Building the book & avoiding the unavoidable: An interview with Melody Gee

BY KENNY TANEMURA

Melody-GEE-150x150 (1)Melody S. Gee’s first poetry collection Each Crumbling House (a review of which can be found here) won the 2010 Perugia Press Book Prize. Her poems and essays are published or forthcoming in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, Southern California Review, Dogwood, Packingtown Review, Alligator Juniper, The Greensboro Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Washington Square Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. A Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the Robert Watson Literary Prize for poetry, and a 2008 Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat fellow, she currently teaches writing at Southwestern Illinois College and lives with her husband in St. Louis.

Sycamore: Were you wary about approaching first generation Asian American experiences in your poetry, since so much has been made about Asian American poetry moving away from those themes?

Gee: Once I thought I had something publishable, I was a bit wary, and I still can feel self-conscious about writing about my “otherness.”  I was afraid of turning it into a commodity, of being too narrowly labeled, and getting trapped into writing only about certain themes.  But, in a way, every first book is about childhood—that first writing in which we try to understand ourselves, in which we wrestle with memory and nostalgia—and everybody writes about their neighborhood and their grandmother.  My childhood happens to be defined in large part by being an Asian American with immigrant parents.  In all those years before I ever had a book, writing about my life never felt like keeping to or straying from a theme.

A friend told me once that every writer has to write her way into herself.  I found much consolation in that thought, since I certainly had to write my way through immigration and assimilation poems, and into poems about love, marriage, motherhood, and how I define myself in other non-racial ways.  I had to write my parents’ stories before I could write my own.

I don’t think Asian American poetry can ever truly move away from such themes—as long as there are immigrants and first-generation children, I think our experiences will continue to be marked by culture and language divides, the pain of education, racial and ethnic conflicts, citizenship, the question of where one’s home is.  But, American demographics are changing fast, so perhaps soon first generation experiences will shift away from these themes.

Sycamore: There are three poems titled “Paper Sons.” Are there Paper Sons in your family and what do they mean to you and your work? (Note: Paper Sons were young Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. prior to 1944 and claimed to be the sons of citizens, but were actually only sons on paper. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, pretending to be a son of a citizen was one of the few ways to gain entry to the U.S. These boys were rigorously interrogated to determine if they were the true sons of citizens.)

Gee: My paternal grandfather was a paper son, and I heard his story only a handful of times while growing up.  Unlike other family stories that fused into my childhood mythology with so many retellings, this one was told with hesitation, a little regret and even shame, so it remained someone else’s story and never became mine.  It was far from a mark of pride for my family that he was forced to come to America alone at such a young age, and that he lost his name in the process.  Much of who he became—rather stern, gruff, emotionally distant—was attributed to those early experiences.  But he was the center of my father’s family, and the beginning of our story.

Sycamore: Some of your poems are notably Asian American, while others are less specific, more lyric and meditative. How did you strike a balance between these two different kinds of poems while you were deciding which poems to include in your book, and what order you were going to put them in?

Gee: Finding that balance ended up being a big problem in my MA thesis.  I had poems grouped tightly by categories—the immigration poems; the mother-daughter poems; the travel poems; the love poems—and so my project felt very choppy.  Once the book manuscript filled out, 5 years after graduating, I found myself still stuck with these “chapters” that never added up to anything.  A friend read my manuscript just before I sent it out in 2009, and suggested I make the book a series of thematic “waves” to avoid such categorical distinctions that would end up feeling jarring and artificial.  She advised that the book be held together by the writer’s eye, not the poems’ subjects.  So, a poem about immigration, one about ancestors, and one about long distance relationships became one wave.  Another wave was made up of poems that used fruit to explore ancestors, the body, and seasons.  The book then clearly worked in 2 sections–the first one about leaving home, the second about trying to return, even though these were rarely the actual topics of poems.  I was surprised to see how well poems about disparate parts of my life held together, perhaps because all along I was reaching for or asking about the same things.

Sycamore: Were you conscious of setting out to write a book of poems early on? Or did you just write and wait until later to figure out the shape of the book?

Gee: Definitely the latter.  I had a vague sense that I wanted to write a book—I applied for an MA in creative writing thinking that’s how one did this—but it was a distant notion, kind of like the distant notion of wanting to “be a writer.”  I didn’t have a very good vision of a project; I just focused on individual poems.  And my thesis project felt all wrong, like a rushed together hodge-podge of different styles I was testing out.  It felt like a yearbook of all the poetic personalities and workshop exercises I was trying on, looking for one that fit—or that at least met someone’s approval.  But I had to have a book-length manuscript, so I put one together that was really disjointed, and suffocatingly grouped by theme, so each of the three sections were really their own chapbooks, not part of a larger work.  So, I got a bad taste for the book project.  After I dismantled the project, I told myself I would just write until I had 50 poems, and see if there was a book.

Now, I’m working on new poems without thinking about a larger project.  I guess after all this time, I’ve learned that I like to write this way.  And there’s no pressure on me to “finish the book,” because I’m just writing poems.  Now that I have about a dozen poems drafted, I can see the common ideas I return to, which reassures me that they might all hang together in the future.

Sycamore: How long did it take you to write “Each Crumbling House”? Was each poem written with an eye toward linking them thematically?

Gee: All in all, about 10 years, two of which I spent in an MA program in poetry.  I didn’t come out of my program with a publishable manuscript, and I had never built a book before, so I didn’t know how to have an eye toward thematic links.  I’d say about half the poems from that project stayed and got revised, and the other half got tossed or cannibalized into new stuff.  It was a relief and a nightmare to start writing after graduate school.  It took me two years to publish my first poem after graduating.  I floundered without the feedback and advice (and, let’s be honest, the affirmation).  I didn’t know how to write without a group of voices around me.  And I couldn’t see that work my peers had liked was just not very good.  So the best thing for me was those two frustrating years in which I learned to figure out when I thought a poem was done, what I wanted it to be about, and whether I thought it was saying anything worth reading. I still like workshopping with friends, but now it’s a pleasure rather than a crutch.

Sycamore: Your book strikes a fine balance between specificity and eclecticism. What advice would you give to a young poet who is trying to put a collection of poems together? How do you know when a collection of poems clicks as a book, rather than just a hodgepodge of poems?

Gee: Most book advice involves platitudes and vagaries like, “It will just feel right!” and “Wait until the book tells you it’s ready!”  Though instinct shouldn’t be entirely discounted, more concretely I might suggest looking for an arc in the work, and a distinct, singular voice with enough variation to be interesting.  A good test might involve being able to say, “these poems are trying to…” and finishing the thought with a statement that can speak to others and for the work as a unit. Or, perhaps, “these poems are searching for…” can be a good measure of an arc.  Books I strive to emulate don’t have a central driving theme so much as a driving desire, which the individual poems explore in surprising ways.  The Great Fires is searching to understand love after the death of a spouse—even in the poems about an anonymous fisherman, Gilbert is always asking himself and us, “how do we know love exists or ever existed, once a person is gone?”  One paradox that works, I suppose, is a book that approaches the same thing in different ways.

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kenny-150x150Kenny Tanemura lives and writes on the West Coast.