“She smells of soil, of moss and snails under a canopy/dripping with mist. Her teeth in front are black/like cinder, her fingers/are fat as cigar stubs. With one hand she unfurls/concentric circles in the air.” Thus begins “Mme.”, a sorcery-laden poem by Kim-An Lieberman who says she strove to “capture a particular image and mood, using a character portrait of an elderly woman as the central element.”
This poem and many others in the debut collection “Breaking the Map“ explore themes relating to myth, life experiences and the poet’s Vietnamese American roots. Divided into four sections, the poems carry a narrative arc although each was composed to stand on its own and have been published individually in literary journals such as “The Threepenny Review” and “Asian Pacific American Journal.” In the medium of poetry, every word carries weight and meaning, even in titles such as “Gingham” for a poem about childhood play and “Saigon Motorbike Thief” which evokes memories from a distant place.
Lieberman describes herself as a “mixed-race Amerasian… growing up in a bilingual, bicultural home which shaped [her] basic understanding of the world.” While the poet favors prose-like stanzas for more structured forms that may utilize rhyme and meter, Lieberman does employ the Vietnamese “ca-dao”— “a genre of popular Vietnamese poems that stems from oral tradition, a sort of cross between folk song and nursery rhyme”— which she learned from songs her mother and grandmother sang to her. The ca-dao comprises a fixed form of “luc-bat” or “6-8,” which is marked by an alternating syllabic count for every couplet with rhyme patterns and tonal emphasis. The subject matter typically reflects themes of agricultural life—nature, seasons, animals and folk proverbs. The first section of “Four Folksongs” is a translated version from this genre.
In describing the process of crafting a poem, Lieberman expresses attention to every word and nuance that requires extensive revision and editing. She admits that “it’s a slow process for me,” one that may take several months or even years depending on the piece. “I tend to write very deliberately, with careful attention to each word,” says the poet.
A long-time resident of Seattle, Lieberman received her Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley with a specialization on Vietnamese American literature. She currently teaches 9th-through 12th-grade English at the Lakeside School in Seattle and plans to teach an intensive poetry class for Lakeside’s summer program. On May. 21, Lieberman read selections from “Breaking the Map” as part of the Jack Straw Writers Program. Lieberman is one of twelve writers selected by a curator and her readings will be recorded live and broadcast through podcasts and on radio. “Poetry is a way for me to access more emotional and less logical truths. I appreciate a poem’s freedom to create phrases beyond grammatical rules, to puzzle with the structures of lines and stanzas, to explore the raw value of words as units of sound.
For more information on the Jack Straw Writers Program event, visit www.jackstraw.org..