Paul Tran is the author of the debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, from Penguin in the US and the UK. Their work appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Harper's Bazaar, Good Morning America, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. A recipient of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, Paul is currently a Visiting Faculty in Poetry at Pacific University MFA in Writing and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Veronica Gonzales. Of the process, she said, “Paul Tran’s lyricism and storytelling in their collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, is one that will tug at your heartstrings and leave you breathless. To be a member of their audience for their poetry and for this interview was an absolute honor, and any and every word of Paul Tran’s is something that we can all carry with us forever.” In this interview, Paul Tran talks about the relationship between storytelling and survival, the Greek rhetorical figure of chiasmus, and being a part of the robotics team in high school.
Superstition Review: You originally started in slam poetry and have been greatly awarded in that specific area of poetry, being the first Asian American since 1993 and the first transgender poet to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam and placing in the Top 10 in the Individual World Poetry Slam and in the Top 2 in the National Poetry Slam. Since then, you have transitioned from spoken word to poetry that’s “for the page.” Can you discuss the difference in your writing process when approaching spoken word and poetry for the page?
Paul Tran: The “stage” and “page” require and enable different things. In terms of “stage,” the poet’s body is inextricable from their body of work. All their intersecting identities, visible and invisible, as well as what they wear or how they carry themselves, whether they rely on physical and vocal choreography, become part of the poem and its form. Since the experience is ephemeral, certain poetic strategies dominate because they allow the most immediacy: repetition, imagery, autobiographical particularity, direct interiority. The audience, watching and listening to the poem performed for them, must experience the poem in their own bodies, which means the poet must enact the poem using techniques that activate a physiological and cognitive response in the audience, such as modulating pitch, making eye contact, or curating what drag queens have called “a charismatic space.”
In terms of “page,” because the poet isn’t there to perform the poem for the reader, the body of the poem, or its form, becomes paramount. Form guides the reader in reading the poem, making the reader the poem’s performer. Helen Vendler, for example, has described a poem being a script for an actor, and Nate Marshall has described it as sheet music. The poetic line becomes a conduit for physical choreography. Rhyme and meter are conduits for vocal choreography. Since the experience isn’t ephemeral, and since it isn’t predicated on entertainment or competition, certain poetic strategies become available: language experimentation, the elliptical, ambiguity, lyric indirection. The reader, reading the poem aloud or in their mind, performing the poem to and for themselves, must also experience the poem in their own bodies, which means, despite the various admonishments against the consideration of “audience,” the poet must consider how a poem will be performed by another, how to exact and guarantee the exactitude of that experience.
For both “stage” and “page,” however, my goal is the same: to conduct a lyric investigation into the nature of an experience, to discover through the lyric something I didn’t know about that experience, and to make a poem that can be performed by myself and my reader—a poem that enables us both to conduct that same investigation and arrive at the same discovery, time after time. None of the poetic thinking or techniques in my work is ever accidental or decorative. They are deliberate and intentional, deployed to activate a response, to enact the emotional and psychological life of my subject matter, to make what I have witnessed real to both myself and another so that what I witnessed, and my own self, can’t be denied. This argument for realness, which is only achieved when I am able to successfully import my idiosyncratic interiority onto the page, is an argument for my humanity, my existence and thoughts and feelings, my version of events. I learned, growing up in poetry slam, how to use language to make people care, to show that I matter, that I deserve to be alive and believed. Now as a poet and teacher, I help my students use language to do exactly that.
SR: In an interview with Prairie Schooner, you talk about how poems can be used as primary source documents in history, and many poems in All the Flowers Kneeling reference your own personal and your family’s experience as Vietnamese refugees and the encounters of war, power, and US imperialism. How do you hope poetry as a medium in particular aids in bringing awareness to certain social issues and moments in history that are so often erased?
PT: The notion that poems are primary source documents shouldn’t be novel. They simply are. In fact, my first assignment as an undergraduate history major was to analyze Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, published in McClure Magazine in 1899. The poem, set in octets in trimeter, with a kind of ABAB rhyme scheme, mimics a lullaby designed to lull readers into supporting the Philippine-American War with its moral and sonic suasion. Theodore Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and later president, sent the poem to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, as an example par excellence of “the expansionist standpoint,” and both felt it would be useful in persuading anti-imperialists toward the enterprise of manifest destiny and white supremacy.
With that in mind, I make poems with the intent to record a more precise version of history, with my life and the lives of the people I love as the provenance of this history. I know I can never purge the archives and textbooks of poems like Kipling’s—and I wouldn’t want to, since there must be a record of their vile ideas and their equally vile actions. But I am determined to be part of generations constructing new archives, writing and editing new textbooks and anthologies that presage new ideas, more diverse and equitable and inclusive ideas, that allow for us to be more human, together and apart, across space and time.
Can poetry bring awareness to certain social issues and historical moments so often erased? They can if they have readers. They can if they make their readers care. How can a poem activate such a reaction? It does so through language, the patterning and arrangement of language, not unlike how Kipling did. I imagine, somewhere, he pulled the chair back from his desk and thought a poem so elementary and elemental in its form, the lullaby, would make his racist and imperialist agenda seem just as fundamental. Unfortunately, he knew what a poet knows: that language can be patterned and arranged to be persuasive, to hold power over a reader. He knew language can make things happen, can start wars and stop them.
I write to vanquish what poets like Kipling hope would last forever, the reign of tyrannical ideas that marginalize the people, places, and things I love. I write to take back the poetic thinking and techniques that such poets have used, and appropriated from the very communities they oppress, to demonstrate not their ability to control but their ability to liberate. Sure, in my own work I hope readers become more proficient in Vietnamese and Vietnamese American history, the Vietnam War and its enduring legacies, the inherited trauma and inherited ingenuity of survival that Vietnamese people throughout the diaspora possess and sharpen and demonstrate every day. But I am a poet. My focus is also, if not foremost, language and showing what language can do for those who are determined to be free, who must imagine and fight for and build their own freedom.
SR: All the Flowers Kneeling focuses on topics of sexual violence and interpersonal abuse, and yet throughout the collection, those ideas and words are never explicitly named. I commend your ability to examine the aftermath of such violence in such an eloquent and mindful way. Could you describe your process for writing about such difficult topics and memories, and how would you suggest other poets approach similar experiences in their own writing?
PT: The poems, themselves, are my answer to the first question. And in terms of the second, I believe there are as many ways to write about survival as there are survivors. There’s no path I would suggest, except the path that a poet believes they must choose.
SR: In a roundtable discussion you did with The New Yorker, about a lesson you learned as a poet, you said, “I think one of the most special gifts given to me was to not write my poems out of that imperative, to believe myself, and to not prove that something happened, or prove how someone treated me was wrong, but to say what its impact was, to find out how I can be human after such a thing, how I was human during such a thing.” How has writing this poetry collection allowed you to do the latter, to say what the impact is and to find your own humanity? How do you hope those that read this collection find their own humanity?
PT: I started writing poetry out of sheer desperation. My university didn’t believe my claim, that I had been assaulted, and my advising dean gave me two pamphlets: one for psychological services, one for time management. I was told that if I didn’t complete my coursework on time, I’d lose my fellowship and that “there were other poor students [the school] could be helping.”
Those circumstances led me to a lyric of witness. I had to record what happened somewhere, as evidence, so that I wasn’t completely silent or at the mercy of those who benefitted from my silence. I also wanted the pain to be over, to have emerged unscathed on the other side, even though the truth was that I was very much in the thick of it, at the beginning of a journey with no end in sight. Many of my earlier poems, therefore, constructed a speaker in opposition to a villain, an oppressive force against which I was determined to overcome, outmaneuver and outsmart, even if the determination was cast in the future tense.
The future tense, I realized, was the arena of hope, and the arena of hope didn’t include the present reality, what I was going through right then and there, and that if I was to be a more honest poet, if I was to more honestly reckon with my life, the choices I made and the behaviors I exhibited, then I would need a different poetics—a poetics of inquiry, investigation, and insight through lyric discovery. It took a long time, but through the mentorship of teachers like Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Bang, and francine j. harris, I relinquished my investment in reaching for a triumphant narrative, and I began reaching, instead, for how I felt and thought and wrestled with my angels, how I was human in my ongoing failures and successes, how I could be even more human in mapping a poem onto the page.
Each poem I write now begins with a question, a quarrel I have with myself, and each poem culminates when something I learned, something I didn’t know before the poem began. This quarrel with myself has included the ways I treat others and myself, why I thought suffering made me special or exceptional, and how to give myself to another, after all that I’d endured. It’s included how violence and trauma shaped the way I move through the world, how sexual violence in particular has been a recurring machination of U.S. Empire at home and abroad, and the function of history. It included the production of knowledge, the ways a single idea can radically reshape a human life, and how a human life can be the site from which new ideas, new and more radical knowledge, are produced on our own terms, for our own liberation.
Whether what I learned in making a poem will remain true later, I can’t say, and I’m not interested in saying. I’m not interested in permanence, or irrefutability, in that way. I’m interested, rather, in the restless and relentless investigation, the effort it takes to inquire and investigate, and to demonstrate in a poem my thinking during a specific moment in time. Poems on the same subject matter, then, become a kind of palimpsest. The new work neither erases nor displaces the old work, but layers themselves atop the other, showing a progression of thought, even if the thought turns back on itself, betrays itself, or resubmits what it once believed to be true. Isn’t that the human experience? Aren’t we haunted by ourselves? Don’t we confront ourselves, again and again, changing every time we change our minds?
I hope readers will see that progress, for me, isn’t a happy ending. It’s the effort. It’s the constant struggle, sacrifice, and sorcery required to become more and more human, to make mistakes and pick ourselves up, to keep going even if there’s no clear destination or if the destination desired can’t be reached. I hope readers see in this collection, in every poem I write, their own story, that they are also doing the best they can, making what they can from what they’ve been given, and that they can have not only dreams and expectations, but that they can exceed their own expectations and dreams as well.
I hope readers see a speaker who isn’t afraid to tell the truth about themselves, and that it isn’t the truth, necessarily, but the conviction to tell it, however we can, that sets us free.
SR: I’d like to talk about the title of the collection, All the Flowers Kneeling. Often, collections share a name with a particular poem, however, in yours, the title borrows from a line in the poem, “The Santa Ana.” You write, “Give me the trial / of the century. / Give me Liberty, / Give me Death / Valley. I want / all the flowers / kneeling.” Can you discuss the meaning behind this line and the title, and how did you decide what to name the collection?
PT: Carl Phillips helped me pick this title! From him and Mary Jo Bang, I learned that a title is the first encounter a reader has with a collection and with a poem. It establishes either the particularity of setting, such as time, place, or situation, or the emotional and psychological landscape out of which the speaker has returned to speak. In a sense, the title is its own poem, or the first line of a poem, juxtaposed against the body of the poem itself. That juxtaposition creates meaning, or it can, and allows the title to be more than just a summary of the poem or a convenient tag for the reader to surmise what the poem might be about. For this reason, I tell students that a concrete poem can benefit from an abstract, or interior, title and an interior poem can benefit from a concrete title.
That many collections share their title with the title of a poem is a convention, and it can be a helpful one. The repetition of collection title and poem title creates emphasis, indicating that the poem somehow stands in for the collection as a whole, and where that poem appears in the collection—whether as the proem, whether early or later on—contains significance as well.
I didn’t want that pressure of signification on any single poem in my collection. I wanted, instead, for the reader to experience a kind of surprise or jubilation when they arrived at the end of “The Santa Ana” and realized, indeed, that the final utterance contains the title. That moment in the book, in the fourth section, right after “Galileo,” a poem in which the speaker declares that they want everything dismantled, including their own self, is when the emotional and psychological self of the speaker converges with the Santa Anas—the winds responsible for the Southern California wildfires—thrashing and soaring with righteous rage, with faith and doubt, with beauty and power and hope. It’s when the speaker seems most determined to set themselves free—free of the past, present, and future; free of what they thought they knew and believed; free of the life they imagined and the life they were given; free even of freedom itself, to finally choose for themselves the life they want, the love and happiness and safety they deserve with all their beloveds with them, rising and falling, falling and rising as well.
The speaker of that poem is stubborn, is opening themselves to being perceived and perceiving, finally, things as they are and things as they can be. It’s a moment of contradiction, of competing truths, and all those truths being true at once, or what John Keats might call negative capability, and I wanted to capture that in the final image of the poem.
The image, “all the flowers kneeling,” can be interpreted in at least four ways. The flowers can be kneeling in prayer. The flowers can be kneeling in surrender. The flowers can be kneeling in exhaustion. The flowers can be kneeling in exaltation, given over—rather than giving up—to the sublimity of the world, of existence in the world and life can be, all at once. Such is an example of lyric ambiguity, where multiple meanings of a single utterance are possible at once, and it allows for the poem to rise to being what my teachers have called a “language game,” in which the reader can interpret the meaning of the language. Whatever the reader interprets, or decides, reveals who the reader is and how they think back to themselves, and hopefully, if the poem is capacious enough, the reader will continue returning to the poem, uncovering different interpretations, and learning more about their own self.
SR: One of the poems that I found incredibly striking and admirable was “I See Not Stars but Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us.” In your notes at the end of the collection, you talk about how this poem is written in a nonce form, or a form that the poet creates themselves. In this case, you created what you call “the Hydra,” which allows you to exemplify the interiority of a survivor of trauma and the difficulties in finding closure and clarity. Could you discuss in more detail about your inspiration for and process in creating “the Hydra” and the poem that followed?
PT: Again, the poem is my answer, but I’ll also say this: as a child of Vietnamese refugees, as a queer and transgender person of color, as a survivor, as the first in my family to graduate high school and go to college—to read and write and speak in English—and so forth, I’ve searched and searched for the forms my dreams and ambitions can take. Form isn't a constraint to me. It’s the shape and the process of giving shape to what my liberation and freedom might look like.
Received forms, like the sonnet, have persisted because poets found them useful not only to express but also to enact their experience. The chiastic ABBA rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet allows a poet to indicate that an event, situation, or idea maintains an emotional or psychological grip on their speaker. The repetition of end-words from stanza to stanza in a sestina, collapsing in on themselves, allows a poet to indicate that an increasingly inward movement will occur in regards to the interiority of the speaker, that the lyric crisis or lyric logic of the poem will get closer and closer to the heart of the subject matter.
These received forms, however, aren’t fixed. Poets reimagine them all the time, repurposing them for their own purposes, making them more and more capacious, better able to express and enact diverse experiences, complicated and often contradicting events, situations, and ideas. My ambition as an emerging poet, as a poet from marginalized backgrounds, from communities that have long been excluded from even the category of being human, refused to simply reimagine. I refused to simply prove that I can “master” poetic form, thinking, and techniques. I wanted to innovate and invent. I wanted to show how human I am—that I have a mind and a heart and a soul, that I have original and radical ideas, that I am capable of exceeding my own expectations—by inventing, by doing in poetry what I have had to do in my own life.
In my own life, I’ve had to invent a way out of poverty, a way out of communities, conditions, and circumstances that told me I would never matter, that I wasn’t supposed to succeed in life. I’ve had to invent, at a very young age, programs to change those very communities, those conditions and circumstances, so that others from my neighborhood might have greater access to opportunities, to more precise visions of themselves and what their lives could be. I’ve had to invent and modulate between different selves to obtain from others the respect I deserved, and as a transgender woman of color, I continue to do this every day when I leave my home, when I walk down the street, when I ride the train or go to work or simply shop for groceries, when I talk to my family on the phone and ask them, again and again, to love me for who I am.
No received form, that I am aware of, felt precise enough to represent this experience, the ongoing enterprise of survival, of self-invention and reinvention, so I had to invent one. Called the Hydra, here are the notes for the nonce that appear in the back of my book:
“I See Not Stars But Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us” is a nonce or invented form. The form contains thirteen sections. Each section contains thirteen lines. The last line of each section contains thirteen words. The first word of the last line in section X becomes the first word of the first line in section Y. The second word of the last line in section X becomes the first word of the second line in section Y. This continues for the third through thirteenth words of the last line in section X and for the first words of the third through thirteenth lines in section Y.
This nonce form, which I call “the Hydra,” modifies the imperatives that drive received forms like the sonnet, the sonnet crown, and the sestina to enact the interiority—the emotional and psychological life—of a survivor of trauma or extremity. Whereas a sonnet has fourteen lines, typically concluding on a conclusive couplet, the Hydra has only thirteen lines to resist as much as possible the psychological impulse to reach for closure and certitude. Whereas a sonnet crown repeats, typically verbatim, the final line of sonnet X as the first line of sonnet Y, the Hydra repeats in order and verbatim the thirteen words in the final line of section X as the first words of the thirteen lines in section Y to resist as much as possible the psychological impulse to import, cleanly and clearly, lessons learned from one experience to another. Instead, by dividing and deploying the thirteen words in the final line of section X as the respective first words of the thirteen lines in section Y, the Hydra submits that lessons learned from one experience are hardly ever cleanly and clearly imported to another, though they nevertheless remain present, informing—and haunting—each new experience. And whereas the sestina deploys word repetition at the end of the line, the Hydra deploys word repetition at the beginning of the line to resist the psychological impulse to move from an unknown beginning to a known end. Instead, by moving from a known beginning to an unknown end, the Hydra enacts the experience of survivors embarking from the immediate aftermath of trauma or extremity toward an imagined future.
The rules of this nonce form, therefore, emerge from the belief that poetry isn’t expression but enactment and also from the belief that every formal imperative must be driven by an emotional or psychological impulse.
SR: I’d like to discuss the poem “Scheherazade/Scheherazade,” whose first seven sections appear in the first part of the collection and whose last seven sections appear in the last part of the collection. While reading this poem, I was intrigued by how the two halves were separated, as well as the connection between the poem’s inspiration from the story in The Thousand and One Nights and to your mother’s and your own experiences. Can you describe what inspired you to write this poem into fourteen different sections, with some mirroring previous sections, and to draw from the story of Scheherazade, as well as the reasoning behind the title of this poem?
PT: My mother inspires so much of what I do and so much of what I write. The story of Scheherazade was one of the first stories I remember her telling me. I was so little, and we were living in a one-bedroom apartment, running away from my father, and to help me sleep, she’d begin, in her round and low voice, the tales of Scheherazade: how a king killed her wife and her true love, how he took a new bride each night, how he executed that bride in the morning, how Scheherazade volunteered when the king asked for her sister, how she entered the bedchamber and began telling him a story, how she left that story off at a cliffhanger at sunrise, how he asked what happened next, how she joked and said she had to prepare for her death, how he postponed her death and asked for her to return the next night, how she did and continued her story, how she continued her story for a thousand and one nights, how she became queen, how she did so because she taught the king to love, how—for her own survival and the survival of her people—Scheherazade turned to storytelling, how storytelling and survival go hand-in-hand, how survival and love go hand-in-hand as well.
There’s little more I want than to share how brilliant and powerful and strong my mother is with the world, and in sharing the stories she told me, unaware of how they’d serve me later in my life, I hope the world will know just a glimpse of her ingenuity, her tenacity and magic.
Because Scheherazade, literally, gave literature the narrative devices of “frame story” and “cliffhanger,” among so much else, I needed a poetic form that would reflect these devices. The sonnet crown, therefore, became my form. It allowed me to begin a story and then stop, to pick it up later and complicate it. That’s why certain sections mirror others, and that’s why the crown is split into two parts—the first appearing in section one and the last appearing in section four. I wanted the reader to feel as though a thousand and one nights had passed since the story first began in my collection, that I, like Scheherazade, had all along been telling stories within stories, each time saving myself from death.
The sonnet crown also felt appropriate because it’s traditionally a received Western form, and to intervene in such traditions, I wanted to diversify the sonnet, to insert a diverse cast of characters, diverse experiences, and diverse lyric investigations of such experiences. I also intervened on the formal level. Each sonnet devoted to the speaker’s interior state is cast in terza rima, the ABA BCB CDC—and so forth—rhyme scheme that Dante used in The Divine Comedy. Since The Divine Comedy represents a journey to the underworld, I imported this rhyme scheme also to represent my journey below, my journey back, my transformation in the face and escape from death. There are also sections written in what I think of as a modified ghazal, and in the penultimate section, just when the reader thinks the crown will be complete, I intervene by adding another sonnet crown—that isn’t exactly a crown, per se, but basically so. The poem, thus, is a sonnet crown within a sonnet crown, just as Scheherazade’s story is a story within a story.
The title arrived through the help of Rick Barot, who observed that Scheherazade ultimately stood in for my mother and myself, that we were, in our own ways, two different kinds of Scheherazade: my mother retold and retold her story, though it changed every time, to prevent anyone from really knowing the complete details, while I retold and retold mine in greater detail, trying each time to get closer and closer the truth, if such a truth existed. That’s why the title is “Scheherazade/Scheherazade.” There’s two. They’re divided, a part of each other, and they’re individually complete. The title also, for me, represents the two halves of the poem, the crown broken, the kingdom—as it once was—forever changed.
SR: In a few of the poems in this collection, there are many references to science, such as in the poems, “Bioluminescence,” “The First Law of Motion,” “Endosymbiosis,” as well as the three poems titled “Scientific Method.” I found these references to science in the poems incredibly thought-provoking in the sense that they were combining the logic of science with the emotion of poetry. How does the inclusion of science in your poetry add more depth and meaning to the emotions and experiences that you are describing?
PT: Moons ago, when I first started out as a poet in New York City, Rigoberto Gonzalez told me to be as intersectional as possible in my poems. That intersectionality, of identity and experience, of curiosity and thought and feeling, makes the poems singular and singularly mine.
Science and scientific thinking, in one form or another, has always been part of my life. In sixth grade, I got a scholarship from Fish & Richardson to go to space camp. In seventh grade, I was one of thirty-five students of color nationwide admitted to the Physician Scientist Training Program, a ten-year MD/PhD pipeline founded at Temple University School of Medicine. I took courses in biology, chemistry, and physics at Temple, and I worked as a research assistant at the Sol Sherry Thrombosis Research Center across the street from the Hospital, where I shadowed and assisted doctors and departments.
As a ninth grader, I treated prostate cancer cells with plasma proteins and tested whether the proteins would inhibit metastasis. I presented my research at the Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair and represented the United States at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, where, as a sophomore in high school, I participated in roundtables about diversity in the sciences alongside Nobel Laureates. As a junior in high school, I worked for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and was even part of the robotics team—the Midnight Mechanics!
I learned, from these various experiences, that I was a producer of knowledge. Until I recorded and presented my findings, what I observed at the wet bench, bent over those Petri dishes with my pipette, no one else in the world knew what I knew. Until I brainstormed with my principal investigator what would happen in the experiment next, and until we successfully replicated the experiment and substantiated our results, I had information that hadn’t existed in the world. That knowledge, and the knowledge of that knowledge, transformed me. How could I return to a world that told me I was nothing, that manipulated and extorted me, and believe any of the lies it would have me believe were true? How could I accept the limited expectations put upon me when I held within me proof that I was otherwise, that I could be otherworldly?
Science, and the production of knowledge, will always be part of who I am because it’s shaped how I think, how I move and work my way through this life, and because it’s part of who I am, it has to be part of my poetics—my image systems, my conceits and references, my approach to the poetic line or phonic echo. It’s also my charge, I think, to show how poetry, itself, is a science: the lyric discoveries that a poem makes can disprove previously held regimes of beliefs, and the discoveries a poem makes about language can demonstrate how language can be transformed, used and used differently.
SR: I’d like to talk about three of the poems from the collection, all of which are titled after famous paintings: “The Nightmare: Oil on Canvas: Henry Fuseli: 1781,” “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Oil on Canvas: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: 1560,” and “Judith Slaying Holofernes: Oil on Canvas: Artemisia Gentileschi: 1620.” I found these poems incredibly vulnerable and personal, as well as captivating for the inspirations they took from these paintings. Can you discuss why you chose these paintings specifically as inspiration for these three poems? Did the paintings find you first, or did the poems find the paintings?
PT: One of the most important classes I took in high school was AP Art History. That class, and the teacher, changed how I felt about myself. In bungalows by the gym lockers, where the studio art students would hang out, I finally felt free to be a kind of nerd, a weirdo listening to the same Evanescence track on repeat, reading Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison cover to cover.
I vividly remember the PowerPoint slides with the Fuseli painting, the Bruegel and Gentileschi, and remember how incredible it was to learn that artists, throughout time and space, had also felt what I felt, thought what I thought, endured what I secretly endured. At that time, only a couple of my friends knew I was a survivor of childhood sexual assault, that my father, a South Vietnamese veteran, had molested me, and that probably shaped why it had always been difficult connecting with others, fitting in, being normal as normal can be. But in the space of that classroom, as with some others, I could be more than what happened to me. I could also be an artist, making something new, potentially beautiful, from the brutality.
While putting this collection together, I wanted to honor that high schooler, to draw on all the intersecting pieces of my life, and render myself as fully as I could. Writing about the paintings wasn't enough. I had to enter them, be part of them, project myself through them, just as I did all those years ago, in that room lit only by the PowerPoint screen. I imagined myself the figure reclined in Fuseli’s painting, the weight of the incubus on my chest, and how it resembled when my father held me down—or, at least, my remembering of him doing so. I imagined myself as Judith, in Gentileschi’s painting, defiantly, and without hesitation, driving my sword through Holofernes’ neck, either unaware or without any care that his blood might splash all over my gold gown. I was Icarus’ tiny legs, barely noticeable, in Bruegel’s painting, wishing someone, anyone, would stop to rescue me—to do what I couldn’t do at the time for myself, until at last I could.
As someone who had to rescue myself in life, I also had to rescue myself in literature. Writing a collection that was fully me, that encompassed all of my interests and identities, and that also made radical critiques of the very traditions that shaped me, was an imperative I felt from the beginning of my poetic enterprise. In each of these poems, I was also determined to advance the conversation. I resolved to say what these artists didn’t, what only language in the hands of a queer and transgender poet of color might.
So, indeed, in some ways I found the paintings, and in other ways they found me. I’d like to propose another way to understand this: we found each other.
SR: The order of the poems in this collection seem to mirror each other. It begins with “Orchard of Knowing” and ends with “Orchard of Unknowing,” the first section holds the first half of “Scheherazade” and the last sections holds the last half, “Progress Report” in the fourth section is a continuation of “Incident Report” from the first section, and three of the four parts have a poem titled “Scientific Method” and a poem dedicated to a painting. I was really curious about the order of these poems, and while reading the entire collection, it felt as if the order allows your reader to feel as if they have come full circle. How did you decide how to structure the collection and what order to put the poems in? In doing so, what did you hope your readers take away from the collection?
PT: Again, permit me to say that my work is never accidental or decorative. The collection is a mirror. The collection is a full circle. The circle, returning to where the collection begins, represents both linear progress and the painful cyclical nature of starting over. The mirror allows me, and hopefully the reader, to look not at but into human experience, into what has otherwise been ignored, overlooked, redacted—what has attempted to remain hidden and hidden in plain sight.
I’d like to say the order came to me in a dream. I don’t know if I’ve ever told her this, but Patricia Smith visited me in a dream once and read my entire collection to me, page by page. Often, while putting the collection together in real life, I liked to think that I was merely listening for the poems she had read aloud to me in that dream, and often the writing of them felt that way, as if the words were returning to me—a homecoming—rather than me casting out a net into the sea for them.
But perhaps more realistically, I was inspired by the Greek rhetorical figure of chiasmus, which can manifest in rhyme as ABBA and represent, therefore, a cage within a cage, an indication of emotional and psychological entrapment. That ABBA structure informed the four sections: section 1 is A, section 2 is B, section 3 is B, and then section 4 is A again. There’s a relationship between section 1 and 4, and between 2 and 3, and that relationship is mapped out in the poems. The “Orchards” appear in 1 and 4, as do the “Reports.” The “Caves” appear in 2 and 3. The reader enters the speaker’s family history by entering the first cave, and the speaker reenters the speaker’s present life by exiting the second cave.
Chiasmus is also a mirror, a circle. Even as a cage, chiasmus contains a door. That door leads us in, and it will lead us out.
What do I hope readers take away from this collection? Everything. All the flowers kneel for them.