Interview by Chen Chen
Chen: Muriel, I’m so thrilled to be interviewing you about your gorgeous first book, Bone Confetti (winner of the 2015 Noemi Poetry Award and out now from Noemi Press. You can also buy the book directly from the author through her website. This book has been on my nightstand table, on my writing desk, and in my backpack during trips. The poems are so restlessly, gloriously fevered. They make me want to write. And I have been. Thank you. The language you build, demolish, and hold close feels utterly new—and yours. So. What are my questions? Let’s see.
Let’s start with: the book lives as an extended elegy. In his lovely blurb for your book, Timothy Donnelly writes, “If the work of the elegy is, in part, to mitigate the experience of personal loss by submitting to shared linguistic conventions, then Muriel Leung’s Bone Confetti is a radical reimaging of what it might mean for a poet to mourn.” I love this idea that instead of moving towards the “shared,” your elegiac work moves deeper into the inappropriable idiosyncratic. I’ve been thinking about how “universality” has become this assumed good, this great and expected goal in literature. I have a lot of problems with “universality,” but I want to know what you think. As a question: What are your views on the elegy and on the language(s) used/created for mourning?
Muriel: Chen, thank you for this! Your mistrust of “universality” is highly resonant with me. There is this reigning merit system in literature that switches its values on us time and time again, and it heralds an invisible set of laws that govern certain principles of “bad” and “good” poetry. I think anyone who has received any “training” in writing inherits and internalizes these metrics. It’s impossible not to absorb this knowledge once you participate in the literary realm, to be able to note what it is/what it looks like even as you contest it. Nothing is exempt. I would argue that even the idiosyncratic as an aesthetic value can be appropriated, can be managed and commodified through these terms, which is a terrifying thing to admit and something I always wrestle with. I think my response is to acknowledge the ways in which I’m complicit in this system, to really identify the holes and failures in language, to interrogate this idea that there’s always a wholly “good” feeling in poetry without confronting the bad.
Of the elegy: I think everyone approaches the form differently, but for me, mourning has textures and is so embedded in differing logics of grief, violence, trauma, and healing. It is an active impulse unlike melancholy. I’m interested in the impulse to do something about one’s grief, even if it means flailing, even if it means wanting to tear all your hair out. Mourning too is ruled by its own metrics of what constitutes “good” and “bad” healing, and I want to make space for the inadequate ways in which our world has allowed for healing to happen. Like language, like poetry, I’m interested in the elegy that shows how a grieving life that does not belong to you still matters, how we are tethered to each other sometimes materially and other times in more abstract ways. I want us to restructure the ways in which we relate, and sometimes the best way to do that is to really confront the most difficult sensibilities within ourselves.
Chen: The sonic textures! Of your poems! They’re so beautiful I could only speak in fragments for a moment there. I think of these lines from one of your poems entitled “MOURN YOU BETTER”: “If I paint the suture trees or comb the luminescent / waste or huff the volcanic air. Something monstrous turns / my way but is blanketed in the prettiest lilac down / all gushed in purple-white.” Do you start with sound? Do you revise toward sound? (I’m thinking, too, of John Yau’s stunning questions in his reviewof Bone Confetti: “Does grief exceed words, or is it the other way around? How do you give voice to the animal howling inside of you?”)
Muriel: Wow! I’m so happy you think so! To be honest, in my everyday life, I can’t carry a tune and my musician partner reminds me I always run flat when I twirl around the house singing Robyn. I’m glad to know my off-key karaoke personality doesn’t translate to the page.
I enjoy coupling discordant sounds, pairing unlikely words, and generally believe that certain sounds gesture towards specific emotional resonances. Plosive sounds, like “b,” “p,” and “t” dominated sounds, tend to prick for me, like electricity or mini explosions. I imagine sometimes what it’s like to string a whole lot of them together in close proximity, what it does to a poem about love, for instance, what moments it could punctuate, what it can unsettle.
The other quality I think you’re gesturing towards is a feeling of excess in sound. I’m terrible at being plain-spoken, am sort of muddy-brained, and I can never answer a question in a straight-forward way (evidenced here). Thank god for poetry then, in which this sonic excess is welcomed, necessary even. In the passage you reference, which describes post-apocalyptic feelings and monstrosity, I think sonic excess feels necessary to prevent any precise definition of what either of these conditions mean. John Yau’s review was incredibly generous in that respect, and I love that description of grief as “animal howling.” I would hope that the sonic excess feels as close to a howl or wail as possible, as any language can muster.
Chen: I love the ending of your poem “Misery Machine” (which one can also read in the latestissue of Twelfth House). The last couple of lines go: “In the swallow, this clacking / bred into my garden / happily calls this body / housewhere it lives on and on / in the horror buttons of time.” That last line in particular I find both delightful and terrifying. How do you make space for play/reverie as well as sorrow/truth in your poems?
Muriel: As someone who is perpetually inclined towards sardonic humor, the balance of play and sobriety feel necessary to my survival. Perhaps the way I live is to make room for relief when conditions feel confining, but I also think it’s important to point to the gravity of seemingly benign circumstances, like this unwillingness to just let things beas they are… which might make me an insufferable person to be around sometimes. I don’t know.
I don’t think the humor in Bone Confettiis particularly LOL funny, but I want to honor the different tenors of a particular experience much as I do in my everyday life. In “Misery Machine,” I was thinking of a ghost factory that manufactures ghosts and sadness. Doesn’t it feel that way at times though? I think the scenario is hilarious and despairing to me, how we constantly reproduce our miseries, unable to crawl out towards freedom from trauma. To find play in these situations isn’t to denounce the severity of one’s grief, but to acknowledge the different coping mechanisms we all have to survive. Sometimes something hurts me so badly, all I can do is laugh.
Chen: Sometimes I wish I could write in a more spare, quietly devastating way. But I just don’t think I am spare or quiet, and if I do devastate, it seems I do so in a very squishy, inelegant way. Generally speaking. So I feel held by your book’s brash and lush sensibility. Could you talk a bit about the value of excess and perhaps the politics around certain expectations for poems to be well-mannered, well-structured, well-Englished?
Muriel: That’s so interesting. I actually think of your work as having many registers, from moments of escalating drama to more banal acknowledgments. I think you know how to tackle quiet moments of hurt that, when unacknowledged, can blossom into something greater. Your humor too is so delicately woven into your work. I love seeing you read, for instance, because I can feel the whole room respond to your deadpan humor, which feels incredibly gratifying especially as you look everyone in the eye and talk about the white supremacist patriarchy (lol).
I talked a little bit about excess in an earlier response in regards to sound, but I think that excess supports a more complicated reality that we all live, particularly linguistic excess, something that I believe you’re gesturing towards through the phrase, “well-Englished.” As a speaker of multiple languages, primarily Chinese (Cantonese) and English, I guess to someone who isn’t multi-lingual, having different cognitions of language can seem excessive, but I’d like to argue that perhaps, especially in the U.S., we operate on a paucity of linguistic expression. I don’t think my linguistic practice is that unruly, but I can see how my approach to language can be confounding, confusing, and even excessive in our current social condition. So be it.
Chen: You also write fiction and make visual art. Your recent piece “The Brutality Tales” (published in the inauguralissue of YES FEMMES) combines text and image and also hyperlinks to tell/retell the story of Red, a marvelously weird version of Little Red Riding Hood. How did the different elements of this piece come together? And more broadly: why do you create in other genres and mediums?
Muriel: “The Brutality Tales” was a revision of a project for class, and my classmate and fellow writer-friend, Sam Cohen was the one who encouraged me to share the work for YES FEMMES, an online platform stemming from a reading series she dreamed up with Gina Abelkop from Birds of Lace. The original version of this project was for a video game writing class where we flexed creation through non-linear narrative and interactive modes. At the time, I had a draft of a chapbook manuscript revisiting the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood that felt incomplete in many ways and I wanted to do something that would complicate it. What I made for the class was a very rough sketch of the manuscript using an interactive storytelling platform called Twine, which enables one to create branching narratives via hyperlink text. Still, the project felt incomplete so I took it upon myself to redo it for a class on transdisciplinary media at USC. This time, I had the idea that I wanted the narrative to loop back to an original starting part, always as if the protagonist, Red was stuck reliving her most traumatic days. I wanted to make sure that the form justified the narrative so I thought of playing with the container more, revised towards it, even.
I’ve always felt that poetry is a very capacious genre and it has allowed me to see remnants of its properties in different genres and disciplines. I love hybridized forms for what it permits in conversation, how genre has always been an unstable category, but somehow accrues meaning in the way that people invest their stakes in it, whether to include or exclude others, to determine the terms for mastery. I love the idea of trying something new to me and really being bad at it for a while. It reveals to me so much of what I love and do well by instinct, but also what I fear and what that fear can do to my prejudices as a writer. I think if we all encourage ourselves to be open to the different possibilities of working in other forms and genres, we can really understand the biases of our own aesthetic bends and actively work to challenge that, to engage with the less familiar, to be less fearful of it in the hopes that we relinquish some of the power and proprietary over the things we do have mastery in.
Chen: Currently, you are a PhD student at USC. Isn’t academia a pain?!? A rhetorical question. Real question: what are some practices you’ve developed for dealing with how academia tends to (read: systematically) treat women of color? And: what, in your view, needs to change?
Muriel: Speaking broadly as a culture, I’d say that academia is a very insular environment that is always concerned with what it can lose, and that can be very dangerous for students who are particularly vulnerable. I don’t know how to answer this question carefully, I guess, without causing more injury to myself. I had a traumatic MFA experience as a woman of color where I was invisible one year and suddenly, when my book won Noemi Press’ book prize, I appeared to people. And then just as soon as I was lauded for it, I was also considered arrogant. How quickly people’s perceptions moved from apathy to tokenized exceptionalism to callousness. It wasn’t that I isolated myself either; I gave the program my full attention, supported my colleagues, and even protected them at times against what I felt were very unjust practices by the administration. I was okay, acceptable even, so long as I stayed inside the lines. I could be critical, but only following the guidelines for respectability politics. Most importantly, I had to be grateful. I think the moment I pointed out that gratitude wasn’t compulsory was the very moment the program became very hostile for me, and it led to the bullying, harassment, and gas-lighting of several outspoken students (which included me) by colleagues and administrators. The weight of the abuses leveraged towards me felt exceptionally heavy, I believe, because people have internalized this idea that women of color who act out of line need to be punished. Our behavior needs to be corrected. At times, the program had the audacity to even call our behavior abusive (for standing up for ourselves, for refusing to be silenced). I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, why the level of hostility felt so looming and never-ending, and realized that it didn’t spring up from nowhere; from the moment of our encounter, women of color become a threat because they represent what academia can lose—in credibility, in reputation, in resources, in other forms of capital and labor—if we just simply opt out of the liberal matrix. “We need you” but also “Know your place.” How is that not abusive?
Because respect for women of color in academia is so fickle, I’m less reliant on the notion that building strong relationships within one’s department is enough to liberate me. I don’t think we need to rely on this false notion that all it takes to fix academia is a few “good people.” If we can be honest with ourselves, about what this system cultivates, and we can be okay with the ways we can redistribute power and resources, that’s a start. I hope we can think beyond a community service model for community outreach, and really think about what it means to build partnerships outside of academia. If the issue is anxiety over loss (of power, status, control), then we should acknowledge that we as academics actually have plenty, and then we should relinquish the power that academia hoards so that others can benefit. I think once we restructure the relationship between academia and other communities, these feelings of competition and scarcity and violence towards women of color can be mollified for a little bit. It feels like such a looming project, but I also believe that this violence doesn’t just become rectified through smoothing over of interpersonal exchanges; the issue is truly more systemic, and I hope always that we look at the bigger picture and realize that the world is much bigger than the immediate things we fear.
Chen: Finally, and most importantly, if you had the chance (of a lifetime!) to be a Sanrio character, which one would you be? I would be Kerokerokeroppi. Obviously.
Muriel: You are totally Keroppi. He loves striped shirts, is a great friend, and probably has a lot of interiority (lol). I just learned of a new Sanrio character called Aggretsuko who is dubbed “Hello Kitty’s beer-swilling, heavy metal-loving, angry sister” and who’s also a 25-year old office worker. I mean, that feels pretty close to my current state since I feel like 90% of my life is spent answering emails. Okay, but I’m not 25 anymore. I hope when I grow up I can be Hello Kitty.
Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti, winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Book Award. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer, her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, Inter|rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour Poetry Podcast. She is also a poetry co-editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at University of Southern California. She is from Queens, NY. She tweets (@murmurshewrote).