Arlene Kim’s first book of poems, “What Have You Done To Our Ears To Make Us Hear Echoes?” is a wide-ranging collection that includes sonnets, prose poems, free verse, and a poem constructed through a cowmputer program. At its heart, the book focuses on stories: how and why we tell them to each other and ourselves. Kim incorporates characters and narratives from seemingly disparate sources (Grimm’s fairy tales, Greek mythology, Korean fables, and Biblical stories), but it soon becomes obvious how similar these culturally diverse tales really are.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Arlene Kim about these stories and how her book came to tell its own tale.
Arlene Kim: The book came out of this fixation I had with literary echoes — the passing down and repeating of stories, the confusion of voices. Echoing is how we learn to talk, to write. But writers are in this vulnerable position of being influenced by other writers and also potentially contaminated, hijacked. So the book is partly about what it’s like to find your voice as a writer. It’s similar to how immigrants find theirs — how they copy the sounds of a new language while mixing in the old one until a new, hybrid voice emerges. I want to reflect that, but I don’t want to get pegged only as an “immigrant” or “Korean American” writer. Instead, I hope the poems convey how our varied histories keep echoing through us as our identities shift.
IE: One thing that fairy tales often have in common is children behaving badly, as you mention in your poem “Tiger-Brother” (Dear/ naughty children, there is no negotiating, no/ escape by riddle.) But very often the parents in the stories are just as naughty! For example, in “Hansel & Gretel” the children’s stepmother concocts a plan to abandon them in the woods.
AK: Yes, there’s so much wrongness and brokenness in those stories! Stories of migration and exile also start with something being wrong. If you have to leave home, it’s often because there’s violence, war, famine. What a weird place to start a story — walking out on trouble! I think that’s why folk tales attracted me. They stand in for all the missing beginnings.
There’s something of the trans — as in transgression, transportation, connecting, crossing — in the nature of language. It’s naughty, too! It also starts from a point of brokenness and fragmentation; it always needs putting together. I wanted to figure out ways not to go wrong. So I started playing around with poetic forms: syllabics, made-up rhyme schemes, using the Markov text program to create patterns. Then I’d go completely the other way — I’d free up a poem in prose form to see if it behaved. I was surprised at how comforted I was by numbers — their stability and basic-ness. The alphabet can be like that, but counting really gave me a sense of order and correctness.
IE: Let’s talk a little bit more about poetic forms. I write sonnets, so I was very interested in your “fallen sonnet” which is based on the true story of a horse that keeps losing races.
AK: When writing that, I had Eadweard Muybridge in mind. Muybridge was an English photographer hired to investigate whether all four of a horse’s hooves lifted off the ground at the same time when galloping. He was interested in how things move. For a horse, moving is about gradually lifting all of its hooves at once, but it’s also about coming back down from that impossibly levitated state — in other words, about how it falls. And falling is just another way of moving.
The thing about writing sonnets is that you’re under Shakespeare’s shadow all the time. You’re destined to fail, to fall. No one beats Shakespeare. But literary history is so duty-laden; you have to try. Making up a form that embraced the fall was my only way out.
IE: You describe “Translation Plundered” as an echo translation of Anna Akhmatova’s “Everything is Plundered …” How did you write that poem?
AK: First, I listened to Akhmatova’s poem in Russian and did a “sound translation” of it. Then I listened to English translations by Stanley Kunitz and Judith Hemschemeyer, and I rewrote my lines in response to each of those. I’m fascinated by the process of translation. When do you translate literally vs. poetically? How do you translate for a specific audience or cultural aesthetic?
As poets, we are all really just translating again and again from the same language, from similar stories and experiences and ideas.
I wrote that poem after realizing that for lots of my friends and family — who don’t read much poetry — reading my book was like my hearing Akhmatova in Russian! Things sound familiar but you don’t really get it. It’s like having a conversation in a noisy place. If you can anticipate what the other person is going to say, you can “hear” them even when you can’t hear them. But if you can’t predict, if what they’re saying is unexpected — and good poetry should surprise you with language — then you have to work to understand even simple things, you have to let go your expectations and really listen.
The space between not understanding and completely understanding is wafer-thin. Language is very fragile in that way.
Seattle poet Arlene Kim shares a reading with Portland poet Emily Kendal Frey at Open Books on Friday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. Open Books is located at 2414 N. 45th St. in Wallingford. Call (206) 633-0811or go to www.openpoetrybooks.com for more information.