Interview with Jason Koo
This interview with Jason Koo about his collection Man on Extremely Small Island was conducted during the summer of 2010 by the following poets: Wendy Burtt, Cory Phare, Robert Petrick, Robyn Sablosky, Claire Potter, Sean Thomas and John Rossiter. It first appeared on Sharkforum and has been preserved here.
Jason Koo Biography
Named one of the "100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture" by Brooklyn Magazine, Jason Koo was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of two collections of poetry, America's Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers' Workshop Members' Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. He is also the editor of Poems for Kobe, a private limited edition of poems presented as a retirement gift to Kobe Bryant by the Brooklyn Nets and Brooklyn Poets, and coeditor of the forthcoming Bettering American Poetry anthology and Brooklyn Poets Anthology. He has published his poetry and prose in the Yale Review, Missouri Review and Village Voice, among other places, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri–Columbia. An assistant teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo has also taught writing at NYU and Lehman College–CUNY, where he served as the director of the graduate program in English, and as a senior writer-in-residence for Writers in the Schools. He is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.
Please talk about your decisions on stanzaic structure. You use a lot of indents, staggered lines, floating lines, etc. I'd like to know what drives those decisions beyond formal appearance. If it's helpful to use a concrete example, please refer specifically to "2046 Love Songs of Wong Kar Wai," since the structure varies throughout the poem.
Koo: Well, the indents in "2046" were easy because that poem is in syllabics. If you go line by line, you'll notice there is a specific number of syllables for every indented line—so whatever lines line up contain the same number of syllables. "Cell" is also in syllabics. But the poems work differently in that the lines rotate in "2046" whereas they are set in the same order in "Cell." I wrote "Cell" first—that was the first poem I'd ever attempted in syllabics. I'd been writing a lot of poems in free verse using indented lines, mainly to create this shuffling back-and-forth effect; I liked the feeling of movement and energy those lines created, and many poets I admired at the time were using those types of lines, such as Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and my friend Steve Gehrke. But after a while the indents started to feel a tad arbitrary, or lax, so I wanted a new challenge. And I thought, What the hell, why not try something in syllabics? This was incredibly difficult at first. "Cell" drove me effing crazy. It was mainly because I couldn't change the number of syllables, and the order was set for every stanza. But it kind of made sense for that poem because the subject is partly about how one can go insane trying to conform to this absurd, warped language of text messaging—the syllabics represent the insanity of that shorthand. And the obsessiveness of it.
Writing "Cell" made me envision a new kind of syllabics, a poem where I'd have stanzas using indented lines of different syllable lengths, but where I could choose the order of the lines. So if I wanted to use a 5-syllable line at the beginning of one stanza but a 11-syllable line at the beginning of the next, I could. I am always looking for forms that give me a combination of limitation and flexibility—the flexibility is extremely important. So I wrote the first stanza of the "2046" poem (the first two lines of which come from the voiceover at the beginning of the film), arranged them in a way that was attractive to me on the page, then started rotating the lines with every stanza after that. There's a different method to the rotation of each of the sections. I could go on and on about this, because the form of this poem is highly intricate. In the first section, I use a different order for the syllabics in every stanza to underscore the idea that the speaker keeps trying out different sequences of "steps," different patterns that will allow him to keep his love. In the fourth section, where the speaker is in the depths of his doubt, the lines are blown apart; but if you go through that section carefully, you'll notice the lines are still in syllabics. Anyway, I'm boring myself now so I should stop.
What typically initiates your writing process? Do you begin with a line that's dying to come out, and let the poem shape itself? Or do you begin with an overarching message or theme and build a path leading up to it? Or something else altogether?
Koo: Sometimes a line or phrase will occur to me and intrigue me, and this is the way I will begin. Other times I will have a general narrative in mind that I want to explore. Sometimes I'll have both a line or phrase in my head and a general narrative I want to explore. So my answer to your question is: all of the above. Recently I wrote a poem beginning with the question "Are you a pretzel person or a peanut person?" Someone asked me this on a plane a long time ago, and I'd been mulling it over for years afterward—I knew there was a poem in there. And I knew the poem was going to be fairly spacious, at least a couple of pages long. There was no real narrative behind this poem, just a sense that this question had some deeper meaning for me—and an American audience. The last poem in my book, "Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fame" is an example of a poem where I had a very clear narrative in mind that I wanted to attack. I didn't have a sense of how to begin the poem, so I just started at the beginning and went straight through the narrative in a fairly linear fashion. This might sound boring, but rarely in contemporary poetry do you see narratives told in a linear fashion anymore; so, somewhat paradoxically, proceeding in this way was very refreshing to me.
I am particularly struck by your deft use of humor, pop culture, baseball and fast food - the way you use these things to ground the conversation and in a way, relax the reader without compromising the deeper meanings. To what do you attribute this approach? (a personal philosophy? a reaction to other contemporary poetry? an influence from someone else? growing up in my home town of Cleveland?)
Koo: All of those things you listed—personal philosophy, reaction to other poetry, influence, Cleveland—contribute to my stylistic approach in some ways. I am not sure exactly how my use of humor and pop culture began, but it was there from the beginning; I was never terribly interested in writing "serious" poetry. Or at least not "serious" in the way most people think of poetry as serious. I know I was influenced by John Ashbery, the way he used humor and made references to both high and low culture in his work—he was the first contemporary American poet I read, and he spoke to me immediately. Only later did I realize how weird an influence this was; I was reading Tennyson during my senior year of college when it dawned on me that this was "normal" poetry. I thought mixing humor and serious meditation, high and low culture, and high and low speech was the norm because of Ashbery. He's had this influence on a lot of other contemporary poets—I'm not the only one using humor or making references to pop culture in my poetry, by any means. Though what Kenneth Koch called "the kingdom of dullness" still reigns supreme, and the poets who belong to this kingdom would like you to believe that humor and pop culture have no place in poetry. This is pretty much the most idiotic idea I know.
Why do you often make explicit references to modern day (MTV, Tom Waits, Taco Bell, etc) in your poetry? Are you ever afraid of being constricted within the present by using concrete images set in a particular timeline? Do you ever feel confined to your own time and experiences? It is a risk I am often conscious of in my own writing, for fear of alienating certain readers.
Koo: No, I don't worry about being confined to my era because of contemporary cultural references. I used to when I was a freshman in college and reading T. S. Eliot. But you can't worry about posterity; you can't worry about being "timeless." First of all, that's out of your control; second of all, that's totally pretentious; and third, you won't write "timeless" poetry by trying to be "timeless." You'll write terrible poetry. You'll use words and images and ideas that you think are "universal" for any culture, any era, but really you'll just be sucking the life out of your poetry. Life is messy and referential and fluid and arbitrary. And there is no pure "universal" language or idea; I mean, come on, language itself is arbitrary and rhetorical and always requires some translation. When you read Shakespeare, you're used to the apparatus of footnotes to help you "translate" his cultural references. But you think he's "universal." When you read Milton, same thing. When you read Chaucer, Christ! Even when you read something from the twentieth-century, like, ahem, Eliot or Joyce, you need footnotes. Eliot felt compelled to provide his own damn footnotes to The Waste Land, and you can't read Ulysses without the clunky sidecar of the Annotated. Maybe only Eliot and Joyce could read each other's work without footnotes, but I doubt it. By the way, I have now typed "footness" about fourteen times in this paragraph when trying to write "footnotes." I feel like this means something.
At the end of the day, or perhaps I should say the end of literary civilization, which may be approaching faster than any of us realize, how do we know a stone, say, is going to be more "universal" than a Billy Baldwin movie? There are sacred objects like records (I mean vinyl LPs) that have come and gone in less than a century. Books—how "timeless" are books? Do we know for sure that they'll be around—in paper form—in 2100? Will roses be around? I hope so. But I think Billy Baldwin DVDs have just as good of a chance at sticking around. In the end, you can only worry about what you make out of these cultural references. They merely serve as an apparatus for what's "timeless" in your own voice or way of looking. If something in your voice or way of looking intrigues a reader in 2100, he or she will "translate" your Billy Baldwin references. And I've gotta say, thinking about a poem of mine in a Norton Anthology in 2100 with scholarly footness (there it is again) about Billy Baldwin is pretty hilarious.
Your poems have a longer format. How long does it take you to write a poem, from conception through the final edit, and how many edits do you typically give to one poem?
Koo: I've spoken about my process at length in an interview I did with Elizabeth Hildreth for Bookslut, so I won't cover the same ground here. But typically I take at least four or five days on a "short" poem (meaning 1-2 pages) and anywhere from 3-6 weeks on a long poem. I think the 2046 poem took about two and a half months of on-and-off work. I say I "take" these days to write a poem rather than "it takes me" these amount of days because I hate this cultural impatience that is built into the very ways we talk about the composition of a poem: "how long does it take you," etc. Why does everyone want to get out of a poem? Once I'm inside something (sorry) I enjoy working on, I want to stay there as long as I can—I like the feeling of being at work on language and my own ideas. Even when the composition of a poem goes very quickly for me, say, one or two days, I still take a few days after that just to make sure I haven't missed any opportunities along the way. That said, you can stay inside a poem too long: the compositional problems can start to exhaust you and you can run out of invention. I always feel a certain tension building when I'm in the middle of a poem between my desire to linger in that space and my desire to get the hell out. That tension, I believe, is what produces the poetry. It's funny, any time I'm not writing I'll think, Wouldn't it be nice to be inside a poem again? Then once I'm working on something I'll think, Now why did I want to be here?
When you read the poems in Man on Extremely Small Island, do you find yourself re-editing them, or are you content with their finality?
Koo: Good question—I'm actually trying to convince my press to do a second edition of the book that will include one poem I left out of the first edition. I don't think the book really needs the poem, but it's definitely a little stronger with the poem included. This poem—which I'm not going to tell you about—was in earlier drafts of the manuscript, but I took it out when a few friends of mine told me it slowed the book down too much in the beginning. And I think that was definitely true, but now I see how it could work in the third section of the book. Before, when I was considering what to do with it, I couldn't see it in the third section; now I have no idea why that was. Your perspective about your work changes a little when the book comes out. When you're trying to win a book contest, and it's taking you years to do this, you're thinking of anything you can do to make the book move faster and be more immediately striking to sleepy, indifferent readers. After the book comes out you only think of what the book itself needs, what the best poems are regardless of their speed, appeal, etc. Anyway, aside from the desire to include this extra poem, I don't really look over the poems in the book and want to re-edit them—they have all been through countless edits. Believe me. Every millimeter of the book (I mean this literally, I took out a tape measure during the proofing stages to check the margins) has been checked and re-checked. I know I brought each poem—and the book as a whole structure—as far as I could take it with my abilities and effort up until the point of publication, and that's all one can ask of oneself.
I enjoyed your use of comedy in your book. It's the first poetry book where I've actually laughed out loud while reading. So, is comedy important in poetry? In most poetry I've read, it seems comedy is either extremely subtle, or non- existent. Why is it so overlooked?
I was reading your book while sitting next to a friend and as I was reading through the poems I couldn't stop laughing. My friend commented, "I thought you were reading poetry. Poetry is supposed to be serious. You shouldn't be laughing while you're reading poetry." How do you define the relationship between poetry and laughter? Do you think more people should be laughing while reading poetry?
Koo: I'm going to answer these two questions in tandem. First, let me say that the person who said poetry "is supposed to be serious" has no understanding of what it means to be serious and no understanding of poetry. At all. I'm "serious." Poetry does not have to be comic, by any means; there are plenty of poets I love who are not "funny." But humor adds a dimension to poems just like anything else--like metaphor, like rhyme, like "non-poetic" words, like spacing on the page, whatever. And humor has a power that devices like rhyme do not have. In my mind, humor has a transformative power akin to metaphor—it blows open a reader's mind in a way that only metaphor can match. Sometimes you see these two devices combined, as in The Cloud in Trousers when Mayakovsky compares each word coming out of his mouth to a naked prostitute leaping from a burning brothel. That kind of moment sets your mind ablaze. The charge I get reading Kenneth Koch, when he delivers one staggeringly absurd notion after another—what is that but poetry? Meanwhile you can read lugubrious poets like Geoffrey Hill and never get a commensurate feeling. The late Mitch Hedberg was a better "poet" than most American poets writing today; his humor opened up a new way of looking at the world. Anyway, I don't need to say any of this, Koch himself already slaughtered the people who think poetry "is supposed to be serious" in "Fresh Air," published several decades ago. End of story.
Man on Extremely Small Island is densely packed with poetry. Did it take you long to compile such a collection? Did some of your poems not make this publication? What input, generally speaking, did you have over the inclusion/exclusion of your own pieces within this book?
Koo: I love this statement that my book of poems is "densely packed with poetry." Thank you. Obviously the phrase sounds redundant, but when I think about it more carefully, it's not. Because a lot of "poetry" books I read are not densely packed with poetry. They're packed with vacuity. Mayakovsky used to bitch about this in his poems, asking of the poets he was suffering through: Where is the poetry in your poems? Anyway, this is a little bit off topic. Yes, it took me a long time to compile this collection. As I said above, each poem went through many revisions and the book itself went through many revisions. There were at least four different versions of the book I thought were "final." Until I wrote new poems and replaced older, weaker poems with those. Some poems were very difficult to take out. They were very important to me when I was younger. And I still like them, but they don't work in the book the way the newer ones do. This process of painfully taking things out and making cold editorial decisions gave me real confidence in my book—I knew I hadn't made any concessions, I hadn't indulged myself in any way. I only left in the book what I thought it needed.
A lot of your poems have a prosaic, narrative flow to them, almost reading as creative non-fiction. Who do you read in other realms outside of poetry that resonate and find influencing your work?
Koo: Well, I don't read much creative non-fiction, but I read a lot of fiction. Probably more fiction than poetry. My favorite writers are epic novelists of consciousness: Proust, Melville, Cervantes, DeLillo, etc. And the poets I prefer also have this epic capacity: Ashbery, Levis, Crane, Stevens, Koch, Whitman, Byron (in Don Juan), Wordsworth, Bidart, Lynda Hull, blah blah the list goes on. Of course the list itself is epic. I started off writing fiction in high school, wanting to be the Stephen King of baseball novels (???), and when I turned to poetry in college I always thought I would go back to writing fiction when I was older. But the more serious I got about poetry, the more I realized how different the two arts were. And I saw how long poems of consciousness were what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write Flow Chart, or have the opportunity to do that, more than I wanted to write In Search of Lost Time—or, sorry, let me rephrase that. Of course I'd love to write In Search of Lost Time. I thought I could write something like Flow Chart, and I didn't think I could do Proust—at least not in novel form. I mean, that guy...good God. He is as great as Shakespeare, often better. You can't read Proust deeply and still want to write short lyric poems anymore. Look at his effect on James Merrill. The guy who was a more talented lyric poet than any American poet of the 20th century went on to write the only true American "epic" poem of that century.
What are some of the most challenging aspects you find in writing poetry, and how do you work at overcoming them?
Koo: The challenge for me is how to move my material through the page as fluidly as possible. I like long, discursive movements, but these can get bogged down very easily; and I already write with the awareness that most people reading poetry do not think this is poetry. So I'm trying to get them through the poem and have an effect on them without them ever thinking, Wait a second, what's going on here, this is prose! I want people to finish one of my poems and think something happened to them that they didn't know could happen while reading a poem. Anyway, these answers are getting more digressive as I go along--I'm sitting in the Cleveland airport waiting for my delayed flight back to New York. This kind of chatty digressiveness is my default mode; I work really hard in my poems to move away from this as much as possible, to give my poems as much tension and cut as possible. Because I know that default mode will always be there, underlying the structure. Just as I know the humorous element in my voice will always be there. So I can work as far as I want in the other direction and create a productive tension.
How do you describe your relationship to your audience? Do you think of your audience as you are writing?
Koo: Yes, I do think of my audience. I think of what they are wearing, what drinks I'd like them to buy me. No, seriously, I do. I want my poems to have an impact on people's lives—I want my poems to change them in some way. Or at least I want my poems to do something to people. The other day I was reading a book by Sandra Beasley and caught myself thinking, Wow, this is doing something to me! I wasn't surprised that Sandra was doing it; I'd just been reading so many books of poetry that were doing absolutely nothing to me. The words were there on the page and slipping through my mind and out. What's the point of this? Do these writers write for an audience? I don't know, maybe. But they're not reaching me. I used to think of my reader as a friend, much in the way James Schuyler does. But now I think of my reader as someone I want to wake up a little; he's a friend, but he's a sleepy friend, he's been watching too much reality television.
How do you get through your rejection days? You know, the days where you have received two or three rejections, your writing isn't going as planned, and your fish just died? And, about how much time per week, month or year do you think you spend trying to get your poetry published?
Koo: This is such a great question. How do I get through my rejection days? I just want to repeat this question to people. The question is better than any answer I could give it. I get through my rejection days because I've already lived through so many rejection days. I'm a Cleveland Indians fan, remember. Being a baseball fan from Cleveland teaches you how to deal with rejection on a daily basis. And you learn there is always another day, another season. Things do get better. And then they get worse. And then they get better. And then worse. You've got to have the long view. I'm speaking more of a cosmic or romantic sense of rejection than of poetry rejection. I've never been too concerned about getting individual poems rejected; I knew that was just part of the business. And if I thought a poem was strong, I knew it'd get taken eventually—it would just take persistence. "Rejections" of the book were tougher, because they weren't rejections—they were silences. I'd send my book to two to four contests a month and hear nothing back. For some contests I'd be a finalist one year and nothing the next. And for a second I'd think, How is this possible? Then I'd go watch an Indians' game and bitch about that instead. I don't spend a whole lot of time trying to get published; there are usually just two or three times a year I send everything out in a big batch. And I simultaneously submit everything because I've learned that most places will reject me and that it is stupid to wait for journals to respond when most likely what they are doing is not even reading my work. I know of 20 journals I send to, probably three or four will read the work carefully, and maybe one will accept something. These percentages are tried and true in my experience. For other writers it is very different. These days I have places soliciting me for work and I have only four poems to send out. And I haven't even tried to publish them; I've actually been turning places down, saying they have to wait. It's a weird problem. All I know is I'm not sending to the Black Warrior Review because that place has rejected me about seven or eight times and they've recently solicited all of my friends then rejected their work. So when they solicited me, my response was, What, now? And did they care? Of course not. I'm sure if I send them my new poems they will reject them. For about two seconds a month do I contemplate sending them poems again. But I resist. Black Warrior Review should be punished in the lowest circle of hell with rejection days ad infinitum.