When I first met Kimiko Hahn, she was teaching a revision workshop at the Palm Beach Poetry festival. Students sat in shorts and short sleeves, trying to save poems that misfired like broken engines. As we sweated and read aloud what we had written the night before, she taught us about how our brains might be writing perfectly—but tilting the wrong way.
We didn’t believe her until sure enough, someone re-read a poem that hadn’t worked until they spoke it line by line in reverse. “A writer can begin to unconsciously anticipate the ending of her poem, especially a neatly sealed off last line. That mindset undermines creativity and surprise. By reversing the order, you can turn that anticipation on its head,” she had said.
Hahn in her career has done a lot of turning drafts into gold. She is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Brain Fever (W. W. Norton, 2014), Toxic Flora (W. W. Norton, 2010), and The Unbearable Heart (1995), which received an American Book Award. In mid-October she will be reading her work at Elliott Bay Books and teaching Japanese forms at Richard Hugo House. In advance of that Seattle visit, I asked her questions about Asian American identity, writing, and advice for emerging writers.
Elizabeth Aoki: As the child of a Japanese American mother and a German American father, how did you navigate your Asian American identity? Did you know a lot about Japanese culture as a kid?
Kimiko Hahn: Until we lived in Japan for a year when I was nine, I didn’t speak any Japanese. Also, I found being “half Japanese” very confusing. In Tokyo, my life became saturated with Japanese culture. Which was a good thing.
Aoki: What happened when you returned to New York?
Hahn: In high school, under the influence of my city friends, I changed my name from Kim to Kimiko. This was after the well-known civil rights organizer changed her name from Mary Kochiyama—which is when I met that family—to Yuri Kochiyama.
This was an exhilarating time of claiming and shaping one’s identity, as an individual and within a larger community. My boyfriend, a Japanese American who was very involved in grass roots politics, invited me to meetings. He accepted me as Asian American although at the time, early ’70s, many others dismissed me as “part white” and therefore “tainted” in some way. Some Japanese nationals treated me with this kind of prejudice, too. But I was secure, given that I could speak Japanese better than the average Sansei; and I knew more about my Japanese roots than most. This was one of the few ways that an isolated suburban childhood paid off.
Aoki: Are there aspects of Japanese culture your mother passed down to you that you passed along to your daughters?
Hahn: I wished I had been able to teach them Japanese—but my college experiences (especially in graduate school) left me feeling humiliated when it came to speaking Japanese. Instead, I wanted to expose them to culture however it mattered in our daily life. So, when they were little, I sang children’s songs to them in Japanese. I read them folk tales in English. They both studied Japanese dance for a few years and thereafter participated in the O-Bon Festival. The lantern festival to commemorate one’s ancestors has become an emotional time for us to remember my mother, too.
Aoki: What made you choose to study classical Japanese forms? What do women writers from the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) have to teach writers today?
Hahn: It was the golden age for literature and the women were the predominant force. Isn’t that incredible! The reason: aristocratic men wrote in Chinese (as educated Westerners might write in Latin) while the differently-educated aristocrat women wrote in the vernacular, that is, Japanese.
The Japanese language is full of words with multiple meanings. From this I learned how ambiguity can act as a portal. In my collection Brain Fever, I have a little essay on this: how “toast” can in an instant refer to bread, champagne, killing someone, etc. I love that language can pull us out of a linear mindset and into this more spatial one. Japanese forms make use of words with multiple meanings.
Aoki: When I first saw the title, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” I honestly thought it was a sex book. (Note: it’s got juicy bits but not modern-day level juicy). What drew you to her writing throughout your career?
Hahn: She feels utterly available: her tone, her opinions, her comments! Everything feels tempered by her particular voice. I love how utterly subjective it is while being so artful that there are times I don’t “get” what she is writing and I’m okay with that. For example, why are duck eggs elegant?
Aoki: Your last few books of poetry drew inspiration in part from science articles and Brain Fever plays off of neuroscience. Why did you start writing science poems?
Hahn: I’ve been using outside sources for many years: black lung disease, Sandinista Triumph, premature burial, and so on. Diction attracts me first. Again, words that can act as a portal into other places, usually personal spaces. Also, the lives of insects, a bagworm for example, read like a Grimm’s fairy tale.
Aoki: What is the coolest fact you’ve learned after reading all that science?
Hahn: That people once thought that Saturn’s rings were Christ’s foreskin circling the planet!
Aoki: Your class at Richard Hugo House is called “Japanese Forms to Tilt the Western Mind.” Tilt is a very interesting use of phrase—say more about that.
Hahn: Yes, I wanted the sense of “rocking the boat.” How to get away from practices that are so foundational that we don’t even recognize them? That is one of my aims. To become aware, experiment, and have more options for creativity.
Kimiko Hahn and Elizabeth Aoki will be reading at Elliott Bay Books October 19 at 7:00 p.m. Students can sign up for Hahn’s Hugo House Intensive Workshop “Japanese Forms to Tilt the Western Mind” that runs October 20-24 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.