An Interview with Poet Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo’um (Hanging Loose Press, 2002), Dance Dance Revolution (Norton, 2007, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize), and Engine Empire (Norton, 2012). She is also the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. An Associate Professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a faculty member at the Queens MFA Program in Charlotte, North Carolina, she has been published in Harvard Review, Poetry, Paris Review, McSweeney’s, A Public Space, Boston Review, The Nation, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Cathy Park Hong will speak as part of the Visiting Writers Series at 8 pm on October 9th in the Butler Board Room.
CA: Talk to me a bit about how the titles of your books are working in terms of craft. Engine Empire, for example, is visually, alliteratively, and syntactically parallel. It seems, perhaps, like the vowels in this collection are the engine in your grand empire of words.
CPH: I actually had a devil of a time finding a title for this book. My trick is that I steal titles like the way I stole Dance Dance Revolution from a video game. Engine Empire is a riff on John Crowley’s Sci-Fi novel “Engine Summer,” a brilliant, sad, and dreamy novel about utopias. I definitely wanted “engine” in the title, because the book is “engined” by all kinds of engines, from search engines to steam engines to poetic engines like sonnets and abecedaria. And Empire worked beautifully since both words are bookended nicely by a short E and a silent E.
CA: In your “Bowietown Ballads,” such as “Ballad of Burial and the Effigy of Vengeance,” you personify vengeance by making vengeance’s effigy an actual person who dies a most gruesome death. Typically, an effigy is a crude manmade figure representing an actual person, like a deposed dictator. But you turn that concept on its head by making the effigy into a human body. Who or what has influenced this in your writing?
CPH: If you mean who’s influenced my take on the Western, I would say all the American classics like the works of Cooper, Twain, McMurtry, Faulkner, McCarthy, and, of course, most definitely Sergio Leone. I loved your observation about the effigy image. To make an effigy involves such a blood thirst—you’re yearning for so much vengeance, you need a surrogate to sate your yearning. Of course, in this case, the body is the effigy, the warning. I was also trying to upend readerly expectations of realism by pulling up the “Western” skirt to expose the scaffolding as well. The Western is a parable, a myth, manipulated and exploited and meddled with, and it’s a perfect vehicle for revenge fantasies. Jim’s vengeance, which is rather lone wolf and crazed, ends up being a failure, trammeled by the relentless pull towards the present. I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre of vengeance. Is vengeance or the catharsis derived from vengeance possible in real life? It can only happen in art. The only way we find catharsis is when we’re third party: when we’re voyeurs, watching the spectacle of a payback. Revenge is always a fantasy that has generated so much art, from Jacobean revenge tragedies to Tarantino movies, and we need it as a palliative since history has a poor record of settling grievances.
CA: I loved your sequence of “Adventures in Shangdu” prose poems. Did you write them in the order that they are featured in the book? What decisions about structure compel you?
CPH: There was a lot of reshuffling! I wanted Shangdu to open itself up in a slow reveal. I was using Marco Polo’s travel diaries as a model but really, I just mixed and matched to see which prose parts complemented each other. Of course, there’s also the subplot of a failed romance that also needed a little structuring. But is it even a failed romance? It’s more a Craigslist Missed Connection. I’m realizing that there are a lot of failures in the books—failed revenge plots, romances that don’t work out, failed job searches. The only time failure is sexy is when it’s a subject in art.
CA: There also seem to be hints of critiques of the dangers of corporate greed and totalitarian regimes like Mao Zedong’s China: “The contractors were in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world / so they rushed off before they finished building Highrise 88.” People commit suicide by jumping from an apartment with no walls. The contractors leave unfinished high rises without utilities, windows, and appliances. This implies themes of profit and greed – and dire consequences for the tenants. Also, the government snatches protesters from the streets, and executes people at will. Can you talk about the intention of these critiques?
CPH: That’s there, shadowing and threading through the poems, but I don’t want to say too much. There are some hard critiques in the poems, bundled in a webbing of squelchy indeterminacy that I prefer readers to discover for themselves.
CA: The speaker in “Of the Central Language Radio Headquarters” seems to be enamored with Rembrandt. Would he have stayed if the speaker had professed her love? Will we be seeing more of him in the future?
CPH: A great question that I’m going to leave up to you. But I will say that I thought of him as a bit oblivious and caddish. He is an artist, after all. I’m just kidding—I don’t think artists are caddish. My husband’s one—an artist that is, not a cad.
CA: In “The World Cloud,” you have snow sensors that are capable of reading people’s minds. You mention that noon translates to both snow and eye in Korean. Plus, we know that each snowflake is unique, just like every fingerprint is unique. I wonder if your idea regarding the smart snow came in part from the word noon and the correlation of snowflakes with fingerprints—the smart snow serving both as a fingerprint, in that it can identify any specific human, and serving also as an all-seeing eye?
CPH: I love your interpretation and I love that you caught the translation of noon. I was trying to find a poetic image that captured a fully embodied world of surveillance. The inspiration was pitifully literal: I was frustrated, writing a “recipe” poem for an artist friend, and there was a blizzard outside and the light bulb blinkered on. I thought of that Joyce quote about the snow falling upon all the living and the dead. I was interested in snow as an image of connection and what happens to individual consciousness in an era where there’s a burden of connectedness. In one of my poems, I use a line from Ashbery which says “the mind/Is so hospitable/taking in everything/like boarders.” Our “borders” have become “boarders,” eroding our privacy. Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” is reaching full capacity.
CA: It seems to me now that technology is everywhere, we are unable to escape its grasp, although we can still go camping in the woods and leave technology behind. However, in “The World Cloud,” this seems like an impossibility since technology is ubiquitous, to the point that it terrifies the mind: “the booming trade of information / exists without our paid labor / what to do with all this leisure / I blink at my orange trees / spangled with captions, / landscapes overlaid / with golden apps and speculation…” The only place without technology is dark and scary, as in “Fable of the Last Untouched Town.” There seems a terrifying message for readers in this. Is this a kind of warning?
CPH: I’m no Cassandra here. We’re in it right now so the warning would be rather belated. It deals with my own frustrations with our hyper connected world—some of the harms are benign, like being distracted and not getting your work done on time. Some of it’s perilous, like the recent NSA findings. And obviously, it’s all how you use technology. The fax machine helped connect protestors during Tiananmen Square, [the] Arab Spring was spurred by social networking, and flash mob texting mobilized countless protests in South Korea. But the US, with the exception of [the] Occupy [movement]? Scholar David Lyon talks about how when a panoptic regime is stringent and rigorous, it generates more of an active resistance, whereas if panoptic strategies are soft and subtle, it produces the desired, docile bodies. At least in America, I worry we’re becoming these soft and docile bodies; right now, on my Facebook, there is a stream of selfies while Congress just shut the government down. But I’m not on any perch: I’m taking selfies too. I wonder what kinks there will be in all this “dataveillance.” I’m been curious about where hacker culture is going to go, for instance. Maybe revolution will happen online.
CA: In Engine Empire, you ended with “And this is what I saw.” The ending enables the reader to understand the origins behind Engine Empire. We all know a poem has to both start and end strong. What advice would you give aspiring poets about how to finish a poem?
CPH: You finish the poem by resisting closure. You want to leave the poem irresolved, so your reader questions everything that she read before it, and has to go to the beginning and read your poem again. A poem should be read circularly, spirally, and repeatedly, and that’s not going to happen if you give away everything in the end or staple it shut with a pretty image. Leave it open-ended.
Steve Castro is the Managing Editor of Café Américain and a student in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Photo by Nancy Hong