Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Serial Interview with Renée Sarojini Saklikar : THOT-J-BAP (The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns)


Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes the life-long poem chronicle, thecanada?project and in it are many things, including books, chapbooks, poems published in journals and anthologies, and artistic and musical collaborations. Her books include the ground-breaking, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013) about the bombing of Air India Flight 182; and Listening to the Bees (Nightwood Editions, 2018), (with Dr Mark Winston), as well as the anthology, The Revolving City: 51 Poems and The Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press/ SFU, 2016) (with Wayde Compton). Her work has been adapted into opera (air india [redacted]) and into music (Bee Studies) both with Turning Point Ensemble. She is the curator of Lunch Poems at SFU and Vancouver’s first free Poetry Phone, 1-833-POEMS-4-U (@downtownvanbia).

THOT J BAP is an epic fantasy written in poetry, selections of which have appeared over the years in chapbooks published by Nous-Zot, above/ground, and Nomados presses. The first book in the series, Bramah and the Beggar Boy, is forthcoming later this spring with Nightwood Editions and is available direct from Harbour Publishing: https://

©Renee Saklikar 2021


This serial interview will take place over several months, with postings that occur in instalments.


CT: Before we formally jump into THOT J BAP (The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns), tell me a bit more about your blog, thecanada?project , which is described as a life-long chronicle and combines essays, interviews, and events/activities related to your own writing practices and that of others in the literary and arts communities. One could say that these forms are all part of one another, including the epic form of THOT J BAP….

RSJ: Regarding thecanada?project…over the last two years I wrote an essay fragment about something momentous in the process of this life-long poem chronicle, of which all my creative work including THOT J BAP is a part...I’ve replicated the text here:

About thecanada?project

thecanadaproject is a life-long poem chronicle about place, identity, language. In it are many things, including published material and works in progress such as a prose poem novel, a series of essays about life from India to Canada, coast to coast as well as many sequences of poems, inpart, about the places I’ve lived: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, Montreal, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The project will end when I end. It is a series of fragments always asking, when does the poem begin?

thecanadaproject interviews series

To interview another is to engage in process: discovery, interrogation. The question as astrolabe can also be weapon. How to leave space for the subject – that’s what I think about when approaching writers and artists…this section is also about gratitude, for those who do the work. Always there is the challenge: how to stay open—what did Martha Graham exhort?— keep the channel open. Is poetry a project? Dorothea Lasky, whose work I love, thinks not. And yet…

Essay fragments

“This is a site of fragments. This is part of a long poem. This is not enough time. This is time, and its dimensions.”

Rethinking Canada this new decade

One of my preoccupations as a creative worker: what does it mean to be Canadian? What layers of being make identity complex: citizen-settler-immigrant—Canada was/is a promised land, a paradise, but it is jagged.

For some time now, as I read and listen to Indigenous writers such as Jordan Abel, Joanne Arnott, Billy Ray Belcourt (A Country is How Men Hunt), Therese Mailhout (Heartberries) and many more; as I observe the pain and discomfort this word and concept, “Canada” carries for many—as I read and reread documents about Indian Residential Schools, I’m becoming more and more uneasy with my own implication in structures, and systems.

And this comes to me: Language is a structural system. So, this new decade: thecanadaproject, my lifelong poem chronicle, will now be thecanada?project.


CT: THOT J BAP is considered a long poem, but it's also described as an epic, as well as a multi-part series emerging in instalments. [Bramah and the Beggar Boy to be published by Nightwood Editions and distributed/marketed by Harbour Publishing in April 2021].

What attracts you to the epic, the chronology, the instalment, the life-long, and the blog --all of which have resonance with a notion of a 'public' -- in terms of THOT J BAP, and in terms of your own engagement with forms of cultural expression and how these forms are enacted?

RJS: So, about THOT J BAP. Yep. It’s an epic. Epic in that it is long; so long, that it will emerge in a series of books...and epic in scope, in that it encompasses lots of different elements. And it is epic in that it is written within that tradition and playful, too, with the tradition of sagas, story cycles, and mythic texts.

And about thecanada?project (my blog/website)….Indeed, that is my life-long poem chronicle. It will end, alas when I do. Although, hopefully, there will be readers and friends who will, by the act of reading the work, keep it alive.

An example of the playfulness [of the epic form], edging around perhaps more complex imaginings, is the title, The Heart Of This Journey Bears All Patterns. Since the start of the poems appearing in journals and chapbooks, that title is represented as THOT J BAP. I love the mouth feel of that! THOT J BAP. To my ear, the sounds are somehow a kind of “Eastern/Asian” influence, with a nod, to my mother’s mother tongue, Gujarati.

THOT J BAP started out in 2008 as a long poem but not an epic. The poem was written in the aftermath of my father’s untimely death in 2002. I’d wake, mornings, and after intense morning anxiety, which I still suffer from, I’d sit at a table with a cup of tea and read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The poem began in response to verses and lines in the Four Quartets. Early on in the writing process, I realized, with a shock, oh, this is going to be way longer. I recall the moment. I was working on a draft of the manuscript of what would become my first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013). It was August, and I was at my friend Jackie’s place. We were taking a break from a summer work session, she with teacher prep, me with my long poems, and I remember just standing stock still, looking out at a pond in the park we were in, and saying, “oh I can’t do them both at the same time! I’m going to have to choose...and I thought, well, I’ll get through this first book, and then, I’ll get into THOT J BAP. Little did I know how long and intense and all consuming that first book experience would be...and through it, from publication to the intensity of its reception, I kept working away at this epic, much more slowly that I’d intended, and so the months, became years, and the poem lead me deeper and deeper into, well, a kind of altered state, of another time and place...and then,wham, the pandemic happened, and I went deeper even still…

[Re: “what attracts you to the epic, the chronology, the instalment, the life-long”…] If I knew the answer I’m not sure I’d still be obsessed with these things! Since I started developing a consciousness of myself as a writer, which happened somewhat later in my life... For example, as a child and young adult I was always scribbling...always trying to understand the world and my place or lack of place, in it, through writing. But only much later, probably when I joined SFU’s The Writer’s Studio, did I permit myself to put the cloak of “writer” around my shoulders. And once that happened, I, too, noticed, this compulsion: to chronicle; to envision the poem both as fragment, incomplete and also, as part of a historical/social context; also just sound, waves of sound; or one image, reoccurring.

Always, the first thing is sound. Then image...I don’t really think too much about meaning. And perhaps the long poem, the epic, the chronicle, is a way to hold fragments of sound and image inside a kind of a vessel? That’s where poetry, all aspects of poetry and dance and movement also come in...and somehow the epic holds a key to how to be in the moment, still and sweet and slow and also right inside the now, the urgency of now, all the things buffeting at once... And the poem, or the act of making poems, sound to sound, with image, in fragments, and then held and documented in the epic, the long form, is about this tension between lack and abundance, belonging, not belonging, which is how I experience, this, my mother – tongue, English.


[You can hear Renée read from a section of THOT J BAP on Soundcloud. children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections with music by John Oliver and poetry by Renée Saklikar can also be heard on Soundcloud. Her chapbooks can be ordered from above/ground and Nomados Press.]



CT: As the person writing THOT J BAP, how are you finding the process of keeping track of the multiple narratives and their fragments?

RSS: Keeping track of the THOT J BAP creative process demands mindfulness and a kind of rigour that also sometimes anxiety: over ten years, I’ve accumulated documents and files and paraphernalia and printed articles and notes. These are in boxes, files, charts, notebooks: the THOT J BAP archive has taken over a lot of our small apartment. And because I’ve been working on it for so long, I’ve carted these boxes and files around with me. I’ve had to teach myself how to keep track and have learned the hard way, the folly of not doing so: when I’m on the trail of a story, the “scent” of a poem it can be cumbersome to have to go searching…

CT: And, in terms of working with the sonic, do you find sonic elements, expressions, changing between chapbooks/books, or within the books themselves?

RSS: The question of sonics really interests me. So much of my creative process and the way that poems arise for me is about sound, and I am but a kind of scribe taking dictation for the sounds that are tapping out their message and rhythms, waiting for me to stop whatever else I’m doing, and just be still enough to try and capture what I’m hearing. So, there is this sensation of a continuing sonic boom, echo, chant, thread, pulling me along. I’ve had to learn to listen carefully and slowly. That’s part of what’s taken me so long. Sometimes I’ve not quite known what I am hearing, and I’ve had to walk and reflect and hold the sounds within me.

CT: When you return to drafts, as you compose, how is your 'ear' responding to your work (especially if you haven't looked at a chapbook or draft for awhile)?

RSS: My body seems to demand, first, a set of rituals. These have varied over the years and include the following:

-A lot of brewing of tea: rooibos in a mug.
-The rubbing and holding of stones/rocks picked up on my walks.
-Listening to all kinds of songs, on a loop on my devices and just letting them play.
-Then, reading my notes.
-Or, often, dusting the THOT J BAP archive.

I kid you not: I spend a lot of time dusting, re-arranging, searching for documents, notebooks, looking up things on the internet, re-reading books that are my companions for the journey. Sometimes, after all that, composition is simply sitting in silence and one word, one word! Emerges. So, I’ve been reckoning with time and its dimensions. Humbling, to say the least.

CT: We’ve talked a bit about THOT J BAP transitioning from, structurally, a long poem to an epic, and incorporating components of epics that may be familiar: chronology, tellings of critical figures and events, forms of continuity -- sounds, repetitions within language and the line. Eliot’s Four Quartets sparked a ‘start’ into form, but are there particular epic works that offer direction, resistance, patterns as THOT J BAP evolves?

RSS: In addition to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, there is also Eliot’s The Wasteland. As I’ve maybe mentioned, THOT J BAP started out in 2008 as a series of written responses, which were themselves acts of self-care, to help me deal with grief and anxiety. I used prompt-based writing as I read and re-read both The Four Quartets and The Wasteland, as a means to both deal with morning anxiety and also to explore the long poem form.

And although I didn’t understand it at the time I was writing, I see now that I was also resisting Eliot .  I love his poems/find him distasteful. Nothing about his life, his mores, his politics is about me at all. Still love his poems, though. So that’s interesting! 

I then put much of my THOT J BAP work aside as I went deeper into the work needed to complete my first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections.  About ten years ago, I began re-visiting my notebooks and re-connected with the work.  Looking over my response here, I’m struck by that prefix, “re”: to return, to go back. Revisit, re-connect, return. That’s an impulse throughout THOT J BAP and I’m only now beginning to see the connection of the prefix to the idea of time, forward and back. 

Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021
Other epic works that offer “direction, resistance, patterns”: Robin Blaser’s collected works, The Holy Forest. I credit Meredith Quartermain for first introducing me to…I can remember discussing Blaser with Meredith and then one day, I ordered my own copy of his collected works, The Holy Forest, and have dipped in and out of it many times. I love his idea of Great Companions: just now, in writing this, I got up, went to my bookshelf, and pulled down my beloved copy of The Holy Forest. Do other folks read it as a one long poem? I’ve always done so but now, re-looking at the pages, I wonder? In the section on Dante as a great companion, which I’ve tabbed and earmarked and underlined, I found myself thinking about tradition and the long poem and how much of the field of long poem writing sometimes seems as if it were overtaken by the perception that only men write epics. As if Sappho didn’t exist.

I’m looking right now at one of the bookmarks I’ve kept in Blaser’s book: purchased in Dublin a few years ago. Laminated. The faces of 12 Irish Writers: Beckett, JB Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar White, J M Synge, Sean O Casey, Flann’O Brien, Oliver Goldsmith, Brendan Behan, W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Patrick Kavanagh. 
Photo credit: ©Renee Saklikar 2021
I’ve read and studied most of them. Imagine, though, you and I, as women poets, staring back at their sepia-toned faces. Perhaps, as I do, loving their work. And yet, not seeing anything of ourselves in that gallery of writers!

That absence, that not seeing oneself in The Line Up, that’s a fierce resistance in me. All those voices. Maybe there are now poets who don’t hear the dry papery whispers: What, you? You, writing a long poem? How dare you!
From such readings, and re-readings, and texts, and enquiries, comes direction -- there’s lots to learn from The Greats, and then, that impulse, to resist. And for me, as found in THOT J BAP, resistance takes the form of imaginative dissonance, the creation of worlds. 

And here are a few more epic works; or, works that I read as part of an epic/long poem structure, for example, by Bertolt Brecht. Have you ever read any of Brecht’s love poems? I find them queasy making in their sexist violent attitude and don’t much care for them at all; on the other hand, his plays, I love; and his Three Penny Opera is an influence. In the years I’ve been writing THOT J BAP, I keep coming back to Brecht. 
I’ve just now pulled out a dusty orange notebook that I keep handy. Compiled between July 2010-Dec 2012. I’m re-reading notes I wrote on Dec.17, Vancouver Public Library, 5th Floor, inter-posed with my notes on Brecht, this,
[regarding Ntozake Shange: “‘being alive, being a woman and being coloured is a metaphysical dilemma, I haven’t yet solved.”
The Arabian Nights. As I write these notes, I have beside me a small paperback, Arabian Nights, Volume 1, of the much-critiqued translation of Sir Richard Francis Burton, one of those not very nicely bound Signet Classics, water stained, curling at the edges, a true “one for the road” long poem writer’s companion. I must add though, the following:
I grew up with a kind of Reader’s Digest version that my father bought me, with these gorgeous colour plate illustrations and a faux mahogany binding. Only later, did I come to understand how much colonialism and the ethnocentric blindness of “the West” created misrepresentations of these Arabic tales. As well, I don’t read Arabic, so the only way I have to enter into the world of the Tales is through these various English translations.This process of reading (and loving) what I think of as “problematic versions” of epic texts informs some the ways I’ve approached my own epic.
My lifelong companions:
At the end of Bramah and The Beggar Boy, which is Book One of THOT J BAP, my publisher and editor at Nightwood, encouraged me to include notes: at first, I resisted. Then, I came to really like the idea and here’s a snippet relevant to our conversation:
“Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, plus translations of Homer’s Odyssey, Wikipedia forays into Vedic scriptures, family gossip about Hindu gods, as well as re-readings of Christina Rossetti, Octavia Butler and an old red hymnal.”

CT: Are there works that you think also pare back the essences of an epic form, that fragment it? 
RSS: Certainly. For instance, I think in my writing process, that paring back can be traced to Marlene Nourbese Philip’s work. I had the great privilege of meeting her in Vancouver many years ago and it was transformative. She was in town to do a reading from Zong! and everything about her reading and then the conversation we had after, continues to resonate. Her work still teaches me to develop a means to interrogate my “slipped tongue” and the pain-complexity of working in the only language I know, this conquistador, English. I grew up in a family where my parents spoke a mixture of English, Gujarati and Marathi. And English, although my mother tongue (such a haunting complex phrase) is also an uneasy fit. I wonder if growing up in an “English speaking” household that includes other spoken languages, might produce in any poet this love for the fragment, the un/spoken, those strange elliptical silences in “mixed tongue” parental conversations…
As I write these notes, here’s a vivid memory of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts: Summer, a few years back. Betsy Warland takes me to hear Rachel Blau Du Plessis and then I hear her again at a little reading at The People’s Co-op Bookstore. Maybe you were there too! I’ve been reading “Pitch”, the poem sequences 77-95 in her life-long open poem, Drafts, for several years. I go back to it again and again.

CT: I would have liked to have been there! There is a sense of ritual in the various chapbooks, a building sense of pattern and repetition, bolstered by various figures moving geospatially ‘in time’ (present) and in a ‘space-time’ (both place and future), and by certain structural forms, like the sonnet or repeated images and line fragments. What are the realities of memory and searching/exploration in THOT J BAP? How important is account and recounting from figures who  often leave parts of their stories hanging — ?

RSS: I think the best way I can approach an engagement with these fascinating questions is to reference Roberto Bolaño. I haven’t actively thought of his work in a few years but certainly at  earlier stages of the writing of THOT J BAP, I devoured his disturbing magnum opus, 2666. My husband read the book over the duration of his Christmas break several years ago.  I was so intrigued by the boxed set of this over 900-page novel, with its five “parts” (printed as books), that I started to read it and then sort of fell into it, feverish and frightened and compelled. Later, we purchased a book of interviews Bolaño gave before he died of liver failure in 2003. From these readings, I started to experience memory and the idea of the quest, as part of the fundamental structure of the poem. These ideas then led me to fantasy!  
In THOT J BAP we encounter memory (the past) and memories (nostalgia for the past), and quests (which of their nature, are about forward movement) and searches (which are, often, quixotically, about the past and the future), which culminate in a kind of propulsion which the author Maria Reva says, wonderfully, about THOT J BAP that is both “ancient and futuristic.” Each character has a voice, each voice is rendered in verse, each verse takes a form, each form is often but a fragment, or, a re-telling, or an un/reliable re-counting. Re: to return, to go back. Je me souviens. That sort of thing.

CT: THOT J BAP describes torture, imprisonment, displacement and migration, detention and surveillance, raw personal and societal loss and persecution, as well as resistance and revolution. Names, titles, and references cross ethnicities and cultures and are intensely relevant: Before-Time, Rentalsman, Revival-Network, Outsider, Abigail, Bartholomew, Investigator, The Tale of the Rani of Jhansi, etc. Individuals are within multi-dimensional, pan geographic realities — what is resistance in The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns?

RSS: I think it was Peter Quartermain who once said (it could have been at that November reading we did, Chris, at People’s Coop), that he saw THOT J BAP as a map history of the world. It is both unsettling and reassuring to read your list of all these societal, political, geo-political, historical, geographical and demographical processes and traumas and inequities that indeed are layered into the dystopian wonder that is the world of THOT J BAP. I suppose all my poetry and my poetics is predicated on my experience of our historical, cultural, economic, and ecological moment. How can it be otherwise? If THOT J BAP comes to be read into the body of work that is, for instance, “CanLit,” then perhaps it will be read as poetry that contains and arises from history. 
When world building the epic fantasy, with its myth and magic, I also was called to the readings of scientific reports on climate change and government malfeasance (CIA torture report) and many more documents, including the history of locksmithing, manuals on craft-making, old instruction books on inventions, out-of-date primers on astronomy, and even recordings of the late Robert Fisk as he spoke of world events in front of hundreds in a cathedral in downtown Vancouver. In fact, Chris, layer into all of this, that long conversation you and I had, in your truck, one rainy November night, after we’d dropped off Renee Rodin, after you and I did a reading at People’s! We spoke of many things, including the role of the state in surveillance and the state of the world regarding climate change.

CT: At the reading in November (2020), I was able to hear you read again, which is always helpful as a way to take in your work, and "A map history" is an apt comment. To follow these thoughts THOT J weighted is your title - The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns?

RSS: I love this question. Here are a few thoughts culled from those end notes to Book One, Bramah and The Beggar Boy
The title speaks to…
…my obsession with formal poetry and with what I call docu-poetics, the breaking apart of text to create new forms, often in combination with visuals, such as symbols and signs. This obsession finds its creative tension in the investigation of the fragment fused into forms of poetry such as blank verse, the sonnet, the madrigal, the ballad, not to mention, spells, codes and riddles. You’ll find all these in THOT J BAP, plus new forms I’ve created and haven’t yet named! So there I was, working away with all this, and then our pandemic happened. And this story grabbed my fingers and off we went deeper into that ultimate portal, myth and magic. The question is, will I ever return to Before? ♛
**A note from Renee to Readers of This Interview:
Over the years, after spending thought and labour both on my work and on how I choose to talk about my work, I’ve noticed that other readers and writers will sometimes do the following, particularly after asking to be my “friend” on social media: they’ll take my words, and re-purpose them for their own needs. Sometimes this is subtle and just part of the process of creators riffing and building on other creators. Other times, the taking, increasingly, is more along these lines: “hey, here’s something I can use so I’ll just clip and grab it, ‘cause it’s on the internet, so who cares.” Not cool. So, I’m putting it right out here: Please don’t take our words, either from our creative works, and/or our words about our work without our permission.

I’m going to write an essay on this kind of taking, using Ursula K LeGuin’s essay "The Disappearing Grandmothers", as part of my research. Caveat Emptor!


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Talking Poetics #41 : Nicole Raziya Fong



or, where a poem begins


A poem is always a phenomenological event preceded by a period of relative inaction. In the past, I would attempt to induce poetry through methodological means—reading a book by a writer I admired before attempting a mimicry of my own poetry or imbibing altering substances so as to “trick” myself into the process; such methods always produced lacklustre results. I’ve come to accept that poetry follows behind states of patience: patience with myself and with language, through periods of silence and profusion alike. The time spent in lieu of writing is necessary to any poetry that is to come and cannot be avoided or otherwise deceived. 

When I truly begin a poem, authentically begin a poem, another poem follows soon after. Poetry “appears.” Poetry appears, as though from a wellspring, through engagement with whatever psychic continuities were previously backgrounding this time of relative stasis, finally providing a release or means through which my internal experience can again become an “outside.” That this process often takes the form of poetry is, I suspect, an arbitrary distinction. These days, it just as easily takes the form of a painting, theatrical or dramatic writing, or hybrid prose. Form arises organically, without much premeditation. 

While poetry initially arises in such an inexplicable way, I am, these days, moving towards a vastly different approach to composition. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, all process has been altered. Between artistic practice and the structures of my daily life, everything has become subject to difficult interrogation and sometimes breakage. Poetry has likewise been subjected to this ungrounding. The pandemic has completely changed the ways in which I relate to composition, poetry— art practice and to perception in general. The work of other writers has, during this time, become a lifeline, a way of thinking through my inner experience while maintaining a connection to that outside we’ve all been distanced from. This past year, I’ve occupying myself with comprehensive readings of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Édouard Glissant alongside Josef Albers, Arthur Schopenhauer and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s writings on colour. I’ve been reading artist biographies and closely looking at visual reproductions of their work (Etel Adnan, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Ernst Kirchner, amongst others). I’ve been watching films featuring tragic heroines, films where form disassembles appearance, films which are paintings and poems (I repeatedly think to Pier Paolo Pasolini as filmmaker, poet and painter of light). So yes, I am often prompted by other writers, artists. In engaging with other’s thought I am able to apply some comprehensible system to my own process, or at the very least access some means of thinking through this extended period of difficulty. 

My compositional process begins as a haphazard overflow, a somatic process of excision. My poems are never singular, standalone pieces but interconnected in a vast network of narratives and formal systems. This initial point of composition once began in physical notebooks— these days I turn directly to the keyboard. Notebooks are still important starting points to my thought—I have several in active use. A notebook for my notes on readings or films, a sketchbook, a bullet journal, one for painting techniques (I am currently engaging in a material art practice; one whose techniques have been melding into my writing in unanticipated ways) and another notebook for lineated poetry (at the moment, disused). 

The second step to this process is, and I use this word conscious of its implications, a self-cannibalization of all that has been written prior to this point. While the writing which preceded this state was relatively free, unbound, this second state is a pained taking apart of all that had been written to this point, a reformulating and restructuring which is always experienced as incisive forfeiture. I was recently talking with Cynthia Mitchell, an incredible visual artist, filmmaker and dear friend, about the process of painting being a continual loss of a painting’s former image. Such composition is always an irretrievable replacement with another image, this image then being replaced in order to progress the work to its final point. This final point is itself only a sensed decision to cease engagement with what is essentially a practice of continual loss. I see an affinity here with the practice of writing—though each loss is not so permanent as it is in a painting (inasmuch one is usually able to revert to a previous point in the writing if so desired), bringing a written work to a point where it will be comprehensible to others is always a kind of loss of that initial mystery, even if it finally results in something more beautiful and complete to behold. 

The idea of this process of continual loss now informs my process, one which ebbs and renews as paintings do, in self-erasure and revision before beginning again with another image, another poem, another book, another—






Nicole Raziya Fong is a writer living in Montréal, Canada. She is the author of PEЯFACT (Talonbooks, 2019) and OЯACULE (forthcoming with Talonbooks, 2021). Past work has appeared in publications including Social Text, The Capilano Review, carte blanche, Cordite, filling Station and The Volta as well as in translation in Exit, OEI & Revue Watts.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Talking Poetics #40 : Jack Jung


How does a poem get started for you, and is that something that has changed over time?

When I first started writing poetry, I wrote lines to capture images in my mind. I cannot say for certain, but I think those images have always been there, and I do not know why they are haunting me. After a while, I wrote lines that were pleasing to my ears to draw out those images.

And then, I started to translate Korean poetry into English. I came to America when I was twelve years old. I spoke Korean at home and learned English in school. However, I still do not know what language I dream in, and when I wake up from my dreams, I am left with afterglow of visions that transpired in my sleep. Translating poetry taught me how to translate those images into my languages.

I do not think my two languages take turns inside my head. They are always at play or at odds with each other. I also find it difficult to tell the difference between when I am translating and when I am writing my own poetry.

Do you begin with a loose structure, a phrase or a word, or the kernel of an idea?

I have learned that when I am translating those images from my head into my languages, the best way is to start with an assortment of sounds that are unlikely to happen naturally in everyday speech. For me, this usually means snatching an aggressive rhythmic effect whenever I hear it. This might turn into some random hums, or I might try to fit it into some well-known syllabic meter in Korean or accentual-syllabic meter in English. I keep at it until something get caught in the net of those sounds, and what I catch is one of those images that have been floating inside of me. I believe it is a fragment of the whole thing itself that is still buried deep somewhere in the soul.

Are you prompted by the work of other poets, or, say, something you read in a newspaper?

I am not sure, and I do not mean that I somehow standalone. I only mean that at least when I am in the moment of writing these days, I start with humming. Some internal music is the prompt, and the words or phrases that give shape of language, or the form of sense, to this music have roots in things that I have read or heard or seen.

Do you start at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, or work from a scattering of notebook entries?

I start working on what I think will be my first line, and then I write until I forget what I thought was my first line. I am terrible at making titles for my poems, even though that is often the true first line of the poem.

Do you utilize notebooks, and how does that help?

I keep a small notebook around to write down anything that pops in my head. But, for some reason, I never go back and use what I wrote down and start working from there. When I start a new poem, I always start with blank page. I think the act of writing something down may be more important than what I wrote down when it comes to keeping a notebook.

How are line-breaks (or the choice to ignore them) chosen? Etcetera.

I tell myself there needs to be a good reason for a sentence to not end when the line ends on a page. Having said that, I have translated many prose poems, such as the poems of Yi Sang (1910-1937), I have always felt that each of his prose poems are in fact an exceptionally long single line. When I read them, I can see he had no reason to end them with any breaks. He also does not use the breaks between words that is one of the rules in Korean grammar. He hardly uses any punctuations. There is an unrelenting force pouring out from his sequence of syllables. That force gives shape to his images. His images are dark as shards of obsidian cooled in the aftermath volcanic eruption. And the shards are sharp enough to pierce through the false reality that was imposed on him and his people in the wake of colonialism and fascism. 

Maybe even focusing on recent threads in your work, or even a recent (and/or recently published) poem?

My poem Code, which was published by Afternoon Visitor on their first issue, is one of the first poems I was ever proud of. I no longer write poems like it, but I learned a lot about caesura, which is a type of line break, when I was working on that poem’s last stanza. I learned that repeating a word after many pauses could create a whole new sensation for the repeated word:





Inside the teacher’s office

is a slab of stone, roughly chiseled

with shapes we have no key for.


It is wide enough for me to lie down

and stretch until my extremities

touch the jagged edge.


He demands I see a dolphin

where he sees one. As his favorite, I must

find the white that swims in black.


The teacher asks I think on the dolphin,

how it floats in the ocean

filled with other life.


I fail. I tell him I have found it.

He believes me. I fail again.

I lie on the stone and swim.




Jack Jung is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his BA in English from Harvard, and an MA in Korean Language and Literature from Seoul National University. His translations of Korean poet Yi Sang’s poetry and prose are published in Yi Sang: Selected Works by Wave Books. He is the American Literary Translation Association’s 2021 Emerging Translator Mentorship Program Mentor for Korean poetry. He currently teaches Korean poetry translation at Literature Translation Institute of Korea.