interview w/ sharon olds

This article was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 11/8/16

It’s hard to intimidate me. But give the universe a dare, and it will call your bluff. This past week, I drove Andrés Neuman to the airport and spoke on the phone with Sharon Olds. Can anxiety be measured? In my car, the memory of Neuman digging in his fanny pack for his glasses to help with directions; at the bookstore, hiding behind a case pack of alkaline water in the back office while the line connects Texas to New York.

If there is a living poet canon, Olds has always been on that list for me. Not because she herself demands it, but because the people who read her talk about her work the way I babble about The Swell Season.

Earlier this year, I made a pact with WHISPER HOLLOW author Chris Cander: I would read STAG’S LEAP if she would read MY FEELINGS by Nick Flynn. (We were sold out of SOME ETHER at the time.) Before this, the only poem I’d ever read by Olds was “Crazy,” as part of a poetry anthology assigned in my freshman year poetry workshop.

I read STAG’S LEAP in one night and cried for hours. Months later, when the phone interview with Olds was finalized, I imagined it would be like my fantasy of seeing Amy Hempel read in person. I would stand there in silence then leave afterward without meeting her because I would have nothing good to say. Alas—walking away is more difficult on the telephone.

When she answers, Olds says, “Hello, this is Sharon Olds,” and she is so chipper that all I can do is laugh. “How are you?” she says, and I confess I’m nervous. I’m nervous, and I can’t even see her. Then it’s her turn to laugh at me, and what she says is “Oh, you should see me. I’m sitting here in ten year old pajamas, full of holes.” She says, “I’m just a person, like you,” and I don’t know how to tell her that is exactly the thing that scares me, not her CV. It’s that she is a person I could meet at the grocery store, and not have any idea the talent she contains.

###

For those who don’t know, STAG’S LEAP illustrates the death of a thirty year marriage. Olds shows the marriage and the undoing, from talking about his affair to him telling her that he has since married his (now former) mistress. Olds does not pretend, at any point, even in the epilogue when she sees her ex-husband and he tells her the news and she does not hate him. They agree that it was not the other woman but a slow split at the root, a slow tear until a back broke.

Still, I don’t think I could write another book after that—at least not one that I would want to publish. What else is there to say, after? Olds, though, says that by the time STAG’S LEAP had been published, “half the poems or three quarters of the poems in ODES had already been written.”

ODES, published in September this year (four years after STAG’S LEAP), is just that, odes on everything from her sister to her whiteness, from tampons to the penis. In other words, the opposite of STAG’S LEAP, but is it a joke?

“The way it works for me, which is not the way it works for every poet, is that I don’t write books,” Olds says, “I write poems.” She writes them all in “a grocery store notebook” with a ballpoint pen, wide lines. She writes them all out, one at a time, by hand because ink is “not percussive like hitting piano keys, like typing is,” and “my thumbs are too big to dance on that little screen, on my phone.”

After five years, give or take, she goes through the “collection” she’s created, to see if it is enough or if any threads emerge. During the writing process, she might type some of them up, but not all of them, and even that step is more of a thinking-through. The transition from page to screen is not just transcription, but an editing process.

“Once I type it up, I change it for the better, I hope,” she says. In the case of STAG’S LEAP, she “tried to rewrite each one to get it right.” When arranged in chronological order of events, the poems told a story, and that story became the book.

“I write poems,” she says. “That’s what I do.”

###

We talk for a minute about her teaching, but after that, she wants to know if there’s anything else I’d like to ask about, any subject. And it’s hard because I do have one question, but it’s not one I think is smart or even fair to ask. It’s a question I have for her not as a faux journalist or fellow poet but as a human being. Olds waves her hand at me with her voice and says that I am free to ask her anything; it’s her choice whether or not she would like to answer.

Again, I did not think that this moment would ever materialize so when it does, the words come out like a postcard she might receive from an elementary school student: “Are you still sad?” She pauses for a moment, intrigued that I think of STAG’S LEAP as a sad book, then offers this: “It seems to me that each of us in a lifetime has some real mourning to do.”

Already, she goes on to say, “Children have things to mourn!” but I am so moved by her first answer, this idea that grief is not a punishment but a task that each of us completes, a thing that no one escapes. Somehow, it makes it smaller and larger, at the same time. “Citizens of this country are in a time of fear and mourning,” she says, “and fear of future mourning.”

If STAG’S LEAP has a thesis, it is this: “Sadness and anger are just as important as joy and happiness.” When she says it, it’s so simple, and not a concept that I think anyone would dispute, but Olds wrote it out regardless, in a book that is not meek, maudlin, or morose. It captures a time, this ugly awful time, and paints it as just that: layered. It says, “You are allowed,” the way that Olds says to me now despite the distance between us, in years and miles.

For ODES, Olds says, “There isn’t a test. There isn’t a correct amount of humor to respond to.” Instead, “it’s meant to be a gift.” Not a free one, of course—“that’s how I can afford to pay my rent,” she says—but “what I care about is that you have whatever experience is right for you about the book. We want each other to get whatever each of us can get out of what we give each other in a work of art.”

I was promised fifteen minutes with Olds but she gave me twenty. Before I had even dialed the number, I knew that her other callers slated for her afternoon may well be The New Yorker or The Atlantic, somewhere—someone—more worthy. However, she uses our last minute to ask if there is one more, anything else that I would regret not saying if she were to hang up now, and that kindness and generosity is so pure that I can only say no and thank her for taking the time that she did. She says she is looking forward to meeting me, we say goodbye, and here come the tears.

interview w/ monica youn

This interview was originally posted at BrazosBookstore.com on 10/21/16

There are exceptions to everything but for the most part, living artists are the be all, end all for me. I like the connection and contradiction between a piece of art and the person behind it. The only type of surprise I savor: the one where somewhere in Houston, I am waiting to hear the speaking voice of a writer I don’t know.

The first time I try to call Monica Youn, she asks if we can reschedule. “I’m sort of having a baby crisis,” she says, and at the time, knowing nothing about Youn outside of BLACKACRE, the thing I think is that I am not a mother—meaning yes, of course. That world comes before this other one.

Three days later, I start by asking her to tell me about her book, which is maybe the only question I ask every person I interview. Since the title draws on legal jargon for a hypothetical estate—“Blackacre” is the equivalent to Jane or John Doe as applied to physical property—I suppose I had a mild expectation she would say something about that, or allude to her years as a lawyer.

She starts three times. “It’s not about one thing in particular,” she says. Then she offers the poet version: “Coming to terms with necessity and to what extent the imagination can transform what is given and to what extent the imagination has to come up against the limits of what is possible.”

There is a pause while I finish typing the last thing she says but she takes the moment as though I am standing there with a microphone, eyes big and face shiny. Here is the heart of it: “my own inexperience dealing with infertility and its aftermath, especially the shame that surrounds the concept of infertility.”

This is what it means to talk to a living poet about her work and hearing what it means to her. Because Youn, on paper, is elusive and dense and steeped in structures that I never studied in school. She is, to say it plain, too smart for me. There is no amount of time that I could have studied her meditations on Villon’s fabled hanged man, “Epiphyte,” and cycle of various -acres and found a baby at the bottom of it, unless she told me it was there.

The kaleidoscope of emotion is easier to speak about now that the baby is two, BLACKACRE is out, and she enjoys teaching at Princeton. But it was not always like this, and the book is a physical talisman that represents the five years her and her husband spent trying. “At the same time I was going through this issue with fertility, I was coming to the end of my legal career,” Youn says. “I was coming to an end of a lot of things in my life.”

It is one thing to choose not to produce children; the inability is the ultimate female failure—at least, according to certain stigmas. Youn and her husband, during this process, were “required to deal with a lot of side taboos in the States but also in Korea, where my family is from.” In the end, Youn and her husband decided to use a donor egg, and Youn tells me that the pregnancy itself was a positive experience.

The egg donor process, pregnancy, and writing happened in tandem. “I wanted to get all that darkness out of my system before I became a mother,” Youn says. The memory is still there, of course, and Youn acknowledges that. But better to focus on and try to understand or weave through that before needing to jump headlong into this other thing.

On the top of the questions I never ask is what the writer hopes readers will find in her book, but it seemed like a good question to ask Youn, given that the inspiration for the book and my experience of the book were so different. “You know, after readings, women come up to me and they tell me about their experiences with infertility and they’re always speaking in whispers,” Youn says. “They’re personally ashamed in a way that they wouldn’t be ashamed of another medical issue. And I think part of the reason I wrote this book, even though it was quite difficult to be this public about something this personal, is that I want to sort of start a conversation about that shame and what it’s about, and to try to dismantle it.”

Right away, I think of Lacy Johnson and her memoir THE OTHER SIDE and how it was published at a time when America was beginning to open up conversation about rape and sexual abuse. It went on to be a finalist for an Edgar Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. BLACKACRE has been longlisted for this year’s National Book Award for poetry, following her previous collection IGNATZ, which was an NBA finalist.

“Perhaps [BLACKACRE] would have been different if I wrote it at a different time during the process,” Youn says. “I wrote it when I knew there would be a happy ending.”

laia jufresa & valeria luiselli in BOMB magazine

excerpts:

I had never really read what you were supposed to, and I was always trying to pretend I had, or saying, “Well, I haven’t, but I will!” I thought I was doing something wrong. The idea that I had to read certain books was a little overwhelming and had nothing to do with the way I wrote. Bradbury showed me that you have the right to follow your own path, both as a writer and a reader. He had made his own way, and he was very sure of himself in telling other writers that it was all right.

*

You learn by doing. You have to read a lot to be a writer. But I don’t think it necessarily makes you better. Only writing a lot does that. It would be ridiculous to say that going to museums makes you a better painter. It just doesn’t.

*

When I’m painting, I’m very comfortable being a beginner—trying things out and making mistakes. It feeds my writing. When you begin to feel like you’re a professional and have deadlines to meet, it becomes really important to still be able to play.

*

Mexico is incredibly porous to the English language in ways that are interesting and different from the situations in other Latin American countries. English seeps into Mexico at all social levels because of the enormous number of people moving constantly back and forth. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing in Spanish.

*

VL: Gilles Deleuze says that all great writers are foreigners in the language in which they write, even in their mother tongue. Do you feel that foreignness in Spanish?

LJ: I do, but probably not as much as you. I haven’t lived abroad as long as you have, but I didn’t grow up in Mexico City, so Mexico City Spanish has always been always a little strange for me.

VL: It’s hard to speak good chilango.

LJ: I always feel like I am imitating someone, and I am very imitative. I used to feel bad about that. I thought it implied a complete lack of personality.

VL: I was always proud of being that way, until recently.

LJ: You should be proud. Someone explained to me that it has something to do with mirror neurons. It means you’re very empathic.

*

I had left Mexico some years before because I had been in a shooting. Fourteen people were killed sixty feet away from me. I couldn’t bear it, and I had the privilege of leaving. So I did, and I didn’t want to give violence any more space, especially not in my writing. But I wanted to write about grief because we were all traumatized. Every time someone dies, it touches a lot of people. The same is true when someone disappears, though in a different and equally horrible way, because there’s no closure. So writing about grief was my way of making space for it.

*

In elite international circles, “global” Mexican writers, the civilized barbarians of the south, are expected to both embody and contradict the national narrative, perhaps so that bien-pensant intellectuals can confirm their well-intentioned beliefs about us. At the same time, inside Mexico, those same writers are seen as a disconnected bourgeoisie who are not entitled to their opinions, because they speak from a situation of total privilege. In one world, we are smart little underdogs, in another we are oppressors.

*

Mexicans are very politically incorrect. They have always disdained American political correctness. I myself did until I moved to the US. Now, I have these immense fights with my family when they say horrible things. I think that violence, whether it is social or personal, begins with language, which is much more powerful than people think it is. As a writer, what do you think about political correctness?

*

full interview 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.”

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.

interview w/ dr anthony brandt, charles halka

This interview was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 2.24.2015

Good interviews happen when the journalist can get his or her subject to break the script, so that’s my goal when I go to Rice University to speak with Dr. Tony Brandt about Musiqa, a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to performing modern concert music. But he derails me first when, halfway through our interview, he asks, “Do you want to take a test?”

Never mind that I haven’t been a student for three years now. What Brandt cares about is this idea in his head, an aural magic trick. He explains as he finds the playlist he made the night before: “So, I’m gonna play you a little bit of two arias from different operas about Orpheus and Eurydice, okay? One of them is going to be them declaring love for each other, and the other one is going to be Orpheus after he has realized he will never see Eurydice again—when he looks back and she disappears.”

Each clip is maybe twenty seconds. The first is slow and minor, a man moaning in the lower register; the second is fast and major, a duet brightened with strings. I know what I’m supposed to say: that the second sample is obviously the love song, since it has a man and a woman and sounds “happy.” So I pick the other one. We’ve been talking for over thirty minutes now, but this is the first time he seems to see me. He raises his eyebrows. “Really? Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting.”

Here’s the trick: neither sample is actually a love song. They are both laments. Not entirely discouraged, Brandt explains that this experiment is part of a talk he’s developing for the Jung Center. His mission? To convince his audience that the cliché is not true: music is not a universal language. In other words, Western music is not the only music.

Musiqa would agree. Founded twelve years ago, its priorities are simple: new music, new work, new art. Featured concerts consist of modern classical music paired with another art form, anything from poetry to experimental film. The integration of an additional visual or performative art might seem strange, but Brandt sees it as a way to help audiences break the habit of seeing the same Beethoven symphonies year after year.

He believes that people should risk something when they attend a concert, just as people attending, say, a baseball game risk seeing their team lose. But a baseball game isn’t just about the score; it’s also about the experience of going to the ballpark. Modern music concerts should be the same. “You’re not necessarily gonna like everything you hear on any exhibition of modern work,” Brandt says. “However, you’re likely to [enjoy] something, and just the experience itself can be so inspiring and wonderfully mind-awakening.”

Musiqa’s next concert—on February 26 at the Contemporary Art Museum—will be one such experience. During their eleven-year partnership, Musiqa’s concerts at the Contemporary Art Museum have provided a more intimate environment than the main stage concerts at Zilkha Hall. At the museum, the performers and the audience aren’t necessarily tethered to their designated spaces. “It depends on the layout of the room,” Brandt says, “but that’s also part of the experience. You’re right up close. As close as you can get to a painting, you can practically get that close to the music in those concerts.”

For those unfamiliar, the Contemporary Art Museum does not have any permanent artwork. When a new exhibition goes on display, the entire space resets. Usually, Brandt enjoys the process, watching the rooms change and letting the curators inspire him. However, the current exhibition, DOUBLE LIFE, presents its own challenges, as it includes three separate installations rather than the typical exhibit of various objects centered on a single theme.

Though each of the installations in DOUBLE LIFE is meant to “blur the boundaries between staged narratives and real world encounters,” Brandt thought Mountains of Encounter by Haegue Yang would work best with Musiqa. Inspired by secret meetings between an American journalist and a Korean rebel in the 1930s, Yang’s installation is layers of suspended red venetian blinds illuminated by moving spotlights. To complement Yang’s work, Brandt chose three themes Musiqa would attempt to speak to: audience participation, the union of cultures, and politics.

At the time of our meeting, Brandt and his fellow board members have already chosen the pieces that will represent audience participation (a text-based piece by Lei Liang that involves a soloist and the audience rubbing stones together) and union of cultures (a piece by Arab-American composer Saad Haddad). What I want to know more about, though, is the piece centered on politics by Charlie Halka, Musiqa’s first ever “composer intern,” a position that mixes the honor of an artistic residency with the rigor of an internship.

About Halka, I only know the basics: his main instrument is piano, and he holds a doctorate degree in composition from Rice University. When I ask him about his background beyond that, he explains that he started out as an aspiring concert pianist, switching to composition late during his undergraduate career at Peabody in Baltimore, Maryland. During that transitional period, he wrote mainly from his experience as a performer—what was feasible, what would be easy to rehearse, etc. These days, he’s trying to focus more on sound.

When I ask him about Musiqua, he says he’s been going to their concerts since he moved to Houston in 2009 and was aware of their reputation even before he came. So naturally, when he applied for their inaugural internship season last year and was the chosen composer, it was a personal dream come true. His new piece, “Liaison,” written specifically for the upcoming concert, will be Halka’s third piece with Musiqa. It’s the only piece on the program that will feature all four players—a cellist, horn player, percussionist, and clarinetist.

Thinking on the idea of private versus public conversation, “Liaison” is essentially a series of duets, separated by sections where the ensemble plays together. The instruments, paired in every permutation, aim to sound like one another, whereas the group sections are “all noise, very monotonous,” to the point of being “mechanical,” which Halka says is meant to imitate the sound of a public forum.

The fact that Halka based such a unique piece as “Liaison” on the Contemporary Art Museum’s Mountains of Encounter installation recalls a point Brandt tried to make earlier: that artists are not isolated, but “are alive reading the same newspapers as everybody, living in the same world, and reflecting on what we’re all experimenting. Everything gets so compartmentalized, but often, when you bring the arts together, you begin to see the relevance of each one and how they’re responding to similar things.”

So why is modern music relevant? Like every other art form, it acts as a mirror. It both reflects and projects. Is it perfect? No. Is it always comfortable? No. But that’s the point: distortion is what prompts change.