean “invisible”; rather, she refers to the people we have the ability to see, but whom we choose not to recognize. All of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE centers around this distinction. “How do I become visible or not visible to people in my day-to-day experience?” Walters asks herself throughout this book. “How [do I make myself] more open to seeing people that I may have dismissed, ignored, or written off as a character of a trope of something I thought I understood? How do I make it so I learn to see better?”

Keeping a sharp eye becomes even more vital when one considers the number of race-motivated murders in America, and the disturbing or absent coverage of the deaths of black men and women in the mainstream media. The onslaught of violence grew all the more visible to Walters when she became a mother while writing MULTIPLY/DIVIDE. “I don’t know if [my newfound motherhood] was any more remarkable than anyone else’s,” Walters says, “but it certainly was one of those moments [when my] thinking was reset.”

In her “attempt to bring to light some of the contradictions about American identities and aspiration,” Walters employs a mix of genres. In fact, the introduction outlines which essays in the collection are fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, “a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reporting, actual and imagined events.” Why the combination? Why not just all fiction or all nonfiction? Why not poetry, like her previous books TROY, MICHIGAN and LONGER I WAIT, MORE YOU LOVE ME? “I make [these] categorizations because I think they are important,” Walters writes. “But I also make them with a bit of pause, because the border between nonfiction and fiction—while seemingly clear as black and white—is often porous enough to render the distinction as irrelevant.” Since the same could be said about the real and the surreal, as Walters points out, she hopes to address “nuances as they unfold place by place, argument by argument, and story by story,” rather than limit herself or her subject to a single genre. “I’m of the mindset that I just try to write down what I’m obsessed about and worry about how it fits into the larger puzzle later,” Walters tells me.

Sarabande Books, Walters’ publisher, frequently releases works of formal complexity. When I ask Kristen Radtke, Sarabande’s managing editor, about the form of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE—whether people will understand once it’s a thing out in the world—she says, “It’s easier to market things if you can say, ‘This is exactly what this is about,’ [but] what’s interesting about [Walters’] book is that it’s associative in the way our minds are.” It’s not one of those books that’s easy to pitch, but the writing itself will make its difficult subject matter more digestible. “You never really feel like you’re being preached at, but you feel like you’re living her experiences with her,” Radtke says. “She’s really talking about a lot of issues that we’re all thinking about, the way Americans need change.”

Radtke says that giving a bold but largely unknown writer like Wendy S. Walters a home “makes her feel like she’s succeeding.” Plus, “most of our authors that move on to larger houses still remain friends to Sarabande.” It truly seems like a family, especially when Radtke tells me that “we are actually a staff entirely of women,” which is unicorn-rare for the industry. “It’s kind of an amazing gift to be part of a team of forward-thinking, progressive women,” Radtke says. “It’s something that I never thought would be possible.”

What both women—Walters and Radtke—seem to be advocating is that we should not keep our biases about what is or isn’t possible buried, but that we should dig them up and hold them to the light. The hope? That acknowledging and assessing the mistakes in our own thinking can help craft better futures.