Debora Kuan is a poet, writer, and critic. Her debut collection of poetry, XING (Saturnalia Books), was published in October 2011. She is the recipient of a Fulbright creative writing fellowship (Taiwan), University of Iowa Graduate Merit Fellowship, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship, Santa Fe Art Institute writer's residency, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. In 2010, she won The L Magazine's Literary Upstart short fiction award, and her reviews on contemporary art and film have appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Idiom, Modern Painters, Paper Monument, and other publications.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The call I got from Henry Israeli to tell me that my book was being published was possibly the best phonecall I had ever received in my life, up until that point. I had shopped that manuscript around, in various iterations, for over six years, and there were so many moments of doubt that shadowed the endeavor and so many near-misses, runner-up wins, and frustrations. So the day it finally happened was a very good day.
Since the publication, I can’t say that my life has changed in any daily way, except that more good surprises pop up now—like hearing from the Poetry Society of America, or getting a nice review, or being invited to do a reading, or someone telling me they bought my book and liked it. Mostly, though, the change is in your headspace. I feel solidly on a path now as a writer, whereas before I was always nagged by the creeping fear that I would never fully become what I felt I was.
I am writing short stories at the moment, so formally, I’m working with a very different set of rules and expectations now. But I do think I’m building upon some trends that are present in XING. For one thing, the bulk of the poems in the book are narrative, and there are two recurring fictional characters who weave their way through the poems—Lin and Chao. I am also working on a second manuscript of poems, which deploys similar strategies, but is set in the deserts of the American Southwest.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most people come to poetry out of an impassioned, albeit wholly misguided, notion that facility with the stuff will somehow (a) ennoble them and/or (b) endear them to the opposite sex. The ones who continue writing poetry and thus one day come to call themselves poets are the ones whose moderate-to-great success with (b) continues to fuel and add fodder to their sense that they are achieving (a). I was not an exception.
Apart from that, I think I was drawn, as an angst-y, overserious teenager, primarily to the immediacy of poetry and what felt to me like a direct conduit to the senses, the imagination, and the inner life. A lot of the appeal was also the visual nature of free verse on the page and the concentration of the short line. The concept of free verse itself was radical to me. That you could write a poem without rhyme and without meter? This went against everything I had learned about poetry up until that point. The enjambed line and the white space surrounding the poem were like a creative revelation. And then when I tried my hand at it, I loved it. It felt exhilarating to open up myself to language and consciousness and let them lead me imaginatively.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Poetry comes relatively quickly, and everything else comes slowly and painfully, with a lot of hand-wringing and nail-biting and second-guessing. The same thing goes for revision. Once in a while I’ll get to a scene in a story that flies out of me and is a total blast to write, but right now, I still feel like a novice, so I worry about everything I put down.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually starts with a fragment of a sentence, or even a couple of words that get snagged on my brain and want to get written down. It’s harder for me to conceive of a “book” and write toward that goal. I am doing that with the second manuscript of poems, and it’s much slower going. There are many more things to consider. That doesn’t mean that XING emerged fully formed; far from it. But that was more of a process of throwing out poems toward the aim of bringing together a cohesive manuscript.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I usually love to do readings, especially if I have something new to read that I’m very excited about. I try to aim for that every time I read but it can’t always be achieved.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
XING dealt with themes of Christianity, doubt, race, ethnicity, and otherness, and my fiction tends to have a component of social satire to it. But mainly, I think the concerns of any good writing tend to be the same: to capture the experience of being human, to inhabit the curious realm of living. There’s a Neutral Milk Hotel lyric that says it well: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in large culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is the role of any artist, and that is to contribute creatively and critically to the life of the mind and to the culture, even if that culture often seems largely indifferent to what you are doing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Poetry doesn’t get edited very much. It’s usually accepted for publication wholecloth or not at all. Although Henry and the staff at Saturnalia did give me lots of very wise suggestions for my book in the final pass before it went to print. I appreciated all of those comments. They helped pull the book together into its final form.
As for art writing, which is where I get edited the most, it really depends on the editor. I’ve worked with editors who have put me through what felt like a meatgrinder, and I’ve also worked with editors who have challenged me, bettered me, and expanded my scope, and for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration. I feel that way about Roger White, editor of the n+1 art journal, Paper Monument, as well as Brian Sholis, who used to be my editor at Artforum.com and took a chance on me when I had almost no critical reviewing under my belt. They are both stellar art critics, writers, and editors.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
1)A fiction writer friend of mine once told me, Take only the criticism that resonates with you. It seems very obvious, but when you’re in a workshop setting and people are telling you so many different things about your work, you can lose your head a bit, get overwhelmed, and not know which direction to go in. The thing I used to like to say about myself in this regard was: Even when I take criticism well, I take it badly. But I’d like to think I’m getting better at it, the more I receive it.
2)Leave no stone unturned. Every word counts. Don’t write a lazy sentence, don’t write a half-assed line. Be your own exacting editor. A reader worth having doesn’t read by skimming; they read every word you’ve written. Make sure you’ve done your best.
3)Believe in yourself unfailingly and what you want to achieve, even in the face of staggering rejection. When I was in the third grade, I played short stop on the girls’ softball team. Every time I came up to bat, I felt sure, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that I would hit a home run. I don’t know why I believed this. I had never gotten farther than second, and I had rarely gotten to first at all. But somehow, deep in my bones, I believed that the possibility of a home run resided solely in the will to hit a home run and nowhere else. So every time I got up to bat, I tried to tap into that sense of myself, thinking, “This time it’s going to happen, I’m sure of it.” When I look back on this memory now, I can’t believe that kid was me—fearful, neurotic, anxious adult me. Doubt is the lesson we learn as we grow--it’s the eventuality of experience and disappointment, but, when it isn’t delivering us toward a stronger critical understanding of something, it is only landing us at the door of cynicism and limitation. If you really want to write, and you are not some kind of insane prodigy, you need to find some grain of that belief in yourself. You need to summon up in yourself that kid who intuitively realizes every moment is singular and every moment is a new chance. It’s really the only thing that will work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
By chance, I was watching this PBS program with Jason Alexander on craft last night, and so much of what he was saying about acting could easily be translated to writing. He said that very often young actors are applauded for being able to access and draw from some purely emotional place in order to play a part, which is all to the good, but ultimately that kind of instinctual work can only carry you so far. If you don’t have a practical understanding of how to get from A to B and B to C, then you’re simply relying on a feeling, and feelings are fleeting and mercurial and dependent on circumstance. This really resonated with me with respect to the differences in writing poetry and writing prose. Which is not to say that one doesn’t need to have a solid understanding of the mechanics of poetry to write good poetry—one absolutely does—but the writing of poetry and fiction require very different muscles and very different disciplines. The impulse for writing a poem is usually grounded—for me, at least—in something emotional—a triggering set of words, an image that resonates outward—and there is a real sense of purity to being able to capture that impulse relatively quickly, perhaps in one or two sittings. (Eileen Myles says that poets are people with short attention spans who have decided to study that short attention span, and in contemporary poetry that may well be true.) But anything longer than a page or two is going to require that you come out of that state and return to it, again and again. If you can’t find your way back, if you’re just sitting around waiting for that same impulse to strike again, you’re in trouble.
Writing fiction has taught me to write from a different, more intentional place. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me in very new ways. For one thing, I have to invent people who are not me and do the work of off-the-page planning: building complex characters, making decisions and being committed to those decisions, replotting my course when I find it no longer works, etc.
My decision to write critical reviews was a pragmatic one too. Essentially I came to the point where I had to confront the fact that, as a poet, I was not writing the power discourse of our time. I decided I had to at least push myself to do two genres—poetry and criticism—well, especially since, at that time, I felt I could not write fiction, that I was really terrible at it. Also, I liked the idea of following in the tradition of the poet/art critic as practiced by O’Hara, Ashbery, John Yau, and others.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I try to write every day, even if it’s not 5oo words like Hemingway. But it’s important for me to be doing something for my writing everyday—whether that be write down a few lines of poetry, work out a plotline in my head, jot down story ideas, research a topic I will use in a story, or read.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Recently I’ve been going back to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? The George Saunders’ story “Tenth of December,” which was recently in the New Yorker has been helpful too. He is so brilliant at capturing a child’s imaginative life in it. I also read an amazing piece of historical fiction, Michael Dahlie’s “The Pharmacist from Jena,” recently in Harper’s. It was so bold and fearless in all its narrative decisions, and I always admire someone who can convincingly conjure up an era they never lived in.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Everything my mom cooks. If I also take this question to mean, what are your favorite fragrances, then: chlorine, jasmine tea, paint thinner, sea air, snow, and Christmas trees.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Many of the poems in XING were inspired by visual art and film, which includes Diane Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Jean Cocteau, and Andrei Tarkovsky. I once wrote a series of poems to be read alongside the scores of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. They were inspired by the unconventional notes on playing in his scores. But I took them out of XING because they didn’t go with the other poems in the book.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Mayakovsky, Rimbaud, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, John Ashbery, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Wallace Stevens, John Berger, Joan Didion, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates.
And Harper’s magazine.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Turkey, Greece, Africa. Write a novel. Drive across the country, doing a Stephen Shore-esque photographic documentation. Curate an art exhibition. Live in the desert. Have a family.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I don’t think I am well-suited to any other occupation, really, but I do think I have a good eye for art and design. It would have been nice to be a practitioner. I write about art, because that’s the closest I can get as a non-maker.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I was sixteen, I got into the NJ Governor’s School for the Arts for creative writing. It was, in short, the luckiest, most amazing month of my life up until that point. One of our teachers would send us off to corners of the building to write and then we’d return and read to everyone else what we’d written. I couldn’t believe I was being given permission to do the one thing I wanted to do, and even crazier than that, the state was funding my ability to do it. That was the summer I first read Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, and Pam Houston (thank you, Ben Schrank!). Our teachers showed us Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It was a ball, and even more than that, it was a real education. (I was very dismayed to discover that the program no longer exists. There’s one for science, but I think that may be it.)
Despite all this, I still didn’t believe that being a writer was a thing you could actually set out to do. I tried to escape the fate of becoming an English major by studying pre-med, but all my attempts were eventually overtaken by my natural predisposition toward the written word. (Also, I broke a lot of glassware in my chemistry classes and bombed my finals.)
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Fiction: My friend Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, which the New York Times voted as one of the top five novels of 2011. Poetry: Monica Youn’s Ignatz. Gorgeously tight, inventive, and astonishing poems based on George Herriman’s comic strip characters, Ignatz Mouse and Krazy Kat. Nonfiction: Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Story, about losing her husband Raymond Smith.
I recently saw “Pina” in 3D at BAM, a tribute to the late choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch. I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of her before or seen her work, but all the pieces in it were brilliant and the film itself amounted to a very succinct, and moving, introduction. Bausch used such simple, almost elemental movements in her work—falling down or balancing branches on one’s arms or crawling into the small space beneath a chair—that the line between dance and life became blurred and negligible. The filmmakers capitalized on this lack of distinction by staging the dances in the world—on street corners, beneath trams—and that juxtaposition of the everyday context with the elevated gesture foregrounded the humanity of the dancing even more.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on fiction and a second book of poems right now. We’ll see how it goes.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;