Tuesday, December 06, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter/rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I think: "It has" and "It hasn't." After Noemi Press announced that they were going to publish Bone Confetti, I wrote about the weight of my gratitude here, which is that strange mixture of thanks, exhilaration, guilt, wariness, and weariness that comes with publishing as a writer of color. Since the announcement of the book's publication, I've had the opportunity to talk about and share my work in ways that I haven't previously. I spoke with Corinne Segal for PBS NewsHour here for instance, which is the first time I've discussed grief, politics, and queerness, as subjects of the book and my life, so intimately and publicly, knowing my family would read about it. I'm sure it would be possible to read the book and to treat the post-apocalyptic landscape of two doomed lovers as purely an imagined one without any autobiographical context. But to say it aloud, to offer up that context, I think, is not a disclaimer but an opening for the very intimate knowledge of grief and loss that have always felt like a box in my own life. This includes the failures of queer love and intimacy rituals all the way to the loss of my father to cancer. In my own life, I've never been one to look away from the wound and here, in this book, the wound is pointing back at me and everyone else. To read it, as either stranger or someone who loves me, is to gain some proximity to this grief and loss, to toggle back and forth between a strangeness and also familiarity of feeling. All the while, I'm thinking, what can a first book do? What can it accomplish? For me, it serves as an important conduit for necessary conversations and to lay bare the thing that has been desperate to speak all along.

Bone Confetti is a rendition of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth stuck in a broken record -- it's about two lovers who live and die and live and die again. It's about loss and how to reconcile grief when loss occurs in such rapidity. All of this to me is deeply intimate and political though I don't necessarily know if the individual poems of the project have always been regarded that way.

Perhaps what has changed since the book's publication is that I've become more hyper-vigilant about the politics of publishing, author autonomy, and that testy arena of "self-representation." There have been a lot of conversations with other writer friends about their first books and how they've found that the conversations that happen before and after publication have been just as important as the book itself. I find all of this valuable and I hope to carry their varied knowledge with me for a very long time.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first genre was actually fiction! When I was six, I wrote a picture book about a monarch butterfly searching for his monarch butterfly community. He kept stumbling upon other non-butterfly creatures. He even came across a really rude moth at one point. He would be so discouraged time after time. In the end, right when he was about to give up, he came across a fellow monarch butterfly and then another. Together, they migrated south. He was never alone from that day forward.

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?
I work best with specific prompts and constraints. It happens fast, usually, if I decide first on a formal constraint. Not very good with free writing and letting it evolve into something usable.

A lot of the poems in Bone Confetti came from the summer of 2014 when I returned from NYC to Baton Rouge after traveling for a month. That summer, I ended up pet-sitting and house-sitting for a good number of LSU English department folks. To break up the monotony, I challenged myself to write a poem a day with the goal to always finish before dinner time. I had a skeleton of a working manuscript at that point. I started to draft a list of poems I wanted to write to fill in the flesh of the manuscript -- a prayer poem, a poem about a ghost factory, a poem to keep an inventory of all things, etc. It gave a sense of directive to daily writing, which is always what I needed.

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?
Truong Tran once said to write towards the book and not the single poem. Since that advice, I've been writing towards the book. I think of the world I want to build and then I think of a box that can hold it. I write towards it, filling it as best I can.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They aren't, admittedly, in terms of what I consider the production part of the creative process. However, I do think community building is an essential part of the creative process and readings are one part of it. For the most part, I do enjoy readings -- doing them and attending -- but I'm also aware that a lot of the times, readings aren't the most inclusive spaces. They can also feel transactional and business-like. I'd love for them to feel more open and inviting. At this point, I'm excited to see how writers and performers are taking back this space and playing with expectations of how to experience a reading other than to sit still for two hours. 

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?
I want to know about affect, what lies beyond the most immediate feeling to explore its ripples. I'm interested particularly in feelings of discomfort and other undesirable upsets in our body spanning panic to grief. I try to name them and their shapes under particular moments of pressure and to examine why this urgency for definition must arise. The study of affect, I always feel, is a way of exploring the sediments of race, gender, sexuality, and other identity politics in such a way that it compels us to look closer at the myriad parts of these social identities, which can feel so removed at times but so deeply intimate all at once. I like to ask myself: Where do you feel pain today? Where does the body go from here? Who are your ghosts and where are they traveling?

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?
I have many thoughts about this, but the largely contested belief that I hold onto is that the writer must be socially engaged and responsible. I think writers who proclaim "art for art's sake" dismiss their work from a larger social context. It usually means the creation of art for purely the purpose of provocation, which is a very diminishing purpose that inevitably trivializes other significant works of art that converse with the larger social fabric of the world. It feels like a destructive act. It's solipsistic and creates sway only through the enactment of violence by an influential artist body (an act of privilege). It reifies the proprietary quality of art-making that I resist, a quality that insists that one must accept the violence the art perpetuates in order to be a full participant in the art world. I'm sorry, but fuck that.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I've had only positive experiences working with editors thus far, but I count myself very lucky. Most of my relationships with editors have been very collaborative. When editors have returned my work to me with notes, it always feels like a conversation that understands the rules of consent, and I always feel listened to and challenged thoughtfully. Perhaps a lot of this attitude is informed by being an editor myself. I believe a lot in writer autonomy and offer edits only as suggestions that I take care to explain. I recognize that sharing one's work with an editor is a highly vulnerable process no matter the stage of one's writing career, new or more established. I believe in being compassionate when someone no longer feels comfortable publishing one part of their work or decides to alter their direction completely. I try to offer a compromise when those situations arise, and when it doesn't work out, I still believe in supporting that writer's work even if it doesn't culminate in publication through a project I'm involved in.

I owe a lot of my education as an editor to Joey De Jesus, my dear co-editor of poetry at Apogee Journal. Figuring out how to be both a writer and editor takes a lot of trying and messing up from time to time, but eventually I did forge my own ethics. Joey has always given me space to develop my voice in that way and for that, I'm so thankful.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Grace Lee Boggs, an Asian American activist who has been a fundamental part of my politicization once said, "We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously." I think it's very easy to be politically apathetic or to dismiss the important role one can play in social change in the world. What Boggs proposes is that we see these small, localized actions as a part of a larger effort towards change. I believe in how big these small acts can be, how they alter us in terms of how we relate to the world, and how such labor towards community building can connect to larger, systemic change.

10 - 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 have absolutely no writing routine. I leave my computer on as it overheats and write a little bit throughout the day, peppering in time to cook, clean, and wash my underwear. I typically "finish" a piece of writing at night, perhaps by default when the body and mind is worked to exhaustion. I can't stand wasted time so the idea of sitting in front of my computer with extended periods of silence and non-typing make me antsy. It's a different sort of discipline, I think, than those who are able to sit still for long periods of time and produce accordingly to those hours. I give myself deadlines, but the process of getting there is almost always a bit haphazard.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Perhaps this is aligned with my haphazard and scattered way of writing -- I keep inventory of my favorite essays and articles online through an app called Pocket. Throughout the course of one week, I would have amassed a dozen unread essays and articles that I would pour through when I'm feeling stalled in my writing. It helps that the articles and essays range from scientific ones discussing water molecules as carriers of memory to how the film, The Battle of Algiers has been used as part of counterinsurgency education by different military groups. In a way, they're all relevant and present an interesting challenge to see how this assortment of content can be collaged either consciously or subconsciously into my writing.

I also used to hula hoop and wouldn't allow myself to get back to the writing until I beat my previous time.  

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of hot oil. Scallions. Ginger. One of my favorite foods is steamed bass cooked with ginger and scallions and then doused with hot oil and soy sauce. My mother knows this and makes it for me every time I visit her in NYC. I don't know how she does it, but she also makes it just right.

13 - 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?
It seems only natural that we would draw from different genres and forms just as we would pull from different banks of memory or ways of contending with language. For Bone Confetti, myths, folklore, and iterations of ghosts are heavy influences. The post-apocalyptic setting of the book also draws from a whole array of genres such as science fiction and video games that contend with world building.

Artists like Ana Mendieta and Agnes Varda -- their works with silhouettes (residue and erasure) and acts of creative "gleaning," respectively, have also challenged the way I thought about process, making, and political intention. I write often too about Wong Kar Wai, a director whose films are deeply sentimental to me because they are a conduit between one imagination of Hong Kong and my mother's memory of the city.

I'm also invested in trauma and affect studies with particular interest in intergenerational inheritances of trauma and how residues of conflict persist after historical violence. And yes, I'm interested in feelings.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is going to be quite a list. I love writers across different fields and genres. Of creative writers who move into critical spaces in thoughtfully inventive ways, I love Claudia Rankine, Bhanu Kapil, Cathy Park Hong, and Maggie Nelson. I'm still very much in love with Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, my first and forever. Also Lydia Davis. Of theoretical writing, most definitely Sara Ahmed, Mimi T. Nguyen, Trinh T. Minh-ha, José Esteban Muñoz, Edouard Glissant, Avery Gordon, and so much more.

I would also like to say that the poets who have been published through Apogee Journal have left deep impressions on my life and work. Fatimah Asghar's "9 of Disks" still floors me with grief with every read. Saretta Morgan's "From Auto Index" is so visually and textually subversive; she is also just an absolutely brilliant soul as well. Cathy Linh Che, with the quiet and powerful disturbance of her poem "I still cannot dress attractively without feeling that I am endangering myself," which rocks you with urgency. Jennifer Tamayo's "Guatavita, La Dorada" -- I still go back to every now and then and adorn my heart with its call for liberation. I wish I had the space to write on each one! But I hope you read them.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to swim. Successfully.

16 - 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?
A botanist.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In times when it felt like everything hurt, writing felt the closest thing to balm.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just finished Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal, which gutted me in the best way. The last film I watched was Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It was not great.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Currently, I'm at work on a new project, a hybrid genre revision of "The Little Red Riding Hood" fairytale featuring a half wolf and half girl protagonist. I've been toying with different iterations of the poetic essay, which at this point has played with incorporation of watercolor illustrations and memoir. I'm interested in where the real and the fantastical collide and become one and the same. I'm excited by this project, particularly because it's in its initial unwieldy phase -- this uncertain stage is my favorite part.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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