Interview with Vi Khi Nao (American Microreviews And Interviews, March 2017)

by sophie

VI KHI NAO: Hi Sophie, How are you?

SOPHIE KLAHR: Hi! Gray morning in LA. How’re you?

VKN: Gray morning in Las Vegas. I am burning with thoughtful thoughts.

SK: Ok! I’m ready.

VKN: How long is Meet Me Here At Dawn? Why did you write it?

SK: I think my book is about 70 pages but there’s lots of white space. In general, the book is a meditation on desire … and therefore it’s also a meditation on loss. It all includes a lot of wondering about faith, morality, mortality—

VKN: Why lots of white space?

SK: I believe poetry is a visual form—

VKN: What kind of visual form?

SK: Maybe something sculptural?

VKN: You want to be the Rodin of poetry?

SK: Ha ha, only if that means I can be pals with the Rilke of sculpture.

VKN: How do you depict your poetic form? What is it?

SK: I’d call my most frequent mode lyrical narrative. I grew up with Robert Frost in my ear, and in the middle of “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” there’s this little fragment that sticks with me: “the only other sound’s the sweep”. . . . I think that poem, that moment, taught me how an attention to sound is necessary to tell an effective story inside a poem. And sometimes, sound means space on the page: silence, breath.

VKN: I have always considered plot to be the most important component of narrative form, if sound means space on the page, is plot just merely words: the absence of silence and breath? And, what is an effective story?

SK: Sometimes the most important moments of an active plot are silent. Think of a play or a movie: a gaze between lovers, a moment someone waits outside a hospital room. There can be deep tension in speechlessness, the moment before what’s said, and the moment after. It’s that thing people say about music—how music is between the notes. Silence and space are intrinsic to design.

I think that an effective story also has to do with tension… something lingering. Much of my writing (and my interests) have to do with longing, with moments of The-Moment-Before. Of course, as to the question of “effectiveness,” there is also relatability. My father loves this Billy Collins poem about the speaker presenting a lanyard from summer camp to his mother. And my father loves it, certainly, because he has some memory of summer camp, and lanyards, but primarily, I think the poem moves him to think of his mother. A story is effective when it moves someone.

VKN: How do you describe your own collection?

SK: I see Meet Me Here At Dawn as a body of work and not a collection, because almost all of the poems are about the same exact thing, just different threads and shades, A loop, a braid. Maybe a loop with static, something frayed. A skipping record. Or maybe a flood.

VKN: A flood? Is there Noah in it?

SK: Maybe the passage of time is a stand-in for Noah.

VKN: What poem of yours from Meet Me Here At Dawn has the most tension? And, would you mind breaking down that poem for us? Can you talk about the process of writing it? How did it come to you, for instance?

SK: Well, invention interests me, but every narrative moment flashed upon or drawn out in this book is true—mistaken time zones, a paper bag of cash, being chased by a pair of geese, etcetera. While revising, I had to think a lot about what the man I had an affair with (the affair being a primary thread in this book) (I’ll call him X) winkingly called my “ridiculous allegiance to the truth.” Perhaps the poem with the most self-aware/meta quality of this conflict is “Mimesis Praxeos”, a phrase Aristotle used to define tragic drama, which translates as “imitation of action.” To not drift too far into theory, basically, “imitation of action” is what makes theatre bearable. It lets us know that what’s happening onstage is “just a play,” that Hamlet isn’t actually murdering everyone; it’s an imitation of action, not action. An affair is kind of theatrical, a high stakes improvisation with real-life consequences.

Inside the affair, poems about us were pouring out of me, laden with details that simply couldn’t be published unless I wanted to destroy our lives and hurt a lot of people who we loved, who existed inside that blast radius. And yet, in that moment, neither X nor I felt guilty for the affair itself; in our addled thinking, no guilt meant that something was “right” about it. As the “Mimesis Praxeos” says: “We speak of the absence of guilt like a mantra / preserving a semblance // of order.” The last couplet of the poem reads: “Endlessly, we discuss fidelity, what to keep visible. / How to describe the house without burning it down.” Fidelity, here, of course, wears all its crowns of meaning, and the metaphor of the house is a stand-in for our lives, perhaps for our bodies. During those years, we both struggled to write about our relationship without becoming arsonists. I was drawn into writing about it more directly than he was at the time, but I know that his next book will deal with that notion of burning down of a life, in a number of different ways. So, there’s tension for you. But all of the poems have a type of tension for me. How does one quantify tension?

VKN: You said earlier that “an effective story also has to do with tension . . . something lingering.” In this case . . . lingering based on your definition and constraint.

SK: Ah, right. I’m not sure which poem of mine contains the most lingering. It’d be different for every reader. I know that I was haunted by certain events and gestures and departures—it’s why I wrote about them in the first place. So I guess they’ve all lingered with me.

VKN: I love when a poet breaks down a poem for the readers because it opens a door into the poet’s mind. Will you choose a poem for us and break it down so we can see how you think and create as poet? (Or I can choose too if you have a hard time deciding).

SK: Sure, you can choose.

VKN: Your poem “Mercy” (page 65 of your collection).

SK: This is actually one of my favorite poems in the book! But I wouldn’t have said so. Let’s see…. this poem contains an idea actually of Kenneth Patchen’s to start… a butchered line I cut from somewhere in his book The Journal of Albion Moonlight: “Walking onto the shore without a plan,/ without my other mouth.” This is one of the last poems in my book, and it happens in a liminal space—there’s submission happening, a giving up into bewilderment. There are all these questions made into moments with overwrought sound. My particular valuing of sound appears pretty bluntly—“the guttural of Us: / full, a warm black sound.” I think beloved sound takes up its own particular residence in one’s body.

The last half of the poem asks about risk perception; repeated trauma can cause disassociation, and in this poem the pattern of the relationship breaking and reforming results in a characteristic partial numbness to potential consequences:

The risk grows abstract—

What offering’s expanded?
We’re past departures:
How to split again?”

We eat and eat and eat
and still our hands are clean.

The last couplet references a point that’s come to many times throughout the book, this looped hall of mirrors: how consumption occurs without what might be comprehended as guilt. It’s unreasonable. To be able to consume, constantly, bodily, and to have clean hands. It’s impossible. Yet, it is. It was.

VKN: Your compound noun? “Heat-sure” is beautiful and you have placed it so perfectly there. It surprised me because when I read it—I didn’t read it like a word. I felt the word as an essence of climate/temperature. I love the way you place the word there because in another context, outside of mercy, I wouldn’t have felt the thermometic scale of that word. Its heat. Sometimes I surround language with desolation? Do you ever use certain words as insulatory devices to shape the climate of your poem?

SK: Well, thank you, about “heat-sure.” I’m glad it felt right. As far as climate, I can answer regarding environment. A memorable criticism of this book, its first drafts, was that it was full of birds. I was asked why it was full of birds. I didn’t have an answer then… and I don’t have an answer now. Too many birds!, I was told. Too much light. Too many mouths. But, oh well. You’ve got what you’ve got. You notice what you do. There’s no point in forcing things. I often write about mouths apparently because I am drawn to mouths. I have been working on 30 poems for the past year that are about living in rural Nebraska, and the poems are full of horses and fields and tools. It’s just what’s there, gloriously there—cottonwoods and raccoons and insects singing. And birds. That’s the meat of the matter, the visceral. The only thing I really try to watch out for is the overuse of light. If I didn’t revise my poems, you’d think that all I ever saw was light touching things. Though that might be ok too. Edward Hopper said that all he really wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.

VKN: Have you read Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard?

SK: I haven’t. I don’t know if I’m a bird lover…I’m a bird noticer.

VKN: Thalia Field is a bird noticer too.

SK: Well… maybe I am a bird lover. I have a favorite type of owl. My earliest experiences of helplessness were around birds. Maybe that’s love!

VKN: You said earlier… you don’t write complicated poetry: “Anybody who can read should be able to understand the sense inside of it. There is lyricism but not much obstruction.” I get the sense that not just anybody can read and understand Meet Me Here At Dawn—I feel that it requires the readers to be emotionally and historically ready to read your work. To read poetry is like to braid someone’s hair. There is an abstract challenge there—like it seems that you are saying that braiding someone’s hair is easy—but I think there are so many layers to the hair’s abstraction in your poems—that my hands get entangled, strand by strand, even when there is no obstruction — though I would love an obstruction such as a barrette to help me keep your hair together. Does it exist an obstruction worthy of having in your work?

SK: We get to choose what we take from the page. If we read ten lines on a page, and if we recognize none of the constructions and none of the words, then we may put up that cry that so many toss up about poetry: “I don’t get it!” I’ve got that cry sometimes too. But there are different levels of understanding, of engagement. I believe that people want to understand poems. People want poems, in general! We want them for funerals, weddings, religious services, Valentine’s Day, blah blah blah. As children, we are taught a rhyme as a way to remember how many days there are in a month. And the best poems—I can read them without knowing the particular references therein, without understanding meter, without understanding the history of poetry. I have mailboxes and strawberries and mothers and sex in my poems. And a reader need not understand every line. But surely, they have a mother. They’ve probably seen a mailbox. I don’t have to know about the existence of the pentatonic scale to be moved by a song, and I don’t need to know about the root of a word for it to move me. It’s simply about having an experience with the thing itself. I think that just by sitting down with a poem, we get a sense. “Understanding” is another thing. I don’t know if it’s even important. I would rather that a person depart from my work feeling something than understanding something. Having a feeling might draw a reader back to the poem; a feeling could lead to understanding later, or not. Maybe the feeling is never understood, but a line is recalled, and that in itself is a way of understanding. That’s maybe what I mean by how an effective story lingers. When I read, I don’t always come back to a poem I understand. But I return again and again to poems that catch my ear and my curiosity. “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” wrote Robert Frost. That’s what first drew me to poetry, that pause before an assertion. The act, and the sound, of engaging with uncertainty. Singing it.