Mia You was born in Seoul, South Korea; grew up in Northern California; and currently lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She is completing her PhD in English at UC Berkeley, and she recently quit her job at Poetry International Rotterdam. With Chloe Garcia Roberts, she is the founder/editor of A. BRADSTREET (which publishes reviews, essays and interviews related to poetry and motherhood). She is also a contributing editor at The Critical Flame and Perdu, a literary podium in Amsterdam. Her poetry has been published as a chapbook, Objective Practice (Achiote Press), and is forthcoming as a book, I, Too, Dislike It (1913 Press).
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I was incredibly spoiled by publishing my chapbook with Achiote Press. There is a welcoming community at UC Berkeley for PhD students who want to write poetry. During my first semester, I took a poetry workshop with Lyn Hejinian – my classmates included Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Hillary Gravendyk, Megan Pugh, Charles Legere, Javier Huerta, Jennifer Reimer. Lisa Robertson was the visiting Holloway professor, and she also participated. Jasper Bernes wasn’t in the workshop, but he was one of the first people I met and exchanged poems with in my department.
At the time, Jennifer Reimer was editing Achiote Press with Craig Santos Perez, and after a reading (where I opened for Bob Perelman), they approached me about publishing a chapbook. I mean, could anyone have been luckier than me?
But then years went by. I moved away. I didn’t write. I became a mother. More years. Still there was this chapbook. I had that. There was a time I was a poet, when a press thought I was worth publishing. I started lurking around Harvard events, where no one really cared to talk with me unless I mentioned my partner was a professor. But I did meet Chloe Garcia Roberts. Chloe knew Craig, Craig had even sent Chloe my chapbook, Chloe also just had a baby, and sometimes friends happen like miracles. Chloe suggested I write reviews and start translating again. She signed me up for a Zoland Poetry review and a weekly translation group. I started writing again. Whenever I had a few hours of childcare, I snuck into the library of Harvard’s education school, where I knew no one, and instead of writing my dissertation, I wrote poems.
It was a tremendous gift, what Craig and Jenn had given me, and what all these poets – Chloe and Lyn, of course, but also Hillary, Megan, Jasper – had given me. A steadfast anchor. A “yes!” A “you are one of us, of course you are.” It’s what Sandra Doller of 1913 Press gave me, when she wrote, “I'm truly haunted – in a great way – by yr work!” And now what I see that my five-year-old son – who loves nothing more than sitting with me thinking up rhymes, playing with words – gives me.
It’s not a publication that makes me a poet, but the people that have said to me, “you are many things, but still you are one of us, of course you are.” My new book of poetry is about poetry. (Yeah, sorry!) It’s about why I need it. There’s a lot of struggle and loneliness in the book, but I hope it ends with this gratitude.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had a series of teachers (from elementary school onward) who loved poetry and made me read more poetry. I had a second grade teacher named Mrs. Jenkins who recommended me for a special poetry workshop. I wrote my first poem there after learning about alliteration, all about amazing aardvarks. Then there was Pat Keplinger in middle school; Nan Cohen and Eavan Boland at Stanford; Lyn Hejinan at Berkeley. All those people I mentioned for question #1.
I did once apply for an intermediate fiction writing class with Tobias Wolff at Stanford and was rejected. Not even on the waitlist! The now-famous Korean rapper Tablo (then known as Dan Lee) got into that class. So I can’t blame Tobias Wolff for not seeing my star potential.
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?
Becoming a mother made me a believer of drafts. I jot down notes everywhere, anytime something strikes me, and I usually lose them. But still, I’ve come to realize that whenever I have an idea, I need to write it down, in the pockets of time and possibility I have.
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?
Short pieces make me anxious. My life motto comes from Gertrude Stein: “Successions of words are so agreeable.” Everything is a project, or a book, or a series, or a life...
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I spend a full day wanting to throw up before a reading. I go to the bathroom every five minutes. But still, I think readings are necessary, a gift, and should be developed in the same way a piece of writing is. It’s a performance. It’s an art form. It’s a mode of sociability. There are all these people here, in this space, to see me. I tell myself, “Wear something nice, try to be interesting, and make your writing something it couldn’t be on the page.”
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?
“Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?”
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer: everything. Everything is spectacle. The producer and interpreter of spectacle: writers. I sound like some crazy dude standing on a bucket on a Berkeley street corner. Crazy dudes aren’t always wrong. The writer should make us face what’s illegible.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Not difficult. You can always ignore your editor, and if you really can’t, then you can pull your piece, right? It’s not worth publishing something if you’re not going to believe in it. But often I need someone else’s help to create something I believe in. The difficulty, really, is finding someone who wants to be that editor!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“When someone tells you who they are, believe them,” told to me by Benjamin Moser, quoting Maya Angelou.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m the kind of person that if you say, “You are this or that,” I get uncomfortable and need to prove you wrong. I want to belong, but not to anything. I grew up within two cultures, two languages, and now live amidst a third. I know that what “I” means changes between all of them. Moving between genres is natural, even necessary.
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?
You have a toddler, so you’ll understand: I tend to write late at night, sitting on my sofa. There’s some wine involved. A typical day for me doesn’t begin very eagerly.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wet fur. Belonging to a dog or children.
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?
At the moment I’m becoming interested in dance and architecture. I know nothing about them. But I’m interested in how systems of signification arise from and contain different bodies, and how poetic language participates in this, so I want to know more.
I’m a student of modernism, and what I appreciate about it is the explicit imperative to think about how aesthetics play out across differing media and art forms.
But I think the most important form influencing my writing is the collective, the group. I’ve been involved in this volunteer-run literary podium in Amsterdam, Perdu, for the past year. As an editor, you have to conceptualize programs, invite performers, clean the toilets, count the money, serve drinks at the bar. It takes a lot of teamwork. I’m also part of a reading group, based at the art space Casco in Utrecht, on revolutionary feminism. These interactions and conversations have been influencing me a lot. I’m not being idealistic here: it’s been difficult too. I’m still an outsider, an American, a Korean, etc. But the challenges and conflicts are meaningful. I’m less interested in what I/we produce than how we do it.
I’m a feminist who is part of a family – as a mother and a wife. Maybe this is why I’ve started to see the structure of a group as a kind of medium or art form, or at least as a space with the potential for innovation and experimentation.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Hugo van der Velden, author of The Donor’s Image: Gerard Loyet and the Votive Portraits of Charles the Bold.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to sew a button.
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 would have enjoyed being a film editor. I once took an introductory video-making class and learned to use Final Cut Pro. I didn’t like filming stuff, but I loved the editing. There is something very satisfying about joining scenes, slicing off milliseconds, all in pursuit of the perfect rhythm.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
During my first week of college (Stanford, 1998), I walked out of my dorm and saw some people sitting at a table, which had a sign taped onto it: “Work for Google.” And my only thought was, “Hey, they’re giving out free pencils!”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Film: Frozen, which is on play at our house at least twice a week.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Everything I’m working on right now is collaboration. With Lyn Hejinian, I’ve been taking monthly, vicarious, transcontinental 15-minute walks for the past year – timed on the hour, at each hour – and exchanging our accounts.
I’m also creating an international “book of contracts” with Maarten van der Graaff – a multilingual anthology/art book filled with writers we admire. Do you want to write a contract for us?
The Dutch artist Elena Beelaerts and I are great friends, we’re both mothers, and we decided we should collaborate. At the moment we’re kind of dancing around each other, pursuing our own projects but looking for intersections. She has been making these exquisite and uncanny drawings of quotidian objects. I’ve been working on a text about pregnancy, passivity, personhood, and I’m in a rut. The things I encounter about how the bodies of pregnant women and new mothers, particularly of women of color and working class women, are treated in America – by our medical system, our insufficient laws, the hate speech of our politicians – is more absurd and gruesome than anything figured by Bosch. Elena’s work is always complex and imaginative, but it is also often light, funny, controlled. I think her “voice” will be my way out.