This is the first in a series of Q&As we'll be posting with Black Ocean authors. We will try to do a mix of authors chatting with authors, staff members, and everything in between. Feng Chen's book is forthcoming in 2012. Keep reading to get as excited about it as we are! (Questions in bold.)
Nikki Cohoon (Web Editor, Black Ocean): First, I want to say that we’re excited to have you in the Black Ocean family. Would you mind giving us a little sneak peak from Hunger Transit? Do you have a favorite poem or line or section or bit that you could share, and maybe tell us a little about it?
Feng Chen: The editors and I are actually discussing a new title for it! Right now we're calling it BUTCHER'S TREE which is very different from the tone of Hunger Transit. I've had a lot of trouble titling this book, actually. I don't like titles.
My favorite line is :
I want to kill you with my glittering heart.
and my favorite poem would probably be this one:
I am a good person with a bad heart.
The photographer takes a picture of a thousand open refrigerators.
Because refrigerators are inhabited more than bodies are.
You are the soup that fills my skull.
You will be hanged because the world we’re guessing at doesn’t exist.
Roads bend back into their own meatus.
Yesterday, I amputated it.
If only I could show you.
It was the color of blanched skin with a little bit of pink and blue.
I put it in the fridge above the lettuce, next to the butter.
The photographer takes it out because it is too artificial.
What can I say?
You can tell anyone anything if it happened in a dream.
I don't think this poem is very representative of the whole book because it's much less lyrical. I wrote most of the poems under lyrical influence, but I chose this poem because of the first line, and maybe because right now I'm just attached to non-lyrical more aphoristic poems and this was a pretty late revision... though the last poem I wrote was very image playful. I like this poem because it's honest. I think that the "good person with a bad heart" is more applicable to the typical of my demographic, which is the highly-educated humanities person, who often come out of their education with this self-reflexive, guilt ridden identity. When I wrote the book, though, I was more focused on personal evil and personal desire, not the larger kind of public relationship I was gesturing at just now.
What has the publishing process been like for you? Has there been much back and forth? Can we expect the finished book to be fairly close to the manuscript you originally submitted, or has it changed in any way?
It's changed quite a bit. I think I drove Janaka and Carrie crazy because I was doing so much editing, and I was kind of neurotic and didn't think to be systematic in tracking them. The biggest thing I've learned is that I shouldn't try to "improve" something that feels like it comes from a different self, and that I need to track changes like a machine, or else it's difficult to work with multiple people. Because I didn't relate to the poems as much when I was editing it (in contrast to when I submitted it), I kept feeling like I needed to change it into something "better", but all I was doing was making it more disjunctive. However, I do think that my retroactive injections to the poems and the editor's hard work and very useful comments gave it a coherency that wasn't there before. I still think it needs more editing. But Janaka made a rule: no more line editing. It's like when I can't stop picking at the bumps on my face. No one can tell the difference, but I still see bumps to pick at.
I actually haven’t seen your forthcoming book yet, but I have read some of your poems and writings online (I love your blog!). What I’ve read seems so aware, alive, responsive. How does the everyday feed into your poetry (or does it)?
The poems in this book are very personal, so the poems are completely everyday-fed, like special cows in a pasture of everyday-grass. This may seem strange because there are lots of mythical things in it, but the everyday is mythical, the way events and objects take on significance to us. I think they mythical tends to signify isolation now. It's difficult to relate to classical mythology or folklore (well, except vampires) even though they're still familiar. There isn't much room for that kind of storytelling perhaps because people don't relate to living in a world where gods care about humans, even if it's in a sadistic way. I don't relate to it. Maybe that's why they're in my poems. It's about alienation, trying to pull the dead back into the everyday.
What consumes you?
Worry and art. Most recently, the film The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky, which makes me want to think more about magic.
On your blog, you often share paintings you are working on. Do you distinguish much between words and paint? Do certain subjects find their way into paintings, others into poems? Does it matter what ends up where? (I am especially interested in this because I do visual art too, and sometimes feel torn about what to give my attention to, worry that I can’t feed both the writing and the art beast at once, but also that I can’t live without either.)
They can have very similar effects. Both language and painting can convey narrative and meaning directly, and on the more abstract side, both rely on how colors, images, or meaning-textures and sound produce feelings in the viewer/reader. They work in different dimensions, but overlap a lot. Sometimes I like to make drawings or paintings because it feels more natural. Thinking in words actually feels very unnatural to me. That's why I like poetry--it assumes that language is strange.
Five words you love?
Baby, Glitter, Ant, Pig, Nuance.
You often work in lists, windows, prose blocks, in addition to lines. How did you consider form when working on your book? Did it drive or shape the book in any way?
I like lists because they build meaning through accumulation and layering. Most of the poems in the book are free form without structure other than clumped stanzas. Nowadays I don't make lists as much as splatters.
What question would you like to ask yourself?
I want to ask myself to memorize a poem. I don't know why I am afraid of memorizing it. I feel like I am afraid of forgetting things, but I'm more afraid of remembering them. I don't know why. It's like I don't really want to exist.