poetry * things

Interview for the Next Big Thing

Thanks to poet Anna Leahy, prize-winning author of Constituents of Matter, for the invitation!  Anna’s wonderful interview ~ astronauts included ~ is available here

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
A number of books are forthcoming from Tupelo, including a collection of poetry translations, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?
In girlhood, I knew about the Tang Dynasty male poet Li Bai or Li Po, whose famous poem on moonlight I memorized and recited.  I was new to a woman poet named Li.  As I mentioned in my translator’s preface for Circumference, Li Qingzhao’s poetry first caught my eye when I saw her last name and mine were the same:  

What genre does your book fall under?
Doubled Radiance is classical Chinese poetry translated into modern English.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What an extraordinary question for a collection of poetry translations ~ I love this.  Let us see, now…. I was awed by Yoon Jeong-hee’s performance in the award-winning film, Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-Dong.  I suppose Zhao Wei or Gong Li would play the young Li Qingzhao.  I would cast Yoon Jeong-hee for Li Qingzhao’s post-war years after the catastrophic fall of the northern capital. 

If the translator must take a role in this film, I would not play myself!  I am camera-shy and rather dislike having my photograph taken ~ acting on-screen, to this end, would be rather nightmarish.  A better thought ~ ask the poet-divas from Kundiman to consider any of the aforementioned roles on the silver screen.  As a matter of fact, I would favor active involvement by poets at all levels of acting, directing, and production.   

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Love, war, exile in the life of a Song Dynasty woman.   

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Translation is an arduous labor.  In other words, a long time ~ about one year, working weekly, to complete a draft, with a second year to fine-tune it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A labor of love.  I was inspired by Dorothy Disse’s digital archive, Other Women’s Voices, housing translations of women’s writing before 1700.  Moreover, a desire to highlight another Asian woman’s work in the world, daring to reach across space and time to circulate her poetry ~ I’ve also translated poems by the contemporary Taiwanese woman poet, Hsia Yü, for Poetry Magazine.   Currently, I am studying the writings of Bing Xin for another translation project.  My time is so fragmentary in this season, however.  This task will be in the future.

Poet-divas (except Ollie, sole mister div-o) I “tagged” in turn: 
Eileen Tabios
Ellen Doré Watson
Oliver de la Paz


Christina Pugh, the Consulting Editor of Poetry Magazine, “tagged” me this week, as well! Read Christina’s lovely interview on Daniel Bosch’s blog, and her new collection, Grains of the Voice, from Northwestern University Press / TriQuarterly Books.  Not only is Christina’s poetry erudite & gorgeous, the poet herself shines w/ a heart of gold!

erin * ninh

Omoiyari Interview with Dr. erin Khuê Ninh
Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara
erin Khuê Ninh:  A Biography (As Written by Herself)

erin grew up in L.A., borrowing copious stacks of books from the Hawthorne and then Culver City libraries.  By the end of her undergraduate years at Berkeley, though, she’d come to the clear-eyed if sad conclusion that she’d make a terrible writer of fiction.  Turning her sights to interpreting it instead, she spends her days teaching literature, and her nights editing and managing the blog at Hyphen magazine.


KL: You are currently on faculty in the Asian American Studies Department at University of California, Santa Barbara.  What are some courses you enjoy teaching, and what new courses are you developing or would like to teach one day?

erin Khuê Ninh: At the moment, Karen, the specter of the over 200-person lecture I’m slated to teach again this fall is hanging over me, and the horridness of being hated by that many people at once rather blots out the sky.  So I’m hard-pressed to think of what I actually like teaching.

But in other quarters I have a much brighter perspective, because I actually like all the other classes I teach.  I’m obsessed with teaching students how to close-read, because tracing meaning to its ‘source’ is a necessary and exciting thing.  So my AsAm Fiction class, for instance, is organized around mysteries, quasi-detective fiction, which makes searching for meaning and truth both meta and content.  My AsAm Women’s Writing is a little depressing in theme, but always rewarding to teach; I take students through a series of novels and theoretical readings on wartime rape, moving them from the comfort women camps to rape as part of our “peacetime” lives.  A course that I haven’t been able to locate the resources to teach yet, but still hope to, is one merging the practice of martial arts, Chinese dance, and readings on discipline and feminine embodiment. 

KL: Would you share about your involvement with the cutting-edge Asian American publication, Hyphen magazine

erin Khuê Ninh: I started on the publishing (business) side of the magazine when I first joined it, actually.  Not that I had any business qualifications, but the editorial side has always been well staffed with experienced and professionally trained reporters, with real journalistic chops, so they had no need of an English grad student!  Eventually I became publisher, a post I left when I took the job at UCSB and had to leave the Bay Area (where the magazine is based).  (I’d like to point out here that the magazine is not only nonprofit and politically progressive, but all volunteer-run!  This explains a great deal about how I became the boss.)  Now I run the blog with my coeditor, something I can do from remote—and that a lit Ph.D. will just about qualify me to do.

KL:  Congratulations on your book publication, Ingratitude: the debt-bound daughter in Asian American literature, now forthcoming from New York University Press.  Are you working on any current projects?

erin Khuê Ninh:  Thanks, Karen.  Well, I’m working with an artist to design the cover image right now, which is pretty exciting!  Aside from that, some new pieces for a new project on femininity and agency—physical beauty and social dance (i.e., the “follower’s” role) are some of its components.

KL: Last but not least, what’s the story behind the intentionally lowercase “e” in your first name?  

erin Khuê Ninh: Well, “erin” is not the name my parents chose for me when I was born in Viet Nam (surprise surprise), but “Khuê”—“Is Cue here?  Cueey?”—had become wince-worthy by the time I’d hit college.  So erin is just easier, but it’s also… just a name.


sarah * gambito

Omoiyari Interview with Professor Sarah Gambito
Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University

Poet’s Biography

Sarah Gambito is the author of the poetry collections Delivered (Persea Books) and Matadora (Alice James Books).  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, Denver Quarterly, The New Republic, Field, Quarterly West, Fence and other journals.  She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and the Creative Writing Program at Brown University.  Her honors include the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets and Writers and grants and fellowships from The New York Foundation for the Arts, Urban Artists Initiative and the MacDowell Colony.  She is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University.  Together with Joseph O. Legaspi, she co-founded Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American poets.


KL: Congratulations on the success of Kundiman, the annual retreat for Asian American poets!  Kundiman also sponsors the Kundiman Poetry Prize with publication of the winning manuscript by Alice James Books.  

What are some of the highlights of your transformative journey in creating Kundiman?  How would you describe the lasting influence of mentorship and community which Kundiman provides?
Sarah Gambito: What has been so rewarding is to see how the energy of the retreat extends past the physical days of the retreat.  Fellows really keep in touch over email, Facebook, Ichat, good food in Queens, salons in Los Angeles and Brooklyn and continue to mentor each other.  It has been wonderful to see how they become each other’s best readers and sanctuary. 

One of my favorite moments was when Yael Villafranca—one of our youngest fellows—who had never read in public before read at the Retreat reading with Bei Dao. It was so symbolic of what Kundiman has come to mean to me—various generations of Asian American poets buoying each other through words.

KL:  Currently, you’re director of the Creative Writing Program at Fordham University.  What are your dreams & visions for this program? 

Sarah Gambito: The English department at Fordham has long fostered a symbiotic relationship between scholarship and the creative arts.  I’d love to help build upon this.  One of my projects in Fall 2010 is Turning Tides: A Symposium on Diasporic Literatures to be held at the Fordham Lincoln Center campus.  More information on this is here:  http://turningtides.squarespace.com/  Kundiman is fortunate, also, in the fact that we have entered into a institutional partnership with Fordham.  We held our first retreat at the Fordham Bronx, Rose Hill campus this past Summer 2010.  Fellows wrote poems on the beautiful grounds.  Stayed up late into the night discussing literature.  Visited the Botanical Gardens and Poet’s House in Manhattan.

I’m looking forward, also, to learning about how I can be effective in creating community between the creative writers at Fordham.  This year, we are piloting a series of student-centered readings that will entail the participation of all the creative writing classes across both campuses.

KL: What are some of your favorite writing exercises and texts to teach?

Sarah Gambito:
Empathy, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.  I love Adrienne Kennedy.  I love translation exercises.  Even better if you don’t know the language you are translating from.  Through the years, I’ve been working on a directed writing exercise involving breath and the seven chakras.  I’m so much in my head as a writer.  It has been fulfilling to think about the physical body and how this can help drive creative impulse.

KL: Your acclaimed second collection, Delivered (Persea Books) was published in 2009.  Are you working on any current projects?   

Sarah Gambito: Right now I’m interested in new media and poetry.  How can the text of a poem expand to fit the liquid contours of the Internet….

KL:  With all your administrative responsibilities, how do you set aside time to write poetry?

Sarah Gambito: I’m still learning this discipline.  What I try and do is read as much as I can.  And write as it comes.  And to try not to question too much.         

anna * leahy

Omoiyari Interview with Dr. Anna Leahy:
Director of the Tabula Poetica Series
at Chapman University 

Poet’s Biography

Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize and is published by Kent State University Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals, most recently Barn Owl Review, The Laurel Review, and Margie. She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, which launched the New Writing Series at Multilingual Matters. Her essays about teaching and writing appear widely, including in the latest issue of Mid-American Review (co-authored with Larissa Szporluk) and in the newly published Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com).


KL: Congratulations on the success of Tabula Poetica, the poetry reading series at Chapman University! Would you share a little about your upcoming guest poets and M.F.A. events?

Anna Leahy: We piloted the Tabula Poetica series in Spring 2009 with three wonderful poets: Jen Bervin (also a visual artist), Richard Deming (also a literary scholar), and Nancy Kuhl (also a library curator). That experiment went so well that we established the Poetry Reading Series as an annual fall event in 2009, with you among the fantastic poets in that line-up. In Fall 2010, Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout will kick off the series on September 14. I contacted her before she won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but those prizes help the visibility of our project. Two other California poets follow: Patty Seyburn (she was awarded a Pushcart Prize) on September 28 and Lynne Thompson (Director of Employee and Labor Relations at UCLA) on October 12. Our final visiting poet is Allison Joseph on November 9; she’s an Illinoisian, an editor of Crab Orchard Review, and great with students. Our series concludes on November 30 with a reading by Chapman University MFA students. All the Poetry Talks and Readings are free and open to the public. The Poetry Talks are at 2:30pm in Argyros Forum 201, and the Readings (with refreshments) are at 5:00pm in Leatherby Libraries. For more info, visit Tabula Poetica at http://www.chapman.edu/poetry.

KL: In the classroom, what are your favorite writing exercises and texts to teach?

Anna Leahy: I use Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry quite a bit, because I want to forefront to students that writing poetry is about formal choices—even when it’s free verse—even more than it is about those spontaneously overflowing emotions. The poet’s self will always be part of the poem, so I like to distract students from themselves with a focus on form. For advanced students, James Logenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line is a good follow-on to complicate the issues. I read widely myself, and I urge my students to do that too. I often bring in poems for imitation exercises. Larrisa Szporluk and I wrote a conversation essay called “Good Counsel” in which we discuss imitation as a first step in the creative process, a step toward deep imagination. Dorianne Laux’s “The Idea of Housework” is a fun poem to use; students can start with the opening lines “What good does it do anyone / to…” and go from there, riffing on things they feel obligated to do or to have. Nancy Kuhl’s The Wife of the Left Hand has several poems with repeated phrases that structure the given poem as a prayer, wish, or lament; students can use that repeated structure with different subject matter. What’s great about such exercises is sharing the imitations afterward to demonstrate that, even when everyone starts with the same line or prompt, each poem is different. If there are phrases common across versions, most students recognize on their own that they may have reached for the easy cliché. In the long run, this sort of exercise teaches students to read closely and selfishly.

KL: Your first full-length collection, Constituents of Matter, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Are you working on any current projects?

Anna Leahy: I have a second manuscript, Among Virgins and Harlots, that I’ve sent out, and it’s been a finalist in a handful of contests. I’ve started writing poems beyond it, though, so I’ve not sent it out much in recent months. I’d hoped to revise it this summer, but planning the reading series has taken more time than I’d expected and, to my surprise, I’ve been writing memoir essays. The move from Illinois to California two years ago felt like a big shift that’s led me to this new form. One of the essays was recently a finalist in the Arts & Letters competition, which was just enough of an external nod to make me think I might be on to something. That said, I’m still a poet, and Chapman University has generously awarded me a one-course reallocation in the spring so that I can give my poetry manuscript the attention I think it needs and deserves. I’d like to experiment with persona poems to an even greater extent when I return to that project.

KL: What’s your advice to people who wish to launch a new reading series on their campus?

Anna Leahy: Absolutely the first thing you must do is be friendly with every Administrative Assistant you meet—in your department, in the dean’s office, in the public relations and development offices. And take time to meet every Administrative Assistant you can. Unless your PhD is in event planning, these are the people you need to help you make the reading series a success. Coordinating a reading series is more work than it probably should be, so it’s easier and more successful when you have a team behind you (and often ahead of you). I have a few other recommendations, based on hindsight. Make up a name early; it took us weeks to settle on Tabula Poetica after we (somewhat accidentally) piloted a series, but having a name makes people think you have a project. Establish a Facebook group; maybe 232 members isn’t huge (yet!), but it helps get the word out, and students especially use Facebook to track events. Collaborate; Tabula Poetica worked with the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education to do a reading from Night just before Elie Wiesel visited campus, and we hosted a bilingual reading by MFA students in English and undergraduates in German as part of the Freedom Without Walls program. Look into hiring a student worker (graduate assistant, work-study undergrad, whatever); Natalie d’Auvergne is this year’s Graduate Assistant, and even over the summer, she’s been working to generate a list of area high schools and libraries and write reviews of books by this fall’s visiting poets. These are things I’d advise because I happened upon them, but wish someone had told me sooner. Mostly, I’d say just do something to promote poetry. These are difficult times for the arts, so those of us who can do something should. Poets are generous people, by and large, and you never know who’s out there waiting for a poetry event, either because they secretly write poems or they have fond memories of a grandmother reading poetry to them. Poetry, because we are language users and metaphorical thinkers, is one of the most human of endeavors.